Karachi: A place for all souls

KARACHI, Pakistan — In a country not associated with plurality, the statics are surprising: 3 million Hindus and about 3 million Christians live in Pakistan. That's about the population of Israel or Denmark.

And while the Muslim majority periodically grates with each community — in the early 1990s, the razing of the Ayohdya mosque in India led to a series of reprisal attacks on Hindu temples in Pakistan — both celebrated annual festivals in the last 10 days without incident, and with all the “traditional fervor” they could muster.

Down Bandar Road, a major thoroughfare connecting Karachi to the sea, the opening rites associated with Diwali, the festival of lights, were held at the 150-year-old Swami Narayan Temple in the last week of October.

Like most edifices of historic significance in the city, the temple is obscured by the haphazard surrounding modern construction. One enters through an unremarkable archway flanked on either side by eateries and shops, mostly manned by bearded Pathan textile merchants. Inside, an ornate spire rises, adorned with beaded lights on special occasions.

The air wafts incense. A set of stairs lead to the area of worship and the adjacent yard that houses larger-than-life figures of the god Ram and the goddess Sita, perched on a swing. This year, however, the artifacts remained shrouded.

Several cameras and crews were present on the premises — Dunya TV and KTN — capturing women in pink, yellow, saffron and lime saris, often wearing matching bindis on their foreheads; children dressed in their Sunday best; and young men sporting handkerchiefs on their heads, intent on exploding firecrackers.

According to a crew of old timers sucking beedies by the entrance, and the garrulous popcorn-wallah, the “music program” that typically accompanies the celebrations had not been taking place for several years due to crowd control and “security problems.” There seemed to be a consensus among people that “things were better” (“haalat behtar thay”) during Musharraf’s tenure although the sentiment is obviously anecdotal.

Devotees lit lamps and candles in honor of the triumphant return of Ram who rescued his wife with the help of the monkey-god Hanuman from the 10-headed, Sri Lankan monster. Prayers took place before animate statues of Krishna and Hanuman. Money was laid at their feet. Kisses were bestowed on their toes. The prayers, the worshippers maintained, would continue into the night.

Across town a week later, in a necropolis known as Gora Kabristan, the party would also continue all night. On Nov. 2, All Souls Day was held in Karachi and across the country. Even before dusk, cars, vans, taxis and rickshaws had parked along the northern boundary of the graveyard, bound by Korangi Road, where traffic was bumper-to-bumper for several hours. On the sidewalk, hundreds congregated.

Among the raucous families, one spotted a trio of nuns and a couple of monks. And there were hawkers selling calendars featuring the Virgin Mary, boxes of incense, cellophane bags brimming with rose petals and marigolds strung into necklaces; beggars sat outside the entrance gate, hands stretched, while policemen wielding batons kept vigil. Inside, the marble gravestones and crosses glowed in candlelight and the aura of the full moon.

The names of gravestones, from Parveen Akhtar to Oswald D’Costa, suggested the varied Christian population of the city, the former probably Punjabi, the latter probably Goan. The community is almost evenly divided between the Catholic and Protestant church.

The Archbishop of Karachi, Reverend Evarist Pinto, had reportedly blessed the graveyard early in the afternoon. After having the graves swept and watered by boys running to and fro with tin buckets, families later garlanded the crosses with necklaces. Then, heads bowed, they prayed for the dead.

A young pony-tailed musician, a bass player in a band that had recently broken up, had accompanied his parents that night. He said that the last services of the day were held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When conversation turned to the music, he averred the industry had experienced a downturn in the last three years.

Some musicians had even immigrated. He added, however, that a relative of his who commanded a handsome salary at an advertising firm had recently immigrated only to find himself running accounts at a fast food joint.

In a country savaged by desperate and indiscriminate terrorist attacks in the last few months, life, the bass player concluded, was “all right.”