IT isn’t abuzz with the whir of coffee grinders, the clink of cutlery, or the hum of discordant music and voices; neither do varied aromas launch an assault on the senses. Set deep in the lush Benazir Bhutto Park, radiant with colourful bougainvillea in the quiet precincts of Hyderabad’s Sindh Museum, is the two-month-old Khanabadosh Writers’ Cafe. It is hailed by students, activists, thinkers and academics as a desperately needed oasis of peace and free thought, where the ideal of pluralism is upheld with vim and vigour.
And it tastes of home.
We enter the cool tea room and shut out the searing sun behind us. The interior presents an interesting fusion — it is partly like the library of an ethnic house and partly a no-frills cafe. The door opens into an explosion of red against black and white wallpaper with a brick wall — revolutionary poets and their couplets are imprinted in black on crimson canvases and framed in light wood; bookshelves display classics in English, Urdu and Sindhi. Lounge-like seating in dark cane and red accessories runs along the wall, facing meticulously placed steel tables with padded seats in forest green.
Sindh’s renowned activist and academic, Amar Sindhu, sprung this surprise on her town and pursues her cause with unique enthusiasm and passion. “This is the outcome of relentless hard work and all my resources. I want to see it take the shape of spaces such as the famed Pak Tea House in Lahore and Bombay Hotel in Karachi. We want to reclaim public space for thought and debate, as today our mass narrative is out of control and coloured with extremist views,” says Sindhu as she explains the logic behind her endeavour.
As the temperature lowers, there is a sudden, rising symphony — a photography class begins at one end and the sitting area rings out with Sindhu’s supporters, primarily academics and writers, who speak of their collective vision for Khanabadosh.
“This is a breath of fresh air to keep society alive with liberal philosophy as from the 1970s to the 1990s political debate, awareness and study circles were consistently eroded,” chimes in Farooq Soomro, editor, Sindh Express.
Sindhu elaborates that the opening ceremony on May 17 was a success of unforeseen proportions. “We had hundreds in attendance and the occasion went on till 2:30am. Poetess Rubina Abro was there; Shah Latif’s raag and musicians from Thar were riveting. This was followed by a mushaira where Ayub Khoso, who was jailed for three years on false charges of blasphemy, read his poem on Sindhi Hindu migration, which moistened many eyes. The real surprise came from a daily-wage labourer, Munawar Husain, who presented a most heart-rending elegy, which he repeated on collective insistence,” Sindhu narrates with pride.
She and her core team of allies in the Programme Management Committee — Dr Arfana Mallah, Nasim Jalbani, Haseen Mussarat and Saima Jaffery — maintain that they are bowled over by the fact that there are more students and young people who have become regulars at the facility than older intellectuals.
“We had no idea how much of a necessity such a space was for the youth. Some come here to be heard, some to study, others need a breather from daily routine and some just want to shoot the breeze, air thoughts or even brainstorm with us over a cup of tea,” they say almost in unison.
The most significant advantage that Khanabadosh has over others is that, as it is overseen by women, homebound women from conservative families revel in easy access to it.
The committee mentions that it intends to draft an annual calendar of events on the premises and its aim is to locate overshadowed talent in the hinterland of the country.
“We want to bridge ethnic divides. Hasan Mujtaba’s Urdu book launch was the beginning of this journey and a Sheikh Ayaz mela is also planned. Our intention is to engage social consciousness and the entire civil society in our plans.”
A mere two months old, Sindhu’s vision has already begun to spread. “Inspired by this place, the Sindh culture department has already inaugurated Ajrak clubs in Mirpurkhas, Larkana, Khairpur and Latifabad,” she beams.
Khanabadosh is presently preparing to host a musical evening to fortify religious harmony where the Baha’i, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities will bring their talents into the open.
Think what mainstream hardliners may, history stands witness to the reality that movements of unity borne in spaces of counter-narratives have rarely been easy to quash. These spaces must chisel our social arena before a nation causes its own destruction.
Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2015