Karachi Girl

In the third week of November in 2004, I dialed up to the Internet on a cellphone for the first time, then actively searched for blogs to read and bookmark. Though six years have passed, I clearly recall the first post I read through on 3quarksdaily.com. It was this one, a brief report after a trip to Karachi by Abbas Raza.

For disparate reasons (which might become clearer in future columns) the post struck some chords with me. I felt immediately sympathetic to the author and his viewpoint – a feeling since reinforced by years of devoted reading of this blog – and I was also immediately touched by his recollection of a lost “culturally diverse, tolerant, and progressive” Karachi.

Now, it is true that I have never been to Karachi. But bizarre as it may seem to many of you, large numbers of Goans cherish their connections to the city. This is because from 1850 or so, it was where we made good in numbers.

Meet May Cordeiro (b.1912), sitting with poise between her much-older siblings. She will describe herself all through her life as a Karachi girl, and will assume a lifelong posture of disdain towards everyone who comes from everywhere else.

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The Cordeiro family came to Karachi from Saligao, a modest village in Goa which has never been reknowned for agriculture or natural beauty or anything similar. Instead, Saligao has distinguished itself by exporting people.

It is a process that undoubtedly began within the Portuguese overseas territories – Goan soldiers, priests, adventurers, traders spreading out from Timor to Angola to Brazil. But the broader pipeline opened after the British occupied Goa at the beginning of the 19th century, with an eye to keeping the territory out of French hands. The garrisons found themselves in the midst of native Christian populations, familiar and comfortable with European culture, food, music and customs.

When they left, they took Goans along with them to their cantonements. Wherever the British army subsequently went in the subcontinent – the Goans arrived soon after. This is what happened in Karachi, within months of Napier's victory.

Timing is nearly everything in history. Goans migrated in force to many colonial territories – Mozambique and Malacca, Rangoon and Zanzibar – and they flourished everywhere as nursemaids, tailors, musicians, clerks and cooks, with a steady supply of physicians alongside (from the ancient medical college established by the Portuguese, the first in Asia).

But in Karachi numbers of Goan strivers (starting with several from Saligao) became markedly better off than any of their countrymen in other British or Portuguese possessions. We see this unusually gentrified and opportunistic native community immediately start to push in interesting directions.

May Cordeiro's grandfather spoke no English when he arrived in Karachi penniless, by dhow. Around 50 years later, this next photo was taken of his daughter and three grandchildren. May is again the sassy one, all hairstyle and attitude, standing bold in her flapper dress.

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There is another sister in this photo, but no brother because he is off studying law at Cambridge. This is the leap the family has taken due to the Karachi advantage.

They are not alone, dozens of similar families catapulted themselves amongst the colonial-era native elites right alongside. The lore of the Karachi Goans is so rich, varied and often frankly unbelievable that I dare not even begin to list the highlights for you in this introductory column.

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