Aimlessly skimming through TV channels on a Sunday afternoon, I paused, trying to absorb the familiarity of the set being displayed on the screen as fixated on one channel. The vintage tiles formulating an array of colourful patterns of the floor, the criss-crossed jade wooden panels flanking the windows seemed to invoke a sense of Deja vu. Alas, I realized that the drama was set in none other than Bristol Hotel, Karachi. The same Bristol Hotel which serves as a backdrop to some of my mother’s childhood portraits, the same Bristol Hotel which was known for its May Queen Ball and expatriate guest list.
Bristol Hotel was one of the biggest hotels in Karachi in the pre-partition days and was very popular post-partition as well up until the prohibition period sanctioned by Zia. It is currently under the patronage of Mr. Tariq Rizvi and his family. Mr. Rizvi’s father, Ale Niaz Rizvi acquired the hotel in the early 1950’s from a Parsi businessman for a sum of Rs. 60,000. The Bristol Hotel in its glory days was known to host many foreigners including many Portuguese officials that were ousted from Goa. Notable guests that graced the hotel were the Quaid-e-Azam himself, the Khan of Kalat and the high ranking army officials of the time. There is also a rumour that Donna Reed, an American actress, stayed at the hotel.
The Bristol Hotel, with its luxurious and kempt garden, embellished bar and spacious and extravagant rooms was the main locale for the higher echelons of society where people spent hours on end playing cards and socializing. “The rooms were large and airy due to the high ceilings but what I remember most distinctly is the large sub continental bed with a canopy surrounding it stationed in the middle of the room.” recounted Mr. Aftab Hussain who frequently resided at the Bristol Hotel. Each room had a door and stained glass window opening up into the spacious hallways. One of the first three-story buildings, the Bristol Hotel was spacious enough to hosted numerous guests. Bristol Hotel was known to be an acclaimed tavern and bistro in its time. The exquisite food and the enriched atmosphere attracted prominent guests and visitors. The Saturday Night disco and the the New Year Party were prominent events in the Karachi social scene. A ticket for parties hosted by the Bristol Hotel would cost a hefty three hundred rupees at the time, a luxury limited to the prevailing high society.
Seeing the two dimensional portrayal of Bristol Hotel on TV, I decided I wanted to see Bristol Hotel in situ and off I went navigating the streets of Karachi to find my way to it. Although it was renowned in its days of glory, Bristol Hotel now lives an inconspicuous life nested neatly beside the railway track extending from the Cantt station. In close proximity to the Karachi Cantt Station, the Bristol Hotel is located in the Civil Lines area in Clifton. As I drove up towards the building, I noticed the faded jade woodwork, the carved balusters on the facade, the majestic entrance. I could immediately picture the extravagance and opulence with which Bristol Hotel was once celebrated. Now, the Bristol Hotel houses Mr. Rizvi’s family and is guarded by stray dogs. The hotel is circumscribed by apartment buildings, tall and white, which have entirely swallowed its grandeur. The low boundary wall was decorated by clusters of garbage. The once magnificent and meticulously kempt garden, which was often the site for wedding celebrations, seemed like a dilapidated mess of shrubs and thorny bushes. The once grand wooden staircase seemed spineless and fragile, the floor uneven and sloping. The state of neglect and disintegration was manifest.
The magnificence of the hotel can be likened to a pearl in an uninspiring shell. What was in the past a palatial structure now seems like a shadow of a world bygone. When I see Bristol Hotel now, enveloped amidst the encroaching urban milieu, it seems like a majestic reminder of the past and it is definitely not the only one in Karachi. Currently, the multifarious examples of the dwindling conditions of colonial architecture begs the question of whether we have turned our back towards our heritage and history in the yearning and constant quest for development and modernization. Mr Rizvi has turned down various offers for the hotel that would see its heritage lost. It would be a shame to see this piece of history disappear.
Looking at the rapidly developing urban landscape, it is important to recognize the importance of heritage architecture and its role in preserving the cultural context. It is when we start to discover these glittering remnants of the past that we begin to take ownership of our history and culture. Places such as the Bristol Hotel offer a unique platform as they offer the opportunity to tangibly interact with our past, these buildings and spaces that have been eclipsed in the face of development should be rescued and preserved.