Notwithstanding the four-hour long exhausting journey to Hyderabad from Karachi, I was full of anticipation. I was on the road to visit the Khanabadosh Writers’ Cafe, a much talked about social enterprise covered in the press and social media. Arriving at the cafe in the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a vibrantly coloured hall, with decor depicting the rich cultural heritage of Sindh. The location of this cafe is as scenic as the interior is aesthetically pleasing.
It is housed in the Sindh Museum which is surrounded by lush lawns. Khanabadosh’s large room was full of people having lively and engaging discussions at different tables and couches — talking about art, culture, literature, poetry and music over snacks, tea and coffee. What struck me most was the bohemian character of the place — like all other artsy places globally — and understandable given the very name (‘Khanabadosh’ means ‘nomad’) and the presence of a large number of women who were eagerly participating in all discussions.
Known in the bygone days for its parks and gardens, cool breeze and balmy nights, leafy roads and wind catchers, bustling quaint bazaars and cinema houses, bars and hotels, all contoured by the scenic river bank, Hyderabad has now become crowded and congested, divided along ethnic lines. All cultural activities, musical nights, melas, jashns (festivals), mushairas and literary events are now a thing of the past. Once the cultural capital of Sindh, signs of Hyderabad’s glorious history are nowhere to be seen.
The Khanabadosh Writers’ Cafe run by a Sindhi poet is an oasis for intellectual discussions in Hyderabad, for men and women alike
“The city had a vibrant lively cultural and literary setting up until the 1970s,” Professor Taj Joyo, the ex-secretary general of the Sindhi Language Authority and writer, reminisces wistfully, “when poets, writers, journalists and political workers met at the erstwhile Karachi Hotel and other popular hotels and had animated discussions over tea — and now ‘banned beverages’ — well into the night.”
Imdad Chandio, a retired professor of international relations and former student leader of the leftist Democratic Student Federation (DSF) recalls some of the popular poets of that era included Hamaiyat Ali Shair, Mohsin Bhopali, Professor Ennayat, Mohammad Ibrahim Joyo and Shaikh Ayaz, who frequented various hotels such as Alibaba, Cafe George, etc, getting together to discuss topics ranging from politics to fine arts to literature and poetry.
The ethnic divide began when violent language riots erupted in the early ’70s, and by the late ’80s the city gradually lost its literary character and plurality, devolving into an ethnically divided city. The places where these writers, poets and political activists convened were demolished to make way for commercial shopping centres and plazas. This change in cityscape and shrinking of intellectual public spaces created a cultural void in the city — where even artists, writers and activists seemed divided.
Two years ago, a candle was lit in this abyss by Amar Sindhu. A writer, professor and civil society activist from the University of Sindh, Sindhu built a cafe at the Sindh Museum to offer a space for creative people and intellectuals from Hyderabad and other parts of Sindh where they would engage in lively discussions. Sindhu’s Khanabadosh Writers Cafe holds cultural events and serves tea and sumptuous local cuisine. When I asked Sindhu about her brainchild, she answers: “I always have had this feeling that Hyderabad needs a space or an autaq [drawing room] as we say in Sindhi, where people meet to discuss creative ideas and engage in lively discussions without any membership and exclusiveness.”
She feels this would serve as a platform for social change, through public discourse and various cultural activities. The T2F, founded by the late Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi, was the foremost inspiration which Sindhu held as a successful business model for running a non-profit public space where people were welcome irrespective of their ethnicity, political affiliations and gender orientations.
Furthermore, she says that the reason she refused to accept any funding from donors is that she wants people to own this space and make concerted efforts to keep it running. Two years down the road, the cafe is alive and kicking, and people are contributing in various ways to keep it functioning.
While Sindhu conceived the idea, she has had full support of the advisory board comprising Arfana Mallah, Haseen Mussarat and Nasim Jalbani in designing all programmes and operations, in volunteer management, fundraising and outreach.
It has certainly not been an easy venture for the Sindhi poet, as the proverbial road to Khanabadosh was strewn with financial difficulties, resistance, maligning campaigns, character assassination in the mainstream media, regional press and social media. It is apparent that people are not ready to accept a woman — let alone an independent working woman — to take the lead. They cried foul and made things difficult for her every step of the way.
Sindhu, however, was resilient and determined at making the cafe a success. The building handed over to her on a lease by the culture department was in a dilapidated condition. She renovated it and converted it into an aesthetically pleasant and lively place. She adds that she purchased every piece of furniture, kitchen appliances and crockery to cut costs because she had borrowed a loan from a bank to start the enterprise.
I ask what spurred this venture despite all the hurdles on the way. “I lived in the university hostel and always have had this feeling that I can’t entertain or invite my friends over,” she replies. “So Khanabadosh is [like] my [personal] drawing room, and by default it is the drawing room of the denizens of Hyderabad where they are welcome to dine out with their families, attend literary functions, book readings, mushairas, conferences and musical programmes. In a way, the cafe is an extension of my personality — free from all biases and hierarchies. And above all, it is a gender-friendly space in a patriarchal city where women can visit without any fear and enjoy [an evening out] without a male escort.
Khanabadosh is [like] my [personal] drawing room, and by default it is the drawing room of the denizens of Hyderabad where they are welcome to dine out with their families, attend literary functions, book readings, mushairas, conferences and musical programmes. In a way, the cafe is an extension of my personality — free from all biases and hierarchies, says Sindhu.
“In the initial stages of the project, people would object and say ‘why are you spending your personal funds on a public venture?’ I told them that Khanabadosh will be my gift to the people of Hyderabad — it is our autaq.”
Sindhu’s determination, political clarity and understanding of feminism are so remarkable that it inspires me to ask her about her early life. “I belong to a Seraiki-speaking Sindhi Baloch family and our village is in Mirpurkhas district,” she explains. “I was a studious child and a voracious reader from a very early age. My maternal grandfather had a huge library with a vast collection of books and I read nearly every book in his collection.
“That reading offered me awareness of feminism at an early age and my first rebellion was against the burqa. When I reached my teenage years, my father asked me to observe purdah, to which I replied that I would never [conform] and would rather stay at home. Upon my resistance, my father realised the futility of his attempt and never demanded it again.”
Sindhu studied philosophy at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro. During her student life, she wrote for newspapers and contributed in many literary magazines. “[This] eventually shaped my understanding of politics,” she says. In 1993, she compiled a book of poetry by 20 young leading Sindhi poets. The preface of the book was written by Shaikh Ayaz who reviewed each poet in detail.
Another publication that shaped the poet/activist’s political views was a self-funded Marxist magazine titled Adarsh of which she was one of the founders. “It allowed me to understand the class question more deeply and also steered me towards feminism,” she says. Later, with some like-minded friends, Sindhu became part of the women’s movement and started the Hyderabad chapter of the Women’s Action Forum.
“[For] Adarsh, I wrote primarily on three issues i.e. women issues, international social movements and their heroes, and the current political scenario,” she says. At the same time, Sindhu started writing for Kawish — a leading Sindhi newspaper, but her focus remained on feminist issues. “My writings centred around three ‘R’s — resistance, romance and revolution,” she smiles.
The academician holds the Khanabadosh Cafe is a major contributor to bringing women into the public space. Women attend and contribute in all its activities.
Endorsing her claim, Shabnum Gul, a writer and college professor in Hyderabad, says that women come in large numbers to attend the functions held at the cafe — this is truly exceptional considering the ethos of the city. Saima Jaffery, a lecturer at the University of Sindh, adds that the cafe has inspired a new tradition of organising literature and music festivals in the city. “For instance, Ayaz Melo was the trendsetter, after which many festivals such as Hyderabad Literature Festival and Lahooti Melo were held in 2016,” says Saima.
Additionally, Khanabadosh offers opportunities to many upcoming musicians, singers and artists from remote areas of Pakistan. Sindhu says that, whereas Khanabadosh started as a literary forum, it has become more of a cultural forum where multiple activities are held regularly. Many new artists have been introduced through the platform who have become renowned locally.
In the near future, Sindhu desires simply to see the cafe flourish and contribute to the cultural life of Hyderabad. Sometimes she feels drained due to the excessive media attention and bureaucratic hurdles, which can be burdensome in running a social enterprise without any funding. “I want the culture department to own this space and we should work together to run it successfully,” she says. “With ample funds at its disposal, the culture department is in the right position to make the venture successful.”
The writer is a member of staff.
She tweets @MonizaInam
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 24th, 2017