Country cousins from across the border


Frederick Noronha

They can practice their faith, but if someone sees it as crossing the line, they could get in trouble with the blasphemy laws in their part of the world. They can claim minority status and become citizens in India, but if they want to visit their home they could well be refused visas to do so (as was the case in late 2018). They are the Goans of Karachi.

India also treats them with suspicion because of the land where they were born, though this was not their choice and involved no politics whatsoever. If they apply for a visa from, say, Canada, the fact that they were born in the country that subsequently became Pakistan is a black mark sufficient to lead to a visa rejection, and blocks on their attempts to visit ‘home’.

By some coincidence, a prominent landmark of Karachi is exactly as old as Goa’s capital Panaji (Panjim, Pangim, Nova Goa, or Ponn’je, as it has been variously called). Goretti Ali (nee D’Souza) of Margao and her husband Michael (Mike) Ali recently shared a large-sized, all-colour, 224-page book that celebrates the landmark of a brand which is Karachi’s cathedral. It is also incidentally linked to the prominent educational institute that build a generation of young men from Karachi, including the former Indian home minister Lal Krishna Advani.

Some 175 years ago, St Patrick’s was a tiny chapel meant for Irish troops stationed in “Kurrachee”. This place was then still a dusty, sandy fishing village on the Arabian Sea. For some (perhaps understandable) reason, in their migration story, the Goan Catholic has often rubbed shoulders with the Irish, Poles, Filipinos and of course, the Latin Americans who might share his or her religion. Their relationships have not always been easy, but sometimes they’ve got on well and even intermarried with each other. We’ve seen this among Goans in the Gulf region, and even in Europe (particularly the UK) nowadays. But back to our story…

Mike and Goretti write: “St Patrick’s Chapel grew into a Church as its parishioners increased. The story of St Patrick’s is synonymous with that of Karachi. As Karachi grew, attracting migrants from the surrounding areas, providing them with employment, homes and social life, so did St Patrick’s. Soon Karachi and St Patrick’s became home to a multitude of diverse people originating from different cultures.”

This book talks about the institution, its structure, the archbishop’s and parish house, changes after Vatican II (the movement for change in the staid and till then colonially-controlled Church), its centenary in 1978. Like some other prominent institutions which believed in building young people, it had a library and a boarding, a high school and a band, St Joseph’s convent, a college for women, and other institutions of higher education.

Of particular interest to readers in Goa might be the Rotti Press, an unusual experiment where a Konkani magazine was set up first in distant Karachi, then shifted to Bombay and is now finally settled in Goa after being published for over a hundred years! It ran the ‘Dor Mhoinichi Rotti’ (The Monthly Bread, if that’s how its unusual name could be translated). This was a monthly religious newsletter for Konkani-speaking parishioners and had its offices in one of the parish house rooms.

According to Mike and Goretti, its initial copies were handwritten! Later, as it grew, it needed to be mimeographed or cyclostyled. Readership, at one point, reached various parts of Karachi, India and even East Africa. To meet its growing demand, it later needed to be printed. It was then put together at the Catholic-run Union Press on Elphinstone Street in Saddar, the latter locality being a name we often hear from the Karachi Goans.

(For reasons that seem complicated to understand, the Goan migrant had a larger than life role to play in photography studios across North India, East Africa and elsewhere; besides music shops from Malaya to New York; bakeries in Bombay and elsewhere….)

The magazine was started in the early 1900s by Fr Vincent Lobo and completed its century a few years back. It is a pity that such records – now stored at the Xavier Centre-TSKK in Alto Porvorim – are not seen as worthy of study by local scholars, researchers or journalists.

Fr Lobo, so the story goes, fell ill, and the German Jesuits who ran the Karachi Mission had no knowledge of Konkani, of course. Another priest, Antonio Ludovico Pereira, was “sent” to Karachi, and edited the publication for two decades, improving and enlarging it.

Pereira saved every paisa to fulfil his dream of building its own press, but he passed away in 1936, and this dream did not come true. Pereira was buried in the grave of his predecessor, Lobo. A pillow of ‘Rotti’ magazines was placed in his grave, and funds of Rs 30,000 saved through the magazine went to building the ‘Rotti Press’. This wish was carried out Salesius Lemmens OFM with the help of Fr Athanasio Moniz, a successor to Pereira, and an alumnus of the Rachol Seminary.

The story has a happy ending, at least as far as the press goes. In 1935, the diocese was taken charge of by the Dutch Order of Friars Minor (OFM). In 1936, Bro Herbert Hessing OFM, an expert in printing, arrived there. Machines came in three months later. The Rotti Press became part of St Francis Technical School.

Time moved on. It became one of the leading presses in Karachi. Many young men were trained, and they gained jobs in diverse parts of the globe. It was shifted to the Anjuna ‘club’, set up when early Goans reached Karachi in search of jobs, and which had outgrown its purpose. The press, which was lagging behind at one stage, has been modernised. It uses German, Swedish and American machinery. It completed 80 years in 2017. A press was built from funds collected by running a magazine; the circle was competed.

But when it comes to the community of Karachi Goans, the story has no happy ending. The Modi government has received some flak for making religion a basis for citizenship and refugee status. But here is a group, which migrated for economic (not political or communal) reasons to a part of Undivided India, and now finds itself trapped. Their visits back to home and Goa are dependent on the whims of some visa officer, or Delhi politicians’ understanding of history. Even if they are settled in a third country (like Canada), their visits to here are often rejected. Their sin? Only their place of birth.