Karachi Theosophical Society: the Historic TCK Archive

Hello Readers! For the last release of the ASIA edition, we have a double feature for you with two articles at once! In this article, Danish discusses the strong impact of the Karachi Theosophical Society on his cross-cultural identity and in Molly’s article, Tales from the Land of Pocky, we join her in discovering her love for a country through her uncle’s fascinating stories. Enjoy!

In recent years, Karachi has sadly found itself ranked as one of the least livable cities in the world. This ranking is globally benchmarked to factors such as stability, healthcare, culture,  environment, education, and infrastructure. The sorrow (and perhaps irony) in all this is that culture and environment feature in the list of factors which once added to its livability rather than taking from it.

Karachi (originally known as ‘Kolachi’) was a small fisherman’s village, settled by tribes from Balochistan and the Makran (the coastal strip along modern-day South-West Pakistan). Near the end of the 18th century, Kolachi’s inhabitants started trading across the Persian Gulf with Muscat, which was the gestation phase in Karachi’s ascent to becoming a formidable trading route. Even though the British started their colonial expedition into India in the 17th century through the British East India Company, it wasn’t until 1843 shortly before the start of the British Raj when they realised its importance as a trading post and subsequently annexed it. By the end of the 19th century, the city was a cosmopolitan panacea, home to Hindus, Parsis, Jews, Muslims, Iranians, Lebanese and Goans (merchants and non-merchants alike).

With such an eclectic mix of people, the city had to foster pluralism and harmony. One of the key venues to do so was the Karachi Theosophical society.

The Karachi Theosophical Society was founded in 1896 by Jamshed Nusserwanjee, a philanthropist and humanitarian who was also Karachi’s first mayor (popularly known as ‘The Builder of Modern Karachi’). The Society lies in Jamshed Memorial Hall on Bunder road (now M.A Jinnah road) in Saddar. It is a place where members from all walks of life congregate to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science. It has a history of bringing together many of Karachi’s key stakeholders to deliberate and reflect upon foundational metaphysical issues of the time. These stakeholders would then instil that need for reflection and critique into their professional lives. The study of comparative religion and philosophy also made Karachi into a diverse city, where people from different walks of life could rise to positions of significance. Perhaps without such initiatives, things would have eroded a lot more quickly than they have ended up doing so.

When I visited the Karachi Theosophical Society during the 2017 Karachi Biennale, I found myself reflecting on my own identity struggles around religion, nationality and ethnicity through the years. I remembered moving to Perth as a 9-year-old, expecting the local culture to be aeons apart from what I was used to, only to find the Italians, Greeks and Macedonians on our street had similar notions of hospitality, acceptance and community. I remembered struggling with issues of acceptance and understanding through high school in Perth and through my university degree in Melbourne. To remedy this, I dove into books— I studied ‘Sociology of Religion’ by Max Weber in great detail, Edward Said’s notion of ‘Orientalism’ (the West’s patronizing representation of the ‘East’) and then read up on Islamic Feminism. This included women such as Asra Nomani, Fatema Mernissi, Amna Wadud and Asma Barlas, who showed there were progressive movements within the traditions I was born into. To me, these writers, who worked to debunk singular and myopic representations of these issues, were instrumental in me jostling with my struggles as a TCK. When I visited the Karachi Theosophical Society, the 10,000 titles sitting there in their two libraries reminded me of all those books I furiously studied, and I wished I had discovered a space like this earlier, where I could read, reflect, and discuss such cultural narratives.

The Karachi Theosophical Society has been one place that is a stark reminder of the ongoing battle that my cross-cultural identity has created for me. The very act of founding it was based on building an identity for the city. This identity had to represent and embrace all the cultures and subcultures that the city had, which was why an open space for dialogue was created. As a TCK, I would have benefited greatly from such an institution in every city that I had lived in growing up. Such a space would have allowed me to bring forward my cultural capital to add to that city. As TCKs committed to embracing and advancing the crossing of cultures, we must champion such initiatives and seek them out, wherever we are.