The Friday Times: August 27- September 2, 2010
Stories we need to tell
Sanam Maher takes a tour through the bittersweet memories of Pakistan’s birth
When Asif Noorani was a young boy in Bombay in 1947, a number of bullies in his school dared him to raise the slogan, “Down with the Union Jack!” The young Asif obliged, chanting the slogan in his school. When asked if he knew what the slogan meant or what the Union Jack was, he recited, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…” Mr. Noorani related this incident to a packed room of children this Independence Day at the Mohatta Palace Museum at an event organized by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), in collaboration with Radio 1 FM 91 and Kifayat Academy. “I was 5 years old when Pakistan was created,” Mr. Noorani, a well-known author, told the children, drawing them in closer to narrate the story of his two-day journey to Karachi from Bombay by ship. While some of these children (aged 6 to 11 years) may have been held hostage by grandparents with similar tales, none complained or fidgeted as I had been expecting. Radio 1 FM 91’s RJ Rabiah Ahmed had spent the previous hour entertaining them with stories from a number of Suntra magazine issues (a children’s magazine published by Kifayat Academy), jokes, poetry recitals and raucous bursts of ‘Dil, Dil Pakistan’ and other songs.
The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a not-for-profit education and heritage institute, organized the event in tandem with their interactive exhibition for children, ‘The Birth of Pakistan’. The event promised to ‘bring stories of sacrifice from 1947 to children’ and ‘to make history come alive for them in a unique way’. Featuring Kahani Corner, ‘a unique and interactive story-telling session’ with Rabiah Ahmed and Meri Kahani Meri Zabani, a highlight from past CAP events such as the bi-annual Shanaakht Festival, whereby members of Pakistan’s Partition Generation recount their memories of Pakistan’s early years.
Held at the Mohatta Palace Museum, ‘The Birth of Pakistan’ explores the struggle for an independent Pakistan and the challenges the fledgling state faced in its early years – while parents can enjoy hundreds of archival photographs, documents and oral histories that are part of the exhibition, their children are invited to hop on board a train to experience a refugee family’s harrowing journey to Pakistan, explore the lives of migrants who sought shelter in tents and even pick up their copy of Pakistan’s first passport from a passport office. The exhibition opened on March 23rd earlier this year and has welcomed at least 9,000 school children from across Karachi. Parents are encouraged to discuss facets of Pakistan’s history and identity through the exhibition with their children – during Kahani Corner as Rabiah entertained the children with stories, she asked parents in the room to read aloud with her to their children and subsequently explore the exhibition. A face-painting booth situated near exhibits about migration and settlements in Pakistan in 1947 was added incentive for the younger or more hesitant children to dive into the exhibition. Children were encouraged to approach the day as ‘Pakistan’s Birthday’ – green and white balloons crowded the ceiling of the room and every child was given party favours, including several issues of Suntra magazine.
Despite the festive atmosphere, the organisers acknowledged that ‘this year 14th August will be celebrated differently in the country – with so many displaced…and others mourning, many will wonder what there is to celebrate.’ Rabiah made sure to address the recent crisis facing Pakistan due to the floods. “Even though you’re young,” she said, “you can affect change.” She reminded children to donate toys or clothes or encourage their parents to donate to victims of the flood. “Remember what its like when you’re fasting?” she said to a sea of somber faces. “Imagine if you didn’t have access to food or clean water even though you were that hungry.”
As Rabiah left the children pondering their role as Pakistanis, Asif Noorani asked, “What does the white line on the Pakistani flag represent?” Mr. Noorani explained to the children that they must always be cognizant of the fact that though the country was made for the Muslims, “it was not only for the Muslims” but for thousands of members of other religious groups as well. Discussing violence that occurred at the time of Partition, he mentioned that “the killing was not one-sided”, a fact that perhaps mystified several children in the room. “Tell the children what Karachi used to be like!” called out one mother. “The first thing I saw in Pakistan,” Mr. Noorani replied, “was the Manora lighthouse in Karachi, when my ship from Bombay arrived in the city.” He fondly described the camels he saw at the port, the call of bus conductors and the web of trams in Karachi.
As far as I can remember, 14th August has been marked by the sputter of gunfire at midnight, sleepy school mornings spent singing the national anthem and hundreds of crescents and stars. But it was a silent night at midnight this 13th August, and Independence Day celebrations were muted by the stories of thousands who have lost their homes and families in one fell swoop. The sadness was eased as I stood with a room full of children, as a bust of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi arm in arm looked on, as we sang the Pakistani national anthem.