This historic family home sits in the midst of Karachi’s teeming city centre. Driving past Karachi Zoo and navigating streets thronged with traffic, we turn into a quiet lane which ends in a cul de sac. In stark contrast to the fumes, clamour and jumble of shops and high-rises just steps away, this narrow street is graced by a row of stately old houses built in the colonial vernacular style. White-washed gizri stone facades and tiled gabled roofs are surrounded by generous lawns and gracious old trees. These beautiful structures were built in the early 1900s and they are still occupied by descendants of the original inhabitants all hailing from the same family.
Maqsood and Zainab Alavi occupy the upper floor of the last home on this street. Stepping inside the gate, one is instantly surrounded by an old world serenity and grandeur and transported on a nostalgic journey. An architect by profession, restoring and renovating his family home has been a labour of love for Maqsood Alavi. Zainab has an equally strong affection for the home she stepped into as a young bride and soon took charge of.
Warm and hospitable, the couple ushered us in, Maqsood speaking about his home while Zainab plied us with delicious treats.
Tell us a little about the history of the house?
Four houses were built on this street in the early 1900s. This house was built in 1910. The builder was the grandfather of the architect Habib Fida Ali and my grandfather bought the house from him. Subsequently, the other houses on the street were bought by my grandfather’s brothers.
Today, three of the houses remain standing and are occupied by my uncles and cousins. My uncle lives on the ground floor of this house while we are upstairs. Unfortunately, the fourth house, which was the most beautiful, was torn down and replaced by an apartment block.
It is quite unusual to find old homes still in the possession of the original family.
That’s true. My family has lived in Karachi since the 1800s. My grandfather and his brothers had a trading business and they all lived near Denso Hall in Saddar. They were six brothers and they all moved here except for one who was unmarried. My youngest uncle, Hatim Alavi, went on to serve as mayor of Karachi. So there is a lot of history. For me personally, I not only grew up here but was born inside this house!
What was this area like when you were growing up?
Of course, it was very different then. We would walk and cycle everywhere, most of the homes belonging to families we knew. The area behind the house, which is now a block of apartments, was a wide open space. There was some ten acres of lush fields dotted with trees. This was in the sixties and seventies. We played cricket on the street and visiting the zoo was a regular feature.
The house must have seen many changes over the years.
Yes. Some changes were made by my father but the extensive renovations have happened more recently after my parent’s passing. In fact, the outdoor staircase that leads up to our portion was moved from inside the house to where it is now.
The large sitting area we now use for entertaining was a walled-off room, rarely used and just filled with furniture. There was much opposition to my opening up the space but everyone appreciates it now and it is used regularly when we have visitors over.
We have added false ceilings where needed, changed the flooring but stayed true to the character of the house. The wall niches you see now were windows I have closed off.
Both restoration and renovation was needed. The ceilings of the house are wooden with false ceilings. The ceilings are very high and above the false ceiling and the tiled roof there is enough space for a man to stand upright at the lowest point! Which is why the house stays very cool but maintaining it is not easy. We have had a termite problem to deal with, then there is seepage etc.
Did you break down any walls?
Only those which had been added on in the seventies. The original walls of the house are 18 inches thick, they cannot be broken. Notice the cupboards built into the walls; they will give you an idea of how thick the walls are.
Tell us about the dramatic pillar in the sitting room. It’s massive!
That is from Swat and was added on by me. It is huge and only a house with such high ceilings could accommodate it. But it’s tricky placing a single pillar in a room and I requested Habib Fida Ali (who I was working with ) to come over and tell me exactly where to put it.
Bathrooms and kitchens in old homes are always tricky to deal with.
Absolutely! There was no concept of bathrooms being attached to bedrooms – I think my father built the first attached bathroom when he got married in 1947. The kitchen was also very small. There were a number of small stores and pantries which we have broken down and incorporated into one large kitchen.
We also added a small dining space here since Zainab likes to cook and we mostly eat here as well.
You have converted the long corridor space into a dining and casual sitting area.
Yes. The staircase which we moved outside used to lead into this space. There was no dining room as such since traditionally we used to sit on the floor and eat on a dastarkhawan out of a thaal. We continued that system for a long time till my father could no longer sit on the floor; but even on the dining table we shared a common thaal.
All the furniture in the house has also been inherited?
Yes. We have so much antique furniture. Of course we have added on things like paintings and carpets but almost all the furniture is inherited. My grandmother used to sleep on this takht in the sitting room. And she didn’t iron her clothes; they were placed under the mattress on which she slept and that straightened them out!
We have so many antique cupboards; they are beautiful but have no hanging option so are not very practical for modern usage.
The area around you has become so congested over the years, is it challenging continuing to live here? Did you never think of moving away?
Of course we did and we still do!(laughs) Living in this area has had its challenges, especially when my children were growing up. Now they are adults and have all moved abroad.
The grounds around the house are also beautifully maintained.
My sister-in-law who lives downstairs looks after the garden and we all get to enjoy the greenery. During the Covid pandemic we didn’t feel the isolation because the families from all the homes on our street would get together in the garden. Many family weddings have also been held here.
Photos by Naeema Kapadia