‘In the eighteenth century, Karachi was a small walled city with a population of a thousand inhabitants living in an area of 0.12 sq km,’ starts the brief preface to this new coffee-table book by Rumana Husain (innovatively designed by the writer’s daughter, Asma). From there, Husain takes readers (or viewers, in case one does not feel like reading) into the family lives and homes of some of the diverse inhabitants of Karachi.
Husain, a ‘Karachiwali’ herself, is a prominent figure in the city’s art and activist circles. Her extensive research and interviews about the city’s various communities provide valuable anthropological insights and nuggets of information about this once-sleepy little British-built seaport, which has since swallowed up the fishing villages that used to surround it. The area of the city nearly doubled in just the decade following 1961, from 368 to 640 sq km. Today, it sprawls over a vast 3500 sq km, from the sandy seafront to barren hilly outskirts and beyond. Karachi’s over 18 million-strong population lives in housing ranging from makeshift tents and shantytowns to cramped high-rise apartments, modest townhouses and palatial bungalows.
This is not just a book about how the city grew uncontrollably after 1947, with the influx of a million or so refugees seeking economic opportunity as much as refuge. Rather, this is very much the human story of a city that is a microcosm of Pakistan, where locals were long ago outnumbered by migrants or their descendents – not just from across the border, but from all over the country. As the author delves into the homes and lives of some 80 of these families, it is apparent that they have retained much of their distinct cultures – although, with the younger generations growing up in this ‘melting pot’, borders and boundaries have started to blur. Interestingly, some among the youths have embraced features of their religious identity that their parents had shrugged off. There is, for instance, the young Sikh who proudly sports a turban and beard that his father had cast aside; or the young Bohra woman who, after getting married, prevailed upon her husband and his parents to adopt a more religiously conservative lifestyle, even getting her mother-in-law to shed the sari in favour of the rida, the Bohri burqa.
In all of these interviews, fascinating details emerge about each community’s rituals of birth, death and marriage. Husain manages to accommodate just about every community in Karachi, from the unlettered to the highly erudite, from the desperately poor to the fabulously wealthy, from jogis (the nomadic snake charmers) to the singing, dancing khwaja sira (transvestite) community. For those who want a more scholarly, historical or sociological reading, the contributions by five prominent Karachiwalas are an invaluable addition: the architect and town planner (and, really, Karachi expert) Arif Hasan, historian Hamida Khuhro, musicologist and archivist Luthfullah Khan, economist S Akbar Zaidi and women’s-rights activist and journalist Zubeida Mustafa.
Each has a long-term commitment to and relationship with Karachi, besides being experts in their own field. Particularly interesting is Hasan’s essay, ‘The Emergence of New Social Values’, in which he cites an informal survey of a hundred young couples that he found in parks and recreation areas throughout the city. His findings indicate major ongoing changes in family structures, thinking and gender roles. Likewise, Mustafa notes in ‘Karachi: Where Politics Divides’, the ‘melting pot of cultures’ in Karachi ‘makes it a truly cosmopolitan centre … [injecting] in its society a measure of liberty and egalitarianism that no other city in Pakistan possesses.’
Who we are
The true scope of the book – and city – can be felt at the end, where the author collates the exact backgrounds of her interviewees. One well-organised series of charts tackles the myriad languages spoken, with colourful balloons linked to the names of the interviewees. These range from Urdu and English to the country’s regional languages – Punjabi Sindhi, Marwari, Kutchi, Makrani, Memoni, Pashto, Hindko, Balochi, Brahui and Seraiki – and beyond, to Gujarati, Burmi Bengali, Tamil, Konkani, Chinese, Persian, Hyderabadi, Bihari, Banarsi Bhjopuri and even Vaghdi (or Kookdi). Had she interviewed any of the numerous Sri Lankans and Filipinas who work as maids in affluent Karachi households, the author could have included a few further-flung languages, as well. Perhaps they were not part of this narrative because they do not have roots in the city and send money to their families ‘back home’. But, of course, that applies equally to Faiz Ali and the other migrant Pashtun labourers whom the writer did interview.
Another series of charts sums up ‘Who we are’, indicating the sizes of various communities in Karachi and their geographic origins within Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan. These also detail the religions represented among the interviewees: Hindu, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, Muslim (Sunni and Shia), Sikh and Christian (Protestant and Catholic). In a particularly impressive testimony to her commitment, the author even tracked down Karachi’s now defunct Jewish community, whose legacy Karachiwalas should continue to cherish. Jewish Karachi-ites and their descendents responded with fond memories of their life in Karachi, despite professional discrimination against their relatives on the basis of faith. The personal photographs they share form an important part of the city’s legacy, as do the majestic sandstone buildings designed by the architect Moses Somake (whose grandchildren the writer managed to track down), which are still landmarks.
This is Rumana Husain’s Karachi, and the Karachi of countless others. Through its diverse population, Karachiwala humanises and makes accessible this vibrant, cosmopolitan megalopolis – an on-the-ground retort to what most Western news reports reduce merely to a ‘port city in the southern province of Sindh’ in ‘nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority Pakistan’. In this, Karachiwala is more than just another well-designed coffee-table book: although ostensibly apolitical, it is a strong political assertion of multiple identities. Above all, it is a labour of love for all that the city and its denizens represent.
~ Beena Sarwar is a member of Himal Southasian´s Editorial Board.