LIFE, AS IT WAS THEN... IN KARACHI
By Lt. Gen. EA Vas, PVSM
was born on May 15, 1923 in Karachi, a small port with a cosmopolitan
population: a majority of Sindhi Muslims, many Sindhi Hindus, some
Hindus from elsewhere in India, a few Christians and Parsis, and a
sprinkling of Jews.
The Christian elements consisted mainly of people from Goa who had begun
migration to British-administered regions from the early 19th century
onwards for economic reasons.
Whole villages under intrepid leaders would set off to East Africa,
Calcutta, Bombay and Karachi in search of a better life. Males would
form the advance guard. If things worked out well, they would be
followed by others and then their women.
Goans travelled to Karachi in Arab dhows and the journey took a week. My
grandparents moved to Karachi at the time of the Great Indian Mutiny
(1857). When they reached Sindh, my grandparents could only speak
Karachi was expanding rapidly. British trading houses and local
government services needed reliable middle-men. employment was no
problem provided one learnt English.
Goans who could not educate themselves became the cooks and butlers of
the Raj. Goans are not exceptional cooks, but because they had no taboos
about handling any type of meat or fish, they were welcome by the
British memsahibs who taught them to cook the meals they liked. Goans
soon became excellent professionals who dominated their occupations.
In most Goans, a natural tendency to religious piety, already
established by their Hindu traditions, was greatly enhanced by Roman
Thus, a Catholic school, a convent and a church dominated areas where
Goans resided. St Patrick's High School was a boys' school in a small
town, but among those who passed out in my time were India's first
Cardinal, one of India's Air Chief Marshals, and a president of the
Bharatiya Janata Party.
Along St Patrick's School was St Patrick's Church and St Joseph's
Convent for girls. Pious Goans attended mass regularly on Sundays, kept
Friday as a meatless day and fasted during Lent. Family members would
sit together every evening before their supper and recite the rosary in
Konkani. Young boys and girls were imbued with a desire to educate
themselves and better their prospects.
They were ready to meet new challenges. There was a strong desire to
modernize through the medium of the English language, and Christianity
enabled the Goan to accept Westernization, without any inhibitions.
The community believed in, and practised, sound simple Victorian values:
devotion to duty, the sanctity of a promise, all hard work and duty
would be rewarded, justice and the rule of law must be upheld, truth
would prevail, honesty is the best policy. There were maxims and
epigrams to cover every aspect of life from waste to punctuality. As
children, these values were drilled into us.
Goans were prudish about sex.
This was then a common Indian attitude which is surprising, as Hindu
culture subsumed the concept of Shiva and Shakti without which men and
women were incomplete. This concept was developed further in the dual
presence of Rama and Sita, and Radha and Krishna.
Yet, like so many other human cultures, we have surrounded sex with
myths and misconceptions which prevent the growth of healthy sex and
sexuality. In the case of the Goan, these inhibitions were reinforced by
vague notions of sin and hellfire.
Anyhow, the community was a small, compact one where almost everyone
knew one another by sight if not name. Thus, clandestine liaisons were
difficult. This is not to deny that there were frequent scandals which
were discussed with great enjoyment by the gossipers. However, I grew up
wise about many things except sex.
To begin with, Goan immigrants settled in the Cantonment area, which was
referred to as "camp". When the influx from Goa increased, it became
difficult to acquire housing in Camp. An enterprising Goan, Cincinnatus
D'Abreo, acquired 1000 acres of land outside the cantonment. In 1908,
this was developed into Karachi's first planned township, which was
named Cincinnatus Town (today this forms part of Garden East).
[Cincinnatus D'Abreo migrated to Sind in 1846, was educated at St
Patrick's School, rose to be Assistant Commissioner of Sind, and retired
as Collector of Customs. He founded the Indian Life Assurance Co., was
elected to the Karachi Municipality, and became Director of the Karachi
Electric Supply Corporation.
Cincinnatus Town developed an independent character with its own school,
convent and church. Interestingly, the school was not established by the
clergy. Jufelhurt High School was run on modern secular lines by
Cincinnatus's talented grand daughters.
Common to Camp and Cincinnatus Town, and the centre of Goan social
activities, was the Karachi Goan Association (KGA, which was housed in a
large double-storied stone building. This still stands opposite the
Founded in 1886 as the Goan Portuguese Association (GPA), the present
building designed by Moses Somake, was formally opened in 1905, after
which the name was changed to the KGA.
The KGA had a library, card and billards room, and an auditorium with a
dance floor, stage and a pit for the orchestra. Goans are a happy,
musical people who love singing and dancing. Educated Goans were
expected to learn to play some Western musical instrument as a matter of
form. The Goan Orchestra in its time was of a high standard. It was
customary for the KGA to organise an annual children's concert, a play
and a musical extravaganza once a year.
* * *
Goans, who established themselves in Karachi, ran their own professions
or small businesses, joined trading firms or government services and
A few trickled northwards to Hyderabad (Sindh), Quetta, Lahore and Delhi
in search of adventure or better prospects. Some who did well for
themselves in north India grew ashamed of their less fortunate brethren
who had also moved northwards to accompany their sahibs as cooks.
Rather than be mistaken for, or be associated with, those "Goanese
cooks", they changed their surnames and began calling themselves
Anglo-Indians. But those who stayed in Karachi and Bombay took pride in
their Goan heritage, maintained their love for Goan food (and feni),
celebrated their village feasts, sang Konkani songs and enjoyed
performing their traditional dances. A few who knew Portuguese
considered themselves a cut above the others.
The Goan community kept to itself socially, but maintained good working
relations with the ruling British, and the other religious communities.
Initially, bachelors were forced to look to Goa for their mates. It was
normal for a prospective bride to travel in a dhow from Goa to Karachi
with a large truck containing her crockery, jewellery and clothes, and
an upright piano as her dowry.
Later, when the community had grown in numbers, young women and men
found their partners in Karachi, but a continual trickle of ladies
continued to enter Karachi from Goa. Some took pride in their Brahmin
genes and looked with disdain on lesser breeds of Goans; they wanted to
arrange their children's marriages only with Brahmin Christians. Our
family, though supposedly of Brahmin stock, had taken a typically
contrary Vas stance by breaking with the "Brahmins".
My paternal grandfather, Anthony Cajetan (AC) Vas, was from Saligao, a
village situated half-way between Panjim and Calungate (sic).
Enthusiastic descendants have tried to trace the Vas roots beyond this,
in the hope of digging up a venerable ancestor. Alas, their efforts have
However, what the Vas tradition lacked in distinguished lineage is more
than made up for in numbers. The family had a reputation of being
difficult: for one thing, it spelt the surname with an S when most
others wrote this as Vaz.
AC's elder brother was an accepted leader in the village and was
renowned for his wise decisions for which he was nick-named 'Solomon'.
AC was born shortly after Lord Macaulay, one of those extraordinary
Victorian savants and high priests of European humanism, who had issued
his celebrated Minute on Education in 1835.
Macaulay proposed that an English education would create "a class of
persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in
morals and in intellect." It was a bold and clearheaded vision. The
impact was far-reaching in three fields: politics, language and sports.
In politics, founding fathers of India and Pakistan, Gandhi, Nehru,
Radhakrishnan, Jinnah, Liaqat, best symbolise the Anglo-Indian
encounter. In language, Tagore, VS Naipaul, Nirad Chaudhuri, and many
others are examples of a rich literary harvest. In sports, especially in
that quintessentially English game, cricket, many Indians havegained an
AC reached Karachi in 1857. He at one started learningEnglish. By dint
of hard work, he was able to join theKarachi Customs Service at the
bottom of the ladder.
He must have been a remarkable man because over the nextthirty years he
married and produced twelve children and was eventually promoted to the
appointment of Chief Appraiser Karachi Customs.
AC was remarkable for two other reasons: first, he realized the value of
education and how the lack of this had handicapped him. He therefore
encouraged his children to read, study and think for themselves. Thus,
an outstanding characteristic of most Vas males and females is a
stubborn independence and a reluctance to become involved with
associations which might limit one's freedom of individual choice.
This detachment was particularly marked in its relation to the
acceptance of formal religions, including Christianity. The Vas approach
was liberal in its acceptance that there were many different paths to
God, and secular in its concept that religion and morality should be
Second, his eldest son, Joseph, became the first Goan to enter the
Indian Civil Service (ICS).
Joseph Vas studied at St Patrick's School. He did not distinguish
himself when he matriculated. When asked by his father why he had fared
so poorly, he replied, "How can one's talents be developed in Karachi?
Send me to England and you will see what results I produce."
AC had faith in his first born. Joseph went to Cambridge, England,
graduated in the arts and law, sat for the entrance examination for the
ICS, was selected and assigned to the Bengal cadre.
Joseph, on his return to India, became the economic and intellectual
driving force for his family. Thanks to his support, his four younger
brothers and sisters were given the best education possible.
His sister Matilda became the first Goan lady to graduate from Dayaram
Jethmal (DJ) Sind College. His brother, Alec, was sent to England to
study law. Most of Britain's top barristers then worked with a quarter
square mile section of London, in one of the four Inns of Court which
are much like colleges at university that provide barristers with dining
halls and libraries.
Alec joined the Middle Temple. The First World War (1914-18) broke out
before he could finish his final examination. He joined the volunteer
army and was killed in the Battle of the Somme (1916). His name is
inscribed on the Roll of Honour tablet displayed at the beautiful Temple
Church, one of London's historical treasures. Joseph's two younger
brothers, my father Cyril and Fred, graduated as doctors from the Grant
Medical College, Bombay.
Fred, unlike my father, was casual about medicine, he only practised as
a doctor when he needed the money. He otherwise preferred to play the
piano. I enjoyed Fred's company. He was a true eccentric and was always
annunciating some bizarre bit of information or quoting interesting
verse to illustrate a point under discussion.
He was a confirmed atheist and remained a bachelor. My father married
his cousin once removed, Sophie Vaz (that side of our family spelt the
surname with a Z). They had three children, Kenneth, myself and a
When I was born, AC and Joseph were no more. The paternal side of the
family had moved from Camp to Cincinnatus Town. But my parents continued
living in Camp with my maternal grandparents at 7 Native Infantry (NI)
Lines in a large bungalow with a huge compound located directly opposite
My father was a general practitioner with his dispensary near Victoria
Market. There are great differences in an individual's capacity to
remember his early days. Sammuel Becket said, "I have a clear memory of
my foetal existence." I have a very poor recall of my first seven years.
I am told that this is probably because I had a happy childhood.
My mother had one married sister, who along with her four children was
also living at 7 NI Lines. I vaguely remember being fussed over by my
three girl cousins and being taught Konkani and English songs which I
had to sing at family parties.
Birthdays were the common occasion for uncles and aunts to meet and
exchange gossip, and for the younger cousins to eat, play and perform
for their elders. Attending a party in Cincinnatus Town, which was some
eight kilometres away, was treated as an expedition into the
countryside; this entailed travelling there in father's Studebaker car.
As most of the twelve brothers and sisters on my father's side were
married and many were in Cincinnatus Town with families ranging from
three to six children, a birthday party could often see a collection of
some twenty or thirty noisy children.
Gandhi's Dandi March in 1930 ushered in the first Civil Disobedience
Movement. It was a sequel to Gandhi's eleven-point ultimatum to Viceroy
Irwin which concretized national aspirations with a list of specific
The movement saw the picketing of wine shops, processions and public
meetings in Karachi. It culminated in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact which
resulted in the release of political prisoners by the government and the
suspension of the Civil Disobedience Movement by Gandhi.
I have a personal recollection of the Movement. My mother and two of her
nieces had taken me with them on a shopping spree in the car. We were
gheraoed (surrounded) by surging crowds. Our Muslim driver's cap was
removed and torn up, and he was told to drive home. I was terribly
frightened and pissed in my pants. Years later, in 1985, when I saw the
film 'Gandhi' and a reconstruction of scenes from that Movement with the
surging crowds and khaki-clad policemen, I was vividly reminded of my
experience in 1930.
My paternal grandparents died before I was born. But I can remember both
my maternal grandparents with whom I lived.
My grandmother spoke little English and would converse with us in
Konkani. I remember one morning when we were sitting in the porch and
were approached by a British sergeant in uniform. He walked up to us and
said, "Gimme a lime" or so it sounded.
We had a lime tree in our compound which was always laden with fruit. My
grandmother, believing the man wanted a lime, told the servant to pluck
a few for him. When these were handed to the sergeant, he grew
In fact, he was part of the Cantonment anti-malaria squad which, once a
week, on alloted dry days, checked whether residents had emptied their
water tanks in the garden, so that mosquito larvae were killed.
He had discovered that our tank had not been properly drained and was
asking for our name, which he had pronounced "nime" and we had mistaken
He had wanted to record a formal complaint so that the house occupants
could be fined. The sergeant now assumed that the old lady was trying to
bribe him with limes to avoid a fine. After some exhilarating cross
talk, the confusion was sorted out, name given, and in the due course,
the fine was paid.
I remember this incident not only because of the accompanying humour,
but because of this display of efficient "no-nonsense" Cantonment
administration. Karachi was kept clean and hygienic by a small squad of
civilians supervised by British soldiers who ensured that anti-malaria
precautions were implemented, garbage was cleaned systematically,l roads
were watered by sprinklers everyday to keep down the dust, stray dogs
shot by an old soldier with a 12-bore gun who
never missed his quarry; the carcass was then dumped in a mule-cart
which followed him.
Cyclists had to have lamps lit after dark and were not allowed to carry
a pillion passenger; defaulters, if caught, were fined on the spot by
strict honorary magistrates who were periodically positioned at
strategic points. The Cantonment authorities not only made good laws but
ensured that these were obeyed without fear or favour...
* * *
Whereas my father was alert to current and international affairs and was
drawn to Gandhi and nationalism, I doubt my mother was interested in
such things. She was very fond of music. She had a gramophone which had
to be wound up to reproduce sound from a 78 rpm record through a tin
trumpet; a copy of teh one depicted on the famous His Master's Voice
trade mark with the "Nipper" dog listening to the trumpet.
I grew up familiar with popular Western classical and semi-classical
music, specially those songs which were sung by my mother. I remember
seeing many silent movies: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold
Lloyd. I must have been seven years old when the cinema in Karachi moved
out of the era of silent films to sound movies.
My mother died of cancer in 1932 at the very early age of 37. I was then
nine years old yet do not remember her long painful illness, nor her
death. People tell me that my parents were opposites. My father was
temperate; my mother was passionate. She was demanding, beautiful,
out-going and a law unto herself. He was kindly and withdrawn. She was
found of music, singing, dancing and outdoor games. Her favourite sport
was tennis. She played the piano and took an active part in the annual
plays that were staged at the KGA.
She was also an active member of the Goan Choral Society. I had an old
HMV 78 rpm record on which her voice could clearly be heard in solo
roles singing popular Konkani songs. This unfortunately broke during one
of my numerous military postings.
My father was not unduly fond of music. He was fond of indoor games:
bridge and billards. The KGA was the centre of my mother's social life.
My father preferred to spend his time at the cosmopolitan Karachi Club.
Yet, as so often happens in marriages of opposites, they seemed to have
been very attached to each other. He was young when she died. He must
have missed her a great deal. He never married again. After mother's
death, father was faced with a problem on how to raise three young
children. His sister, my Aunt Matilda, who then lived in Cincinnatus
Town, was a widow with one son Vincent (Bude). Matilda had lost her
husband some years earlier, had vast properties and a large house. She
was living alone with her son, who was a gentle loving young man. He was
studying for a degree in civil engineering.
This widower brother and widow sister living together was an ideal
situation. It worked out well because Matilda was educated, kind and a
loving foster mother to the three of us. My aunt disliked formality and
asked us to call her Aunt Mitty. Even this was considered too formal and
was further reduced to aunt Mit; we soon converted this into Amitt.
She had a large collection of of music books of Western songs, popular
ballads, American folk songs and Negro spirituals. She sensed my love of
music and would play the piano for me every day, and encouraged me to
learn the tunes and the words, and to sing with her. I did not have a
good voice but had a natural sense of harmony. I soon learnt to pick out
the tunes I liked by ear and add a base harmony on the piano. Amitt
began to teach me to read music; she had all the material needed for a
beginner and I learnt fast.
I also acquired a taste for Jazz.
The best dance band in Karachi was the Goan group run by Mickey
(saxophone) and Alec (drums) Correa. I would endeavour to attend every
monthly dance organised at the KGA in order to hear the Correa brothers
play my favourites: 'Tiger Rag', 'In the Mood', 'Tea for Two', 'Lady be
Good' and so many others.
Later, I wanted to hear these numbers played by top US performers Louis
Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller and all the old greats.
Unfortunately, radio receptions were still of poor quality. I had to
purchase records to hear what I wanted. I look back nostalgically to the
days when I saved my pocket money for months to buy one gramaphone
record. And di so after listening critically to four or five other
records in a little private cubicle at Hadyn's Music Shop.
Thus, buying a record was an occasion to entertain myself with a short
musical recital. Today, one can buy a wide choice of orchestras playing
the same music and get what one wants by merely quoting a catalogue
number... This somehow takes all the fun out of purchasing gramaphone
Received from Marilyn Correa, Toronto, Canada
August 24, 2009
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