'The only place I call home'
7 Mar 2008, 1654 hrs
This letter was written by a Times of India.com reader who chooses to be called ‘Asa’ in response to a recent article (“ Allah’s will and US strategy ”) on our website by our regular columnist Tarun Vijay. The lucidly written letter, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Hindus living in Pakistan, is reproduced in its entirety below.
'The only place I call home'
Karachi bears the symptoms of Mumbai. It has the Arabian Sea where the hordes go to breathe because the ceiling is so high, hopeful youth walk briskly on the roads to seize the day and of course fail, beautiful women travel in the quiet isolation of the backseat with a man they know as driver, eternal Parsis fear that they are all dying. And, incredibly, Shiva, Lakshmi and Vishnu have encroached on prime real estate. Outside one such temple in the posh Clifton neighbourhood, on a distant Monday four years ago, stood a man in pathan suit. His name was Jayanti Ratna. He was wielding a stick and surveying the large crowds that were trying to enter the temple. "Jai Shiv Shankar," he kept screaming. Occasionally, he stopped some people by placing his stick horizontally around their chests. "Muslims are not allowed," he said to them. He stopped me too. "Are you a Hindu," he said, "Muslims are not allowed inside." That was the first time during the two month tour of Pakistan that my religion was asked. And it was outside a Hindu temple. He was shown the passport. His eyes softened. "Christians, too, are not allowed. But then you are an Indian." It was inevitable that he would let me pass. Wasn't it dangerous for a man to stand in the heart of Karachi, outside a temple, and ask Muslims to get lost? "Not at all," he said, "I was born here. I belong here. I'll exercise my right to serve my faith." The next day, outside the Lakshmi Narayan temple, a small austere shrine that stood at the edge of a creek, four Pakistani girls were stopped at the gate by an ageless Gujarati woman called Bani. "Muslims aren't allowed," Bani told them angrily. "We just want to walk around and look," Rumi, one of the girls said. "Then go to the zoo," Bani told them. The girls were not outraged at all. They pleaded in between giggles. "We just want to pray," one of them said. From inside the temple emerged, Hirakumari, a young woman who was related in a complicated way to Bani. She shouted at the girls, "Go pray to your god. You eat cows, make fun of our gods, ask if our gods don't feel cold being naked..." But Hirakumari would eventually tell me that deep down she loved the Muslims. "They will feed us for the rest of our lives, if it comes to that. Pakistan is the only place I call home but how can we let them inside the temple?" Pakistan's Hindus number somewhere between 2.5 million (an official estimate which is suspect) and 5 million (the figure granted by Hindu politician Kishinchand Parwani). Over 95 percent of them live in the Sindh province, chiefly impoverished farmers and labourers. Some of them are visibly rich though, and they are allowed to be rich without peril. Like fashion designer Deepak Perwani who had a Ganesha tattooed on his right arm, and whose red dyed hair often perplexed urchins. His analysis of the Indo-Pak divide was, "Indians can't cut a salwar to save their lives and Pakistanis can't cut a churidar ." Ten years ago, when he wanted to open a store in Karachi, his friends asked him not to flaunt his name on the door. He didn't listen. "There's been no trouble, not a single incident outside my shop," he said. Since Partition, the only time the Hindus of Karachi felt insecure was in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. But Perwani, once Pakistan's cultural ambassador to China, did have a problem. The Sindhi community was small and it was not easy for him to find a suitable girl. "The girl has to be imported," he said, "since I am doing too well here to be exported." His mother Renu, an amicable and efficient woman said, "People in India don't want their daughters to live in Pakistan. It's a mindset." As she considered the various options for her son, her eyes turned a bit severe. "I will never accept a Muslim girl in my house." The simple aggression of Pakistan's Hindus was just one of the many things that confused the Indians who toured that country in the merciless summer of 2004. The visible life on the streets of a nation that was almost always governed by the military and of another that glorified democracy, was the same. The roads and the slums looked the same. Even there, lazy cops stood in street corners without poise. People drove like fools. Pedestrians ran across the road and giggled at the end of the effort. This place was home. Our plight was the same. Our hereditary memory was common. True, pork was hard to find here and beef easily available. Every hotel room, no matter how cheap, had a bidet. There were no pubs, and emasculated newspapers said, "Pakistan and India" instead of "India and Pakistan". But we had expected much grander things to separate the two nations. After an unscathed life in Pakistan, a Hindu in Karachi becomes dust in a crematorium that lies beside a Muslim graveyard. The crematorium has a room called the 'library' where there are no books. Just bundles of ashes of men and women who have become memories. These ashes will stay here, sometimes for years, until the relatives are granted visas to let them immerse the remains in Ganga.