Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within A City / Author: Rumana Husain

Published in Daily Times / March 20, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

A small fishing village from 1838 emerges as a major cosmopolitan city 100 years later and becomes the fastest growing city of the world by 2010. Karachi’s rapidly changing skyline denotes visible signs of progress whereas its prominence in the global marketplace is a clear indication of its rising stature. Beyond the smog-filled sky, ongoing construction, law and (dis)order and political divide lies the gateway to the real Karachi and its key can be found somewhere among the settlements.

Most of us have sketchy knowledge of exactly how many ethnicities reside in a city that has a tradition of hosting migrant communities ever since 1947. For many, the happily ever after had ended by the late 1970s. It is difficult, nay impossible, to ignore the fact that the idea of diversity has since been wedded to discord and its once cherished ethnic heritage has been upstaged by ethnic strife. Over the years, the city of lights has gone through numerous makeovers — some less flattering than others. Karachi is in a continuous state of upheaval and artist/author/illustrator Rumana Husain hastens to capture its original spirit with an ambitious project called Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within A City.

Karachiwala features over 60 families/groups/individuals and over 600 images, all catalogued according to ethnicity, race, religion, caste, community, place of origin, tribe, profession, etc. By bringing bit players that are mere blurs in our rear view mirror in focus, the writer identifies individual strands in a fusion of cultures that gives Karachi that vivid character. Letting these veritable unknowns take the lead in their own modest little narrative makes Karachiwala so much more endearing.

The result is a fascinating montage where the butcher, the tailor and sweetmeat maker take their place right besides white/blue collar workers, and the more affluent members of society alongside communities like the Jews that have since vanished but left their imprint in the form of Karachi’s historic architecture. We see people who have now become estranged from their roots, right next to communities who proudly hold fast to traditions. There are the Bene Israeli who once resided in Karachi (some lived on Manora island), the Punjabi Protestants, or Goan Catholics who still do, or slaves from East Africa now referred to as the Sheedi community — an Indian ethnic group of black African descent, who by drum beats and dhammal revert to their African heritage during the Mangopir mela (crocodile festival).

While lineage is the primary theme, their life story is equally important. Survivors of abject poverty show up from time to time, along with neglected artisans like Mir Allam (traditional musician) from Aligarh, UP, struggling to preserve their legacy, the heavily exploited Banarasi handloom weaver, from where else but Banaras, and four runaway children who continue to dream big while condemned to a life on the streets.

This Karachi startles with its sheer scale of diversity, inspires by the resilience of its downtrodden and forsaken, and mesmerises with details of inner city life seen through the eyes of its oldest residents. It also saddens by bringing to the fore a shared feeling of insecurity that permeates across different sects, forcing some non-Muslims to blend in rather than stand out. One commendable thing about Karachiwala is how it has given the marginalised communities an identity, a venue to tell their story and a more fitting epitaph than the one prepared by society.

It painstakingly details each ritual and custom, covering weddings, births, deaths, festivals, dialects, beliefs, food, dress, and the general lifestyle. During her research, the writer uncovers superstitions and legends, like the significance of the red dress among the Kathiawadi women that continue to have a mysterious hold over some. The accompanying photographs and general design with clever little maps make this collection a visual treat. Added details like favourite recipes and essays by notable personalities like Zubeida Mustafa, S Akbar Zaidi, Luthfullah Khan, etc., have been included at the end.

It could not have been easy to get access to some of these places. The writer conceded at Karachiwala’s launch that not everyone was happy with the notion of letting a stranger in. If traversing the length and breadth of the city was a challenge, getting through people’s inbuilt walls of resistance was also a hurdle. Besides, documenting the entire city would have been a massive undertaking. While the writer does not claim to have captured every single ethnicity, she still managed to amass an amazing collection of stories and has done most of the photography. For an amateur photographer, she has done an amazing job and there are several phenomenal pictures for every blurry exception.

Karachiwala will change the way readers view their environs and its people. Priced at nearly Rs 3,000, it may be considered steep by some standards but it is roughly the cost of three large pizzas, mandatory visits to that upscale bakery or one Khaddi bag. And, some would say, a far more sensible investment. This simple little coffee table book has commuted the sentence of several extraordinary cultures otherwise doomed to disappear and that can now take their rightful place in history.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

BOOK REVIEW: Thinner Than Skin

Published inDaily Times (Pakistan) / 23 Feb 2013
Author: Uzma Aslam Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal



Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of critically acclaimed, award winning books like Trespassing and Geometry of God. Her new novel, 'Thinner than Skin' goes off the beaten track for inspiration. A realm built upon incomprehensible layers of intrigue, violence, fairytales and legends provides the stage. People foraging for a lifeline become the props. And the inevitable soundtrack of radicalism now coursing through every fibre sets Pakistan’s modern heart to an ancient beat.

It is these paradoxes that bring its US-based protagonist, Nadir, along with a German-Pakistani girl, Farhana, on a trek from northern California to the Kaghan Valley. Wesley — the American in the background — is drawn to the mating glacier ritual, which is an actual thing. And their trusty ally/guide Irfan charts the course to their path of self-discovery past majestic mountains and ice encrusted lakes.

Their quest …

INTERVIEW: What makes a Fighter Ace? (2006)

Written many moons ago when i was an Asst. Ed with Social Pages.

Published in Defence Journal September 2006

Republished in PROBENEWS(2006)


Legend has it that a Sabre took off from Sargodha airfield to intercept Hunters on a fateful September morning & landed back with an Ace.

120 Seconds: Squadron Leader Alam in a Sabre is on Air Combat Patrol accompanied by his wingman. Upon observing IAF Hunters exiting after an unsuccessful air strike over Sargodha, Alam sets off in hot pursuit of the enemy formation. He pursues a fleeing Hunter and eventually shoots it down with a missile shot.


He spots the other members of the Hunter formations flying very low and as he approaches the trailing member he is spotted and the entire formation breaks (violent turn) in the same direction - a fatal error as in less than two minute Alam has taken out four of them, (as confirmed by more than one independent eye witness) 1 bringing his tally for the mission to five…… And an Ace is born - a legendry ins…

BOOK REVIEW: Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West

Published by Daily Times / 5 May 2012

When characters in a modernised version of Sherlock Holmes make a passing reference to Karachi — they only have Daniel Pearl in mind. When the ISI agents are featured on TV shows — it is because they can stand in for the US’s favourite Cold War foes.

Such imagery goes well with the popular narrative doing the global rounds. A widening gulf between Islam and the West, the oscillating nature of the Pak-US relationship, and the alarming levels of toxicity within, is a source of concern and confusion. Now, it is the subject of a book. At the launch of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West, veteran columnist Irfan Husain briefly touched upon these incongruities. In the book, he delves deeper into a cheerless terrain where reason has been cast adrift and paranoia is king.

Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West meticulously sifts through centuries of suspicion and decades of scorched earth left behind by Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan t…

KARACHI DIARIES: 6th LADIESFUND® Women's Awards 2014

First Published in Economic Affairs (Apr 2014) P-36


They conquered Everest in their spare time & crafted empires; their names were featured in Forbes ‘30 under 30’. Somewhere along the way they had reset the bar. Their contributions had not gone un-noticed.





The people who had made the list included trailblazers, trendsetters, risk-takers & crusaders, seen at the 6th LADIESFUND® Annual Women’s Awards. An event to salute an unlikely band of heroes who left a legacy of courage & compassion also acknowledged exceptional women on the rise.


LADIESFUND® launched by Dawood Global Foundation (2007) & headed by Tara Uzra Dawood, celebrates these achievements by adding powerhouse women and their noble causes to their wall of fame. It also makes its core mission - Educate 1000 Girls, the lynchpin & encourages the entrepreneur within our ranks. The talented Alycia Dias, who performed the anthem & walked away with a musical scholarship, would be joined by other hopefuls, …

VIEW: WOMEN in the PAF: AN ENSEMBLE CAST

PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.

Pakistan Air Force has kept in touch with its roots through its glorious traditions and kept up with the changing times with innovative thinking. Oftentimes, traditions that made it stand apart have also stood in the way of, well - progress. Consequently, the service nimbly skipped past the one proposed change that was going to have a profound effect on the lives of countless young girls and would forever alter the way society perceived their womenfolk.

Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a f…

BOOK REVIEW: Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle With Militant Islam (2007)

Author: Zahid Hussain

PUBLISHED IN THE POST JUNE 14, 2007

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Frontline Pakistan: the struggle with militant Islam goes for the jugular with an insiders look at a deformed culture borne of a dated ideology, fueled by vested interest and driven by intolerance; and a nation’s complicity.

Not surprisingly, the legitimacy granted jihadists by ISI-CIA ran out soon, as did the sympathy for their jihadist actions formally perceived as heroic. Once used to counter the threat of communism, the rapid shift in their objectives that placed Pakistan’s national interest on a collision course with its security rendered them an anachronism.

This led to a parting of ways with the ISI; consequently, the deadliness of operations and depth of penetration in society seen in the context of 9/11 forever breached the line between liberators and terrorists.

Veteran journalist Zahid Hussain, Pakistani correspondent for the "Times of London", "The Wall Street Journal", …