Language is the key to knowledge and understanding, and the worst fate anyone can imagine is to see their language gradually dying a natural death. Surprisingly, many languages have managed to survive the ebb and flow of history without stagnating. And that is just as true in the cultural and ethnic melting pot that is Karachi.

Karachi, divided along ethnic lines through the years, is home to many diverse languages. The appearance or dominance of some languages in the city is only as old as Pakistan itself, while others have survived in the city for centuries and continue to do so solely on the basis of the will of the people within that particular community. Despite various pressures, many are still going strong even after centuries.

The city is littered with communities, both large and small, that continue to work hard to preserve their languages at all costs.


Sailing through        

Dr Rahimi Pohanyar Ferzaad, an Afghan poet and educationist, saw to it that his language did not become extinct in his adopted country. Being a refugee himself and living in Karachi for the ‘longest time’ he took an initiative to start a magazine named Irfan, meaning to impart knowledge, in 2005. Interestingly, his middle name Pohanyar, means a ‘Persian who loves knowledge.’

Being a refugee himself, Farzaad’s initiative, in the form of the Afghan Refugees Cultural Association, has been quite active as well, and has become became the catalyst for a magazine in Persian and Dari.

The magazine, apart from voicing the issues faced by Afghan refugees, also speaks about strengthening Pak-Afghan ties, “without being overly-political,” Farzaad adds politely.

Talking passionately about the monthly magazine, Ferzaad says that, it is a labour of love, to promote harmony, and speak about the “forgotten message of humanity in today’s fast paced world”.

Speaking about Persian and how relevant it will be in the coming 10 years, Ferzaad is pretty hopeful. “Earlier people were scared of evolution and as a result lost touch with changing times. My focus is not limited to publishing a magazine only, but also to make it accessible to wherever it is understood the most,” he informs. His association also invites various educationists from Pakistan and abroad to speak to Afghan children and urge them to embrace modern technologies and adapt to innovative way of thinking.

To go along with changing times, a blog in the Persian language has also been created so that independent writers from different countries can also contribute to Irfan magazine’s website.

The main aim, apart from promoting education in his community, is to promote his language as well. Ferzaad believes that languages survive only when there is a strong will to make it survive. “It is the only way to preserve it: to speak in it and to teach our children to speak as well. Most importantly, it is by making the language accessible to others as well, without any prejudice and bias.”

Agha Azam, a regular contributor to Irfan magazine’s blog, is one man who loves Persian despite not having any familial link with it. Already fluent in five languages apart from Urdu and English, Azam says that it is the sweet politeness of the language that attracted him to it.

Another person who says he adapted and learned languages just because he found them easy to understand is Dr Aziz Khan Tank, a veteran member of the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC). He can speak four languages, and can write Sanskrit and Hindi. Although he modestly credits the environment for the languages he knows, the fact is that the amalgamation of different communities living together has helped many people learn languages they would not know otherwise.

“I have books in Sanskrit and Hindi that I read whenever I get the time. It is something very intimate, like coming back home, whenever I read them quietly,” he says.


Keeping the flag up

Usman Sati took the reins of the Gujarati newspaper, Daily Vatan, in his hands as soon as he got to know that the earlier publishers are planning to shut it down for good. Founded in 1942, Daily Vatan got associated with the Dawn Group of Newspapers in 1947 after the independence of Pakistan. But it was in 1997 that it finally became independent.

Ironically, a lack of readership was cited as the reason to shut it down, yet it is still in business today solely on the basis of the support it gets from businessmen in particular and the Gujarati community in general.

Though Sati says he was nervous to take on such a huge initiative, it has come through only on the basis that the younger generation takes an interest in the language as well.

“You meet any Gujarati, irrespective of the fact of where they live or were born and brought up, a majority knows their mother tongue. And that is a huge help in every way,” says Sati.

Agreeing with Sati, Rochi Ram, a senior member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says that language is not only used to converse with one another but also to emotionally influence each other as well.

Sharing one story that he got to know from his father, Ram says that once during a meeting with British officials about the partition of India, Mahatma Gandhi asked Jinnah to speak in their common language Gujarati so that they can speak easily on the issue. “Just to get his point of view across, he wanted to speak in the same language as his. That’s the sort of influencing power language has.”

As for the reply from Jinnah, he must have declined the offer, says Ram, “that’s why we are living in Pakistan today,” he says lightly.

With 3.2 million Guajaratis scattered across Pakistan, Sati believes that their language will be relevant even years later. Counting, he says that the Daudi, Ismaili, Ishnashari, Kathiawari and Katchhi, all are Gujarati speaking people. And the best part is that they are persistent in their efforts to pass on the language to the next generation.


Holding onto the legacy

While Aslam Isaani, holds the same reverence for his language, he does not share the same views as Sati about the younger generation being interested in promoting and learning their mother tongues.

Working for Daily Millat, another Gujarati newspaper founded in 1948, Isaani thinks that the reason their newspaper went bilingual is because young people can no longer read and understand Gujarati.

“The paper is surviving only because of the readership, but the fact is that many are holding on to it to keep intact the legacy that their forefathers left behind,” he points out.

He says among 3.2 million Guajaratis in Karachi, a majority has their children studying abroad as well, due to which children eventually opt to converse in English or Urdu, rather than giving time to understand their own language.

“Now they want to learn French or Spanish, so changing times call for adaptability, which the young people are apt to do, while the older generation is still doing what they do best. Being resilient,” he smiles.


‘Qaumi Bandhan’

Although the Bengali population in the city runs in the hundreds of thousands and the community continues to fight and survive in Karachi, efforts to start a newspaper and periodicals in their own language have unfortunately not been successful.

Two newspapers, Qaumi Bandhan and Muktee, started with a lot of fanfare in the late ‘40s but could not survive for long. Journalist Mushtar Ahmad says that not having enough financial resources is the main reason for them to shut it down.

Though the newspapers had mostly political and current affairs sections, it was the low readership that took it down eventually.

Just like Isaani, Ahmad reiterates the same point about children increasingly preferring to speak and read in Urdu and English rather than material in their own language.

Being a Bengali himself, Ahmad points out that the squalid conditions most people live in, along with the daily grind, has sapped any effort to do anything about keeping the language intact.

But he says that language is not something to be kept protected anywhere. “It is through speaking that it survives, which is happening, so there is a silver lining somewhere.”

Karachi is not just limited to these languages as there are many more that are spoken in various areas. Apart from Sindhi, Saraiki, Punjabi and Pashto, Balochi is spoken in more areas now than ever before as a result of frequent internal migration of people from other provinces to Karachi.

Abid Brohi, an activist residing in Lyari says that the only way to preserve a language is to have it written in the form of a dictionary. “Though it sounds a bit sad, but that’s the way it will come in handy to people after us.”



Karachi is a place where dozens of languages are spoken by its diverse population. Yet the increasing dominance of a handful of languages is threatening to swamp the smaller linguistic pockets in the metropolis. Kolachi talks to individuals who are determined to protect and preserve their language at all costs

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