Page last updated at 13:29 GMT, Friday, 10 June 2011 14:29 UK

Jakarta - capital of change in a vibrant democracy

Karishma Vaswani
BBC News

The Vaswani family
The Vaswani family fled Pakistan and found a new home in Jakarta, Indonesia

It was 1947, and India was at war with itself.

The British Raj had unravelled, leaving behind a sub-continent divided in two - the newly independent nations of India and Pakistan.

But with that independence came chaos.

For my family in Hyderabad, Sindh, which today is in modern day Pakistan, that chaos brought with it a weighty decision - a decision to leave the place they and their ancestors had called home for centuries.

My family, like most Sindhi families in Hyderabad, were Hindu. And until the time of the Partition, they had lived in relative harmony and peace with their Muslim neighbours.

But Partition changed everything. On either side of the border, horrific atrocities were committed. Hindus killed, raped and stole from Muslims in India - and suffered the same fate in Pakistan.

Uncertain times

For my grandparents, the decision to flee came quickly, suddenly.

Over lunch one day, a Muslim friend burst into their home in Hyderabad, shouting that a mob was heading this way - and urged them to escape, nine children in tow.

Population: 232 million
Capital: Jakarta
Monetary unit: 1 rupiah
Major languages: Indonesian, 300 regional languages
Major religion: Islam
Source: BBC Indonesia Country Profile

They packed everything they could find in a few bags, and ran to the train station.

My father remembers leaving his shoes under the dining table, and running out barefoot - there was no time to waste.

On the way to the station, one of my uncles remembers seeing dead bodies floating in the river.

Many of them were women, their tikas (ink worn by married Hindu women) smeared by the water.

It was a violent and uncertain time.

Like millions of other refugees, my family had to find a new home. My grandfather had already made many trips to Java for business - and had made some contacts there whom he said could help in this time of urgent need.

And so they left the subcontinent, this family of 11, on a ship bound for the East Indies.

From a nation where they risked being persecuted by Muslims, they headed for the world's most populous Muslim nation: Indonesia.

My family stayed and prospered here thanks to the hospitality of this nation and the generosity of its people.

A shopping mall in Jakarta
Sprawling shopping malls have brought foreign luxury brands to the city

Acquired taste

I grew up in Jakarta and have always called it home. But the Jakarta of my childhood has changed dramatically.

Jakarta's skyline is now dotted with skyscrapers and sprawling mega-malls. The glitzy, glamorous signs of foreign luxury brands are plastered on billboards and giant photos of beautiful models advertising the latest fashions are splashed everywhere.

It wasn't always like this. When I was growing up there were only a handful of malls in the city and if you wanted foreign brands, you had to shop overseas.

Jakarta itself was a much smaller city back then too. Today it is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, but in the 1970s, much of the Jakarta we know today was still swampland or tiny villages.

It has mushroomed in the last few decades, as people have migrated here from other Indonesian cities in the hope of finding work.

The locals call it the Big Durian, because of its many layers. The durian fruit is an acquired taste - it's pungent at first, but once you take a bite, it's delicious.

But with all that migration has come a much bigger strain on the city's infrastructure, which hasn't kept up with Jakarta's growth.

Anti-corruption protestors in Jakarta
Indonesia is no longer ruled by an authoritarian dictatorship

Vibrant democracy

As a child, I remember sitting in the school bus in traffic for up to an hour, but that same journey today can take almost double the time.

The strong growth in the economy over recent years has meant that more people here can buy cars and motorcycles, but the government has yet to build enough roads, highways and ports to allow Indonesia's economy to reach its full potential.

It's not just the façade of the city that has changed though. Indonesia is a different country today.

As a young girl, I grew up in a country that was ruled by an authoritarian dictator; today, it is a young vibrant democracy, with all the flaws that come with making that transition.

One of the more worrying trends has been the rise of conservative Islam, a departure from the Indonesian Islam that allowed my family to come here so many years ago and live as peacefully as they have.

Recent attacks by Islamic extremist groups on churches and Muslim minority sects have gone unpunished - a sign according to some that the government is pandering to the hardliners.

A street food vendor in Jakarta
The vendors may have grown older, but street food is the same as ever

Crispy satay

There are some things though, that have remained, rather charmingly, the same.

My old house for example, near Jakarta's Chinatown district, is still a world away from the modern high rises and sparkling new shopping centres.

The streets are still run-down, the surrounding buildings could do with a bit of a face-lift and the young man who used to sell peanuts down our alley is now just a little older.

Granted, there's now a swanky hotel down the road, and a Mercedes showroom around the corner, but street vendors still sell their Indonesian delicacies here, and the smell of crispy satay wafts down the road in the evenings, as it used to when I was a young girl.

Whether or not these scenes will still be around for my six-month-old daughter to witness when she grows up, I can't say.

But I know for sure that this city will be as special to her as it has been for me, and my family before me.

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