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KARACHI CHRONICLE: Relics of Karachi culture

If I am not mistaken, it was the first time since Independence that provincial government wished Sindh's large Hindu population Happy Diwali.

Newspaper advertisements decorated with Diwali oil-lamp motif, a picture of the Chief Minister along with his official seal, pictures of past and present Peoples Party national leaders and a quotation from one of Quaid's speeches enjoining tolerance of non-Muslim communities, left no room for doubt that the government is desperate to find means to end the sectarian and ethnic mayhem that is destabilising the province, in particular Karachi and Tharparkar district.

While Hindus and their cousins in faith the Sikhs are to be found in all parts of Pakistan, the largest concentration of them is in Sindh. The advertisement did not quote Quaid's famous speech about people of all faiths being free to go to their mosques, churches and temples. The quotation used in the advertisement specifically appealed for tolerance of other communities by Muslims. "The tenets of Islam enjoin on every Musalman to give protection to his neighbours and the minorities regardless of caste and creed. We must make it a matter of our honour and prestige to create sense of security amongst them."

As the first day of three-day Diwali festival is children's day, I went to Ramswami Mandir to buy firecrackers and sparklers, since it is on this day that the noisemakers and star-makers are lit and there is therefore, a roaring sale of them. I wanted to buy some for my American-born grand nephew His mother brings him here every year in December because she wants him to love and respect his parent's Pakistani culture.

If you love this city it is possible to be simultaneously glad and sad. Glad that Karachi retains its secular identity, and sad that today we have to fight for it. The Hindu culture is the city's pre-Independence identity. Ramswami Mandir is actually a complex housing several big and small temples dedicated to various gods and goddesses, living quarters of Hindus, small shops and shed of traders and tinkers and tailors. Today it is the only place in the city that is like a relic of bygone days. Ranchore lines, where there is an important mandir too, is no longer Hindu dominated. Only the Ramswami Mandir complex remains like an Hindu oasis.

However, there are subtle cultural changes here. For example, Karachi Hindus no longer use the devnagri script. Even the old painted signboard over the temple is changed. It lies neglected near the temple entrance. The new signboard is in English and Urdu.

Before Independence the largest commercial building in Karachi was Luximi Building. Today Saddar's commercial Skyline is dominated by Habib Bank building and other high-rise commercial complexes. In Saddar you can still see the names of old apartment buildings written in devnagri script. Mohatta Palace by its architecture and name is the only monument outside the Ramswami complex that is Hindu. It now serves as a museum, but not once has a Hindu culture exhibition been held here. There has been one celebrating the British Raj so why not one highlighting Sindh's Hindu culture?

Hindu road names have disappeared, and with them the memory of philanthropists and political leaders. Kishanchand Chelaram Road behind Lawrence Road was once a winding broad strip in the then posh area of Garden West. Deepchand Ojha Road is now Business Recorder Road. Motilal Nehru Road is renamed Hasrat Mohani Road, leading to Islamia College.

Some old names however remain. Most famously Guru Mandir and Gandhi Garden. There used to be a small Sikh mandir that I was shown in my cub-reporter days as "the" gurumandir. It is no longer there, but the name of the area remains. People still call the old zoo Gandhi Garden although the name is heard less and less from younger Karachiites.

Amil Colony and Cosmopolitan road off Clayton Road were where the well-to-do Hindu lived in lovely old houses. Most of the houses became evacuee property. There is hardly any Hindu in residence here. I only know of one, a part of the old Motandas family who were known as wine kings in pre-Independence Karachi.

One cannot blame the bigots alone for destroying the city's Hindu identity. One can only blame them for the injustices they perpetrate in the name of a religion of peace. Karachi's past identity is lost also by political stupidity; as if the renaming of buildings and parks and roads with Muslim names is going to establish Karachi as a Pakistani city. It is Pakistani without apology. The most Pakistani city in the country, with a cosmopolitan culture. With government support this secular culture can bloom again and Karachi become a tolerant city again. Ameen.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2012