‘Religion and nationality did not matter during my childhood in the city by the sea’
Once upon a time there was an Indian boy who grew up in Karachi. At the time, he did not know just how odd that simple fact was. That boy was me. I lived in Karachi because my father, a diplomat, was posted to the Indian consulate in the port city. I was three years old when we arrived in Karachi in 1983, and nearly six when we left in 1986.
Given my age, my world in Karachi orbited two locations: home and school. ‘Home’ was Hindustan Court in Clifton, a building housing the Indian government’s consular employees. Our residence was probably once part of a mansion that was haphazardly carved out into a number of small, bizarrely-shaped homes — our house, for instance, featured disproportionately large windows that went on like a runaway train. Well, in our part of the world we all know that partitions invariably have unexpected consequences.
There was one clue that there was a difference between my world and the world that my friends from school inhabited. In school, when we played ‘fauj fauj’, a variant of ‘cops and robbers’, every child — including myself — wanted to be part of the Pakistan fauj, as this team always won. But at home, I discovered that it was the Indian fauj that always won. It was the kind of paradox that makes little sense to a child, but I quickly made my peace with the discrepancy and learned to switch sides depending on where I played.
Beyond school and home, I have happy memories of going to the beach often. I remember the sea water was brimming with little fish no more than an inch long, and once, I lost a ball in the sea. I was told the ocean would take my ball all the way to Bombay. At the time, I had no idea what or where Bombay was.
A local man named Iqbal would clean our house every day, and for my sister and me, he was our friend. When we finally left Karachi for Delhi, Iqbal sent us candy and toys, including a View-Master, a toy through which you could look at stereoscopic photos. The photo slides that came with the View-Master were of Islamic holy places and festivals, and I would spend hours looking at pictures of Mecca and Muharram activities. I later learned that other children used View-Masters to look at cartoons.
My first school in Karachi was Onimo Montessori Private School. I remember it as a happy place. One day, when the school closed for the day, no one arrived to pick me up. I waited until it was just me and the watchman. He sat with me until someone finally arrived. What I remember most is that he also shared his lunch with me. It was this simple but unselfish act of kindness that has stayed etched in my memory.
When I turned five, it was time to go to a proper school. I remember Jennings Private School as a scary place full of rough boys who were bigger than me. A few children from the Indian consulate also attended Jennings, and my best friend was a girl named Seviyan (like the sweet dish). I remember a prizegiving ceremony at Jennings, when I had won something. The teacher moved me from the back of the line to the front. The boy who was now standing behind me did not approve of his demotion, and, once the teacher left, he pushed me behind him. So did the next boy. And the next boy. When the teacher came by again, I was standing last in line once more.
As a child, I was terrified of Jinnah’s mausoleum. We had gone to the mazaar with family friends, and a guard told us how someone had been arrested there recently. I do not know what the arrested man had done to deserve the punishment, but I got it in my head that the longer we stayed at the mausoleum, the more likely it was that my family would be arrested as well. It did not help that the image of Jinnah that we saw most often was a very sober portrait on television. His extremely serious countenance only added to my fear of his final resting place.
As adults we attach great significance to religion and nationality, but these concepts did not matter during my childhood in the city by the sea. I don’t think I was even aware of the existence of religion, or that I might be considered to belong to a different religion than my friends. My parents tell me that I would sometimes come home from school and ask why we did not say ‘Bismillah’ before our meals. In school, a small group of us was separated from the others during Islamic Studies classes. Our alternative class involved dull moral tales in English, not Urdu.
In hindsight, I am aware that it is relatively unusual to be an Indian in Pakistan. At the time, I had no real idea what either term meant. I knew that when we went to Delhi to visit our relatives, we were in India, and when we were at home, we were in Pakistan, but so what? It was like saying, “When I am at the beach I am at the beach, and when I am at the ice cream parlour, I am at the ice cream parlour.” I had no idea that people in Karachi and Delhi spoke two different languages — I spoke in exactly the same way regardless of which country I was in. Besides, the main thing I knew about India was that there were three famous Indians: Indira Gandhi, Kapil Dev and Superman. I didn’t know what any of those people did, just that they were famous Indians.
I have only the vaguest recollection of the day we left Karachi. We sat in the airport lounge as our flight was delayed, and a small group of men were also waiting with us. When it was finally time to leave, they did not get on the flight. Instead, they stood at a distance and waved goodbye to us. They were probably the men whose job it had been to follow us around for three years. They probably know where all my favourite haunts in Karachi are located, even today.
Aman Bharti now lives in London. He tweets @amandeguerre
‘Karachi folk knew how to live and enjoy life’
I arrived in Karachi in the middle of August 1983 on a diplomatic assignment. Karachi of the early 1980's looked more advanced and prosperous than many Indian cities. People seemed rich and some of the houses in posh localities looked like palaces to me. The girls were a surprise. I expected them to be conservative and veiled, but I found them extremely modern: most had bob cuts, smoked, drove cars, and talked to you with a confidence akin to Western women.
The hospitality of Karachi’ites was awe-inspiring. Pakistani friends would turn up at our doorstep at midnight,taking us out for ice cream or paan, which was said to be-smuggled from India. There was a whole sea-side bazaar of eateries, which opened in the evenings and closed early morning. Karachi folk knew how to live and enjoy life.
I am a Sikh, and though I have shorn my hair and clipped my beard since childhood, I was often mistaken for a local in Karachi. My Hindi was commended as good Urdu and as I spoke Punjabi, it was easy to be mistaken as a Pakistani Punjabi.
My roots are in Amritsar but I visited Amritsar only during the summer holidays. Thus, it was a surprise when a vegetable vendor in Karachi asked, “Bauji, tussi Amritsar ton ho?” (Are you from Amritsar?) I replied, “Yes, I am from Amritsar, but how do you know?” “From your ‘boli’”, he replied. “You speak like an Amritsariya”“But I have hardly ever lived there. I was not born there. I did not go to school there. How can my boli be Amritsari?” I asked. “Oh ji,” came the reply, “An Englishman may live anywhere in the world, but he always speaks English like an Englishman.” We were warned that Intelligence men regularly shadowed Indian consulate staff. If they shadowed me, I could not tell.
However, one incident came as a revelation. We were living in Hindustan Court at the time and one day, a big tortoise appeared on the street. I took my son to see the tortoise. A couple of men were standing around looking at the creature and as we approached, one man smiled at me and said, “Bharti sahib, munde nu kachhu dikhaun liyae ho?” (Bharti sahib, have you brought your son to show him the tortoise?)
I was taken aback that the stranger knew my name. To hide my surprise, I tried to engage him in conversation. “Do you people eat it?” I asked him. “No, no, we don’t eat tortoises. Maybe your people eat it!” he replied, laughing.
In 1985, I had the opportunity to accompany a 3,000-strong group of Sikhs visiting Pakistan for Guru Nanak’s birthday celebrations. The pilgrims were received at Lahore Railway Station where they arrived in a special train. This train took them to different shrines on their itinerary. At each stop, residents from nearby villages would loudly proclaim, “Any yatru (pilgrim) from Jalandhar? Any yatru from Amritsar?”,and so on.
These were the people who had been forced out of their homes in India in 1947. They would take those pilgrims who belonged to their ancestral villages to their new homes. These hosts would open their homes and hearts to the pilgrims and would relive a bygone era through the stories of their homeland.
One incident from that trip is etched in my memory. When the train reached Rawalpindi during the middle of the night, a commotion woke me. A Sikh pilgrim had disembarked the train even before it came to a halt, prostrated himself on the platform, kissed the floor, and he wailed, “Oh Pindi, oh myPindi!” In any other place or at any other time, this may have seemed ludicrous or pathetic, but in that moment, empathy for this man, who had finally returned to his home, filled my heart.
As members of the consulate, we were not allowed to go beyond the municipal limits of the city without the permission of the Pakistani Foreign Office. A colleague of ours whose family had migrated from a village in Multan sought permission to visit his native village and the permission was granted. On his return, this gentleman gave a gripping account of his visit, which I have not forgotten even after 30 years.
When he reached his village, he was surrounded by youngsters who wanted to know what he was doing there. He told them that he was a native of the village until Partition.
Word of his arrival reached the elders of the village, and soon the whole village gathered to celebrate his return. He was taken from house to house, each one vying to extend their hospitality during his two-day trip. When it was time to leave, the whole village came to say goodbye. My colleague and his wife were carried on the villagers’ shoulders all the way to the railway station.
This is the kind of story that gives me hope that one day human empathy will overcome political antipathy and that Indians and Pakistanis will live like friendly neighbours, free to visit each other and share each other’s happiness and prosperity.
Karamjit Bharti is a retired Indian diplomat passing his days in quiet indolence.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 9th, 2015.
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