Crossing Over is the most recent volume in the series from Mänoa: A
Pacific Journal of International Writing, published by the University of
Hawai'i Press. For two decades, Mänoa has been featuring contemporary
literature from countries and regions in Asia, the Pacific, and the
Americas. Many of these works have never before appeared in English
translation, or have not been readily accessible to American and other
Teresa was born to Cyril and Sophia Vas in 1927. Her grandfather had migrated to Karachi, possibly in the 1870s, from Goa, a verdant region comprising about 1,400 square miles on India's west coast. Goa and Karachi are strikingly different. Goa is moist and fertile, while Karachi is hot and dry. Since the early sixteenth century, Goa was separated from the rest of India, colonized by Portugal rather than Britain. In this Portuguese enclave, Goans developed a distinct identity. For example, a large minority of Goans were Roman Catholic rather than Hindu (today Christians still comprise about thirty percent of Goa's population), having been converted, sometimes by force, by the Portuguese. At the same time, many of the converted Goans maintained their Hindu culture. The language of the upper classes was Portuguese instead of the English spoken in the rest of India by the British colonists and those who worked for them. Most Goans in Goa, however, spoke Marathi or Konkani. In addition, many Goans took Portuguese surnames. Similarly, many towns and districts acquired Portuguese names; for example, the major port city is called Vasco, after Vasco Da Gama.
By the mid-1800s, large numbers of Goans were moving to Karachi to find work under the British. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the city became South Asia's closest major port to Europe, and by 1900 Karachi had become the biggest wheat-exporting port in the British Empire. Like other Goan migrants who hoped to do well, Teresa's Roman Catholic grandfather would have had to learn to speak English. While this was somewhat of an obstacle, Goans wanting to work for the British in Karachi had several things in their favor: Goans were predominantly Christian, they had long been familiar with European culture, they got along with everyone, and they were hard workers. Their British employers favored them, and Goans prospered. Moving up in the British civil, government, and defense services, they built homes and started families. They lived in communities with names such as Depot Lines, Soldier Bazaar, Cincinnatus Town (now called Garden East), Camp (later known as Saddar), and Catholic Colonies. By the time of Partition, Catholic Colonies and Saddar had become the city center of Karachi.
Religion played an important role in creating a cohesive Goan community. There was no church in Karachi when the large migrations began, so with support from the Irish Fusiliers and other Roman Catholic soldiers and individuals, the Goans built St. Patrick's chapel, which became a church and eventually an impressive cathedral. When St. Patrick's was completed in 1881, it had high vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and marble paving, and could accommodate 1,500 worshipers. With a fine private school supported by the church, St. Patrick's became a center for the entire Catholic community; adults and children gathered there for social events, as well as for religious services and festivals.
In 1886, the community was large enough to establish a library, which became the Goan Portuguese Association. Later, as the community outgrew this facility, the name was changed to the Karachi Goan Association. In 1905, the association completed construction of a lavish stone building that had Belgian tiles and teak flooring, used for cultural, sporting, and other gatherings. The building, called variously the Goa-Portuguese Hall and Goan Gymkhana, was one of the most elegant and prominent structures in the Saddar Bazaar, an area of sprawling shops with expensive imported goods, food markets, and sellers of all manner of merchandise. The area included the Empress Market (named after Queen Victoria, Empress of India) and Elphinstone Street (now Zaibunnisa Street), which had the largest number of shops of any street in the bazaar. Across Bunder Road (now M.A. Jinnah Road) was a forty-three-acre park, laid out by the British in 1874, called Government Garden or Rani Bagh (later Gandhi Garden, and now the Zoological Garden). The park had a large bandstand as well as grounds set aside for cricket and croquet. The Goan community thrived in Karachi, and many Goans became entrepreneurs, business managers, and professionals.
Teresa's grandfather also did well in Karachi, rising to the post of Customs Inspector. Members of his large, cultured family became prominent among the ranks of the military and professional classes. The oldest son, Joseph Anthony, born in 1875, was the first Goan to pass the Indian Civil Service exam and had an outstanding career in the Service. After attending D.J. Sind College in Karachi (established in 1887), Joseph received degrees from King's College, Cambridge, in 1898. He was then posted to Bengal, where he died at age forty-six. He was survived by his wife, Mattie.
Joseph's brother Alec joined the British Indian Army during World War I, perhaps encouraged by the fact that Karachi was then the headquarters of Allied Operations in the Middle East and a major supply depot for British troops. It was Alec who changed the spelling of the family name from "vaz" to "vas," to increase his chances of being taken for an Anglo-Indian, desirable for recruitment into the British Indian Army. At the time, the British Indian Army was the largest volunteer army in the world, and Alec was one of approximately 1.4 million Indians sent to help the allies in World War I. He was killed about 1915, possibly at the Second Battle of Ieper in Belgium, and buried in what has become known as Flanders Field.
The daughters of the family included Mathilda, affectionately known as
Mitz, and Gilomena. And there were three more sons: Alfie, Cyril, and
Teresa's other brother, Ken, married a Karachi woman named Yolanda; after Partition, the couple opted to stay in Pakistan, despite their not being Muslim.
Cyril and Sophie Vas raised their young family in the area called Depot
Lines, in a house directly across from the Karachi Goan Association
Hall. In many of the family photographs, the large stone building is
visible in the background. During these years before Partition, Karachi
was relatively tranquil, clean, and well regulated, despite the city's
rapid growth as an important British seaport. But the period was not
without sorrows for the Vas family. Teresa's mother, Sophie, died in
1932, and the family moved in with Cyril's widowed sister, Mathilda, and
her son, Bude (Vincent). They lived in the nearby area called
Cincinnatus Town, named after a prominent Goan, Cincinnatus D'Abreo. In
anticipation of marriage, Bude built a large house, Greyholme, for the
Partition dramatically and irrevocably altered Karachi. Before 1947, it was regarded as one of the most prosperous and well-planned cities in British India. Out of a total population of 400,000, Muslims comprised forty-two percent, while Hindus comprised fifty-one percent. Karachi had become the capital of Sindh Province in 1937, and the citizens were proud of their orderly city. Compared to cities in the part of the country that became Pakistan after Partition, Karachi—far to the east of the new border—was peaceful. When the riots began elsewhere in August 1947, migrants (known as mohajirs), streamed across the border into the newly created Pakistan, and within months more than 600,000 had reached Karachi. The numbers and desperation of the mohajirs put intense pressure on the local authorities to house and accommodate them, and many of the refugees found themselves having to live in refugee camps and squatter settlements (katchi abadis). Hindus were slow to leave at first, feeling somewhat secure in their numbers and their good relationships with the local Sindhi population. However, they soon felt overwhelmed by the newcomers, mainly Urdu-speaking, who needed shelter.
By early 1948, tensions were reaching the breaking point. In January, 200 to 300 Sikhs inexplicably arrived in Karachi by train. When the news spread, a mob of mohajirs, armed with hatchets and swords, surrounded the train cars. The Sikhs managed to lock themselves in a Sikh temple near the train station. When the mob could not break down the doors, they set the building on fire, burning alive most of the men, women, and children. Those who escaped the blaze were butchered as they fled. The riots quickly spread to other areas of the city, and many non-Muslims were raped and murdered. Rioting and looting continued for two days.
The incident shocked the local residents. Some—including a large number of the Sindhi-speaking population, who were of various ethnicities and held diverse political and religious points of view—had grown to resent the unruly refugees. In referring to themselves as mohajirs, the refugees were using the term adopted by the Prophet Muhammad's followers, who had fled to Medina in the sixteenth century to avoid persecution. In this sense, the refugees considered themselves the founding fathers of Pakistan. They were the ones who were sacrificing all for the new nation, and they felt themselves to have a special privilege over the Sindhis, whom they looked down upon as uneducated rural farmers.
The January riots led to a massive exodus from the city of 170,000 of the remaining Hindus, Christians, and other imperiled citizens. Further demographic changes occurred in May 1948, when, over the objections of the Sindhi population, Karachi was federalized and declared the capital of the new nation of Pakistan. Karachi's change of status meant that numerous senior officials and some 4,000 clerks who were needed to run the country were added to the congestion. In addition, Karachi's status as Sindh's provincial capital, having been superseded by the federal administration, resulted in the new government taking over buildings and land. Between 1947 and 1951, Karachi's population grew by 432 percent, as 815,000 new immigrants raised the population to 1.2 million. By 1951, the Muslim population was more than ninety percent of the total, and the Hindu and Sindhi-speaking populations less than ten percent. Today, the population of Karachi is 15 million and growing by 2 million per year.
These events took their toll on Teresa's family, as they did on many others. In addition, her father died in 1948, leaving only Teresa and Mathilda at home; her brother Ken had already married and moved into a house of his own. Teresa had been working since 1944, starting with her joining the Women's Royal Indian Naval Service (WRINS), so she was out during the day. Left at home by herself, Mathilda could not cope with the stress of ethnic tensions spreading through the city, and she was sent to Bombay, into the care of her extended family.
In 1945, Teresa took a job as a shore-based clerk in the Royal Indian Navy. In November of that year, Indian recruits in the Indian Civil Service and armed forces had staged a mutiny in Bombay. In the following months, the mutiny spread among the air force and navy, leading to street riots in sympathy for Indian independence. The mutinies may have hastened Britain's realization that its Indian colony was ungovernable. Military trials and inquiries ceased after Partition, and Teresa went to Bombay to join her extended family. She kept up her ties with Karachi, however, and even took a temporary job at the Indian consulate there before moving away for good.
In 1943, Teresa's cousin Alexander Athaide, known as Alec, married Phyllis de Lima. Alec was a sportsman of some repute in Karachi, but hardly on the level of his athletic wife. Born in Bombay in 1914, Phyllis was a national champion in several sports, particularly tennis, badminton, and table tennis. Having no opportunity to compete overseas, she played matches against world champions who passed through Bombay. As a young woman in her twenties, she left Bombay in 1942 to become an art teacher in Karachi, where she met and married Alec. In 1948, Alec and Phyllis moved to Bombay where they shared their two-bedroom apartment with displaced family members: Alec's parents; his sister, Kitty; his aunt Mathilda; and perhaps others as the need arose. The help that the extended family gave to one another was crucial in these difficult times.
In 1950, Teresa moved to London, encouraged by expatriate friends,
Anglo-Indians from Singapore whom she had met in Karachi. She worked
with her friend Coral in the East End and lived in a boardinghouse in
Finsbury Park. Eventually, she got a job at the Indian consulate in
London, allowing her to travel frequently to Bombay. Access to her home
city of Karachi, however, was almost impossible. Her brother Ken died in
Karachi, survived by his wife, who still lives there. Her brother Eric
is now retired but continues to be active in international relations,
writing for various journals and newspapers on the subjects of national
security and peace.
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