Their youngsters draw their inspiration from Rajnikanth - a cultural icon and the ‘god’ of South Indian movies. Rajnikanth is a symbol of their culture, their way of life, and expression of their roots. For them, Rajnikanth’s words have an authenticity that could never be gleaned through subtitles and translations.
When it comes to dance, Prabhu Deva is the man that they look up to. When they talk among themselves, Tamil is what they speak — a language they are proud of.But the elders of this truly unique community, the Madrasi Hindus of Karachi, feel that owing to their small size, their younger generation is slowly drifting away from its rich cultural heritage. They attribute this phenomenon to a lack of cultural resources, such as literature and movies, being available in the city.
The Madrasi Para, located behind the Jinnah Post-Graduate Medical Centre’s (JPMC) staff quarters, in what seems like a forgotten corner of the hospital, is home to the biggest Madrasi Hindu community in the city.
“We are trying to stop this drift away from our culture; we offer Tamil classes during summer vacations and provide an introductory course in Tamil literature,” said Kari Das, a senior of the community.
“The Hindu Tamils in the city migrated from Madras (now Chennai) in groups, with the hope of better economic opportunities. They came to Karachi just months after partition,” explained Kasiligam, the Sarpanch of the Madras Hindu Panchyat and one of the oldest living members. “About 50 to 60 families came to Pakistan from Madras to find jobs.”
Today, some 64 years later, the families remain closely-knit and live in three main settlements in the city. “In Drigh Road, Korangi and here”, he said, as he points to his home. “The Madrasi Para houses about 100 Tamil Hindu families,” he added.
Although the young people in the community speak Tamil, most of them are unable to read the language. “We conduct all our prayers in Tamil and the occasions we celebrate are distinct from those celebrated by other Hindu communities.”
Behind the JPMC staff quarters is a road that leads into a tiny, rundown lane. At the end of this lane stands the mouth of a maze—a cluster of narrow pathways that these people call home. The pathways are dotted with two-room apartments, outside of which sit women in their home-clothes — cooking, gossiping and fanning themselves with newspapers.
Little children burn their restive energies by playing games in these poorly-lit alleys. Stray dogs roam around freely, being poked and kicked around from time to time by children and adults alike. The houses are decrepit, their doors, lacking knobs, remain open for most of the day. But, unlike how it is in the rest of the city, they don’t feel the need for security or privacy – they live like one huge family.
One of the lanes takes you to the Maripata Temple, which is the biggest Tamil Hindu temple in Karachi, and a centre for religious and cultural education. Sixty-eight year-old Lalatanga is presently the overseer of the temple.
She tells us proudly: “my husband built this temple. He was the caretaker till a few years ago, when he died of heart-attack.”
Lalatanga said that the worst time that her community had to face was in 1992, during the Babri Mosque crisis in India. “This temple was destroyed by some people and we had to hide all our young girls in a missionary hospital. They are the most vulnerable segment of our community during such times.”
The temple is the centre for all cultural activities that take place in this community. The most important of these is Pongal – the celebration of the new harvest which takes place around mid-January. “It’s like your Eid,” Lalatanga explained, trying to stress the importance of the event in the popular vocabulary.
“During the Pongal festival, the whole Madrasi community comes together from across the city and gathers in this temple. It is the only Madrasi event we celebrate every year.”
On Sundays, the families make Idli and Dossa, signature-south Indian dishes. “On holidays (Sunday), our women make South Indian dishes, because they require a lot hard work,” said Kari Das. These are just some of the cultural traditions that they have managed to hold on to.
The Tamil Hindus, being a sub-group of a religious minority, are torn between the urge to blend into mainstream Pakistani culture and the need to keep a grip on their own rich cultural heritage.