December Issue 2014

By | Society | Published 9 years ago

They came from the colony of coconut trees, clear beaches, churches and temples to settle in a fishing village in Sindh. As is the tale of all migrants, Karachi’s first Goan settlers left behind the comfort of their homeland in pursuit of greener pastures. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the British eyed Karachi as the jewel in their crown — a military cantonment and commercial hub after Bombay and Calcutta — Catholic Goans poured into the city in hundreds undertaking long, arduous journeys on sail boats.

Sharing a common religion and a reputation for hard work and honesty, the Goans were soon promoted to positions in the British Indian Civil Services — initially as cooks and domestic staff and later in the railways, police and telegraph services.

According to engineer and human rights activist, Roland deSouza: “The British tended to look more kindly on what they considered to be ‘buffer’ communities in the majority Muslim and Hindu populations. This included not just the Goans, but also the Anglo-Indians, the Parsis and even minority Muslim communities such as the Ismailis and the Bohras.”

Roland uses this as an explanation of some of the resentment towards these groups in later years. However, it would be unfair to attribute the success of these communities solely to patronage.

Indeed, the contribution of the Goans — like the Parsis, the Ismailis, the Bohras and the handful of Jews — to the city pre-and post-Partition has been immense. Unlike their Punjabi Christian counterparts, many of whom were born into poverty and thus remained marginalised, the Goans were largely an educated, English-speaking and middle class community.


Cincinnatus Fabian D’Abreo

They stood out due to their distinct Portuguese-sounding names — Ferndandez, Rodrigues, deSouza, Pinto, deMello, Mendes, Fonsesca, etc — and lived in and around Saddar and Garden East, then known as Cincinnatus Town. Named after the brilliant and dynamic Cincinnatus Fabian D’Abreo, this was Karachi’s first planned township, initiated by Pedro D’Souza and George Britto. Though most Karachiites today are unlikely to have heard the name, D’Abreo is known by many as the  “pioneer” of modern Karachi, who served as Councillor of Karachi Municipality and was instrumental in setting up many projects such as the Indian Flour Mills, the Union Press and the Indian Life Assurance Company.

His other contribution was towards the Karachi Goan Association (KGA), founded in 1886 by L.C. Gomes, where he served as President from 1901-1909 and then 1911-1926. A marble bust of D’Abreo from 1932 can still be seen in the KGA’s main hall, which thanks him for his “signal and selfless service” to the club.

During the Partition, as the city saw the arrival of thousands of Muslims from India and the departure of much of its prosperous Sindhi Hindu population, Goan Christians helped assist and accommodate the influx of refugees. This influx dramatically changed the demographics of the city. Nevertheless, Goans continued to have significance in both the private and public sectors soon after the birth of the new country, when Karachi was the capital.

Quaid-e-Azam appointed Frank D’Souza to set-up the Pakistan Railways. “On completion of his job in Pakistan, Frank returned to India and gave his beautiful house in Karachi to the nuns to be used as a home for the aged,” writes Menin Rodrigues on his website Goans of Pakistan, a wonderful and comprehensive source on the history and contributions of this community.

Another prominent Goan at the time was Manuel Misquita, elected the mayor of Karachi in 1945, who also served as President of the KGA, which was a vibrant and happening place in the city for many years. Goan bands would play here in the ’50s and the swinging ’60s. These bands were not just part of the jazz music scene, they were the scene. Also playing western pop, rock and country covers, they were an intrinsic part of Karachi nightlife.

Drummer Louis John Pinto, better known as Gumby, explains: “Muslims tend to see music as either entertainment or something forbidden. That confusion never existed for the Pakistani Goan community. Being a musician was perceived to be a well-paying profession, and it was encouraged by our parents.” Gumby’s own introduction to music came from church choirs, live wedding bands and community talent shows.


The swinging sixties. (Photo Courtesy of Noreen Fernandez)

“During the Christmas season, there were lots of functions by the KGA and the Karachi Goan Union Hall, where dances were organised. There were quite a few Goan bands, which played during these functions and at wedding receptions. All the roads were decorated and illuminated stars were hung outside homes. Groups of boys and girls would visit the houses and sing Christmas carols,” recalls Glenn Fernandez, who grew up in Karachi during the ’60s and ’70s. Glenn’s grandfather, Dominic Fernandez, arrived in the city in 1888 and worked for the Northwestern Railway. His father, Robert Fernandez, was born in Multan, studied in Lahore and then transferred to Karachi where he completed his matriculation from St Patrick’s High School, before going on to become a communication operator at the Indo European Telegraph Company.

Picnic at hawksbay 001

Goan teenagers picnic at the Hawkes Bay beach. (Photo Courtesy of Noreen Fernandez)

Many Goans studied at prestigious schools such as St Patrick’s for boys and St Joseph’s Convent School for girls. The community’s contribution towards education is unparalleled, as many were involved in teaching and some went on to become the principals or vice-principals of these institutions set up by Orders of Priests and Nuns or Irish fusiliers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other than education, Goans were also prolific journalists and writers. Perhaps the most well-known name is that of Anthony Mascarenhas, who documented the atrocities of the 1971 war, bringing it to the world’s attention.

In religion, Joseph Cordeiro and Anthony Theodore Felix Lobo are two distinguished names. Cordeiro was Pakistan’s first and only Cardinal and Lobo, who passed away last year, was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Karachi by Pope John Paul II and later became the Bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.

While contributing to the mainstream, many Goans held on to their way of life even while away from their home and the home of their ancestors, and lived in close-knit communities. “A Goan always dreams of his homeland: the carefree way of life there, the culture, the language, the villages they grew up in and for many, the families they left behind,” says Natasha deSouza. Natasha’s own father arrived in Karachi from Goa in August 1947, “as the new land promised opportunities for work as well as the freedom for religious minorities to practice their faith openly.”

“Konkani was spoken widely by the older generation, and English and Urdu were more of a second language. The older women dressed in saris, but they slowly switched to western dresses as time went by. The men mostly wore suits,” says Glenn.

“There used to be a large number of Goans back in the ’80s, when I was growing up. Like other minority communities, we mostly mingled amongst ourselves. I would say we were more ‘liberal’ than others,” adds Gumby.


Goan food was and continues to be popular to this day. Spicy fish curry using freshly ground masalas (“the black masala stone was to be found in every Goan home,” says Glenn), vindaloo, sorpotal and boiled rice were staple.

Glenn’s family owns the popular Nana’s Kitchen in Islamabad, and is the ideal person to speak to on the topic of food. “When I was a boy growing up in Karachi, I remember well the church melas, where homemade pickles, chutneys, sweets and various Goan food was available in abundance. During Christmas, special Goan sweets and cakes were made such as culculs, neuries (small pastry puffs filled with a halwa of fresh coconut, couscous, til seeds, raisins, nuts and brown sugar), almond and toffee grams, baath cake and voras.”

Iconic Goan bakeries such as PF Pereira and Misquita Bakery in Saddar were popular for their special Christmas fruitcakes and hot cross buns on Good Friday and Easter. Also popular were PF Pereira’s lemon and fish tarts.

“There was peace and harmony in those days. Everyone lived together and celebrated each other’s feasts and holidays. There was little to no intolerance and absolutely no discrimination. Parsis, Memons, Sindhis, Hindus, Christians, Bohris, Aga Khanis, Makranis, etc all lived together as neighbours and friends,” Glenn reminisces.

To speak of the Goans in Karachi today is to speak of the past, but the past is another country. As the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Pakistan People’s Party  tussled in a war of words over who built Karachi, Rawalpindi-based Brigadier (retd.) Samson Simon Sharaf penned an article titled ‘Karachi’s Forgotten Communities’ in The Nation, as a response to the bickering among the two political parties in recent weeks. “No one can claim exclusivity for building modern Karachi,” he wrote, “least of all its modern masters.”


Natasha deSouza as a child with her parents at Christ the King Church in 1970.

“Growing up as a Goan in Karachi had its challenges,” says Natasha. “As a child in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I remember Christmas and Easter being very big community celebrations. Sweets were distributed to our  Muslim neighbours and friends and everyone shared the joy of each other’s  festivals. But then something changed; a divide was created. Muslim children in school did not want to share the same glass with a Hindu or Christian child. They did not want to join in and sing our Christmas songs. At that age, one does not understand where the schism comes from. One just senses the separation. You are told you are different and warned by your parents to never to speak about religion in public places.”

Starting from the ’70s, the Goans began leaving Pakistan for new homelands: Australia, Canada, the United States and even countries in Africa and South America.

When Pakistan came into existence in 1947, the population of Karachi was said to be around 400,000. The Goans comprised about 15-20,000 (5 per cent of the entire population). “I would say the numbers of Goans in the city are largely the same today, but the rest of the population has swelled to 22 million, making the Goans a meagre less than one per cent of the entire population,” approximates Roland.

He pinpoints two reasons for the migration: “Firstly, there is an attraction to the West for economic reasons, which is why a lot of other people leave Pakistan as well. Secondly, there is a growing discomfort with the religious intolerance and the exclusively ‘Islamic feeling’ of the country. When the Goans came to Karachi, it was a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. There were people from all religions coexisting. The environment began to change right after Partition, and took a dive for the worst during General Zia-ul-Haq’s tenure.”

To give an example of the change, Roland mentions how Karachi’s Christians would take part in a procession from St Pats till downtown Saddar. After Partition, the procession came under pressure due to the unwarranted attention on its female members. “The men on the streets would gawk at Goan women in dresses and skirts. Eventually, that procession came to an end altogether in the ’60s,” he laments.

“When I see old photographs or films of Kabul from the ’50s and ’60s, I am taken aback by just how progressive it was. But look at Kabul today. Karachi may not be Kabul yet, but there is certainly a turnaround.”

Natasha adds, “Goans started leaving Pakistan in the mid-70s, after the regime of Ayub Khan came to an end and the Bhutto era began. They possibly sensed a lack of stability in the country after the war of 1971.  As Zia came into power, the religious rhetoric increased and tolerance rapidly decreased. Goan women wearing dresses started having their legs pinched or slashed by blades in the streets and market places. It was this fear that drove them to migrate to other countries,” says Natasha, who herself moved to Australia in 2012.

“The ’80s felt like an exodus. Every second Goan had applied for migration, awaiting the ‘get out of jail’ card. Settling in a new place is not easy, but I am grateful for the courage to have left Pakistan. Looking back, I see the country as being more unstable, intolerance running rampant, crime out of control and selfish leaders who thrive on the existing corruption. To be honest, it is no longer a place I want to identify with, or call my country.”


Photograph by Viviana Natalie Rodrigues

Gumby takes a different approach, while echoing some of the same concerns: “Every specie’s first instinct is survival. If the government cannot give security to its citizens, they are going to leave regardless of whether they’re Shia, Ismaili or Goan. It doesn’t matter if they are wealthy or have lots of respect; they are going to leave. Those who cannot, they stick it out. A lot of people moved when they got the opportunity. I don’t know if they’re happy or not, but they made their decision — of freezing in the Canadian cold, or wherever. I think about it myself sometimes. I look at a lot of people and politicians, and the stupid decisions they make, and think that maybe I shouldn’t be living here either. But as a friend’s father, an ex-fighter pilot for the Air Force, says: ‘Son, I’ve seen worse.’ Although I believe the situation we’re seeing today is worse than war, with the nation devouring itself from within, but what uncle says is:  ‘Jab 12 crore awam chalay jain ge toh hum bhi chale jain ge.’ So, that’s how it is. You live with the realities, but the idea is to rise above them. Even if we were to move to another country, we will always be seen as ‘Pakis.’ Second class citizens.”

Lost Glory

The buildings that belonged to the Goans pre-Partition are still intact, but one is overcome with a sense of Px18-125-e1418938057587-584x370-3 abandonment and loss when stepping into these brick  and mortar structures that were once pulsating with life. It’s like entering a time capsule, except all the people have vanished.

The Karachi Goan Association (KGA) Gymkhana in Numaish looks like a ghost town. When we arrive, the grounds are completely empty. There is not a soul in sight, save for a few stray cats. We hear that the grounds — where cricket, football, badminton, tennis and hockey games were played frequently — are still used for various functions, but they lie in a state of grave disrepair. We quietly enter and exit the private-owned complex, no questions asked.

A major portion of the Goan Union Hall building in Saddar has been converted into a shop selling medical equipment — in a street selling arms and ammunition and sporting wall chalkings by the ASWJ, no less. We are told that people still frequent the hall, but it has been locked every time we passed by and the shopkeepers seemed hesitant to give out much information.

The main KGA building, a heritage site, is in better condition. Built by Jewish Iraqi architect Moses Somake, the building hasn’t lost its charm, yet it is nowhere near its former glory.

There is reading space, a billiards room and a ballroom that is now used for wedding receptions. The paint on the walls is peeling, sheets are laid out on the wooden floors to protect them from pigeon droppings and a layer of dust cloaks everything. Attempts at renovation seem to have been abandoned mid-way. At the entrance, there are posters for scheduled events, including a concert by the young and upcoming Alycia Dias.

The chowkidaar at the gate tries to be helpful, but knows little about the club or the people that frequent it. Additionally, he keeps referring to the Goans as ‘kaale Angrez,’ despite working there for nine years — a product of ignorance rather than malice, we hope. He is curious to know if we’re Christian or Muslim, genuinely surprised that fellow Muslims would show so much interest.

We make a second trip to the KGA at night. Dimly lit, the building appears more beautiful at this time. Casually dressed men can be seen drinking, smoking or watching television. The manager gives us a catalogue from 2011 that celebrates 125 years of the KGA. At the back of the catalogue are two photographs: A black-and-white one of the building in 1905 (“New KGA Building 24th April 1905 — Open from all sides”), contrasted by a more recent, coloured photo (“Existing Building 2011 — Walled in from all sides”). Although the rest of the city is equally gated, the photographs highlight the lack of security felt by all citizens. “Today, there are only 500-600 registered members at the club,” the manager says.

A short drive from the KGA towards the Empress Market lane, a shop selling Christian memorabilia and religious books is guarded by security personnel and you are firmly instructed not to take photographs inside. And then, my driver is stopped aggressively by a police officer outside a church when asking for directions. “Why are you asking,” the officer demands to know. “Are you planting a bomb?” We laugh it off, aware that he is only half-joking.

It’s these things — perhaps minor, but no less telling — that make one realise why there are so few Goans left in Karachi.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue


The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.