Before it became a bazaar, the land beneath Empress Market was, briefly, an execution ground.
In 1857, during the War of Independence, local soldiers rebelling against colonial rule were blasted from cannons or hanged in public view, their remains sliced and sunk in a nearby drain. Karachi was the size of a small town at the time, home mostly to soldiers and fishermen, but for years after the executions, people would strew rose petals on the site, in memory of the spilled blood of their countrymen.
In the mid-1880s, the British built a market for themselves on the grounds, a grand structure in the Indo-Gothic style: vaulted roofs, cusped arches, a 140-foot-high clock tower studded with leopard heads. Ever since, Empress Market, christened after Queen Victoria, has presided over the toot and rattle of Karachi, watching it swell from a harbour settlement of 85,000 to a metropolis of at least 16 million people.
Tajdaar Khan’s first memories of Empress Market are from when he was so little he didn’t need to wear pants. He would accompany his father to their shop — Sardar Khan & Sons, in Garden No. 4 of the market — and watch him sew shoes. At the time, they lived close enough, in a makeshift room above a nearby tea house, for Tajdaar to totter over, bare-bottomed, holding his father’s hand.
When he was in eighth grade, his father developed haemorrhoids and his health began to fail. Tajdaar — whose name means emperor, crown-wearer — remembers pointing, innocently, to a blood stain on his father’s shalwar. He remembers, too, his father’s subsequent embarrassment and shame. Soon after, Tajdaar dropped out of school and took over the business.
He was good at it. He specialised in the Peshawari chappal, a traditional Pashtun sandal: two bisecting straps of leather affixed to a sole made from truck tires. Tajdaar had lived in Karachi all his life, but his family came from Kohat, a city in north-western Pakistan. Kohat made a muddled cameo in the eighth and final season of Homeland, Showtime’s sand-tinted war-on-terror fever dream, but other than that, people outside the country have no particular reason to know it.
They may know Peshawari chappal, however: in 2014, British designer Sir Paul Smith released a similar shoe, priced at £300 and called, inexplicably, “the Robert.” A couple of years ago, Christian Louboutin trotted one out too, with its trademark red sole. On each occasion, Pakistani Twitter howled in indignation.
Tajdaar, who thinks he is 57 years old but speaks tremulously, like a much older man, didn’t know any of this and, even if he had, probably wouldn’t have been too bothered. His business was steady. He sold his sandals for about 12 dollars apiece; they were worn by State Bank employees and staff at the Sind Club, a fuggy British-era institution where elite uncles puffed cigars and traded political gossip. When Pakistan won independence in 1947, Karachi swelled with migrants: some colonial remnants, such as the Sind Club, remained cloistered and under private control while others, like Empress Market, which became the property of the new state, swelled in tandem.
The market’s sprawl mimicked the city’s sprawl: manic, precarious, largely informal, with connections extending far beyond Karachi. Initially designed to accommodate 280 shops and stalls, it soon burst its seams, spilling from the inner courtyard and the wings of the market building into outer gardens, then beyond.
Sardar Khan & Sons opened in 1954. The shops selling tea, birds and nuts emerged in 1962. In the early 1970s, cloth markets appeared. Over the years, these shops assumed semi-formal status: in lieu of rent, their owners paid a regular challan, or penalty, to the municipality. From above, the canopies of the shops looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle no one could quite piece together.
Not everyone was pleased with the transformation of Empress Market from an elite enclave to a working class bazaar. In the nineties, one writer, nostalgic for the days of trams and tea shops and ladies in skirts twirling parasols on public streets, described it as “a well-born governess who, through some quirk of unfortunate circumstance, has been forced to take up employment.”
Other 19th-century buildings in Karachi’s colonial downtown were surreptitiously hollowed out by high-rise developers, over conservationists’ futile protests; when only their shells were left, the conservationists quieted, and apartment buildings rose from their ruins.
But Empress Market was different. With its stately edifice, its elite past, and its future upmarket potential, city officials had realised that heritage and commerce didn’t have to clash. The building just had to be restored, they kept repeating like a mantra, to its former glory.
And then, the bulldozers rolled in.
Early on a Sunday morning, Tajdaar’s ringing cell phone woke him. It was the hawker next door. “You have to come now,” he said. “They’re destroying everything.”
Karachi, sputtering engine of Pakistan’s rickety economy, is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities. It has also long been maligned as one of the most unruly. Year after year, with impressive consistency, it ranks near the bottom of global liveability indices. Street crime has declined recently, but the city has a serious and persistent trash problem.
The Economist recommends a 20 percent hardship allowance for the unlucky expat stationed here. Poets aren’t particular fans: “Sandwiched between / the desert and the sea, it swells by reclamation / and points to its belly endlessly… A splitting sky announces a jet not rain,” wrote Taufiq Rafat in 1968. Two Augusts ago, the city was overrun with flies. Then, in November, locusts descended. (In June, they returned again.)
Iftikhar Shallwani was appointed city commissioner in late October 2018, two weeks before bulldozers rolled into Empress Market. A career civil servant, he’d spent seven years stationed in Buenos Aires and has since regained the chirpy zeal of the newly-returned.
Shallwani is not a native Karachi-wala; he grew up a few hours away in the city of Hyderabad, but visited with his father on weekends. “The city used to be full of foreigners, of tourists. We could walk on the streets. Nobody would look at you if you were wearing a skirt, or western clothing,” he told me.
Those childhood memories — harking back to a time before “Islamisation” emptied the city’s cinemas and discos and billiards halls, before ethnic conflagration introduced paramilitaries on the streets, before the so-called ‘war on terror’ led to watchtowers and metal detectors and stacks of sandbags — appear to fuel his vision for Karachi’s future.
“You know, any city of the world, when you enter it, the city talks to you,” Shallwani told me in late 2019. “But when I was appointed here, this city was deaf and dumb.”
One of his first directives was to install a thicket of upbeat wooden signs along the city’s main artery. ‘KARACHI: THE CITY OF LIGHTS’, reads one down the road from his office. ‘KARACHI: THE PLACE TO BE’, reads another. Further away: ‘KARACHI: THE EPITOME OF RESILIENCE’.
The signs were initially spelt out in gleaming brass letters, but someone kept clawing them off (“Probably a homeless person or a drug addict,” he sighed) so they began painting them on instead, in sunny yellow. He also ordered plants be placed on the balconies of colonial-era buildings. “No laundry! Only flowers on the balconies,” his office tweeted. The flowers weren’t real, because there was no one to maintain them: the privately-owned buildings were long abandoned. The buildings’ absentee owners, wishing to raze them to build complexes, were at loggerheads with the government, who wouldn’t let them.
Efforts to spruce up the city aren’t limited to its historic quarters. Karachi’s public beaches — where giggling adults lurch on festooned camels, young couples blush holding hands, old uncles and aunties brisk-walk after dinner — are being transformed by global capital.
Mega-development projects with names like “Diamond Bar Island City” and “Sugar Land City” are being planned on 68,000 acres along the coast. Further away, on the outskirts of the city, gated communities promise to shield middle-class clientele from all that is unsavoury about Karachi: crime, power cuts, chronic water shortage.
A citywide circular railway that operated in the 1960s and ’70s is being revived. The World Bank has embarked on a $98 million Karachi Neighbourhood Improvement Project. The phrase “world-class city” is invoked repeatedly. According to the official Karachi strategic development plan, a world-class city is one where people want to live, work and invest; it is inclusive, but characterised by “minimal poverty and slums.”
This is where things get tricky. It is difficult, in a city with a population density of nearly 63,000 people per square mile, to build without destroying something that already exists. The gated community on the outskirts of Karachi was constructed, at least partly, on stolen indigenous land.
The revitalisation plan for the defunct circular railway, which officials say is much-needed in a city where 45 citizens compete for every bus seat, will demolish 28 different low-income settlements. Of those, 1,400 are households that have been displaced once before, for another development project.
Much of what the Improvement Project puts at risk is already precarious: 62 percent of all housing in the city is informal, 72 percent of all jobs, between 30 and 40 percent of the city’s economy. For municipal authorities — and for the country’s Supreme Court, which directed the city be rid of all “encroachments” in October 2018 — these informal lives may as well not exist at all.
It was against this backdrop that bulldozers rolled into Empress Market in the early hours of November 11, 2018.
When the shopkeepers at Empress Market talk of the demolition, their stories have the jagged quality of footage from a camera carried by someone sprinting for cover. By most accounts, it started before sunrise. Police filled the grounds. Sobs rang through the site. Some people brandished copies of official documents, reminding city officials that parts of the market were heritage sites. Their protestations fell on deaf ears. One distraught shopkeeper, a seller of kites, reportedly set his own shop on fire.
It took Tajdaar two hours to reach Empress Market after his neighbour from the next stall called him. This wasn’t unusual: he no longer lived close by, pushed over the years from the centre of the city to its outer margins. When he arrived, it was nearly noon and only his shop was standing. Sobbing helplessly, he watched it buckle before a bulldozer.
“Two rocks and a padlocked trunk,” he recalled. “That’s what remained.” Everything else had been looted, including 72 pairs of hand-sewn shoes.
By the time the machines stopped, at least 1,700 shops had become rubble. Three thousand hawkers had been uprooted. Researchers estimate 200,000 people lost their jobs. Later, the mayor revealed that the cash-strapped municipal government had to borrow machinery from a private developer, himself a notorious land-grabber, in order to carry out the demolitions.
Officials then barricaded the area. They cleaned graffiti off the clock tower with a high-pressure hose until heritage experts rushed to stop them. They hung a panaflex from the building announcing that the cleared grounds around the building would become a park. Other signs appeared on the barricades, penned by the displaced: exhortations to the court to reconsider, appeals for rehabilitation, directions to new shop locations.
Overall, the commissioner considered the operation a success. “It was a difficult decision,” he admitted. “But, thank God, there were no casualties — no one was even injured. We did our due diligence. Now it looks clear. It looks beautiful.”
In March 2020, just before Karachi went into Covid lockdown, Tajdaar and I walked over to Empress Market, threading our way through the tooting glut of rickshaws, motorbikes and buses. At the entrance, he hesitated. “Whenever I come here, my heart aches.”
In the 14 months since, scraggly grass had grown on the grounds surrounding the market building. Also: an iron fence, six feet high, to prevent carts from trundling back in. Now, men sat in scattered clusters on the cleared grounds. Tajdaar walked over to a tree.
“This is our nishaani, memento. We planted it.”
Unprompted, he began conjuring his old world. “The dry fruit market was there. At the back, betel nut. This was our chappal market. The shops were all the same size. It wasn’t as if one was big, another small.” He paused for a minute, looking around, then continued. “Toffees and candies over there. Chemicals there. Towards the back over there was an alley. One alley, a second alley, a third one over there.”
People kept approaching Tajdaar, greeting him with the familiarity of old friends. An old man with carrier bags slung over one shoulder walked up and embraced Tajdaar. He carried groceries for customers — had done so for 50 years, he said, since he was a little boy — and would occasionally stop by Tajdaar’s shop for tea and talk. Tajdaar would repair his shoes; sometimes he’d make him a pair to send to family back in the village.
Sabir, one of Tajdaar’s old neighbours wandered over. “I’ve been roaming aimlessly, without work, for a year,” he said. In that time, there’d been two funerals in the family: his sister and father, both dead from shock and anxiety.
Some of the shopkeepers have been allocated alternative shops elsewhere in the city — Sabir and Tajdaar, for instance, said they’d been allocated 16-square-foot commercial spaces deep within an abandoned building. Cats and dogs roamed freely there, and an open drain sat right next to the shops, they said. Nearby residents claimed no shop had managed to survive in the complex for the past 30 years; it was surrounded by printing presses and stores selling wedding cards. Why would someone come and buy shoes there?
Across Karachi, informal housing settlements were also being demolished en masse. Nausheen Anwar, director of the Karachi Urban Lab, which maps displacement in the city, told me that, while the destruction of housing garnered some sympathy, public markets were seen as entirely dispensable.
“There’s something about the optic of a house being destroyed versus the stalls and the little hawkers being displaced: [they] didn’t elicit the same response from a centralised command system,” she said last fall. There was the sense that a street vendor can just gather her belongings and move away, that there is no logic to why they set up shop in a certain place.
There is also scant understanding, in cities across South Asia, of how working class markets facilitate poor people in the city, allowing them easy access to cheap food and goods. In India, for instance, Delhi-based researcher Shalini Sinha told me, when street vendors disappeared during the Covid-19 lockdown, hunger became a pressing problem.
Tajdaar knew instinctively that he couldn’t revive his shop in the new location. “We would only lose money there, that much was clear,” he said. Sabir nodded. I asked why he was at Empress Market that day. “I come every day,” he said. “I don’t know. I guess we have a lot of memories here.”
“We go back a long way,” Tajdaar agreed.
The relationships in Empress Market had been forged over generations: they stemmed from shared history, ethnicity, and ancestral villages but extended beyond these as well. The Muslim butcher in the meat section ran errands for the elderly Zoroastrian grocer in the gallery next door, whom he referred to, with gruff affection, as Parsi Baba. Their fathers had known each other.
Despite the dizzying magnitude of Karachi, or perhaps because of it, its denizens clung to old ties with people, with places. Years ago, a researcher told me, when the government demolished 15,000 houses to build an expressway and resettled the displaced in other parts of the city, nearly 70 percent of them returned to their old locale. And the Empress Market shopkeepers kept returning, too; moths to an extinguished flame.
Under the tree, right where Tajdaar’s shop stood, a light fixture had been affixed to the ground. It faced upwards, intended to illuminate the building’s freshly-scrubbed facade at night. “This is new,” Tajdaar said. “This is to tell the world, Look how we’ve made Empress Market shine.”
During the year following the demolition, the original 128 shops within the market building — in its four wings and its central courtyard — had slowly returned and revived themselves. In the meat hall, the butchers rebuilt the iron frames from which their wares dangled, refitting nets on the windows overlooking the market grounds.
Outside, grass grew selectively, moodily, over the place where Tajdaar’s shop once stood. Inside, Ashraf Qureshi sat on a white-tiled platform, jiggling his foot. His white shalwar kameez was oddly pristine for someone in the meat trade. Behind him, at the other end of the hall, a lone butcher hacked at a carcass. It was a slow day at Empress Market. All days were slow now.
Although the “original” shops had been allowed to remain, the municipality had cut off electricity and water to the building. The shopkeepers pooled resources for communal generators and water tankers. These were soft ways of pushing people out, said Marvi Mazhar, an architect and urban planner. “You make people’s conditions so bad that it becomes impossible for them to continue working. And then the government gets an empty building, a ghost building, without renewed bad press.”
But what would the government do with this ghost building? Mazhar, who advised the government on the future of the market, said that, in internal conversations, there is a push for establishing a library or a museum in some part of it. Qureshi — three generations of whose family had done business in Empress Market, in an association predating the creation of Pakistan itself — did not know this. He seemed to believe that Empress Market still belonged to the British.
“They can’t touch it,” he said firmly, referring to Pakistani authorities. “It’s the Queen’s property.”
Often, city officials justify clearing out informal settlements or squatters from historic sites on the grounds that they don’t take care of the buildings. “Of course people aren’t going to take care of buildings, when their priority is to not have malaria, not have open holes,” Mazhar said. As for Empress Market, the tangible heritage remains, “but the soul of the building — the market — they’ve gutted it.”
In recent decades, researchers agree, mass evictions have risen significantly in South Asia. There are several explanations for this. In the decades following the tumult of Partition, says Gautam Bhan, an urban researcher based in Delhi, cities were seen as havens for the displaced and the itinerant. “There was the sense that the basti, the informal settlement, was part of the city because we [as nations] were poor,” he said.
In the early nineties, as South Asian economies liberalised, the ground beneath occupied land became a lot more valuable. With that, the imagination of “development” changed. “This is not industrial urban development,” Bhan told me over a Zoom call last fall. “This is not manufacturing-based urban development. This is not employment-intensive development. This is the urban development of finance and services and real estate.” States across the world are all competing for certain capital flows, he explained, “and with that has come this world-class aesthetic.”
In one sense, Karachi is laughably late to this project. In Rule by Aesthetics, the scholar D. Asher Ghertner documents Delhi’s attempts in the early years of the millennium to leapfrog towards a similar sense of world-classness: within the span of a decade, 70 new shopping malls were constructed, land prices increased fivefold, and a million slum dwellers were displaced from the city.
Still, no one really knew what world-class meant; in Delhi as in Karachi, it remained a diffuse signifier. “The excitement of stepping into an air-conditioned, stainless steel carriage on the Delhi Metro, or the pride of living near a shopping mall with more marble than the Taj Mahal, give world-classness a sensory self-evidence,” Ghertner wrote.
The sociologist Amita Baviskar has described it thus: “We may not have been to Singapore or London, but we know when we are in the presence of something ‘world-class.’ Like obscenity or divinity, world-classness provokes a response from within, an instant shock of recognition.”
The world-class city concept had its heyday in the mid-2000s, says Bhan. “There was this amazing moment, when you had to have salmon, because salmon was what global citizens ate. It was all golf courses and salmon and gated compounds… Abu Dhabi builds a Louvre, Singapore tries to have a Shakespeare festival.”
To court consumers and investors, states were willing to bend and change and do without even being asked. “So, who knows if the idea of redoing Empress Market came about because someone somewhere said, ‘this is how Karachi becomes an attractive investment destination’,” Bhan mused. “Cities have done a lot more than this: the Burj Khalifa, the Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in the middle of June. I mean, there’s a lot of mad things people do.”
In Ghertner’s examination of millennial Delhi, it soon became apparent that the point was not to be world-class, but to look world-class. “So the illegality of a mall in Delhi built on forest land will get reversed but a basti on the same forest land will get evicted. The mall may be equally illegal but it doesn’t look illegal,” Bhan said.
In 2010, Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, a mega-event that the state had used as to justify the physical overhaul of the city but executed so poorly, and with so many charges of corruption, that the world-class city concept lost its lustre.
Now, the heyday of the world-class city appears to have passed, partly because global capital has slowed down. But its vestiges remain. “I wonder if, in one way, Empress Market and the failed project of its transformation is like a fossil, like an abandoned arcade — the ghost of dreams that the government never really had any chance of fulfilling,” Bhan said.
“But they had this moment where they thought, capital will come to us, and undertook all these processes of transformation, of world-class city-making. Lagos tried it. Johannesburg tried it. Delhi tried it. All of them tried it.”
“This is an old story,” Nausheen Anwar, director of Karachi Urban Lab agreed, “but what is interesting about this story is how persistent it is. It doesn’t go away — it keeps repeating itself in spaces across the world, whether it’s the north or the south. And now we are confronting that moment in Pakistan.”
Tajdaar hadn’t strayed too far from Empress Market. He began working as a night watchman for a former neighbour, a dry-fruit store-owner: Hassan Abbasi, whose father used to sell nuts on a pushcart outside Empress Market, eventually upgrading to a permanent shop, then expanding to several others.
The Abbasis had become prosperous enough that, after the demolition, they could relocate with relative ease. But customers had dwindled, Hassan said; if a hundred came before, 25 came now. “No one even knows there are shops in here,” he said, gesturing at the dim corridor, inside a commercial plaza a few blocks away from Empress Market. “What’s the point of a public market if the public can’t find it?”
A few feet away, Tajdaar crouched in front of a shuttered shop, sorting through a pile of cracked nuts. At night, as he kept watch, he shelled and sifted peanuts and pistachios; the Abbasis paid him an extra few hundred rupees for it. He earned 14,000 rupees a month (then around $87), less than the minimum wage, at that time, of 17,000 rupees. His wife had begun washing other people’s clothes to supplement their household income; one of his daughters was still in school, while the other sewed clothes. His younger son, a construction worker, contributed 500 rupees. His elder son struggled with addiction; on better days, he worked at a printing press. It didn’t pay much but kept him out of trouble, Tajdaar said with some degree of relief.
“Bus Allah paak ne yeh pardah rakha huwa hai,” he said. God has maintained this veil of respectability for us.
A week later, Covid would bring Karachi to a shuddering halt: curfew in place from 8pm to 8am, military in the streets for its enforcement. The rest of the country would be reluctant to follow suit; Prime Minister Imran Khan, who inherited a debt-ridden economy just beginning to stabilise, would make his case against shutting it down. “Twenty-five percent of Pakistanis are below the poverty line,” he said. “Today if I impose a complete lockdown, then my country’s rickshaw drivers, pushcart vendors, taxi drivers, small shopkeepers, daily wage earners … all of them will be shut in their homes.”
After the demolition, Tajdaar had stopped taking his medicines. The pills were free, but he couldn’t afford the bus fare to and from the government clinic. “I pray to Allah,” he said, hunching his shoulders. “I say to Him, you do what is best for me.”
The doctor had advised against eating fatty meat; that at least, wasn’t a problem, because he could no longer afford it. Still, the children would crave beef, so he bought a quarter pound each week, to share between the six of them. After the virus outbreak, however, he began commuting home only once a week. Bus services had been pared down: it took even longer to travel and it cost more.
And so, he began spending his nights curled up on the floor outside the shuttered dry-fruit store. Months later, in the dead of the night in the middle of the pandemic, he would be mugged on the job, tied and bound and locked in a bathroom; later, his employers would pressure him into identifying the intruders to the police, which filled Tajdaar with such fear of retribution that he left the job altogether.
The bulldozers came to a halt in Empress Market a long time ago — they have clawed their way through other parts since — but the violence unleashed in that moment never stopped. Now, Tajdaar’s best and only option is to spend his days and nights living and working a few blocks away from Empress Market — a man whose father named him emperor at birth, guarding in old age another’s kingdom.
This story was originally published by Guernica with the headline ‘The End of the Empress’ and has been reprinted with permission. The original story can be accessed here.
Alizeh Kohari is a writer based in Karachi and Mexico City. She tweets @AlizehKohari
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 24th, 2022
Copyright © 2022
Scribe Publishing Platform