Ayaz Baloch claps his hands once and opens the door to a stale room in what was once a Karachi library, saying he needs to warn the Hindu souls inside that a living being is entering.
Baloch is the caretaker of a largely deserted cremation ground, where the remains of about 130 Hindus are gathering dust in a peculiar footnote to the country’s oft-strained ties with India.
“It started more than 30 years ago,” says Mohammed Pervez, a guard at the facility in Karachi’s oldest slum Golimar, who says the area’s Muslim poor have kept watch over the ashes for decades.
Three decades on, with relations again tense between the neighbours in the wake of the attacks on Mumbai which India has pinned on Pakistan-based militants, the urns are still here.
The dead are now in danger of being lost and forgotten as the identification tags on the urns have started to fade, prompting the caretakers to launch a frantic search for the families of the deceased.
Mohandas, who asked that only his first name be used to protect his family’s privacy, said he was astonished to finally find the remains of his uncle Vishnu, who died in 1979, at the Karachi facility. “We came here to find him but it was nearly impossible. The writing on many of the tags has disappeared,” he said.
“My father tried hard to fulfil the last wish of his older brother, but could not get an Indian visa. My father also wanted to be immersed in the Ganges after his death but seeing how difficult it is, he changed his mind.”
Mohandas said his father’s ashes were eventually bathed in the Indus river in southern Pakistan, which Hindus regard as holy.
Pakistan’s Hindus, who make up about two per cent of the overwhelmingly Muslim country’s population of 160 million, usually immerse the remains of their dead in the Indus or the Arabian Sea. But some Hindus here hope they will be brought to Haridwar after death for a final cleansing in the Ganges.