LIVING IN KARACHI
KARACHI: A long time ago people from Kerala, many with strong leftist roots, held sway in this bustling port city of Pakistan. Today, barely 6,000 remain, and most of them have lost their Malayalee identity. Even those still here are constantly on the lookout to migrate to the prosperous Gulf, to merge with the huge Malayalee population there.
The elderly ones dream of India, but it is not easy to travel to the country they left. They are eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the Indian consulate here, which was shut down after violent protests over the demolition in Ayodhya of the Babri mosque in 1992.
"It was the most compact community once upon a time," says Biyyathil Mohyuddin Kutty, who came to Karachi from Chennai (then Madras) in 1951 at age 20 with a spirit of adventure but ended up making Pakistan his home.
"There were some 50,000 Malayalees in Karachi then. Today, just 5,000 to 6,000 remain," Kutty, a man whose frail body hides the rebel that he has been since his early communist days, said.
Kutty, a frequent visitor to India, is one of Pakistan's most respected political and social activists. He is joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research and will be one of the organisers of the World Social Forum here in January. The first wave of Malayalee Muslim migration to Karachi took place in 1921 when the British crushed a peasant rebellion in Kerala. The Malayalees immediately formed the Malabar Muslim Jamaat, a body that still exists.
Most early Keralite migrants started to make a living by brewing and selling tea to shopkeepers. The enterprising people they were, they had set up four or five hotels within about five years. They also did business in betel leaves.
Most of them lived alone in Karachi, travelling to India during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan to meet their families in Kerala. Traffic between Karachi and Kerala continue uninterrupted until the 1965 India-Pakistan war.
That was when the Malayalees began moving to the Gulf. Once the Indian consulate here shut down, they lost hope of travelling to India. They also started marrying locally. Most of them today are into petty trade.
Kutty knew no word of Urdu when he came here. But he quickly learnt the language, and can now speak it better than his mother tongue: Malayalam. Of course, he is equally at home in English. Though he quickly lost faith in Pakistan, he stayed on, marrying a woman originally from Uttar Pradesh.
An activist of the communist student body in India, Kutty sailed easily into Pakistani politics. A strong advocate of India-Pakistan friendship, he believes that President Pervez Musharraf is "better than other military dictators".