Between Erasure and Nostalgia
Between Erasure and Nostalgia

Many questions about Karachi were left unanswered as I grew up between erasure and nostalgia in this city. The colonial built heritage with its linear history echoed the imperialist narrative which for decades became the only truth we knew. It left little room for parallel stories of freedom movements, like the Navel Mutiny at the port that gave impetus to the early departure of the British, or how Empress Market was built on the site where freedom fighters were put to death. Whenever these stories emerged from the fringes, considered anecdotal, therefore they did not enter the academic discourse. The academic emphasis on research and analysis conditioned us to see oral history and memory as emotional and unsubstantiated ‘truths’— as this was a different time, much before the deconstruction of centralized history began to privilege diverse sources and other ways of being. The parallel stories, however fragmented, were always stimulating and spoke to me intuitively. As they have piled up over decades, so did the need to understand my city through divergent strands.

In the decade after 1947, Karachi demographically transformed with the influx of population from the Muslim minority areas of undivided India. The professionals, academics and civil servants became a sizeable part of the intellectual elite of the city. While they added to the cosmopolitan energy of the city most of them found arid Karachi, sandwiched between the sea and desert, difficult to relate to after the lush lands they came from. Their yearning echoes Emperor Babur’s desire for the watermelons and cool waters of Kabul which he so eloquently recalled in Tuzuk-e-Baburi. The embedded memories of places and people, rituals, even scents and seasons, led to a yearning that never allowed them to have a sense of belonging for a city ‘without defined seasons’. To ease the memory and longings, of all that they had left behind, some families even tried to create trifling replicas of gardens found in their ancestral homes. It was not only a cultural shock by the brutal displacement that left deep wounds of loss, it was also the power struggle within nascent Pakistan that led them to face politics of otherness they had not anticipated. It is understandable that these conditions made nostalgia a safe space to deal with the upheaval. They however did not let their loss stand in the way, and diligently invested themselves professionally into the city to make it a powerhouse of industrial growth, high literacy and professional expertise.

The history of Karachi, in my consciousness, is a sum of fractured narratives, anecdotes and stories. In my memory, while living briefly on Manora Island (as a ‘Navy brat’), I recall it always being referred to, by the Naval families, as a windy wilderness. My parents always talked about the boat ride to get there and the separation from the hub of the city was acutely felt. In the 1980s, on the occasion of visiting Manora, the image of the barren landscape changed— I was surprised to discover history there in the shape of an old lighthouse, a deserted church and a disappearing temple. In my readings of Karachi’s history, from various sources, I was informed that the temple was on the route to the important Hinglaj pilgrimage, and Lord Rama and Sita spent a night there. The same is said of the Mahadev Temple in the grounds of Bagh Ibne Qasim. The Hindu scriptures linking religious icons to a physical space in Karachi, and its surroundings, was not only exciting for me but it also gives credence to stories of its early significance. When I returned to Manora just a decade ago, the experience was much richer, conservation work on the lighthouse and church indicated an ownership by citizens’ groups working for local heritage sites. The most remarkable transformation was of the Varun Dev Temple on the cliff top facing the ocean. Its meticulous restoration has returned its distinctive structure and ornamentation.

This ancient history around Manora Island is exceedingly integral to what we know as Karachi— as waters and land have always shaped the city’s destiny. It was a hinterland to a rich Indus plain, with Thatta as a prosperous town right up till three hundred ago, and Karachi as one of the shipping outposts that exported products and produce to distant lands in the west and south. As the estuaries stilted over several millennia, the ports shifted uprooting settlements leaving behind little permanent structures. There is evidence that Karachi University sits atop the remains of a settlement which was the southern extension of the Indus Valley Civilization from the Harappan period. Stone Age tools excavated in the Malir region locates the Karachi metropolis in an expanse of land occupied in different periods with remains of settlements layered one on top of another. Karachi is definitely not the tabula rasa we were led to believe. History of Karachi is like an unexplored epistemic excavation site with all the knowledge of its genesis buried under colonial edifices built on erasure and 75 years of post- independence neglect. As the city expands, accidently at building sites pot sherds, stone tools, petroglyphs and human remains allow its ancient past to rupture through, providing pieces of a puzzle we have yet to put together. The largest city of the country needs an institution that is not only a repository of knowledge, but spearheads projects of excavation, consolidation of existing knowledge, and visual documentation to foreground Karachi’s past in order to enable us to fully understand the city, and form new connections with it.

Title Image: Conservation announcement at Varun Dev Mandir, the ancient temple at Manora Island. Image courtesy Niilofur Farrukh.

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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