Karachi’s Jewish history and paan-daans come alive at Indus Valley student plays

Published: November 29, 2012

In this scene from ‘The Lost Jews of Karachi’ one of two Jewish sisters Abigail and Daniella weep at their father’s funeral. The girls decided to leave Karachi after it became too unsafe and were separated at a railway station in a poetic open-ending. This was one of three plays put on at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi on Tuesday by the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture students. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

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 director

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.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • A real Bloch
    Nov 29, 2012 - 12:44PM

    ET seems to be some kind of minority freaks. Who cares they left!!! They left Europe and moved to Israel. What is so much fuss about?


  • Soloman
    Nov 29, 2012 - 12:50PM

    Most of the Jews from Karachi were Marathi speaking Jews. Marathi speaking Jews were originally from Ratnagiri from Konkan where they settled because of ship wreck. They are called Bene Israel community. There are still many Jews in Mumbai and Maharashtra. India was the only country in the world where there were no Anti Semitic feelings and Jews prospered and had good relations with Hindus and Muslims. Many new generation Jews have settled in Israel, but still maintain their Marathi traditions. Karachi was part of Bombay Presidency, that is reason many Marathi Jews, Hindus , Parsis and Goan Konkani/Christians settled before partition of India. Most of these communities have diisappeared after partition.


  • Golden horde
    Nov 29, 2012 - 2:37PM

    A real Bloch: the loss of Jews is a very sad loss for us in pakistan. Minorities add colour and enhance the fabric of society. And I won’t be surprised if there are some Jews still in pakistan but prefer to keep low. Lets hope they are able to openly come out once the radicalisation goes down a bit. I might know of a few families that are very very successful in Karachi but i respect their


  • Mj
    Nov 29, 2012 - 3:05PM

    @A real Bloch:
    We care about minorities, because if we don’t, there won’t be any minorities left. Pakistan has already gone from 15% minority pop. to just 3% minority pop.


  • Parvez
    Nov 29, 2012 - 3:47PM

    @A real Bloch:
    Being a Bloch, if that is true, your comment is all the more hard to believe, apart from it being in poor taste.


  • Nov 29, 2012 - 5:42PM

    OK OK I may not like the way Israel carries out its policy of occupation etc. But if the baker happens to use too much salt in the bread, you are sure to hear, it is Jews/Israel behind this conspiracy against the Muslims.
    You are struck by amazement that God could create such varmints.


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