Roots | The Goan theory of relativity16 min read . Updated: 02 Oct 2012, 04:59 PM IST
A quest to learn more about his late uncle Bunnu takes the writer on a discovery of Goan life and culture in Karachi
A quest to learn more about his late uncle Bunnu takes the writer on a discovery of Goan life and culture in Karachi
When we were children, my cousins and I could have been forgiven for thinking that our great-uncle’s first name was “Poor". That, invariably, was how my grandmother and her sisters referred to their only brother each time he came up in conversation, which, admittedly, wasn’t often at all. “Ah, poor Bunnu," they’d sigh whenever someone mentioned their Cambridge-educated sibling who’d chosen to stay put in Karachi at Partition, even as the rest of the family pulled up their roots from the city in which they’d lived for four generations to take their chances in India.
By the time I was a teenager, Uncle Bunnu—he’d been christened Alec Cordeiro—had moved into an old folks home in Karachi. He’d never married, held a job for long or seen his sisters after 1947. No one in the extended family seemed to have a recent photograph of him. The somewhat embarrassed tone in which his three sisters talked about him left Bunnu obscured by a whiff of mystery—even scandal.
I always knew that when I made my long-planned trip to Pakistan, one man would be able to fill in the details. Father Anthony Cordeiro, my grandmother’s cousin, was the keeper of family lore. His head held the names of hundreds of Karachi Goans spread across as many continents. For just over 60 years, ever since the family had moved to Mumbai, he’d conducted our baptisms, weddings and funerals. Anthony was still a child in Karachi when his attractive cousins were being courted by men from across the subcontinent. Decades after they’d married the objects of their affections, Father Anthony could be counted on to enliven family gatherings with his stories about the torments the suitors were put through. Then, as the laughter died down, everyone would huddle around the piano to sing the melodies they’d loved from the Karachi days. An essential part of the ritual involved Father Anthony singing his favourite tune, the Neapolitan standard, Santa Lucia.
Shortly before my visa for Pakistan came through, Father Anthony had to be admitted to hospital. It wasn’t clear what exactly was wrong with him, but over the course of just a week, a large portion of his memory seemed to seep away. The doctors explained it as a function of depleted sodium levels. He was moved to a home for retired Catholic priests. Days before my departure for the city of his youth, Father Anthony celebrated his 91st birthday. Relatives travelled from across Mumbai to be with him but Father Anthony didn’t have the energy to respond to their greetings. His voice was just a whisper. After an hour or so of strained jollity, his guests started to bid their farewells. Amid the bustle, Father Anthony abruptly raised his hand to indicate that he wanted our attention. His lips began to move but we could barely hear what he was saying. As we inched closer, it became apparent. He was singing Santa Lucia.
The next afternoon, after a morning of earnest speeches by our hosts, I met up with Roland de Souza, an engineering consultant who is involved with a well-regarded city-focused NGO called Shehri. His family has lived in Karachi for more than a century and he seemed well placed to help me find traces of Uncle Bunnu. Over a pizza lunch, De Souza drew up a list of people who would, perhaps, remember my great-uncle and gave me a little piece of advice: Never answer your phone on the street—instead, step into a shop and return the call. Since 2008, police statistics show, 219,927 people have been mugged for their phones in the city, a crime Karachiites refer to as “cellphone snatching", somewhat understating the horror of having gun-waving thugs relieve you of your Nokia.
Karachi’s reputation as a dangerous city, I discovered, had less to do with the possibility of terrorism or sectarian violence (though neither were uncommon) and much more to do with random crime. Anxiety about carjacking is so pervasive, for instance, some drivers refuse to stop at red lights after dark. A frequent drawing-room debate in Karachi revolves around whether it’s better strategy to drive a cheap car (so you have less to lose when you’re held up), or whether to travel
in a really expensive car (to scare thugs away with the impression that you’re particularly well connected).
Except for the presence of automatic weapons everywhere, though, in the hands of policemen and security guards, the streets of the old Karachi neighbourhood of Saddar seemed eerily like those of southern Mumbai. The Victorian-era Empress Market, for instance, is a sister to Crawford Market. I was thrilled to chance upon a row of Chinese dentists nearby, just like you’d find in my home city, and I was told about Irani restaurants with curtained-off booths for couples. Karachi and Mumbai also share a taste for coffee-table books about colonial buildings. Battered by unimaginably high rates of population growth that have left their infrastructural systems stretched past capacity, the two metropolises need to believe that things weren’t always so terrible, that in a sepia-tinted age not so long ago, they afforded residents lives of dignity and grace.
My guide through this world of Karachi cosmopolitanism was the dapper H.M. Naqvi. Two years ago, he won enormous acclaim for Home Boy, his engaging, energetic novel about three Pakistani hipsters who find New York’s famed spirit of multiculturalism curdling around them amid the debris of 9/11. He has now turned his sights on his hometown.
Naqvi lives his life upside down, sleeping through the day and emerging late in the afternoon to work through the night. When he gets tired or feels the need for inspiration, he takes long drives through the dark city, stopping occasionally for a snack of halwa-puri at a roadside stall or to wolf down a chapli kabab at one of the establishments in Boat Basin. I was greatly honoured by his decision to break his routine for me. During my visit, he made the effort to do things more conventionally, taking a sleeping pill at night so that he’d be awake during the day.
One evening, he took me to a gallery called Art Chowk in Clifton, where the opening of a show called MAD in Karachi 3D was under way. The work leaned heavily towards sculpture and the themes were deeply embedded in Karachi’s colourful, chaotic fabric. Asad Hussain’s Angel of Kolachi triptych, for instance, consisted of giant razor blades mounted on velvet, the slots in the middle fashioned to look like minarets. The artist everyone had their eye on was the elfin Sara Khan, whose creations use walnut shells that reference her Pashtun heritage, and .32 bore bullets. All around me, the elegant crowd sipped glasses of tea as delicately as if they were drinking Merlot.
Not so far away, another celebration of Karachiana was proceeding at the hilltop dargah of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the city’s patron saint. The three-day urs at the tomb of the eighth century Sufi attracts tens of thousands of devotees. Abdullah Shah Ghazi is revered both for his ability to fulfil his devotees’ wishes as well as for the protection from cyclones he is said to bestow upon the city. For Naqvi, a devoted Karachi man, attending the urs is an article of faith. But this time around, he noted, the crowds were thinner. In 2010, two suicide bombers killed eight people at the dargah and wounded 50. Across Pakistan, fundamentalists have been attacking Sufi shrines in an effort to enforce a monochromatic vision of Islam on a nation with determinedly diverse ideas of what it means to be Muslim. Only days before we visited the dargah, the police had intercepted another clutch of potential terrorists; they had blown themselves up outside a beachside restaurant at which our press delegation had eaten dinner 24 hours earlier.
After showering rose petals upon the saint’s tomb, we made our way to the courtyard at the back of the shrine, skirting a gigantic whirlpool of camel’s intestines. We’d just missed the slaughter. This part of the complex, Naqvi said, was usually the refuge of the eunuchs, prostitutes and chillum smokers who demonstrate their faith more exuberantly than most other devotees. But they were absent, he noticed, as were the ecstatic renditions of qawwali for which the dargah was famous. Instead, a group of turbaned men on the platform nearby were performing the most austere form of naat. Still, Naqvi was hopeful. “Perhaps we’ve come too early," he suggested. “Things will probably get more lively later."
However, we didn’t have the time to wait. We were on our way to the KBC, as locals know the Karachi Boat Club. It was disco night and the room was filled with dashing men and gorgeous women cutting up the floor to the beats of a female DJ.
Though Pakistan’s prohibition policy prevents the club from serving liquor, no one seemed unduly perturbed; they’d brought along their own bottles. Only one thing made this different from a similar event in India: None of the women wore skirts; instead, the shapeliest legs were being shown off in clingy tights. As the night wore on, the tunes got more retro. At around 1.30am, we staggered back to the car just as a Michael Jackson classic was being dropped into the mix. Everyone joined in on the chorus: “Beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it. No one wants to be defeated."
Everyone goes to KGA
That bungalow, sold in the months before Partition, has long been replaced by a characterless block of flats. But the KGA, a pile of stone turrets and stately arches, was more impressive than I’d imagined it would be. The front corridor is lined with portraits of past presidents, starting with the rather ghostly L.C. Gomes in 1886. Inside the main hall, I was comforted to see a familiar face. On one wall, flanking an image of Christ, were photographs of Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro—Father Anthony’s brother. He’d been appointed head of the Pakistani Church in 1973, steering it through an especially difficult patch in the Zia era. During the 1978 Papal election, a Time magazine reporter wrote that London bookmakers were offering 33-1 odds on Cousin Joseph (a Polish cardinal won and took the name John Paul II).
The morning Naqvi and I visited, scores of people had congregated to attend the KGA’s bi-annual general body meeting. They were listening intently as the president, Valentine Gonsalves, read out the managing committee’s report about the club’s activities over the past two years—all too aware that it was, in no small measure, a report on the predicament of Karachi’s Goan community itself. The KGA, Gonsalves said, was suffering from falling utilization of its facilities.
Large-scale migration, much of it to Canada and Australia, has shrunk the club’s membership. At its peak in the 1940s, Gonsalves told me, the KGA had about 1,300 members—not counting children. Now, there are only 483. In the community’s heyday, Goans clustered around Saddar and Cincinnatus Town (now part of Garden East), within easy distance of the KGA, but have since fanned out around the megalopolis. For many, it’s not just inconvenient to drop into the KGA, it’s sometimes positively dangerous. “The security situation in the city has seriously affected the conducting of indoor games tournaments," Gonsalves noted in his report. “Gone are the days when the KGA used to witness huge crowds for its table tennis and snooker tournaments."
His cautionary tone was quite at odds with the confidence that bubbled through the managing committee’s statement in 1936, the KGA’s Golden Jubilee year. After surveying the community’s long history in Sindh to suggest that Goans had been in the province since it had been annexed by the British in 1842, the committee of the time noted, “…It is through the bond of unit and brotherhood on which the Association was founded that its members are to be found today in the forefront in every walk of life."
Over the next few decades, Goans would run one of Karachi’s pre-eminent schools (St Patrick’s High School), head the port trust (Maurice Raymond), the standing committee of the municipality (L.A. D’Sa) and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (Sydney Pereira), in addition to representing Pakistan in hockey (Peter Paul Fernandes, Jack Britto, among others), cricket (Matias Wallis and Antao D’Souza) and several other sports. Their prominence in public life gave the tiny community disproportionately high levels of visibility in newly independent Pakistan.
The KGA was where everyone from the professional classes kicked back after a hard day at work. In their spare time, they put on revues and farces, comedies and sketches. A stage with a piano had been installed in the KGA building in 1888, two years after the institution was founded, because, as the Golden Jubilee report claimed, “the social assets of the Goan are…an inborn love for music and a keen dramatic sense". The document lists productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, and regular “penny readings"—dramatic performances of poetry and stories. Unfortunately, no one I met at the general body meeting had any memories to offer about Uncle Bunnu. After all, he’d been dead more than 30 years. But I did find a mention of him in the 1936 report. He’s listed as a member of the managing committee and the superintendent of the library.
‘ We are all related’
Cincinnatus Town was unnervingly familiar. Many of the older homes had been built in the 1930s, exactly at the time the pocket of Bandra in which I live had been constructed and with the same coastal-city architectural features, so parts of Garden East resembled the now-demolished landscapes of my childhood. They were filled with the kind of teakwood furniture you find in older Mumbai homes and had identical Catholic iconography. The first person on my list, 92-year-old Rita de Souza, even spoke in the same Goan-Edwardian cadences as my grandmother and her sisters—not surprising, since she’d been in school with them.
She displayed all the discretion you’d expect of a woman of her breeding, but under my badgering, was gradually lulled into talking about my great-uncle. “Ah, poor Bunnu," she eventually sighed. “He was quite a talker. At one time, we were all convinced that he was living in the KGA."
Then she let slip an anecdote relating to the time Bunnu was at Cambridge in the 1920s. “He was disappointed in love," Rita de Souza said. “He was quite keen on a woman when he was in England but his mother heard of it and made him exit the situation post-haste." That’s all she remembered about him. Soon, she was back to talking about Cincinnatus Town in its glory days, before the advent of the “low high-rises", as she described the four- and five-storey buildings that had mushroomed all around her.
The company at dinner included an uncle of the de Souzas who had been a senior officer in the Pakistani navy and a former neighbour who now lived in Australia. There was also Desmond Vas, whose family are my last relatives in Karachi. We’re third cousins—or perhaps fourth. We aren’t sure. I’d last met him in Mumbai in 1984, when he attended the party in Bandra to celebrate my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary. Visas aren’t easy to obtain but the Indian government lets 300 Karachi Goans cross the border each December as pilgrims to attend the feast of St Francis Xavier in Goa. Many stop in Mumbai en route.
Vas had since lost his sight, but not his sense of humour. “Do you know about the Goan theory of relativity?" he asked. “We’re all related, even if we can’t figure out how." He remembered Bunnu, of course, especially my great-uncle’s stories about this time at Cambridge. “He’d tell us about the libraries, where you’d have to maintain pin-drop silence. ‘What would happen if you had a cough?’ we’d ask. He’d reply, ‘If you had a cough, courtesy would require that you didn’t visit the library.’"
Dinner was a chatty affair. We discussed life in Mumbai and Karachi, fraying city services, and almost everyone had a story to tell about being robbed, even here, right outside their homes in Cincinnatus Town. After the dishes were cleared away, we gathered around the piano. Roland de Souza is an excellent musician and led the gathering in a jolly singalong. A few tunes into the session, I found myself getting goosebumps. The cozy Karachi flat was echoing with the strains in two-part harmony of Father Anthony’s favourite tune, Santa Lucia.
Bunnu and the Englishwoman
A few weeks after I returned to Mumbai, a cousin of my father’s summoned a conclave to draw up a Karachi family tree. Father Anthony was better (his sodium levels had risen again). Though my father was only 9 when he left Karachi, his elder siblings had more vivid memories and the morning turned into a tapestry of recollections: trips between Mumbai and Karachi on ferries named the Saraswati and the Sabarmati (“they were like little tubs, we all got seasick"); relatives having leisurely evenings at the KGA (“gin and lime was the favourite drink"), and the enterprising nature of the Karachi Goan community (“they even owned a flour mill").
As we slurped up bowls of soup, the conversation turned to Bunnu. It would be difficult to send mail over the border after each IndiaPakistan war, so Bunnu’s letters were infrequent. But sometimes, perhaps to remind everyone of his real name, Alec, he’d sign himself as “Sikander"—the subcontinental name for Alexander the Great. “He called his three sisters ‘the gangsters’," someone recalled. “When he was in England, they sent him a childhood photo of the four of them and he said, ‘I’m not coming home. If I do, I’ll have to take care of them.’"
My aunt Margaret corroborated the story I’d been told in Karachi. Evidently, after he’d been called to the bar, Bunnu had refused to return to Karachi because he’d fallen in love with an Englishwoman. His mother, Mary, who wanted him to marry a Goan, was horrified. She “picked up her skirts and took the next boat to England". The conclave was divided on what happened next. Either my great-grandmother “grabbed his ear and dragged him right back home" or “he sent her right home without even allowing her a day to see the sights, but promised to return soon". At any rate, Bunnu was back in Karachi by the mid-1930s and would remain a KGA fixture for the rest of his life. I’d always held the impression that Bunnu had drunk himself to death, but considering that he was 80 when he died, he didn’t do it very efficiently.
There were sharp discussions about whether our ancestor Santan Vaz had made his money running a liquor distributorship or a booze joint, about people named Aunty Mittie, Aunty Millie and Uncle Bude. Father Anthony occasionally chimed in to correct a mistaken impression or contribute a name someone couldn’t recall. They’d been dead for decades, but in this room in Mumbai, six decades and 900km away, they were warm, breathing presences, as real and as resolute as Karachi.
Naresh Fernandes is consulting editor at Time Out India and author ofTaj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org