By Peerzada Salman
It’s midday. The sun is beating down with all its infernal ferocity on Chand Bibi Road. Karachi is at its usual scorching best (or worst, take your pick). But the corpulent woman beggar, sitting alongside a sweets’ stall on the pavement outside the Lady Dufferin Hospital, doesn’t seem to give two hoots about the weather. She stretches her right hand so that you could dole out a fiver to her, at least. Cough up the moolah or not, you can’t ignore her if you want to step into the hospital building.
Entering the compound of the Lady Dufferin Hospital is an experience in itself. There’s buzz all around. To the left of the gateway they’re paving the floor with tiles. To the right there’s the OPD section, and the inscription on its wall reads: ‘completely renovated in 1933 at a cost of Rs7,000, donated by The Sind Flood Relief Fund’. A few steps ahead further right is the Virbaijee Katrak Maternity Wing (built in 1917), whose faÃ§ade is old and worth looking at, but the interior is contemporary, donated, not too long ago, by Infaq Foundation in memory of Agha Hasan Abedi. To its right is the rather modern Dr Shaukat Haroon Block of the hospital. (Dr Haroon was a humanitarian who did a fine job in reviving the institution in the ‘70s.)
You turn around and move to the real structure (Lady Dufferin Hospital, Edulji Dinshaw Building), which is to the left of the main entrance. It’s a sight that reeks of lost glory – grand, but not well-preserved. And there’s a reason for it. Says Farhan, secretary to medical superintendent of the hospital, Dr Sethna: “We are a charitable institution; we have not enough funds to maintain the structure. People know that very well.”
This is also echoed by architect Yasmeen Lari: “They must get some funding directed towards them. They already spend so much on providing people with healthcare facilities.”
Even in its current, not-so-desirable shape, the building is a historian’s delight. Climbing the wooden staircase leading to the first floor makes you feel as if you’re watching an Ingmar Bergman film. Once you reach the first floor, Ward 3 on the left with a vast stitching room, and Ward 4 on its right with furniture stacked up like sardines in spacious rooms, dusty off-white doors and silent passages and corridors, make you feel as if you are in an Ingmar Bergman film — haunting, surrealistic, momentous.
The area where Ward 4 is located was renovated and refurnished by the American Women’s Club in 1980-81. You wonder: where have all such clubs vanished?
It was in November 1894 that construction work on the hospital commenced. Its foundation stone was laid by Lady Elgin, the wife of Viceroy Lord Elgin. It was named in memory of Lady Dufferin, who, it’s said, was known for holding darbars at the Government House, because of which she got acquainted with local women, and became their benefactor.
Talking of benefactors, Edulji Dinshaw contributed a fair bit to the construction of the institution, a gracious act that must be acknowledged.
Not much is known about the designer of the Lady Dufferin Hospital, but the edifice hints, some experts opine, at the fact that it’s built in a later Renaissance style. It has a grouping of pedimented square-headed openings, and its central portion has a triangular gable.
Architect Noman Ahmed has a slightly different view: “It’s constructed in the composite colonial style. Then factors as per the need of the time were incorporated into it by its makers. This method, along with some classical elements, was often used by designers in those days because they felt comfortable with it, and found it soodmand. There are rounded balustrades, decorative structural arches, cornices; the entrance portico is projected out to emphasise the centrality of circulation.”
Highlighting the issue of the hospital’s preservation Noman Ahmed says: “Since their staff is not technically trained with respect to restoration, its requirements have not been fulfilled in recent times. Obviously they are constrained by lack of funds too.
“The thing that troubles me is that its windowpanes and staircases are made of teak, and if they’re not cared for in due time, there’s a danger that they will wear out,” says Noman Ahmed.
The Lady Dufferin Hospital is not just a multipart edifice. Nor is it just an institution. It depicts a culture of care, maternal care at that, which is an indissoluble part of each one of us. Even of the woman beggar who has become a rather permanent feature of the historical site.
PS: An interesting piece of information. In 1915 Dr Elizabeth Stephens Imprey was chosen as head of the Lady Dufferin Hospital. She embarked on a P&O passenger liner SS Persia (built in 1900 by Caird&Company) from London to reach Karachi. On Dec 30, 1915 the liner was torpedoed, and destroyed, off Crete without prior warning by German WWI U-Boat commander Max Valentiner. Out of the 519 people on board (not to mention jewels and gold belonging to a Maharaja), 343 lost their lives, including Dr Elizabeth Stephens Imprey. She never landed in Karachi.