TDF Ghar: Once Upon a Time in Karachi
Hajiani Hanifa Bai’s 1930s home is a sanctuary in the heart of old Jamshed Quarters. The home retains its heritage and architectural features but has been transformed into a public space that reflects the spirit of the old cosmopolitan city. Follow our writer as she visits The Dawood Foundation Ghar (TDF Ghar) for the first time.
What is history but a collection of stories from different times and different places? Stories that remind us of who and what we are, and where we came from. Stories that remind us of our identity. John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island”. Many believe that the phrase implies that we should all work together as a society. I choose to interpret it as a reminder that we are not simply individuals; we came from somewhere, we belong to someone.
So where does this particular story begin? Well, as all famous stories do, it begins with “Once upon a time”.
Once upon a time, there was a city by the Arabian Sea. A city vibrant with life and filled with history which welcomed people of all faiths. The sense of belonging and of civic responsibility was so immense that individuals would dedicate their lives to making this fair city a warm and welcoming place. Karachi is still here, but it is my considered opinion that the old Karachi, the one from our story, no longer exists. We live in a megacity where cultural, ethnic, and religious divides have never been more pronounced. Karachi is now a city where each and every one of us seems to be forgetting where we came from and what we once had.
Karachi is a veritable treasure of stories, both within and without. But stories are easily forgotten if they are not retold often enough. It is with the intent of saving the memory of the Karachi that was, and perhaps could be again, that TDF Ghar was created. TDF Ghar is a profound space that is almost inherently personal to the city.
Dawood Foundation is the charitable arm of the Dawood Hercules Group and was set up in 1960. Its pivotal aim is to reconstruct social and spiritual values through educational initiatives. The foundation also augments individual growth by offering personal and professional development courses. By way of its initiatives, TDF Ghar serves the various communities of Karachi.
The building that hosts TDF Ghar has a rich history of its own, tied together with that of the Dawood family. The house is situated in Jamshed Gardens, one of the earliest residential areas of the city, historically been occupied by the middle class. The house was originally owned by a Hindu lady, a Mrs. Haribai Motiram who sold her home in 1948 to Hanifia Haji Gani, who purchased it for her daughter, Aisha Bai Dawood.
In 1961, Aisha Bai allocated the house for philanthropic educational activities and established the Hanifa Hajiani Vocational Training Centre here. For a while, the house was lost till it was passed down to Sabrina Dawood, current CEO of Dawood Hercules Group. At that point, it was decided by the Foundation that it would be renovated and restored, and in Sabrina Dawood’s words, “would help to bring the identity of Karachi back to life, to make history real, closer, and relatable.”
Dawood feels that not many of us are familiar with the vibrancy and history of this city we choose to call home. It is understandable. There is an image of Karachi as an unsafe, insecure city with tensions always bubbling beneath the surface, but she feels that Karachi is so much more than just that.
Dawood believes that TDF Ghar serves to highlight our past as a cosmopolitan, varied, and vibrant community; a history that we can return to. Her opinion is that you cannot have an identity if you’ve lost your history. TDF Ghar aims to find that history.
One fine Saturday morning, I made my way across town to see TDF Ghar for myself. I spotted the house at a distance: a splendid two-story villa. Trees are scattered all across the property and I encounter a beautiful 1950s-style rickshaw on the way to the front door. After paying Rs. 50 at the entrance I step into the “Living Room”, as it is called, and am immediately overcome by the sheer beauty and artistry before me. The efforts of The Foundation, working alongside Madiha and Shahab Ghani — architects who worked pro bono — can instantly be seen.
The architectural features of the property have been lovingly restored; great thought has gone into ensuring the house stays true to its structural heritage. It is a treasure trove of antiques, from furniture to an old school gramophone and a 1920s radio. Every item in this room has either been bought from collectors or donated by members of the Dawood family themselves.
Stepping into the beautiful open courtyard of TDF Ghar, I enter the Sehan Café. Lanterns hang from the ceiling, and marble-topped tables with bentwood chairs are dotted around the area. The courtyard is filled with dappled sunlight filtering through the gorgeous trees which surround the house, and families are sitting, ordering halwa puri, or sipping lassi and playing carrom. There is an air of serenity — I am in a place where time stands still.
A walk up the stairs and I am instantly surrounded by images of Karachi and its denizens. The walls are covered with photos of a time and place which is difficult to reconcile with what is. A time when the city of lights was visited by The Beatles, a time where arts, culture, and literature was thriving hand-in-hand. It is, in a way, exciting and yet depressing to be privy to such insights. This is a part of our local history, and it is relevant to us, not as Pakistanis, but as residents of this amazing, incredible, catastrophic, calamitous city.
The rooms on the first floor are called the Numaish Halls. The layout was modified upon renovation to allow space for art exhibitions and off-site corporate meetings. A few steps up and you come face to face with the pièce de résistance — the rooftop. Beautifully decorated with vintage tiles and a cush seating area, it provides the most spectacular view of the Quaid-e-Azam Mausoleum in the city. It is one of the few locations in the city which directly overlooks the mazaar, the very symbol of Karachi. A plaque on the rooftop bears a quote from Fatima Jinnah:
“As I see the mausoleum in Karachi go up, inch by inch, to shelter the mortal remains
of my brother, poignant memories come rushing into the mind of that day, a Saturday
the 11th of September, 1948, when I lost my elder brother, and my nation became an orphan”
It is all too easy to read history without remembering that these mighty titans were also human, and it makes their courage, tenacity and perseverance, their agony and mourning, all the more real. TDF Ghar makes it all the more real.
The best part of TDF Ghar for me isn’t the gorgeous home itself, or the fabulous Sehan Café, the spectacular views of the Quaid’s mausoleum, or the Numaish halls; tempting as they are. The symbol of what the house is, as well as what it provides speaks to my soul; a place for families to gather, where grandparents can share the stories of their youth, of times and places and people who may not exist anymore, but who live on in our memories.
TDF Ghar symbolizes the story of a family, my family, any family — be it the Dawoods, the Khans, the Mehtas or the Hassans. It is the story of families and histories, living on in an age of dissociation and isolation — and not just from the past.
It may not seem like much right now, but the memories we can make with our children, of afternoons sipping lassi and playing carrom in cafes, of exploring old houses and standing in sunlit courtyards, of watching the sun set behind the mausoleum, these are memories we will hold on to. Times come and go, people and places vanish, but at least there will be stories of what once was, what is, and what may be.
As Ardeshir Cowasjee once wrote:
“Now, we need to be reminded of what Karachi once was, and our children need to learn of
its past splendors, embedded as they are in the consumerism and rat-race of our present age.”