Home Memoirs Leaving Karachi – II

Leaving Karachi – II

Leaving Karachi – II
Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku

Raghavan’s friend Mr. Ponniah was the editor of one of Karachi’s two major English-language newspapers, the Sind Observer. He provided a deadline to accompany the rumors that had been circulating around the offices of Karachi’s civil servants. Families would be requested to evacuate over the course of the next two weeks, to wait out the war’s end in their native villages.

By Sheila Sundar

One afternoon, after soldiers arrived at his cricket field, Raghavan explained to Narayan the meaning of the word conscript. “They don’t choose to fight?” Narayan asked. He had never lived under a government he would want to serve. He felt loyalty to those around him—his friends from the cricket field, his family, his classmates, the others on Bunder Road—but the government was composed of something foreign that circled far above them. He had always viewed the white soldiers as extensions of the British Crown. Perhaps they, too, were simply pieces to be moved at the whim of their leaders.

After the initial shock of their whiteness faded, the most distinguishing quality of the soldiers was the quality of their cricket bats. Indian boys, if they were lucky enough to own a bat, purchased those manufactured by carpenters in Punjab and sold at the local market. Narayan had never seen a British cricket bat. His own was a prized possession. Until the soldiers arrived at their field, he was unaware of its inadequacy compared to the English willow.

The cricket field was next to the firing range, and Narayan could see the donkeys plodding slowly in the distance, their heads bowed to the ground. His group of six or seven boys was used to making do with the Punjabi bats and the small numbers of players. The British swung their glossy bats as they walked, and they became a full complement of eleven.

In the beginning the British soldiers and Indian boys batted wordlessly. Eventually the groups divided into two teams across lines of age and color, and Narayan would listen to the soldiers call to each other. Residents from the neighboring buildings sat on their balconies and on the edges of the field to watch the spectacle. As the soldiers began to talk, the intimacy that Narayan assumed of them began to crack. There were Englishmen who spoke differently from the Scotsmen, who used words the Welsh did not understand. There were Americans too, he learned, who never came to the cricket field. The more they kept score and played and shouted to each other across the field, the more aware Narayan grew of the thin divisions among a people who, to him, looked entirely the same. It had never before occurred to him that people could share a skin color and a language, but not a country.


Raghavan’s friend Mr. Ponniah was the editor of one of Karachi’s two major English-language newspapers, the Sind Observer. He provided a deadline to accompany the rumors that had been circulating around the offices of Karachi’s civil servants. Families would be requested to evacuate over the course of the next two weeks, to wait out the war’s end in their native villages.

“Eventually the war will be over,” Raghavan said. He was a servant of the British, but his servitude fed his family. He moved quickly from anger to logistics.

“Eventually they will be over as well,” Mr. Ponniah said.

Raghavan could have repeated the comments he often made in private when he wrestled with rumors of the end of British rule. He often reminded his family that the need for an English-language newspaper was created by the British, that 1942 had brought the Sind Observer unprecedented success. He could have noted that he and Mr. Ponniah did not share a native language and conducted their friendship only in English. Instead he began to plan, accepting the possibility that British involvement in the war would fracture his family and his city.

Narayan, too, wrestled with these rumors. His native fluency in English made him a certain type of Indian, and the power of language created a wall around him that was permeable only from the inside. The British wielded an authority that was invisible but ever-present. Yet he could not articulate the elements of this power, so he was unable to imagine an India without it. In addition, the soldiers had enlivened their cricket game. And then there were the movies.

A number of the city’s movie theaters had begun screening Hollywood films, and Mr. Ponniah encouraged Raghavan to allow Narayan to attend the nearby Sind Theater. Although the British attended the theater, Mr. Ponniah argued, the films were exclusively products of America’s Hollywood. They segregated the theater, but that would not make the films less enjoyable. When Raghavan relented, Mr. Ponniah encouraged Narayan to converse with the Americans who did not share the British colonial mindset. He told Narayan to practice his English, but to leave just as the film ended, when the British played their national anthem, “God Save the King,” and demanded the rapt attention of all members of the audience.

Narayan went to the theater every weekend, assuming his seat in the front row that the British had reserved for natives. He always occupied the seat in the corner, his elbow tenuously perched on the rest as though preparing for an escape. The theater screened Union Pacific, Little Caesar, The Westerner, and he attended dutifully, following Mr. Ponniah’s orders to leave just as the names of the actors began their slow crawl upwards.

Narayan attended his final screening days before his family temporarily left Karachi to make room for the British and American troops. He sat in his usual seat, but something blocked his retreat and he found himself standing inside in the row beside the exit as the notes of “God Save the King” crackled through the speakers.

A British soldier stood by the row of Americans. “Stand up,” he ordered. The British soldier raised his arm and the Americans pushed back. In their drab uniforms, their arms and torsos blended into each other’s bodies. Narayan had no way of knowing who was winning. He tried to move towards the exit, but another man had walked in, wearing a different uniform that suggested a higher rank. The peripheral men stopped fighting, their investment too casual to risk punishment. But the men in the middle were still on the floor, consumed by battle, their punches heavy and hard and direct. The large soldier walked to the middle and kicked the men, who rolled onto their backs and rose to their feet. Then he turned to Narayan. “You,” he said. “Stop.”

Narayan pressed his back against the wall and waited.

“Who started this?” the man asked.

Narayan shook his head. He scanned the faces of the soldiers, hoping to recognize one as a comrade from the cricket field, but they appeared suddenly blank and indistinguishable.

“You’ll tell me who started this right now.”

“He doesn’t speak a damn word of English,” one of the soldiers said.

“He was watching the movie. Must speak something.”

“The Indian boys just sneak in,” the soldier continued. “They do it every screening. You’ll trust a native over your own men?”

Narayan, newly skilled at distinguishing accents, determined that he was British. He raised his finger and searched the two men’s faces. He knew the men were pawns, individually as powerless as he was, but collectively able to reshape the contours of his life. He recalled the sound of target practice tearing through the silence of his classroom. He pointed to the British soldier. “He did,” he said. Two weeks after his final visit to the theater, his family left Karachi to await the end of the war. (Continues)


Sheila Sundar is currently at work on her first novel, set in South India in the 1960s. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The New York Times, The Bookends Review, and elsewhere.

Courtesy: Guernica, an online magazine on global arts and politics.