Urn catalogue 

More than sixty years after Partition, sealed borders and complicated visa procedures continue to separate thousands of families in India and Pakistan – even to impact the dead. Since the two countries tightened already-cumbersome visa procedures in the aftermath of the war of 1971, Pakistani Hindus have been unable to take the remains of loved ones for immersion in the Ganga at Haridwar. While it is true that, due to the peculiarities of Pakistani life and times, a majority of poor and lower-caste Hindus tend to bury their dead, a large proportion of the well-to-do continue to cremate. And while the ashes of many are distributed in the river Indus and the Arabian Sea, there are still those who insist on immersion in the holy Ganga; and hence, the families have been willing to hold the ashes until such time that the visa regime into India is loosened. For this reason, the ashes of 130 Sindhi Hindus have for decades sat in limbo in Karachi. Finally, in late June, some relief was offered, as the Indian government announced for the first time that Hindus in Karachi – but only Hindus in Karachi – will indeed be given visas to take the remains of their relatives across the border into India, where the last rites can be performed. While the announcement led to public celebrations in Karachi, Hindus throughout the rest of Pakistan are wondering what to make of the new 'breakthrough'.

Karachi today has the largest Hindu population in Pakistan, numbering some half-million. Alongside, it has confronted the most significant problems in terms of how to deal with remains of the faithful. Perhaps the most notable temporary resting places for these remains has been an old library, the Gujjar Hindu Community Library, in the area of Old Golimar; here, ashes sit in earthen pots tied with red-and-white cloth and flower wreaths dotted with kumkum powder. Lining old bookshelves, each urn includes a tag carrying various identification details in the relevant languages – Sindhi, Urdu, Hindi, English. Some ashes are stored under precarious conditions, in flour bags. Housing human remains instead of books, this unique catalogue room is located within the premises of a 150-year-old burial-and-cremation ground, traditionally belonging to the Gujjar Hindu community. Community members and families believe that if the urns are taken home, the souls would wander aimlessly.

The library itself was established in 1934 by the government of the Bombay Presidency (under which Sindh was then ruled), at a time when Sindhi Hindus constituted the majority population of Karachi. Following Partition, the library was closed for several years, and today nobody seems to know what happened to the collection. The huge cremation ground had been given for community use, and the local Hindus proceeded to build the library adjacent to it. (The cremation compound was eventually extended to include the library itself.) According to one elderly leader of the community leader, Hari Motwani, the library housed a huge collection of books on science, history, Hindu texts, as well as academic books for students. Eventually, the Hindus who remained in Karachi took over the space, using it much as it is used today: to store urns containing the ashes of their loved ones, as they wait to be allowed to immerse them in the Ganga.

The urns do not contain only the ashes of Hindus, however. Motwani, who spent much of his student life studying in the library, recalls seeing several British and other non-Hindus cremating their loved ones there. One was a certain Professor Iyer, a Christian college teacher in Sindh, who died in the US while visiting his son. Iyer's will specifically stipulated that his body be cremated, and his son ended up seeking special permission to have the body flown back to Karachi to do so. Murad Baloch, the 66-year-old Muslim caretaker of the cremation facility said that when he conducted a study of the urns he also found the ashes of a Chinese dentist, a Buddhist schoolteacher and a Japanese horse trainer, the latter having died in 1992 while travelling through Pakistan with a circus. With no family members having yet claimed their remains, their ashes remain at the converted library.

Four decades on
Today, the Karachi urn room, like the rest of the old cremation grounds in the city, is rapidly falling into disrepair. In the days before Partition, four such cremation grounds, in addition to over 400 Hindu temples, were scattered across Karachi. Today, only this traditional, wood-fired cremation ground remains, the last decaying vestige of a once-flourishing community. Last year, a portion of the converted library's roof fell apart during rains, and has not been repaired. More recently, the city government demolished a major portion of the historical site during the construction of the Lyari Expressway, a PKR 13 billion project to build 30 km of access road to the Karachi port. And inevitably, within the old library the tags are fading, some of the urns have been damaged and some of the ashes have even become mixed together. Grim as the situation is, however, one's first reaction on entering the grounds is not one of shock at the disorder. Rather, spread over 60 acres in the heart of the city, the cremation ground remains as breathtaking today as its condition is deplorable. Amidst a surprising tranquillity, life-sized metal statues of famous Karachi Hindu philanthropists and businessmen of yore – including the philanthropist Dalpat Rai Sonavaria and the political leader Seth T Motandas – fill the grounds.

Unsurprisingly, the neglect evident in the cremation ground is reflected in government policy, on both sides of the border. On the Indian side, visas for families in mourning have for decades been notably difficult – if not outright impossible – to come by. On the Pakistani side, meanwhile, there seems to have been little impetus to do much about the situation at all. In a bid to resolve the impasse, Hindu community leaders in Pakistan have long urged the re-opening of an Indian consulate in Karachi (which was shut down in 1994), as well as the establishment of a train so families can take ashes across the border together.

Even so, until recently the government official who would be tasked with such oversight in Sindh, Provincial Minister for Minority Affairs Mohan Lal, seemed entirely unaware of the issue. When this writer asked Minister Lal about his views on the matter in June, he seemed shocked. "If true", he said, "it would be a terrible violation of human rights," and promised to push the federal government to open official discussions with New Delhi. When Lal was again contacted after New Delhi's 25 June announcement that it would be relaxing visa-granting procedures for Karachi mourners, he said that he had personally updated President Asif Ali Zardari on the issue, and that the latter had promised to officially speak to New Delhi. Yet Lal added that there was no official timeline to begin talks, saying that an official survey to compile information about the number and location of the remains would start only in August.

Nothing from these two conversations would indicate that Islamabad played any particular role in India's recent decision to grant visas. Nonetheless, the policy reversal has been a welcome one for the chosen few, and in the event large numbers of Sindhi Hindus gathered in Karachi to celebrate. Two ashrams in Haridwar also announced that they would be offering free room and board to Pakistani pilgrims. At the same time, however, the oddly stingy easing of the visa regime – pertaining only to those from Karachi – clearly leaves much to be desired.

First off, important familial considerations now look likely to emerge at an increasing rate. Take the case of Didi Shanti, an elderly widow from central Karachi. The ashes of her son, Kishan, who died in a road accident in 1999, have for the past decade been sitting in the library room. During that time, Didi has been hoping to take his ashes to the Ganga, yet her numerous attempts to arrange for an Indian visa for a companion have been unsuccessful. Even though she says that she is too old to make such a trip alone, embassy officials in Islamabad have repeatedly insisted that they will allow only her to travel with the ashes. Now, the latest changes do not look set to ameliorate this regulation.

Most notable, however, are those whom the new decision will not even affect. According to D M Maharaj, the president of the Pakistan Hindu Foundation, the need goes well beyond the Karachi library and the ashes of the several hundred Hindus currently found local temples in Karachi, to the roughly two million Hindus throughout the rest of Pakistan. With such numbers, Maharaj warns, a systematic process will clearly need to be put in place in order that, in future, limbos such as the library room in Karachi are not required throughout the rest of the country.

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