Rumana Husain’s curiosity “about different peoples: who they are, where they come from, the languages they speak, the clothes they wear, the food they eat, what their beliefs are, the varied customs and traditions they observe, and what they do for a living,” resulted in a colourful mosaic of the multiple ethnic communities of Karachi, in a well-researched, beautifully presented, literary and visual treat in the shape of Karachiwala: A Subcontinent within a City.
Through personal stories and pictorial glimpses into the lives of over 60 individuals and families, Husain has pushed the window open to show people that Karachi is brimming with all the flavours and colours, represented by the communities that dwell within. More than producing a patchwork tapestry, the author has woven together so many strands of information and legends that are meticulously cross-referenced that the end product is an ‘unputdownable’ book that one would turn to repeatedly to savour.
Karachiwala takes us into the hearts and hearths of the descendants of the Zanzibarian slaves, the Sheedees, and reveals how they came to adopt the regional customs of the other ethnic groups among whom they settled, while retaining the distinct African flavour in the beat of their music and dance, the tantalising Leva.
It wends its way through the labyrinth of Lyari, inhabited by the Baloch, Sindhi, Katchi and Memon families who have built this city through the sweat of their toil. It shows us how these totally different communities have been living side by side, retaining their cultural traits.
Without getting into the claims of anyone being an original Karachiwala or not, Husain allows us a glimpse into the life of a Gwadari woman puffing away at her huqqa, who made her home here, far away from her original town, after marriage.
Familial ties brought Attiya Dawood from interior Sindh to Karachi, where she blossomed into a poet and women’s rights activist after traversing a difficult path crossing the bounds of patriarchal supremacy, which wanted her to fit into a conventional box where women remained subservient and obedient, never to be seen or heard.
The book also crisscrosses through the lives of the numerous Hindu tribes who, unlike the majority of the Hindu population did not leave after Partition, but settled in many of the outer lying goths or villages of Karachi.
They stayed close to the many holy sites dotting Karachi, and the insecurities they faced due to increasing levels of religious intolerance forced them to change the way they dress when they step out. But this has not deterred them from practicing their religion or celebrating their festivals, which have provided an additional kaleidoscope of colour to the book.
The Hindus who migrated have left an indelible mark on the character of the city, and this the book clearly portrays. Educational and welfare institutions like the DJ College and the Mitharam Hostels, and the maternity homes dotting the city, are a testament to this.
Skirting around the demarcations between the various castes, ethnic backgrounds and social status of Karachi’s Hindus, the book peeks into the lives of people as varied as the Meghi bird-catchers, tracing their lineage to Rajasthan, to the suave fashion designer, Deepak Perwani, who points to the emerging differences in the various communities due to the shift from a joint to a nuclear family.
The other community that has left the greatest mark on this city is that of the Parsis. Tracing their origins from Persia, and then their subsequent move eastwards to find a sanctuary, the book sheds light on how their names reflect their Persian heritage while their mode of dressing and language became their adopted identity. The book focuses on their customs, family life, religious rites and cultural rituals, covering all aspects from their birth to death. Husain also makes use of excerpts from historical books about this community to supplement the written narrative gleaned from the personal interaction of the writer with the community members.
Of the older inhabitants of Karachi, the Parsis, Bohras and Memons are communities everyone is familiar with; their origins can be traced back to different parts of western India. However, not many know about the miniscule number of Baa’is, Jews and Sikhs, who also form a part of Karachi’s cultural milieu. The reason for their dwindling numbers is presented in a very non-judgmental manner, and that goes to the credit of the author.
Husain has not seconded anyone’s claims of the city being theirs; in fact, the manner in which Karachi’s diversity has been brought out clearly goes to show that the city is the sum total of its many parts – parts that are diverse to the point of being opposed to each other, yet all contribute to its richness.
This is probably why the same space has been granted to the relative newcomers – be they political migrants in the wake of Partition or economic migrants from different parts of the country – as the older inhabitants. Thus, we get an introduction to families upholding the traditions of Lucknow, then the Dehliwallas, people hailing from Hyderabad Deccan, the Pathans, the Hindkowal, the Biharis and even the Bengalis and Chinese, who have made this city their own.
And how could the Christians who have left such a visible imprint on the city with their invaluable contribution to the education, health and services sectors be ignored. And here again, Husain displays the diversity within these religious groups by showcasing the lives of the Catholics of Goan origin, the Catholics of Pakistani origin and the Protestants mostly coming in from the Punjab.
Over 600 photographs, maps, family trees and graphics on quality paper make Karachiwala more than just another book for the coffee table. For it is not only visually opulent, but it is also a very easy read. Full marks to young Asma (Rumana Husain’s very talented daughter) for presenting a mine of information without clutter and structuring it in a manner that would not make the book look too ‘boxed.’ The folds cut in neatly and open out easily – another aspect that is quite tricky to handle – as is the hardbound printing, which is handled adroitly.
At Rs 2,990, the price may seem steep, but for the amount of information it contains the book is well worth the cost. In fact, if the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands had not funded the project, the actual cost would have been prohibitive for most readers.
All in all, Karachiwala should not be dismissed as a coffee table book; it contains the socio-cultural history of a multi-ethnic Karachi. And if read with one’s thinking cap on, it could help to rediscover the lost values of cherishing diversity and upholding the values of tolerance.