Cultural Diversity: Life in Karachi

 By Rumana Husain

geust-contPlease note: This paper was presented at the Second Silk Road International Cultural Forum in Moscow, Russia on September 15, 2015, in the session on Cultural diversity contributes to innovation, and later with slight modifications as The Tangible and Intangible Aspects of Cultural Diversity at a Roundtable Discussion in the Rumi Forum where the overriding theme was Respect Difference and Diversity to Foster Peace and Harmony, on October 14, 2015.

Cultural diversity, tangible and intangible, affects and influences our lives, wherever we may be living. We imbibe diversity, consciously or unconsciously. The result is perhaps more significant in cultures which are still predominantly traditional, within today’s modern urban condition.

Let me begin with a personal preamble:

The writer in Moscow
The writer in Moscow

My parents had migrated from India in 1947. I was born in Karachi. I grew up in a marginally conformist household, and had spent a year in Canada just before getting married into a family where my in-laws were pretty religious.

My father-in-law studied engineering at Aligarh University and later in the US before migrating to the new country, Pakistan. My husband studied architecture in Turkey after completing his schooling in Karachi. Our two children went to the US to study in colleges there. Our son married a girl from Karachi who was working in Washington DC as a teacher. Her father is from Lucknow, her mother a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian. Son and daughter-in-law then ended up living in China for nine years. My two granddaughters were born in Shanghai. They speak Mandarin, English, and Portuguese and have a fair understanding of Urdu. Our daughter, who had spent a semester in Paris, and six months in Brazil and six in India during her studies in the US, also lived in China for five years, working as an architect. Married to a young man from France, she too speaks Mandarin, English, Portuguese and Urdu, and is now learning French toRUMI FORUM-1 be able to converse with her in-laws!

It is not just the different languages that have entered our immediate family. Having lived in Turkey, my husband has been influenced by the Turkish way of life. I note a strong Brazilian influence in my daughter-in-law, and already smell French cuisine in my daughter’s kitchen! We are acquainted with other families with a similar level of multi-cultural diversity. It makes life quite exciting.

We may go into any public space in this city: a bazaar, a railway station, or a cinema, you cannot miss the diverse character of the city. Differences in facial features, skin colour, ways of dressing and body language are nothing compared to the snatches of different spoken languages one hears: Urdu, Pushto, Persian, Hindko, Punjabi, Seraiki, Sindhi, Makrani, Brahui, Memoni, Balochi, Gujarati, Kutchi, Bengali, Marwari, Kookdi, Bihari, Hyderabadi, Konkani, English and even Chinese. We will also find different cuisine and lifestyle products to support each group. The interesting thing is that this diversity results in intermixing, resulting in a multitude of hybrid products, activities, even vocabulary.

While researching for my book ‘Karachiwala: a subcontinent within a city’, trying to capture the diversity and change within Karachi, I met over sixty individuals, families or communities and, for a while, I was lost in the jumble of ethnicities, castes, clans, tribes, communities, places of origin, professions and religious backgrounds that I encountered. This metropolitan city of over twenty million is truly a microcosm, not only of Pakistan, but of the entire region of South Asia

It is no coincidence that Karachi attracts more and more people from all over the country who come to make a living, or a fortune. As they settle, and call their families over, they cause the city to grow. They also generate phenomenal commercial and cultural activity, resulting in economic development, artistic productions and entertainment unmatched in variety and richness by any other city in Pakistan.

Since the city is predominantly made up of migrants, it also incites some of the strongest feelings of isolation and disconnect, particularly with its built heritage. The old town and its neighbourhoods of yesteryear from the British colonial period, when the city was smaller but had a significant population of Hindus, Zoroastrians and Christians as well, are lost in today’s sprawling conurbation.

In many ways, large cities around the world share common traits and evoke similar emotions. However, for many people living among millions of others in a thriving metropolis such as our Karachi city, life may not always equate with a sense of community and identity with its built and social environment. The persisting loneliness and solitude experienced by many who toil in a big city debunks the myth of a glamorous, urban existence. Indifference, neglect and ignorance, coupled with vandalism, often lead to the dereliction and consequent destruction of a city’s heritage, be it buildings, sites or entire neighbourhoods.

A city is the crucible within which a society experiments with itself over time, with potentially valuable and exciting results.  All stake-holders, irrespective of their position, play an important role, consciously or otherwise, in the manner in which the city evolves. We should not only acknowledge it, we must encourage and channelize the collective energy from the city’s diversity into a commonly shared platform for regeneration and uplift.

Unfortunately, the contemporary city is often ignored as a case study for understanding the living as well as the built heritage, and its connection with its ecological environment, as also with the art, culture, sociology and anthropology of its residents. What is often lacking is a sense of ownership and a sympathetic understanding of the city, for people to be able to respond to it positively within their particular realms.

Failing this, the metropolitan city facing unprecedented growth and change may degenerate into chaos and strife, breeding on the complexities and stresses of living amidst the inadequacies of its services and facilities.

And this is the dilemma of Karachi. From a quiet port city of about 400,000, it became the capital of the newly independent Pakistan, and the destination of a multitude of immigrants who moved here from India. Within years its population had shot up to a million, then doubled and doubled again at a feverish pace. It exceeds 20 million today, and continues to grow, largely due to migration for economic benefits, or as a consequence of natural calamities or political developments elsewhere in the country or the region.

Such growth cannot be comfortable, and it has not been so. Neither is life getting better. Whereas it was known as the cleanest city this side of Suez in 1947, today Karachi holds the dubious distinction of being known as perhaps the most dangerous city in the world! The reasons for the bad press are not too difficult to identify. And, if it is allowed to pursue its downhill slide, it will not be long before it does become quite unliveable.

However, since we live here, we know that its image and reputation are far worse than its reality. The city continues to have the capacity to absorb all who come. It has a unique heterogeneous cultural mix, it provides jobs, accommodation, transportation and recreation, albeit not world class, slowly but steadily converting them into a civic force aspiring for a better life for themselves and their families who may still be living in the cities and countryside from where the more ambitious and adventurous have migrated.

Life in Karachi would neither be so exciting, nor so colourful, nor so productive, nor so creative, were it not for this diversity, and the challenges it presents.