City Nostalgia – Life of an Expat Student

Note: Thassim Akbar, A Sri Lankan student spent five years at NED from 1971 to 1976. Following is the first part of his experiences in the city.

I left home for the first time at the age of nineteen, bound for Karachi, Pakistan on the 5th February, 1971. I had been awarded a Pakistan Government Cultural Scholarship for Undergraduate Studies in Engineering. My first choice was Marine Engineering but as that was not available; I opted for Mechanical Engineering at NED Engineering College. With me was another Sri Lankan student, Gamini Bamunuwitharne who opted for Electrical Engineering.

Our Air Ceylon Trident Flight landed at Karachi where we were met by Mr. Farid who was the Administrative Officer at NED. We were taken to Sevakunj Hostel in Arambagh which was one of two hostels housing NED students at that time. We were put in a room for three. Our partner was Muhammed Bashir a third year undergrad in Civil Engineering for Azad Kashmir. He was a bearded religious person and every time after the Adhan, he would take his miswak and cap and leave the room heading for the Masjid. At that time I was not religious and did not pray although I was inclined towards religion. Later on a tall imposing person with a long beard and leather cap visited our room. He was Muhammed Amir, the head prefect of the hostel. He hailed from Gilgit. Next day being Eid, I wanted to attend the festival prayers and he promised to take me along.

So began our stay atKarachiandPakistan. It was a bit of a culture shock for me, having lived in at home all my life inCeylon, my father being the Chief Water Works Engineer,Colombo, and following a more westernized life style. However I was made to feel at home and developed a close friendship with our Pakistani friends especially Muhammed Amir from Gilgit and his room mate Ghulam Murtaza Shah from Jehlum who helped us to settle down. We would eat Kinoo and other fruits and order tea from the café down stairs which was run by people of the Bahai faith. In fact Sevakunj was also owned by Bahai’s I think, and they had a free medical clinic once a week. Also they ran a reading room downstairs where we could read all the daily newspapers. In those days this was our only contact with the outside world when there was no internet and TV was limited. Also letters would take about 2 weeks to go toSri Lankaand another two weeks to get a reply. So you can imagine how isolated we were. No mobiles, no telephone etc. So it was really great to enjoy the hospitality and friendship with the other boys in the hostel from different parts ofPakistanand the some other countries as well. I would say that at that timePakistanwas a well knit society free of the current divisions and internal strife.

So on Eid we went early to an open place some where near the Quadi Azam Mausoleum. The prayers were conducted by Moulana Ehthishamul Haq Thanvi. His discourse in Urdu after the prayers was most pleasant to listen to. Urdu is quite a melodious rhyming language. There after we visited various friends of Amir, Bashir and Ghulam Murtaza. Mostly these were religious people connected to the Tablighi movement. Close to the Sevakunj Hostel was the Arambagh Masijid. It was a beautiful looking red and white marbled construction. On the rear side it opened to the Aram Bagh which was a park area without much greenery. Across the park on the other side was the Bab-ul-Islam Masjid. This was a well carpeted and well maintained mosque. We used to attend prayers in both Masjids and more often at Bab-ul-Islam. I was told that there were some differences between the two schools of Islamic learning viz. Deoband and Brevly. Hence there was some friction between these two. However in Ceylon we had no such experience at that time although it has surfaced now in Sri Lanka but not to that degree.

So life for me revolved around the Hostel, mosque and the university. NED stands for Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw, a Parsi philanthropist who founded the college. Those days there was a Parsi fire temple at the corner near Pakistan Chowk, as the place was known. The Chowk was a circular space at the middle of the junction of about five or six roads that converged at this point. The Chowk was often occupied by police who used to sit there and play cards. I suppose those days they did not have much to do. This was the old city with old apartment buildings and no garden space. A lot of shops and businesses were on Bunder Road.

I wondered if DJ College had Parsi origin. Before partition NED was affiliated to Bombay University. That was well before the creation of Pakistan. I have visited Mumbai several times and found that there was a sizeable Parsi population. We do have a small number of Parsi families in Sri Lanka too who are very industrious and are in Business.

to be continued.

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5 Comments on “City Nostalgia – Life of an Expat Student”

  1. September 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Interesting read for me, such a different perspective….I think day scholars must have a completely different college experience from hostelites, esp those from another country….

  2. September 27, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    sounds like a lost era..

  3. T. Khan
    October 11, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Thank you Mr. Akbar for sharing your experience of living in Karachi. It was nice to have the perspective of a Sri Lankan as I found your description of the era very interesting and fairly accurate. Although Karachi was changing, however, it was still a relatively calm and peaceful place. The country had lost its other half; and those who were friends & neighbors became strangers and foe overnight. The businesses that were dependent on East Pakistan were showing signs of depression. The political paradigm were also changing. A charming and well liked feudal lord who preached democracy but broke every tenet of it in its infancy was in power. The citizens who rightly earned the right to form the government were denied that privilege. The profitable industries were being nationalized. The common men were enamored with the slogans and promises of equal stake in the economic pie. Those promises were never meant to be kept. The unheard culture of pistols and motorcycle violence were showing their early signs. There was a feeling of economic uncertainty amongst the middleclass recent college graduates to find a career. Hence the massive emigration to USA, Middle East and other Western countries happened just in time.

    I noticed your mentioning the two Masajids of the area and their different school of thoughts. I lived in the vicinity of both Masajids, and attended either depending on my urgency to finish the prayers and get back to the priority of playing cricket/basketball/soccer or whatever sports I was involved with. Of course, there were moments when I and my friends wanted to finish the prayers ASAP so that we can go back to our innocent activity of staring at pretty girls before they leave the balconies of their homes. Sometimes the main reason to go for the prayers was to show our good moral character to the most beautiful girl of the neighborhood. Hence, Babul Islam was our choice since they always did everything early especially Friday prayers as it allowed us to catch the matinee of the just released Pakistani/English films . Arambagh Masjid had the attraction of giving away sweets and other goodies on every Islamic event, whereas Babul Islam was pretty dry, never gave anything. Although my parents preferred Arambagh Masjid, however, had no particular objection to attending either as long as we go for the prayers.

    You mentioned Moulana Ehthishamul Haq Thanvi, who along with Moulana Shafi Okaarvi were the famous religious leaders of that era. I must say that Moulana Thanvi had a very calming and softer approach in his speeches where as Moulana Okarvi was somewhat flamboyant, boisterous and funny in his sermons. However, I have every reason to believe, that aside from ideological differences they both respected each other. Their following of different school of thoughts seldom resulted in any violent actions from either’s sides. However, their followers always wanted to out do each other to glamorize their spiritual leader’s status. On one occasion when it became known to the Oakarvi’s followers that Moulana Thanvi’s followers had him ride a very well decorated horse and had a grand entrance at a religious event; Okarvi’s followers considered it a challenge and had to come up with an equivalent display of their ingenuity. So they came up with a great idea; one evening of Jashne Miladun-Nabi I was amazed to witness from our balcony, the grand entourage of Moulana Okarvi riding a heavily decorated elephant entering in to Aram Bagh. It was a sight to be seen & remember. We still happily laugh about it when reminisce about our childhood.

    I am sure folks who lived in the proximity of these Masajids probably remember many more of those good times when Arambagh was a happening place. “

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. City Nostalgia – Life of an Expat Student | Tea Break - September 25, 2011

    […] City Nostalgia – Life of an Expat Student […]

  2. City Landmarks – Sevakunj Hostel (Addendum) | The Karachi Walla - March 11, 2014

    […] Experience of an expat student living in Sevakunj Hostel […]

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