KARACHI: Karachi’s lost Jewish community paid a short visit to the metropolis on Tuesday – in the shape of foundation year students from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.
This fictional portrayal of the Bhonkers, Solomons, Kamarlekars of that time, was one of three original 20-minute plays selected out of 10 on the culture of Karachi to be performed at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi. The student director of ‘The Lost Jews of Karachi’, Veera Rustomji, was inspired by conversations she had with her father and uncle about the tiny minority. “My father used to go to Karachi Grammar School with a Jewish person,” she told The Express Tribune. “He saw how they left Karachi and why. I even dedicated one character to that [one person].” Working on the history of Karachi’s Jewish community was a tricky subject, but Rustomji said she was motivated by the desire to make people aware of this part of the city’s history.
Not enough is known about the Jewish community of Karachi who are believed to have mostly left by the late-1960s. They lived here from the late 19th century and were called the Bene Israel Jews after their ancestors who arrived in Konkan, India. Karachi had a synagogue but it was destroyed in 1988.
‘The Lost Jews of Karachi’ is set in the time from 1958 to the 1970s and revolves around two Jewish sisters Abigail and Daniella who are seen weeping at their father’s funeral in the opening scene. In the next scene, the Jewish community is seen celebrating Chanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, which commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Here the conversation focuses on president Yahya Khan and his policies.
It appears that it is too dangerous for the Jews to stay in Karachi and in the next act, Daniella is persuading Abigail to move out. “It is not the same Karachi that we grew up in. We Jews can’t go unnoticed. We are not welcome here.” And finally, when they decide to leave, at the railway station, the two sisters are separated. Abbey gets lost in the crowd. The curtain falls.
The second peformance was titled “Fasla rakh warna pyar hojaye ga” (Keep your distance or you’ll fall in love). Here too, an element intrinsic to Karachi’s culture, the ubiquitous bus ride, was the focus. But this piece provided some comic relief from the serious theme of the first play. On the bus, the conductor, the driver and a passengers banter lightly, peppering their conversation with their own take on some political slogans. Other passengers try to flirt with the women. One passenger sings songs all the way.
The third performance gave the love story a twist by using a grandmother and grandfather as the hero and heroine. They are brought together by paan, which plays an important role in their lives, and indeed for many, many people in Karachi. The aim of director Qaiser Zaidi and this roster of students was to show that while paan is a delight, it is also carcinogenic. As expected, the grandfather dies after eating paan for years, but before he goes he asks his wife not to stop eating it. The paan comes to represent almost a heart-shaped morsel of love in their lives.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2012.