The Karachi mix
rumana husain | October 12, 2010 at 07:45 amby
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Go to any bazaar in Karachi, particularly in one of its older areas, like Saddar, and soon the metropolitan character of the city will start to unfold in front of your eyes… A child with hair as golden as the sun and eyes as blue as the sky can be seen not too far from another whose dark hair and dark skin match the darkness of the night and his tight curls and large eyes are distinctly different from the first child’s.
A woman can be seen in an old-fashioned black burqa, another one in a colourful rida, and yet another in a regular shalwar-kameez and dupatta speaking with a sari-clad woman. A pale-skinned man with a hooked nose, wearing a white vest and a cap can be seen standing in the balcony of his flat speaking to a fair-complexioned man across the street. The other man is chinky-eyed, with a flat nose. Other men in the bazaar sport shalwar-kameez, complementing their dress with an embroidered cap embellished with mirror-work, or a white turban, or a peak cap…
But all these differences of facial features, skin colour and ways of dressing are nothing compared to the snatches of different languages, such as Urdu, Pashto, Persian, Hindko, Punjabi, Seraiki, Sindhi, Balochi, Makrani, Brahui, English, Memoni, Gujarati, Kutchi, Bengali, Burmi-Bengali, Marwari, Kookdi, Bihari, Hyderabadi, Konkani and Chinese that one hears surfing the air.
While researching for my book Karachiwala: a subcontinent within a city, trying to capture the diversity and change within Karachi, I met over sixty individuals, families or communities and, for a while, I got lost in the jumble of ethnicities, castes, clans, tribes, communities, places of origin, professions and religious backgrounds.
The words Baleem, Umrani, Digani, Mulani, Talpur, Qambrani, Leghari, Hoot, DeSouza, D’Mello, Pinto, Maheshwari, Meghwar, Lohana, Kakakhel, Saidan, Mohammadi Khel, Attarwala, Rajkotwala, Dhoraji, Gondal, Halai, Tejaswi, Barosa, Arain, Rabdiwala, Allahwala, Kalia, Mehanti, Sohani, Madani, Lakha, Oriakhel, Lalani, Diplai, Arora, Chawla, Wadia, Gandhi, Modi, Purashasp, Yazamadi… poured in from the length and breadth of the city.
I was not perturbed by these identities or differences, as they were music to my ears. The reason for this was simple: because I could never accept the overly simplified version of the four ethnicities from the four provinces of this country that was presented to me in my textbooks. Even as a child, I could sense that this was not the whole truth.
These administrative and political divisions were hiding a rich heritage and culture within their boundaries, which I longed to explore. As the population and demographic distribution of Karachi during the last 50 years have changed, it is interesting as well as important to note and understand the reasons behind these changes.
The earliest settlement, in 1838, of a tiny fishing village near the Lyari River, mainly near today’s ‘Tower’ area, with smaller settlements at two locations on either side of the inlet from the sea, records the population at 14,000. A few years before partition, in 1944, Karachi, by then a vibrant city, had expanded to the east and south-east, and settlements along the road led out of the city to the east. A settlement had sprouted at Malir, some distance out of the city, and a railway track had also been laid. The airport had started functioning, and the population had risen to 399,000.
By 1953, the population had leapt up to 1,250,000. The city had been made the capital of the new country, and a large influx of immigrants from India as well as from other parts of the country had settled here. Residential settlements were spaced more densely, growing to the east, north and south along the road to the airport, as well as in Malir and beyond. By the seventies, a large number of migrants and refugees from Bangladesh and Afghanistan had also settled in the city. Today, the official figure stands at 18 million.
The diversity of its people is also reflected in the names of the various localities of the city, e.g. Mohajir Camp, Delhi Mercantile Society, Lasi Pada, Bengali Pada, Banaras Colony, Frontier Colony, Haryana Colony, Gulshan-i-Bihar, Nanakwara, Agra Taj Colony, Burmi Colony, Karimabad, Junagadh Gali, Khokrapar…
The loss of values — of cherishing diversity and inculcating tolerance — has happened gradually over the years. We did not teach our children that there is nothing wrong in being different; that we should enjoy the multiple hues of this giant rainbow of humanity around us; that we should rejoice, celebrate, learn from each other and respect each other; that the different languages, traditions, customs, rituals, beliefs, clothes, cuisine and lifestyles should not be viewed as a threat to individual identity.
One cannot fail to see in Karachi that, whereas some communities try hard to retain their identities and are uncompromising, there is at the same time a cross-fertilisation of cultures and the creation of a hybrid. This is the richness of which we should be proud. This is the uniqueness of Karachi: truly a microcosm, not only of Pakistan, but of the entire region of South Asia.
By Rumana Husain
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