Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within a City, By Rumana Husain
Reviewed by Murtaza Razvi Dawn, 27 Feb, 2010
In a country steadily rehearsing for uniformity of opinion on matters national and global, Karachi’s cultural diversity is at once intriguing and enchanting. It is the city of a bulging, bellowing, moving, shaking, teetering and tethering middleclass, the rich and the famous, the brave and the brute as well as the meek and the poor.
But let’s not look for contradictions in this great sea of complementary traits and antonyms; Karachi marches on undeterred by what all lies beneath its rugged surface — its soul hovering just above, standing guard over itself as it were.
Rumana Husain’s latest coffee table book is aimed at documenting and celebrating this diversity of our salad-bowl of a mega-city, in which each ingredient retains its individuality and yet forms a part of the bigger whole, as sociologist Ashis Nandi would put it. It is a book to be read and savoured in equal measure for its content as it documents and projects on the big screen the lives of the ordinary citizens, who in turn are its real life heroes and heroines. The writer has ensured that those toiling at the grassroots, and who have given Karachi its unique character, do not go unsung.
As a field researcher, she has painstakingly mapped the lives of some sixty individuals, families and groups of Karcahi’s socially and culturally diverse communities, with an eye for detail and a heart full of empathy. In doing so she has not only traced the origins of her subjects and their arrival in (or departure from) the city over the pre- and post-independence years, but also brought them to life as very much the living men and women with their hopes, aspirations, fears and disappointments.
These are people and communities the writer has interacted with over the past five decades. So here comes half a century of consistent feeling and emotion, laced with a passion to chronicle the lives and times of the communities in whose midst the chronicler has grown up, and grown. She has taken the route seldom taken in modern time, namely, that of oral history documentation through primary sources which goes back to the basics of what history writing used to be all about.
The Germans, after the reunification of Germany in 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet eastern bloc, had for a short while played with the idea of using this primary mode of history documentation by going back to ordinary people to probe them about who they were and who they became before and after the Second World War. But the project was scrapped when the historians discovered from their interviews with the older generation that many among that generation still had pro-Nazi feelings. Luckily, there is no such disturbing finding in the work undertaken by Husain from a more humane, compassionate standpoint.
The communities documented are quite a conglomeration and include the fisher folk, street children, the Sheedis, the Baloch, Sindhis, Pathans, Punjabis, Seraikis, Gujaratis, Kathiawaris, Goans, Hyderabadis… the list goes on. A parallel list can also be drawn on the basis of the faiths of those interviewed, which is equally diverse. My favourite, however, remains the section on the now officially extinct Jewish community of Karachi.
The passion and the empathy the writer brings to the book as an honest chronicler of this vast diversity is indeed very rare in a growingly uncaring society that we are. Tolerance of social and cultural pluralism is a common thread that binds the many diverse life stories contained in this book. Husain’s own multi-faceted personality that dons many hats shines through as the patient person that she is in her many professional capacities: as a writer, designer, illustrator, educator, art critic, rights activist and, perhaps above all else, a keen observer of the human condition. The communities she documents seem to have developed no less than a spiritual, almost umbilical, link with her.
This labour of love is spread over 330 colour pages, with over 600 images, including maps and diagrams which tell a parallel story of Karachi’s growth through the years, from a fishing outpost on the Arabian Sea in the 19th century to the mega-city it is today.
Complementing essays by well-known Karachiwalas, such as Arif Hasan, Hamida Khuhro, Lutfullah Khan, S Akbar Zaidi and Zubeida Mustafa, complete this long ode to the city we all so love and cherish.