Some MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) party workers went to the Karachi Bakery in Mumbai recently to demand that the Pakistani name of the popular business be changed. We can ignore this by calling it a routine act of aggression by a political party losing relevance in Maharashtra politics. But others, too, ask: Why should we be “friendly” with Pakistan?
I wonder if I would feel the same, but for my own visit to Pakistan in the winter of 2011. We were invited to a Konkani wedding in Karachi and we decided to pay our neighbours a visit. The news of our impending travel delighted the older generation of my mother’s family. The Pandit family had close ties with Karachi, where many of them had spent their childhood or youth. A B Pandit, my mother’s grandfather, was a wealthy businessman and a mentor-financier of many activists in the Indian freedom struggle. He ran a factory and salt mines in Karachi.
The Pandits hailed from Bambuli village, Kudal town in Maharashtra’s Konkan. Many others from the area followed Pandit to Bombay and later to Karachi. Since Karachi was close to Bombay, many Gujarati, Sindhi businesses and workers from Konkan would travel there by boat.
I had heard some Karachi stories from my grandparents. About the huge house and the yard there. Or that Sudha atya (aunt) used to learn classical music from her guru, Latafat Hussain. Nana Purohit, a revolutionary from Mahad, was given capital punishment by the British courts. He went underground, got on a ship at Bombay and reached Karachi, where Pandit sheltered him in his house. Later, when search warrants were issued for him in Karachi, he was sent to Peshawar. He remained there till August 1947, when it was safe to return.
During Partition, unlike in Lahore and Punjab where violence reached an ugly peak, Karachi was mostly peaceful. The Muslim workers in his factory told Pandit that they would protect him and the factory at any cost, so he did not leave immediately. Slowly, he transferred his businesses, settled accounts with his partners, sent all his staff and family, and, at last, boarded a flight out of Karachi in late 1948.
Karachi became part of the folklore of the Pandit clan and passed on to the next generations. The migrants from Kudal returned home and opened an educational institute named Karachi Shikshan Prasarak Mandali, which still runs a college in Kudal town. When my grandparents got married in 1948, they were invited by Pandit’s partners in Karachi. They travelled by boat and stayed with the families there and attended the party organised in their honour. As children, when we demanded stories from our grandmother, she told us about the grand welcome and how she was gifted an ornate blue sharara. “Did you wear it? Where is it now?” we asked. The sharara might have been a novel Bombay fashion, but Grandma found the dress with skirt and dupatta rather odd. She wore it to the party and brought it back home. But it got misplaced somewhere.
Just like that sharara, the ties with Karachi got lost as decades passed. The next generations of Pandits settled in so many countries — America, Australia, Israel — but could not cross the border to Karachi. When my mother and I were offered this opportunity, we were urged to visit the house on Bandar Road and the factory in Maripur. But when we reached Karachi, we realised that Maripur is now a neighbourhood of poor Pathan and Baluch immigrants, where knives and guns talk regularly.
The Pandit story resonated with many others. A family friend in Mumbai told us that his father lived in Lahore as a child. If we visited the city could we please take some photos? We searched for the house in Lahore’s Model Colony. We knocked on the door hesitantly and told the man who opened the door, “We have come on behalf of the old residents of your house. Please accept this mithai they sent for you from Mumbai.” They were very pleased. We were invited in, treated to tea, snacks, lots of gup-shup, and, of course, photos.
We heard many anecdotes there. Of families divided by the line that became a border. Lahore and Amritsar were twin cities separated by 30 miles. Suddenly, a border appeared and it took 40 years for separated families to meet again. Old people who moved to Pakistan still reminisce about “our Delhi”. It is impossible to forget your childhood, your first love, the city that you were born in.
In 1974, when my mother took her my father — then young, poor, Muslim and nervous — to meet her grandfather, he was paralysed and bedridden. A B Pandit took his hand and uttered an ayat of the Quran. He pointed to the bookshelf behind him where the Gita, Quran and Bible all sat together. The composite culture of his Karachi days had lived on in his Mumbai home.
What to say to the unfortunate souls who demand that Karachi Bakery change its name? How to wipe out our past, erase our memories?
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 4, 2020 under the title ‘The Pandits from Pakistan’. The writer is professor, Jindal Global Law School.