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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.

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