SETTLING IN KARACHI
Karachi is a very old city; like most of our cities, it dates back to antiquity. It started off as a fishing village on the coast of the Arabian Sea. In 1947 it became the capital of Pakistan. The capital has since been shifted to Islamabad, a picturesque new city nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.
On our arrival in Karachi, my father was allotted two rooms in a long barracks of ten two-room units in a place called Jacob Lines. There was a kitchen and an old-style toilet that had no flush mechanism. Along one side of the building ran a veranda covered by a green wooden trellis. Other uprooted members of our family-assorted aunts and uncles and cousins-came to live with us. At one time there were eighteen of us living in those two rooms. But we were all happy. I now realize that we accepted all this discomfort because our morale was supremely high-as were our spirit of sacrifice and our sense of accommodation. Actually, we could have filed a claim to get a house in place of the huge home that my maternal grandfather had owned in Delhi. Left behind, it had become “enemy property.” But for some reason no one pursued this.
One night I saw a thief hiding behind the sofa in our apartment. Though I was only a little boy, I was bold enough to quietly slip out to my mother, who was sleeping on the veranda (my father had left for Turkey). I told her that there was a thief inside, and she started screaming. Our neighbours assembled. The thief was caught with the only thing of value we had-a bundle of clothes. While he was being thrashed, he cried out that he was poor and very hungry. This evoked
such sympathy that when the police came to take him away, my mother declared that he was not a thief and served him a hearty meal instead. It was a sign of the sense of accommodation and of helping each other that we shared in those days.
Our cook, Shaukat, who had come with my mother when she got married-in her dowry, so to speak-also came with us from Delhi. He was an excellent cook. He now lives in Hyderabad, Sindh, and I last met him when I was a major general.
My brother Javed and I were enrolled in St. Patrick’s School, run by Catholic missionaries, but I don’t remember much about it at this time, except that we had to walk a mile to it and a mile back (about 1.5 kilometers each way).
My father started working at the new foreign office, which was then located in a building called Mohatta Palace. It was later to become the residence of Miss Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whom we respectfully call Quaid-e-Azam, “great leader.” It is now a museum. We would visit him there some-times. I remember that the facilities were so sparse that he didn’t even have a chair to sit on. He used a wooden crate instead. Often the office ran short of paper clips, thumbtacks, and even pens. My father would use the thorns of a desert bush that grows everywhere in Karachi to pin his papers together. He would also sometimes write with a thorn by dipping it in ink. This was the state of affairs in the new Pakistan, not least because India was stalling and raising all sorts of hurdles rather than sending us our portion of the pre-Partition assets. Actually, the British had decided to quit India-“grant freedom,” as they arrogantly called it-in June 1948. But Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy, persuaded London that Britain could not hold on till then and had the date moved forward to August 1947. This was announced in April 1947. In the frenetic four months before Partition, one of the many decisions made mutually by the representatives of Pakistan, India, and the British government was the allocation of assets to the two new countries. Now free and no longer under the dictates of the British government, India was not honoring its commitment.
My father was a very honest man, not rich at all, but he would give money to the poor-“because their need is greater.” This was a point of contention with my mother, who was always struggling to make ends meet. “First meet your own needs before meeting the needs of others,” she would tell him. Like most Asian mothers, despite their demure public demeanor, my mother was the dominant influence on our family. But on the issue of giving to the needy my father always got his way, because he wouldn’t talk about it.
My mother had to continue working to support us. Instead of becoming a schoolteacher again, she joined the customs service. I remember her in her crisp white uniform going to Korangi Creek for the arrival of the seaplane, which she would inspect. I also remember that she once seized a cargo of smuggled goods and was given a big reward for it.
One sad event that I remember vividly was the death of our founder, the Quaid-e-Azam, on September 11, 1948. It was an to a thirteenmonth-old baby losing its only parent. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah has best been described by his biographer, the American writer Stanley Wolpert: “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Mohammad Ali Jinnah did all three.” His death shook the confidence and exuberance of the infant nation. The funeral procession had to pass through Bundar Road-the main avenue of Karachi-very close to our house. I remember sitting on a wall along the road for hours waiting for the funeral cortege, with friends from our locality. When it came, everyone cried. I could not hold back my tears. It was a day of the greatest national loss and mourning. The nation felt a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty. It is to the credit of the Quaid’s successor, Liaqat Ali an, our first prime minis-ter, that he ably pulled the nation out of its depression.
Those were happy years in Karachi. Hardship was overcome by hope and the excitement of being in our new country and playing one’s part in building it. This excitement and hope infused the young too. The thrill that comes from the memory of hope to be fulfilled, the excitement of great things to come, often returns to me. Once again I am transported back to being a little boy on the train to Pakistan. Those years in Karachi were an important time for me, as indeed they were for all of us who had taken such a risk by migrating to our new country.
Gradually, as we settled down, the initial exuberance wore off, and the uncertainties of our present and future began to weigh on my parents.
A metamorphosis took place in me in the first months and years after Partition. An uprooted little boy found earth that was natural to him. He took root in it forever. I would protect that earth with my life.