by Maliha Khan

A writer resists the partitioning of identity, navigating the contradictions of belonging to both a nation and region—by forging new affinities with one’s ancestry through language and culture to challenge social ridicule.

Orangi Town, Karachi, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

The famous Bhashani Sweets—named after a well-known Urdu-speaking leader in Bangladesh, where the Biharis come from. Hence, many of the sweet names also reflect that connection to Bangladesh. My family loves their Dacca or Dhaka Cham Cham and Mishti Doi or meethi dahi, as the latter is called in Karachi.

“We gave up everything to come here, and this is how we are treated! Where do we go? The sea lies ahead!” Imran lamented when I went to talk to him one evening about the Biharis who had migrated from Bangladesh to Karachi, long after the former had stopped being East Pakistan in the fall of 1971. Even though it was really winter when it happened, by the fall of that fateful year, it was clear to everyone—the West Pakistani generals sending battalions after battalions, the Bengali forces fighting for their freedom, the Indian soldiers who were aiding them, and even the Biharis who were caught in the middle of it all—that Dhaka was soon going to fall.


“How could we continue to live in a country that we didn’t choose in the first place? We came to East Pakistan, not Bangladesh,” he began justifying, placing a giant emphasis on East Pakistan. 


“Why do they have an issue with us when we’ve come here? Would they rather we go drown ourselves in the sea? This is just as much our land as theirs. Our forefathers helped make this country that refuses to acknowledge us!” Imran continued in a heated bravado, defending the right of Bihari Muslims who had left their homes in India after the Partition of 1947 to migrate to the eastern half of the newly birthed country of Pakistan. They travelled by road, by sea, by air with bundled hopes of starting a new life in the Promised Land created for them by their leaders after much sweat and toil, even blood and sacrifice. East Pakistan was much closer to their neighbouring state of Bengal than West Pakistan, both in terms of distance and culture. Hence, it became the obvious choice for many Biharis leaving their homes, many of which had already been burned down by raging mobs of rioters. For years, Imran’s family, like many Biharis, lived comfortably there in the privilege they enjoyed as Urdu-speaking Muslims over the Bengali Muslims. However, when the tide turned suddenly, and the Bengalis turned the Biharis’ beloved East Pakistan into Bangladesh, the latter could not feel more out of place.

“How were we to know that it would stop being Pakistan in 1971 and turn into Bangladesh instead?” He left me with a question to ponder over on my way back home in a city that stretches out in directions I wonder if I ever will venture towards. I’ve had a small life in this big city by the sea which some say was named after an old woman, Mai Kolachi from the fisherfolk community—the forgotten indigenous people languishing by the sea as the city was taken over by everyone that came from outside—people like my own family. 


When I was a kid, I knew we were Biharis. What I don’t remember is the first time I felt ashamed for being one. Was it when I first heard someone say, “Jo na katay aari se, woh katay Bihari se?” (What cannot be chopped by an axe, can be slashed by a Bihari) Or when I was told, “Aik Bihari sab pe bhaari?” (One Bihari overpowers all) Or when my latent Bihari accent slipped out at school and my classmates laughed at me for speaking that way? 


Once, when I was at university, I went to Sea View with two other Bihari friends of mine. As we walked along the wet grey shore of soft cushiony sand, baby waves crashing at our bare feet, I started talking in the stereotyped Bihari way of speaking, poking fun at my friend who refused to call herself Bihari simply because her mother was Punjabi. “Sarmeenwa, tum kaahe nahi maanti ke tum bhi hamra log ki tarha Bihari ho?” (“Sharmeen, why don’t you accept that you, like us, are Bihari?”) I asked her why she refuses to acknowledge her Bihari identity from her dad’s side of the family. She laughed and attempted to respond using the same accent, although in a completely botched manner, confirming how quickly this sweet way of speaking was going to become extinct by assimilation.


Growing up in a country that made me feel inferior for simply belonging to a certain community, I quickly learned to mask my Bihari identity behind unaccented Urdu and even better English. It took me 23 years and moving across the border to study and live in India to embrace my roots. Suddenly, the Bihari accent was music to my ears every time I heard someone speak in it—be it an auto-rickshaw driver or a fellow student in my university. No longer did I feel ashamed as I proudly told everyone that my family came from Bihar. For the first time, I could tell people that my father was born in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar and my mother was born in Khulna, when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. For the first time, despite disclosing my connection to Bihar, I wasn’t ridiculed—only celebrated for once being a part of India and then returning to it, in a moment of full circle. Thus began my journey to reclaim my Bihari-ness. 


It wasn’t easy at first. When I met my now ex-husband for the first time, whose family were proud Dehlvis—a surname given to those who come from Delhi—I was asked by a relative of theirs from UP where I was from ‘peechay se’ (behind)—a common way of asking where one’s roots lie. Taking the opportunity to own my Bihari identity, I announced that my family was from Bihar. In response, I was met with a visible look of disapproval. At that moment, I felt that old feeling of shame rise to the surface; this time however, I did not let them get to me. Despite having my Urdu constantly corrected by self-proclaimed patrons of the language around me—the Delhi and UP wallahs—I marched on. 

Soon, writing not only became a weapon for my resistance but also my path to reclamation: resistance against the status quo of those who made me feel small for not speaking my mother tongue the way they deemed correct; and, reclamation of my Bihari heritage that I used to desperately hide. This gives me hope despite the fears of putting myself as well as my family at risk of being told that we are not Pakistanis, the next time we go to renew our National Identity Cards (NICs) or passports, owing to our Muhajir (immigrant) status.

Orangi Town, Karachi, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

A wall graffiti reading “Orangi ko shanakht do!” meaning “Give identity to Orangi!” from my visit to Orangi, where undocumented Biharis live in large numbers—whose NICs have still not been issued by the government.

I often think of what Imran had said to me that day, ‘Where do we go? The sea lies ahead.’ Recently, I found out that General Ayub Khan had apparently said those three famous words, “aage samandar hai” (“the sea lies ahead”) while warning the migrants from India to not vote for his opponent Fatima Jinnah in the 1964 elections. He was implying that because they had burned the boats they had come in to reach this city, the Biharis were stuck—neither here nor there with their backs to the sea. The violent impact of those three words said by the erstwhile dictator was still being felt decades later. 


Also read: Bachka: Sharing Home with a Snack

About the author

Maliha Khan is a writer from Karachi, Pakistan. She is a 2022 South Asia Speaks Fellow and is currently working on her first book about her experience of living in India as a Pakistani. She has also contributed an essay titled, ‘The Biharis of Orangi Town — Experiences of Belonging and Neighbourliness’ in the book, Neighbourhoods and Neighbourliness in Urban South Asia: Subjectivities and Spatiality. Her other works have appeared in the Tint Journal, The Remnants Archive, Enthucutlet, as well as The New Arab, among others.


She is on Instagram: @malihakhanwrites