Bristol Hotel: A haunting remnant of the old, glittering Karachi

Published: September 16, 2016
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The building is a 100-year-old forgotten piece of art, which sits there close to Karachi Cantt, firmly footed like a mountain with the grace, humility, and melancholy of an emperor who no longer has his throne. PHOTO COURTESY OF MR NAVEED RIAZ

The building in this picture was the setting for most of the horror stories in my seven-year-old mind. It was also the view from my room in my grandparents’ house. I would listen in awe as my friend talked about the ghosts that she had seen lurking there in the dark of the night. At night, I would draw the curtains together so I wouldn’t have to stare at that abandoned dwelling.

I didn’t know much about it back then. My dada (paternal grandfather) told me it was called Bristol Hotel and that it was constructed pre-partition. My imagination added another detail; I assumed it was haunted.

A new apartment building soon rose from the ground blocking my view and making me forget this place until I happened to pass by it one day. I had always observed it from afar. Walking alongside it felt strange yet exciting. I wish I could write about everything that I noticed back then. I wish I could provide exact details as to why this haunted house suddenly turned into a place of beauty for me. But my casual walk outside the hotel took place nearly six years ago and the faint web of my memory no longer has that incident entangled in its mesh.

I do remember looking at the hotel and thinking that it probably holds the record for having the most windows. The whole building was speckled with them. I also recall an old man watering the daisies in the enormous green garden, which I’m sure was only a dull shadow of its former self. The building is a 100-year-old forgotten piece of art, which sits there close to Karachi Cantt, firmly footed like a mountain with the grace, humility, and melancholy of an emperor who no longer has his throne.

Today, I looked up Bristol Hotel on Google. The results made me run to my father to ask him if he was aware of the history behind this place. He didn’t. So I read it out to him.

“For those who may remember, the Bristol Hotel Karachi was constructed by a Welshman in 1910 near the Cantonment Railway Station-Karachi, parallel to the rail tracks between Karachi Cantt and Karachi City Railway Station. It is in close proximity to the current location of the British Council. Initially, it was a tavern and bistro for the affluent ones, mostly the high echelons and army officials under the British Raj of early 1900s. The hotel was also the venue of the most talked about New Year parties, May Queen Ball and wedding festivities, and became the most popular place of Kolachi or Kurracchee…”

I learnt that Bristol Hotel’s popularity raged on in the 50s as well, when the Welshman’s son Grout, left for UK and sold it to Mr Rizvi; a Pakistani income tax officer in 1960.

“Mr Rizvi maintained the grandeur of Bristol Hotel, its bar and particularly its cuisine, which was probably the best in Karachi attracting people from far and wide. The New Year parties and May Queen Balls continued with the same fervour and glamour. During the 60s the price for entry in a New Year party for a couple was Rs300 – a small fortune in those days. Bristol continued to attract affluent Karachiites for its cuisine, large rooms, lush green lawns with Saturday night discos and the nightclub.

The Bristol Hotel breathed its last when it was attacked by some dacoits and Mr Rizvi suffered injuries in 1994. The attack reoccurred later and within six months Mr Rizvi was virtually forced to call it quits. The building of the hotel, however, remains as a home now.”

Quaid-e-Azam also dined there during the hotel’s glory days.

Photo: pakteahouse.net

Photo: AFP

Soon after my discovery regarding the past of this hotel, my mother called out to me while watching television. Apparently, the once bustling hotel is now a setting for soap operas and period dramas. My curiosity regarding the interior of the hotel was satisfied a little after watching the TV.

However, these soaps are confined to the bedrooms. The entrance which my nana (maternal grandfather) once described to be “palatial” still just exists in my imagination. However, I intend to find out what the interior looks like. I will find out what the interior looks like. A visit to Bristol Hotel is long overdue.

There was an incident that prompted me to fetch the memory of this hotel from the recesses of my brain where it was stored. I was visiting Saddar’s electronic market one day and as we got out of the car, my dad stared at the building in front of us; Hotel Jabees. His voice was heavy with nostalgia when he talked about how that building once towered over all the others in Karachi. I was quite amused considering the hotel only has eight floors! There were no buildings around it back then and it stood out like no other. It was the most expensive hotel in Karachi once upon a time. And now it’s no longer a grand building. It’s just another old building now – just a low budget hotel. It too, rose and fell.

I came home and looked up Hotel Jabees. I wanted to see a picture of it in its glory days. There wasn’t a single picture on the internet. No pictures from the days gone by, no picture of its present state. Yet, when I talked to the elders in my family, they remembered this place well. Our generation wouldn’t know about it except by word of mouth. Its story could be so easily lost. That thought depressed me.

That’s when I remembered Bristol Hotel. The details which I dug up on Bristol Hotel put a smile across my face. The history of this building is preserved; it is there to astonish others and educate them about a very different Karachi, a very different Pakistan. I wish the same can be said about the other numerous historical jewels in our ever evolving city.

Abeera Akhtar

Abeera Akhtar

The author is a senior at LUMS. She is majoring in Sociology/Anthropology and minoring in English.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.