Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Parties, Parsis and Politics in Pakistan

Bomb blasts, the trial of General Musharraf, socialite parties and beer from a Parsi-run brewery are some of the things Indian journalist Meena Menon experienced during her stint in Islamabad. Her book, Reporting Pakistan, highlights the spirit of ordinary people in the face of political tumult.

This review of her book is written by Anahita Mukherjee and was first published in Parsiana, a magazine for the Zoroastrian community.

That Pakistan produced excellent Irish Cream, beer and flavoured vodka was one of many revelations about the country that Meena Menon discovered while living in Islamabad. She was one of two Indian journalists stationed in Pakistan in 2013. It was here that she sampled the fine products of Murree Brewery.

In a Muslim country under prohibition, where alcohol is considered haram (anything that is forbidden by Islamic law), it’s unlikely that anybody other than a Parsi could have gotten away with running a brewery. It’s often joked that the over 150-year-old brewery landed on the wrong side of the border post-Partition.

directPre-Partition, the brewery was jointly owned by a Parsi, Hindu and British family. In 1947, its Parsi director, Peshotan Bhandara, bought over the company stakes from both his British partner as well as the Hindu partner who headed to India. “That a Parsi gentleman was ready to stay back in Pakistan post-Partition shows just how much faith the community had in the newly formed country at the time,” says Menon in an interview with Parsiana.

Her book, Reporting Pakistan, mentions how Murree Brewery supplied drinks to the Pakistan army right till Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol consumption in the 1970s, a policy continued by Zia-ul-Haq. While Murree Brewery had to close production at the time, the Bhandara family’s close association with the Pakistani administration allowed them to re-open the brewery and even sell alcohol at licenced outlets.

It’s at one such outlet, in a dingy room in one of three five-star hotels in Islamabad authorised to sell liquor, that Menon would buy the six units of alcohol per month that her permit allowed her. She was often the only woman in a jam-packed room full of customers out to grab Murree’s products. (Murree Brewery is the only company officially allowed to manufacture alcohol in Pakistan. The rest is supplied illicitly).

Only expats and non-Muslims are officially allowed to buy alcohol in Pakistan, and Menon found that she was able to get an alcohol permit in Islamabad with far greater ease than she was able to open a bank account. There was such a high demand for alcohol that Menon was often surprised to find that on most days, stocks of beer had run out. She was most disappointed at having to leave several cases of beer behind in Pakistan, when her visa was abruptly terminated by the Pakistani government, and she was summarily sent back home to India.

She was lucky to get her hands on Murree’s Irish Cream, which to her chagrin, was discontinued midway during her nine-month stint in Islamabad. Irish Cream was not in great demand in a country which, despite prohibition, preferred hard liquor.

Menon remembers the time her car was chased by a mob of men as she was leaving the outlet at a five-star hotel; they were resentful of the quantity of alcohol she was allowed to purchase.

The scibe sorely missed being allowed to visit the brewery in Rawalpindi, as her visa confined her to Islamabad. However, she did have the pleasure of meeting Peshotan’s grandson Isphanyar Bhandara, who now runs the brewery his father and grandfather once ran.

She writes of how proud Bhandara is of the quality of his beer made with Australian barley and German hops, which, he insists, is better than Kingfisher. That’s something Menon concedes. She writes of Bhandara’s desire to set shop in India, something he came very close to doing in recent years, signing a deal with an Indian businessman. Bureaucratic hurdles have kept the venture from taking off.

Parsis are far better treated than other minorities in Pakistan. Contrary to popular perception in India, Menon found that Hindus aren’t the worst off, though in Sindh province, girls are allegedly forcibly married and converted to Islam. The minorities that suffer most are Muslim minorities who are viewed with suspicion and dislike in a largely Sunni country. Ahmadis and Shias face numerous human rights violations; the killing and disappearance of Ahmadis is commonplace. Menon conducted detailed interviews with Ahmadi families, as well as those of other minorities like Christians, who have suffered greatly and often been driven from their homes.

Parsis, though, have largely escaped persecution. Menon believes this may have something to do with their miniscule population — what Bhandara calls “a winding-down community” — with many of its members migrating abroad. The Parsi population numbering under 1,500 in Pakistan is dwindling at a faster rate than in India. “Parsis are largely viewed as a business community that minds its own business,” observes Menon.

In addition to the Bhandaras and their thriving brewery, the Avari chain of hotels is another Parsi establishment that flourishes. Menon and I had visited Avari Hotel in Karachi in 2011, while on an exchange programme between journalists of the Mumbai and Karachi Press Clubs.

Byram Avari, chairman of Avari Hotels, had told me of how Parsis first thought of leaving the country under Zia-ul-Haq’s reign, when he tried “forcing the teaching of Urdu in Parsi schools.’’ The law was overturned when Avari became a member of parliament in 1988. He attributed the recent migration of Parsis from Pakistan to the country’s worsening law and order condition.

While researching a piece on the Parsis of Pakistan for The Times of India, I had spoken to Muhammad Badar Alam, the editor of Herald, a popular magazine. He spoke of how the Parsi community was placed high on Pakistan’s social ladder, and they were not under direct threat. Pakistan however is a country that does not respect plurality, he added.

“Every community has different problems, whether it is in a village or a city, but I would put my finger on religious intolerance as the biggest problem staring the minorities,” Bhandara had earlier told Parsiana in an interview a few years ago. In addition to running Murree Brewery, he is also a member of Pakistan’s parliament, where he represents minorities.

While Parsis may be both sensitive and aware of what other minorities face in Pakistan, there is often an almost unreal quality to the lives they lead. In Karachi, where the Parsi community is well-entrenched, I found salt-and-pepper haired Parsi women in knee-length skirts wandering through old-world Parsi baugs many of which had grand pianos in the hallways of their homes. The lives Parsis led in Karachi appeared identical to that of Mumbai Parsis.

“I keep telling my family abroad that no matter what happens in Pakistan, the Parsis will continue to wine and dine and make merry,’’ Zarine Mavalvala, the former principal of Mama Parsi Girls’ School in Karachi, had once told me.

Wining and dining were two things Menon found in abundance in Islamabad, a beautiful leafy city often far removed from the rest of Pakistan. It’s been joked that Islamabad is 15 kilometres away from Pakistan.

While Menon describes in great detail the lavish parties she attended in Islamabad, the realities of Pakistan sometimes pierced through the tranquil city. She found herself reporting on two bomb-blasts that occurred during her stint there, one of which was very close to her home. She had the opportunity to cover some rather momentous events, such as the former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s trial, where she found herself in close proximity with the chubby-faced dictator.

Perhaps of greatest historical value are Menon’s records of the everyday interactions she had with people who stood up to Pakistan’s establishment, some of whom were later found dead under mysterious circumstances. Her descriptions of Islamabad’s social life are in stark contrast with the country’s political turmoil, a telling reminder of the almost schizophrenic nature of life in Pakistan.

While reams have been written about terrorism in Pakistan, its army and its unstable democracy, Menon’s book is riveting for the love and affection she received from the ordinary people she met. This often ran counter to the undercurrent of hostility she sometimes faced from officials. Many befriended her despite the fact that her movements were being watched. She was constantly followed by two men, presumably part of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment, who tailed her in a most unintelligent and bumbling manner.

Her lucid, chatty style of writing makes the book immensely readable. While some parts are disturbing, such as the death and disappearance of Menon’s friends and acquaintances, she refuses to let the dark side of life in Pakistan overshadow the resilience of ordinary people there.

Her book is peppered with delightful anecdotes of her favourite restaurants, the places she regretted ordering dosa, silver trinkets she bought from colourful bazaars, and the ‘Madrasi’ stereotypes she had to contend with as a South Indian in Pakistan, not too different from what she faced in parts of India.

Many years ago, a young Indian woman told me how surprised she was to see images of a ‘normal’ Pakistani housing society on TV. She had heard so much about terrorism in Pakistan that she never imagined that there were regular people living in regular homes in the country. Perhaps for this reason alone, both India and Pakistan need more journalists like Menon in each other’s countries.