‘Religion and nationality did not matter during my childhood in the city by the sea’
Once upon a time there was an Indian boy who grew up in Karachi. At the time, he did not know just how odd that simple fact was. That boy was me. I lived in Karachi because my father, a diplomat, was posted to the Indian consulate in the port city. I was three years old when we arrived in Karachi in 1983, and nearly six when we left in 1986.
Given my age, my world in Karachi orbited two locations: home and school. ‘Home’ was Hindustan Court in Clifton, a building housing the Indian government’s consular employees. Our residence was probably once part of a mansion that was haphazardly carved out into a number of small, bizarrely-shaped homes — our house, for instance, featured disproportionately large windows that went on like a runaway train. Well, in our part of the world we all know that partitions invariably have unexpected consequences.
There was one clue that there was a difference between my world and the world that my friends from school inhabited. In school, when we played ‘fauj fauj’, a variant of ‘cops and robbers’, every child — including myself — wanted to be part of the Pakistan fauj, as this team always won. But at home, I discovered that it was the Indian fauj that always won. It was the kind of paradox that makes little sense to a child, but I quickly made my peace with the discrepancy and learned to switch sides depending on where I played.
Beyond school and home, I have happy memories of going to the beach often. I remember the sea water was brimming with little fish no more than an inch long, and once, I lost a ball in the sea. I was told the ocean would take my ball all the way to Bombay. At the time, I had no idea what or where Bombay was.
A local man named Iqbal would clean our house every day, and for my sister and me, he was our friend. When we finally left Karachi for Delhi, Iqbal sent us candy and toys, including a View-Master, a toy through which you could look at stereoscopic photos. The photo slides that came with the View-Master were of Islamic holy places and festivals, and I would spend hours looking at pictures of Mecca and Muharram activities. I later learned that other children used View-Masters to look at cartoons.
My first school in Karachi was Onimo Montessori Private School. I remember it as a happy place. One day, when the school closed for the day, no one arrived to pick me up. I waited until it was just me and the watchman. He sat with me until someone finally arrived. What I remember most is that he also shared his lunch with me. It was this simple but unselfish act of kindness that has stayed etched in my memory.
When I turned five, it was time to go to a proper school. I remember Jennings Private School as a scary place full of rough boys who were bigger than me. A few children from the Indian consulate also attended Jennings, and my best friend was a girl named Seviyan (like the sweet dish). I remember a prizegiving ceremony at Jennings, when I had won something. The teacher moved me from the back of the line to the front. The boy who was now standing behind me did not approve of his demotion, and, once the teacher left, he pushed me behind him. So did the next boy. And the next boy. When the teacher came by again, I was standing last in line once more.