Karachi, past and present
Performer: Stalina Villarreal
Location: 2308 Truxillo, Living Room
1940’s: Childhood memories,
….Of Karachi roads washed each night, necessary for what was considered the cleanest city in Asia! Of lots of camels and horses and ghora garries (victorias), and the little donkey-carts. Of animals well looked after; there were troughs of water for them, and a large animal hospital.
…. Of a Karachi that had grown fast from a little fishing village – it was named after an outstanding woman, Mai Kolachi (there’s a road named after her, leading to Karachi Port and harbour).
… Of a cultural richness that I miss today…my parents came here from Vadodra, in Gujerat, India, when I was just 11 months old. I’ve grown up here, and seen this city through its many avatars.
Karachi was lively with its mix Hindus, Parsis, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We loved all the festivities especially Diwali and Holi. At Dussehra and Muharram, we’d follow the processions; all that was so exciting to us kids.
My parents, especially my Dad, had a cosmopolitan group of friends. With them we sometimes we went to a Parsi Navjote ceremony, or a wedding, celebrated Navroz with Parsi friends. And of course, enjoyed mithai and sevian at Eid. And Christmas! We went quite mad with excitement each year, decorating the tree, putting up Nativity plays, carol singing. In those days, our choir would go carol singing even to large hotel. I still remember visits to the Swami Narayan Mandir and the temple by the sea.
Sundays meant picnics after church – boating and fishing, or enjoying the greenery in Malir, or spending the day at beaches at Clifton, Manora or Sandspit. Once we had a memorable trip to Manghopir, (just a drive away from central Karachi), an ancient settlement of the descendants of African and Arab tribes. They cared immensely for crocodiles, feasted them and garlanded them on special occasions. Their music and dancing was fascinating, wonderfully catchy with its African beat.
Most of all, we kids were safe. Our elders didn’t have to keep worrying about where we were; we went to school, first in ghora garries, later in trams; we could happily spend hours playing with neighbours who lived nearby, or Hindu friends across the road.
[The following was cut for performance. Should it be included on the website?]
The Struggle for Independence: Growing up, we became aware of changes. Suddenly, there were many people on the streets; they appeared hot-headed in the many processions that went past. For me, that time is also marked by the birth of my youngest sister, on the eve of Independence Day, the birth of Pakistan. My mother couldn’t go to the hospital – that was considered dangerous. Luckily, a friendly Jewish doctor opened up her home for close women friends who needed immediate attention; my mother was one of them. By that time, day-long curfew with evening breaks were a regular feature; we’d wait impatiently for that break, so we could go visit mummy and the new baby.
Vaguely, we were aware that huge meetings were taking place at Khaliqdina Hall, (the historical spot where several political meetings were held; I believe Mr Jinnah also came there) not far from us.
Our neighbours and friends began to leave for Indian shores; my father was given the option at work: India or Pakistan? He chose Pakistan, believing in Mr Jinnah’s words for minorities (in his speech to the Constituent Assembly, on 11 August, 1947).
Soon, the cityscape began changing. Schools were sometimes closed, there was difficulty in stepping out, or there was curfew. My mother didn’t even let us peek out of the window overlooking the road, but I managed to do so.
Our road was the connecting link between two of the city’s main arterial roads: people, hordes of them, fleeing in camel carts, donkey carts, whatever. Once I saw an open cart with I think, bodies. Later I learnt how terrible the upheaval of Partition into India and Pakistan had been.
Even so, Karachi wasn’t as bad many other places. Gradually, a semblance of normality began returning. The city became more crowded; we learnt a new word, ‘refugees’.
There were some just outside our house on the pavement; they planted all their belongings there, and lived in a tent. Similar sights came up all over the city. We were fascinated by the work they did: painting tin trunks, in bright multicolours, all on the same broad brush. We’d stand there for hours, admiring their handiwork; maybe they were the forerunners of Pakistan’s well known ‘truck art’.
1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s: Karachi’s bright, throbbing life returned, despite the first military take-over in 1959. Jam sessions, picnics, music, lots of it, and with variety, matinee shows, all became part of student life. For grown-ups equally there was nightlife: Karachi got its name: “The City of Lights”. Mushairas, ghazal programmes, Saigal, Pankaj Malik, Noorjehan, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, take your pick. And excellent movies: students crowded into every matinee show. Later on, a ‘Princess Amina’ came to the Palace Hotel, and could she belly-dance!
Late ‘70s and ‘80s: Imperceptibly at first, and then with greater force, the country’s social fabric altered, as military dictatorships followed one after the other, with a few unsuccessful efforts at democracy in between. The country, and Karachi, even as it expanded, became more crowded, poorer, and deficient in civic facilities. Laws were imposed that drove home to us the fact that this was no longer a democracy. Violence on the streets began appearing, as we repeatedly saw the miscarriage of justice.
The worst of the military dictatorships, Zia ul Haq’s, brought in an unfamiliar brand of Islam. The country’s easy-going, tolerant Sufi-istic way of life was forced into rigid patterns of belief and behaviour. The religio-cultural norms now emphasized chauvinistic tendencies, and mind-boggling patterns of behaviour were imposed on women, like the ‘chadar’ and purdah even for 12-year olds.
In 1981, a group of us would have none of it. A routine meeting coincided with the imposition of a law which prescribed severe punishment for adulterers. The woman was to receive 100 lashes, her paramour was to be stoned to death — in public. We decided that enough was enough. Dictatorship or not, we came out in force on the roads, demanding justice for the couple—we eventually got it. That meeting, and the events that followed, gave birth in Karachi to Pakistan’s feminist movement, the Women’s Action Forum, which has now spread nationwide.
Another facet: in the early ‘80s, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, our neighbour to the north. Pakistan fought against the Soviets in aid of Afghanistan, supported by the US. In a short while, as Pakistan, through Karachi, served as the conduit for arms to Afghanistan, it also became, during return trips of delivery trucks, the conduit for illegal drugs and smuggled goods.
As political turbulence raged, the country became awash with illicit arms, smuggled goods, heroin and charas. The end result is a sizeable population of drug addicts, and endless strife, with armed gangs roaming the streets. Later, it was America that attacked Afghanistan: for Pakistan. By this time, religious extremism had appeared, and increased, as did the many Talibans.
The political turbulence continues, with increased corruption, misgovernance, huge disparities in wealth, and consequently growing poverty.If anything, matters seem to have worsened for ordinary people.
Today: Sadly, whereas other nations have progressed, it’s worrying to think about this effort at ‘democracy’: will it last? We know that behind it the military arm is strong.
Our children have grown in this atmosphere; my daughter was a toddler when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan with the ’71 war. At night, when fighter planes roared by overhead, she’d pass around cotton wool for our ears, ‘to keep the noise out’. Today, my little granddaughter spends weekends with me, and fears the sounds of gunshots.
I asked a psychiatrist friend: ‘What is this violence doing to us?’ He replied: “Even our kids are learning that power is through the barrel of a gun. The trauma we all experience is going to leave immense long term effects”.
Yet Karachiites have shown admirable resilience: they’re determined to re-claim their city. They must, for we have so much effort, so much talent packed in here. Karachi has remained host to people from all over the country: today it is the 5th largest city in the world, a huge megalopolis. Despite all the negatives, it remains the industrial and commercial hub of Pakistan, the largest contributor to the country’s economy, contributing 50% to 60% to the country’s GNP.
Superb art, drama, music that’s making waves, writing of international calibre, voluntary work for the poor that is internationally recognized (Maulana Sattar Edhi, the Magsaysay Award), a determined, talented and hard-working population — it’s all there, if only it can be given a chance to survive and grow.
Thousands of us are working to reclaim our city, today, tomorrow… who knows when? But we will!