Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Voices from across the border

A group of eminent Pakistanis, from Karachi, talk about their experiences in Mumbai

Shevlin Sebastian

There is an air of palpable energy at the Taj President restaurant amidst the clatter of knives and spoons on plates. At first glance you will not notice any difference among the guests, these could be Indians from anywhere, till a man shouts into a mobile phone: “I am from Pakistan”. Yes, a 33-member delegation comprising captains of industry, politicians, academicians, journalists, fashion designers, publishers and artistes, all from Karachi, are in Mumbai to explore areas of mutual interest. Mumbai and Karachi have ties going past for decades, undoubtedly helped by a sea link, till Partition and the wars snapped it forever.
This visit has been organised by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA). In the few days they were here, this eclectic group of achievers interacted with a cross-section of people. Here are some vignettes:
Going ga-ga
On the bus on the way to the Bandra Kurla complex for a talk on the ‘Vision of Mumbai’ by MMRDA Metropolitan Commissioner T. Chandrasekhar, there are cries of excitement when Marine Drive is sighted. Photographs are hurriedly taken through the glass-paned window. At Chowpathy, Gul Sadia, SAFMA coordinator, says, “Wow, this is where you get the famous bhelpuri. I remember there was a Hindi song which goes like this: Chowpathy jayengi aur bhel puri khayenge.
First-time visitor Aamed Mahmood, a journalist, says, “The hospitality has been great. There seems to be no difference between Karachi and Mumbai.” But he points at a jhopadpatti through the window and says, “You will never find slums with nullahs in Karachi.”
During the speech by Chandrasekhar, the unusual thing is that within half an hour, the first question is asked by a member of the Pakistani delegation and this carries on throughout the speech, quite unlike an Indian audience who would have waited till the speech ended, to ask questions.
One who stands up is Anwer Pirzado, a writer, who looks resplendent in a red Sindhi topi. His question is simple: “Sir, I want to know about the USA in Ulhasnagar.”
“A USA in Ulhasnagar?” repeats Chandrasekhar.
“Yes, the Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association,” says Pirzado, to widespread laughter. An unfazed Chandrasekhar promises to find out more details.
In the afternoon, during a tour of the Mumbai Educational Trust building at Bandra, at the canteen, leading industrialist Jameel Yusuf says, “Oh, how I miss the chai I used to have in my college canteen.” The guide is too busy talking to pick up the indirect hint.
In the lift, while travelling between floors, social activist, Uzma Noorani, says, “The heat is the same in Mumbai and Karachi. The only difference is that Mumbai is very humid, while Karachi has a lot of dust.”
Earlier, during a break, she steps out and smokes a long thin cigarette, the likes of which we have not seen in Mumbai. “Oh, these are Pine cigarettes, which are imported from Thailand,” she says. “They are cool and light.”
That evening, when some of them return from shopping, Babar Ayaz, a journalist, holds up a bag from Crosswords. He has bought Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown and a book on Jinnah. “The prices of books are much lower than in Pakistan,” he says. “The paperback editions also arrive here sooner.”
Hard truths
On the bus, the next evening, on the way to Hotel Mayfair for a dinner with R.R. Patil, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, I am sitting next to Taj Haider, a founder member of the Pakistan People’s Party. He tells me about one of the many rackets that is going on in Pakistan. “Sugar is retailed in Mumbai for Rs 18, yet we are buying it from here at Rs 32 per kg and it is sold in the Karachi market at Rs 40,” he says. “Why is there this discrepancy in the prices? Surely, people on both sides are making money while the poor suffer.”
He also tells the story of how on the Shahra-e-Faisal Road in Karachi, there are four hospitals and yet whenever President Pervez Musharraf travels on it, the road is blocked. “Just last week, a 19-year-old girl, who had burst her appendix, was being rushed to hospital by her father but the police held them back for 20 minutes, till the president passed,” he says. “The girl died before she could reach the hospital.”
At the function, there is a mood of bonhomie and wisecracks. When Raheela Tiwana, the deputy speaker of the provincial assembly of Sindh places a topi on Patil’s head, he says, “I am wearing a topi, so now I can easily go to Pakistan.”
Thankfully, the speeches are short and it is time to party. When Kavitha Murthy’s troupe belts out golden oldies from Eeena Meena Deka to Roop Teri Mastana, the Pakistan delegation goes into a frenzy of dancing. It is interesting to see that nearly all of them are mouthing the lyrics. It would have made Bal Thackeray happy but not if he had known that all of them referred to the city as Bombay.

‘Christians are discriminated against’
Roland D’Souza is the only Christian in the delegation. An electrical engineer, he is an active member of Sheri, an advocacy group on environment and urban planning.

Tell me something about your origins?
My grandfather was from Goa and went to Karachi in 1900. At that time, Goa was under Portuguese rule while Karachi was under the British. My father was born in Karachi in 1930. I was born after it had become Pakistan.
Have you suffered any discrimination as a Christian?
I have had no problems since I come from an educated and economically better part of the minority community. It is the poor people, in the rural areas or the slums who get discriminated against and have a tough time. You must have heard about churches being bombed and Christians being killed.
How do problems crop up?
Minorities suffer more in societies where economic conditions are bad. If everybody has their stomachs full, people tend to not worry about others. But when your stomach is not full, and you feel somebody else is stealing it, you look around for a scapegoat. Although the minorities constitute only 5 per cent of the population and Christians are about 1.5 per cent.
Do you think things will improve?
In most societies, the law would descend on the people who indulge in discrimination and do something about it. In places like Pakistan and India, the law does not do much. For instance, during the [2002] riots in Gujarat, a woman had to chase it up before the law started moving. In Pakistan, if something is done against the Christians, nobody does anything about it. The law is not implemented at all.

Interview/Sajid Hasan
‘Feroze Khan should not have been banned’

Sajid Hasan is an actor/director/writer/producer and a compere. He is also the first Pakistani actor to work in an Indian television serial, Tanha, in 1997 on Star Plus.
Excerpts from an interview:
What was your experience of acting in India?
When I came here in 1997, it was a bad time because my government was against the trip. In Mumbai, Bal Thackeray was in power. In fact, we had to come in disguise. But I am sure he knew about my arrival. So I am thankful to Thackeray because he allowed me to act. I think one side of him is political while the other is creative.
How come you have not come again?
I wanted to but Kargil happened. And then the ISI was making my life miserable at home. But things have changed. Pervez Musharraf is a much more open person. He knows that change will happen whether you want it or not.
How difficult is it to be an actor in Pakistan?
Muslims have never had any a high opinion of artistes. So, in Pakistan, we are marginalised. Our film industry is very small. We make about four or five films a year, most of which are flops. In five years, one picture does well.
What do you think of the ban on Feroze Khan?
I was against the ban on Feroze Khan. He had a right to say whatever he had to say. Individuals should not be banned. It was a knee-jerk reaction. Freedom of speech is an integral part of progress.

The Mumbai-Karachi sea link

Will it work?

Writer Anwer Pirzado has come up with the idea of restarting a ferry service between Karachi and Mumbai, which was discontinued around thirty years ago. “There are two ways,” he says. “One is through the high seas. Another option is to go through the creeks. There are 17 creeks, near the mouth of the Indus river. By avoiding the high seas, you can avoid typhoons and other dangers.”
Recently, a six-member delegation from the shipping ministry went to Pakistan to discuss the modalities for a revised shipping protocol. This would remove many constraints regarding movement of Indian and Pakistan flagged vessels between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan government has issued licenses to three shipping companies to operate the service.
The delegation’s views

It should be started without any loss of time because both are historic cities and have had cordial relations for a long time. Karachi was part of Mumbai Presidency till 1936. Till April, 1947, we were affiliated with Mumbai University. So, interaction among people was there. We should encourage this, because both the cities can complement each other in many areas.
Dr. Mohammad Ali Shaikh, educationist

I have heard a lot about the sea link when I was a child and I think it should be revived. Anything that will increase people to people contact between the two countries is welcomed.
Hoori Noorani, publisher.

It is economical and faster to travel, if there is a ferry service.
Dr Jhabbar Khattak, chief editor of a Karachi newspaper

When I migrated to Pakistan as a child, I remember I went on a ship to Karachi from Mumbai. I have some memory of the journey. It should be revived.
Taj Haider, politician

Before a ferry link starts, you have to open up consulates. Now, people from Karachi have to go all the way to Islamabad to get visas while people of Mumbai will have to go to Delhi to get visas. The maximum number of people who come to India are from Karachi and it takes ages and umpteen visits to get a visa.
If licenses are given and consulates are not opened, I am sorry it does not make sense at all.
Jameel Yusuf, an industrialist

Mumbai to Karachi
“We were keen to see Karachi”

Gul Nagpal
I went on a ship M.V Dwaraka from Mumbai to Karachi in the sixties. It belonged to the now defunct British-owned Mackinnon Mackenzie Company. I was the chief photographer of the company. Dwaraka route was from Mumbai to Karachi and onwards to Dubai. We left Ballard Pier at 5 p.m. and reached Karachi by about 8 a.m. the next morning. In the early morning, I could see the Lord Shiva temple on the Manora island. I don’t know whether that temple still exists. I could remember seeing the searchlights on top of a lighthouse. Most of the passengers were on the deck, keen to see Karachi. There were quite a few labourers from Kerala who were on their way to Dubai.
At Karachi port, they said Indians were not allowed to disembark. But I am originally from Multan and I speak good Punjabi. The captain vouched for me. I told them my childhood friend, Maqbool Aziz, lives near the port. They issued a temporary pass for a few hours. I was able to meet my friend. It was the one and only time I met him. I don’t know whether he is alive now or not.
(Nagpal is a photographer.)

Karachi to Mumbai
“We were part of the great migration”

It was in 1948, when I was 14, I sailed from Karachi to Mumbai. The passage by sea was a regular one in those days, with most ships leaving from Keamari Bunder.
Keamari was very pretty; it was like the Gateway of India. It was a popular spot for families, with boat rides and food stalls. It also had ghats where Sindhis would do puja.
My first sea journey was to be my last—we were part of the great migration to India. The journey did not take very long; we set off in the early morning and reached in the evening. I remember that the Government of India had arranged the ship for us at a subsidised cost; we were provided food en route.We disembarked near Ballard Pier… and took our first steps to a new life.

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