The melting pot by the sea

By Shanaz Ramzi

The cosmopolitan make-up of Karachi with its diverse communities, each rich in its own culture, traditions, language and religious practices has, not surprisingly, given Karachi the reputation of being the rainbow city of Pakistan. Although today, many of the old families hailing from the minority communities — Punjabi Christians, Goan Christians, Chinese, Hindus and Parsis — have immigrated to greener pastures, there are still a substantial number settled in Karachi. While retaining their distinguishing characteristics, these communities have managed to integrate so well with the local Muslims, having adopted many of the prevailing norms, that they often resent being referred to as 'minorities'.

Take the Parsis, (Zorastrians) for instance. Amongst the oldest families living in Pakistan, the contributions of this minuscule community are immense, as they have played a pivotal role in establishing charitable institutions in the city, such as hospitals and schools. Although their numbers have diminished by half, since many have immigrated — there are allegedly only about the 2,000 to 2,500 Parsis now remaining in Karachi — 70 to 80 per cent are working and making valuable contribution to the society. The female population from the younger generation is also mostly earning and holds respectable jobs.

A peace loving people, the Parsis keep well away from politics and belong mostly to the affluent class. Those living in bungalows occupy some of the oldest structures in the city and have been living in them for generations. Others live in Parsi compounds, where the property belongs to the 'Parsi anjuman' and residents have to pay nominal rents. 'Merahbad', 'Panchayat Wadi', 'Cowasjee Foundation', 'Jamshed Bagh' and the 'Minwalla Colony' in Mehmoodabad, where the Tower of Silence is located, are some of the residential localities that are exclusively for Parsis. Their homes are always spotless and well maintained, often boasting of elegant and antique furniture. It is easy to recognise a Parsi home, for invariably there are patterns drawn out of limestone at the entrance for good luck — inspired more from Hindu traditions than Parsi custom.

Although male Parsis in Karachi commonly wear trousers and shirt and ladies wear shalwar kameez or sari, their traditional attire is 'dagli', a white outfit similar to an 'angharkha' with bows running down the two sides, worn over white trousers. At weddings, the older generation wears a turban called 'feto', which is also worn by the groom. Between the ages of two and nine, boys and girls go through a ceremony called 'naujote' during which a priest (dasturji) makes them don a 'sadra' — made of muslin and worn as an undershirt — which then becomes compulsory to wear for life, and a 'kusti'. The latter, made of strands of special thread, is woven thrice around the waist. Prayers also become binding on the child henceforth, and conducted by the 'dasturji', follow the ceremony itself. The 'kusti' is taken out during the prayer, and then put on again once the prayer is offered. While socialising amongst themselves, Parsis prefer to don western attire.

There are two Parsi temples in Karachi — one in Saddar (called Aghiari) and one in Pakistan Chowk — which are normally frequented by the older generation, who visit the temple every morning before going to work. The younger generation goes once a week, or fortnightly. Curiously enough, Parsi prayers are also called namaz and are said five times a day, at almost the same timings as the Muslim prayers. Contrary to popular belief, Parsis do not worship fire, which is simply regarded as a symbol of purity, and believe in one God. The teachings of their prophet, Zarathushtra, revolve around good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Parsis do not take converts, which is why the community is as small as it is and divorces are not easily obtainable. Marrying outside the community was initially unheard of but is now relatively acceptable. If a woman chooses to marry outside the community, her children are not accepted as Parsis, but if a man marries outside, his children are taken in the fold.

With a 100 per cent literacy rate, the younger generation reads, writes and speaks mostly English, although they are conversant in Gujrati as well, while the older generation can also read and write Gujrati. A fun-loving people that love to party, Parsis are fond of eating with their neighbours and it is not uncommon to find two to three families enjoying their meals together on a regular basis. All Parsis gather together for 'Gumbar' (niaz), and generally prefer to eat their own specialties, such as 'Patra machli' and 'Dhansak', which is normally cooked at least once a week.

Another minority group that adds colour to Karachi is the Chinese. Of the Chinese families settled here, most are second-generation migrants, the first generation having passed away, and the third having immigrated. A conservative people, the Chinese keep a low profile so that not much can be gleaned about their culture through merely interacting with them. They generally keep to themselves and do not like too many changes — a major reason why most of them confine themselves to the occupations of their forefathers. Exposed since childhood to a particular profession and having learnt the tricks of the trade, the younger generation voluntarily carries on the family tradition. It is not surprising then, that the 26 provinces of China are renowned for certain professions so much so that an occupation may well be the hallmark of a province.

Thus, a majority of shoemakers and beauticians in Karachi hail from Canton; dentists are mostly from Hubei (pronounced Hopeh) while those in the restaurant business are either from Hakka, Canton or Beijing. Acupuncturists and those employed in government organisations, on the other hand, tend to be from all over Mainland China. There are exceptions, of course, like the few who own photo shops or run small independent factories producing items such as noodles or soya sauce, and the ones who are employed in private concerns.

The Chinese prefer to live as close as possible to their work, frequently setting up the work place at their residence. Thus, we find that the majority of Chinese in Karachi reside either in the PECHS and Tariq Road areas, where the maximum number of Chinese restaurants and beauty parlours are located, or in Saddar where Chinese dentists are concentrated. It is only in recent years that Chinese restaurants have begun to flourish in Clifton and Defence areas, resulting in some of the families relocating themselves there.

Basically simple people, one finds their lifestyles down-to-earth and unostentatious. Rarely do you come across a Chinese home done up in a traditional manner. Most of them, in fact, look no different from an average urban Pakistani home. Even their dress code is unobtrusive — Western attire being preferred to traditional Chinese costumes, while the ladies also frequently wear shalwar-kameez. Surprising as it may seem, most third generation families don't own a single traditional Chinese attire, which is now normally worn only by the older generation.

So integrated have the Chinese become to the Pakistani life-style that even amongst themselves they normally eat the local version of Chinese food, and relish Pakistani cuisine with as much gusto. An interesting fact about the Chinese in Karachi is that they are not born into any religion. Their forefathers may have been Buddhists, but the Chinese settled here choose their own religion, if they want one, as they reach maturity. While many become Christians or Muslims — according to a reliable source 30 per cent of local Chinese have converted to Islam — most prefer to remain atheists. There are still others, who believe in God, but do not subscribe to any formal religion.

While most of Karachi's first generation Chinese are not educated, the second and third generations settled here, have acquired convent education. Although they tend not to pursue higher studies, the younger generation has mostly done intermediate and can read and write Urdu and even Sindhi. So comfortable are they with the Urdu language that they often incorporate Urdu words when conversing with one another in Chinese!

Until some years ago, the Chinese settled in Karachi mingled mostly among those speaking their own dialect. However, with the setting up of a Chinese Committee, the interaction among all Chinese has become relatively greater. The Committee arranges such programmes as picnics, National Day celebrations and New Year celebrations. The Chinese New Year, normally celebrated with dinner and dance at a local hotel, is one of the most widely attended functions with the Consul General of China appearing as the chief guest. For the Chinese National Day, which takes place on 1st October, everyone is invited to the Consulate for dinner and movies.

These get-togethers are perhaps meant to make things easier for those seeking marriage partners as well as facilitate interaction amongst the various Chinese. In the earlier days, marriage outside ones provincial community was frowned upon by the Chinese, whereas now it is becoming increasingly acceptable and common for the younger generation to marry not only outside their provinces, but also outside the Chinese community. While semi-arranged marriages still take place, love marriages are on the increase. The trend now is also for nuclear families and whereas most of the first generation Chinese preferred a joint family system, the younger lot wants their independence.

Basically an apolitical community, they not only keep to themselves and stay out of trouble, the Chinese are also renowned for being honest and hardworking. So much so, that one has yet to hear of a local Chinese being involved in a crime.

Goan Christians are another minority group that lives relatively simply and peacefully in Karachi. With a high literacy rate amongst them — between 95 to 97 per cent — most Goans are convent educated and have studied up to the college level. Occupying mostly teaching jobs or secretarial positions in banks, Goans live largely in Saddar, Soldier Bazaar, P.E.C.H.S and at St. Anthony's Parish near the Cantt. Station. Initially, they were concentrated in Goan colonies like the Fatima Parish, but now live in mixed localities. With a preference for Continental food, they are also particularly fond of fish curry and 'joshi chawal' (boiled rice) made in the Indian style with coconuts and chillies. So accustomed have they become to not eating pork, that the vast majority does not like to eat it even when available.

When amongst themselves, Goan women prefer to wear dresses or trousers, but otherwise attire themselves in shalwar kameez or sari. They speak in English mostly and occasionally in Urdu, while the elders also speak in their local dialect, 'Konkni'.

Over the years, intermarriages have become more acceptable among the Goan Christians, so much so that whereas previously marrying Madrassi Christians was also frowned upon, today intermarriages with Punjabi Christians and Muslims are not uncommon. However, the KGA (Karachi Goan Association) and the Goan Union Hall are still very strict about granting membership and only authentic Goans who can prove that they are originally from Goa, are allowed to become members. If a Goan woman marries outside, she forfeits her membership, while a man marrying outside retains his membership, but his wife cannot avail of the facilities.

Community activities take place frequently, with the Goans gathering together thrice a week for tambola at the Goan Union Hall, at church functions, and for festivities such as New Year parties, Christmas celebrations and Valentine's Day, cricket matches and Carom board tournaments at the KGA. Attending church on Sundays is a must for most Goan Christians, but many also go twice or thrice during the week, while the older generation visits the church daily.

The Punjabi Christians, settled mostly in Azam Basti, Akhtar Colony, Mehmoodabad, Korangi, Kashmir Colony and Keamari, do not enjoy as high a literacy rate as the Goan Christians, although the younger generation is now studying up to college. The girls are normally employed as beauticians or as nurses.

Speaking mostly in Punjabi, the Punjabi Christians are comfortable in Urdu as well. They wear shalwar kameez and eat local cuisine, particularly 'daal chawal'. They visit their area church every Sunday, while the Catholic amongst them also go to church on Tuesdays.

Intermarriages are frowned upon in the Punjabi Christian community, and if a person tries to break away from the norm, he or she is allegedly ostracized by the community.

The Hindus are a minority community that has actively participated in politics, with 300,000 voters registered from Pakistan. Most Hindus are concentrated in Sindh, with a large population living in the Tharparkar area.The educated classes speak in English and a dialect similar to Sindhi, but with Hindi words incorporated in it. Those settled in Karachi have adapted so well to the Muslim eating habits that very few of them are totally vegetarian, and socialise more with Muslims than with their own people.

The well-placed Hindus in Karachi have no desire to settle in India and feel that the up-scale life-style that they can maintain here on their earnings would not be possible in India. Their homes are normally decorated with statues of their gods and goddesses and some even have a small space set aside for use as a temple in their homes. The religious Hindus go once or twice a week to the temple to pray, while the others prefer to pray at home.

While many Hindus in India normally fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the Hindus settled in Karachi usually fast only on important religious days such as 'karwachoth' and 'sathnarain', and on Mondays prefer to eat just vegetarian food. The Friday fasts, for those who do keep them, are quite gruelling, for one can only eat once in 24 hours, and no meat, salt, fruit, milk or tangy foods are permissible. The Monday fasts, on the other hand, are quite relaxed, but if you fast on one Monday, it becomes more-or-less binding on the person to fast every week.

Most of the well to do Hindus run their own businesses. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the young Hindu males to find mates for themselves in Karachi, and often have to rely on 'imports' either from abroad, or from the interior. Interestingly enough, the seven 'pheras' that one sees so often taking place within seconds in a Hindu wedding scene of a movie, actually takes about two-and-a-half hours, with the families of both the bride and the groom performing rituals on the couple after each 'phera'. While intermarriages between Hindus and Muslims, have taken place in the past, it is frowned upon and is particularly difficult for the woman taking the plunge, for she finds herself totally alienated.

The educated classes have not confined themselves to any one residential area and one can find Hindu families in Defence, Clifton, KDA, Queens Road, etc., while the uneducated ones tend to live in Hindu colonies. When a person dies, the last rites are performed in an area near the Marble Market, and the body is cremated, after which the ashes are strewn in the river.

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© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001