Variously described as “The Pearl of Punjab” or “The Heart of Pakistan,” Lahore brings to mind different images. Whilst Niloufer Bilimoria relates her recent experiences across the border, Parsiana offers an overview of this cultural capital that hosts many of the country’s intelligentsia.
Article by Parinaz Gandhi | Parsiana
Immigration was smooth for the three of us from India crossing over of the Wagah border with four officials in attendance! We were happy to learn that the border gates are open all day and only close for the evening flag lowering ceremony. The trade border just yards away remains open 24 hours.
Visiting Lahore, 37 miles from the India-Pakistan border, was not just something on the bucket list. It was a dream. And a promise made to my mother 30 years ago that I would definitely see the city of her birth. Our drive in from Wagah was along the famous Lahore Canal which stretches for several miles right down to Lahore.
Thanks to an invitation to the Lahore Literary Festival and Fakir Aijazuddin, a friend from across the border, the visa came in two days flat! This being the centenary year of yesteryear scribe Khushwant Singh, Lahore wanted to commemorate a son of their soil with a small Khushwant Singh Literary Festival (KSLF) that we created with the help of friends in the mountains of Kasauli.
The added attractions were my mother’s dear cousins, Rati Cooper and Perin Boga, who have grown up and live in Lahore. A trip without them there would have had no meaning for me. Rati is 85 and retired not so long ago as the popular principal of Rajkumar College in Rajkot, remembered by generations of Rajkumarians. Perin, 72, retired as dean of humanities from Kinnaird College for Women and is still actively involved in theater in Lahore. Kinnaird has named its amphitheatre after her, a fitting tribute in her lifetime (see “Across the border,” Zoroastrians Abroad, Parsiana, January 7, 2010). When Perin took me around the College, the love of the staff was palpable, from the guard at the gate to the housekeeper and the teachers.
Both Rati and Perin braved the unseasonal rain and soaked shoes to attend the Litfest and spend some meaningful time together. Razi Ahmed’s Lahore Litfest is well on its way to overtaking Jaipur’s with over 75,000 attending 75 sessions over three days at the magnificent Al-Hamra Centre.
Bombay born Aban Marker Kabraji was the Parsi presence there in a packed session with moderator Shahid Zahid on Cosmopolitan Quetta, a city she grew up in; a city her family established themselves in with innumerable acts of charity that she never even mentioned. Aban who is Asia regional director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the daughter of the late Khursheed Marker, the only Pakistani Parsi to be nominated a Federal minister of cabinet, and niece of the illustrious Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan’s well-known diplomat par excellence.
Although the call of the Festival was strong, the call of the Parsis was no less. I had to take time off to explore my roots. In its heyday Lahore boasted of 300 Parsis, in January 2015 they were down to 40 (17 males, 23 females, as per figures shared by Toxy Cowasjee of Karachi). Ably escorted by Rati and Perin, I discovered my mother’s beautiful yellow crumbling home on the corner of Lawrence and Queens Road, secured behind tall gates. It stands on prime property worth crores, close to the Lahore zoo. Legend has it that a bear escaped from there and was found in conversation with my mother in her bedroom! The roadside hawker, who was rather astonished at this senior citizen’s attempts to scale a wall to get a photo, told me it is occupied by security guards. When I mentioned my connection, he offered me a meal at his open air dhaba. The hospitality of Lahorians is remarkable and unmatched. He could clearly tell from my Bambaiya Hindi that I was from across the border.
Our next call was the Cooper Agiary founded by my great-grandfather, and Rati and Perin’s grandfather, Ardeshir Byramji Limboowalla Cooper, in memory of his wife Avabai who bore him 17 children of whom 11 survived. His second wife Navajbai did not quite match up with her 10 kids of whom five survived. Well by this time I guess they had stopped selling limboos (lemons) and Ardeshir was a thriving wine and provision merchant on Mall Road, from where came the name Cooper or wine barrel.
Ardeshir and his family came to the Punjab in bullock carts, well before the railway line was built, reminiscent of Faredoon Jungelwalla in Lahore-born Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel The Crow Eaters. Ardeshir soon became the father figure to Lahore Parsis with his generous support. The Agiary was first established at his residence, also on Mall Road, in 1893, among the stately colonial residences, and consecrated by Dastur (Dr) Jamaspji Minocherji Jamaspasana of Bombay who by all accounts received a royal welcome at the gaily decorated Lahore station with a band and the superintendent of police standing by to salute.
Later, when the Coopers shifted residence, the Agiary shifted too, to their bungalow on Lahore Road. Among the trustees was Jehangirji Rustomji Daji, whose son Kaikoshru Rustomji later married Ardeshir’s daughter, Homai. Their daughter Thrity was my mother, and their sons, Minoo and Nari Rustomji, my uncles. But that is another story.
A shift in the Parsi population from Civil Lines to Gulberg saw the transfer of the fire temple to this area in 1968. Incidentally the first Parsi residential colony of the Punjab came up here in 1968, with 10 flats, and the inauguration was done by Bapsi’s mother, Tehmina Bhandara. The Agiary is being lovingly cared for by Sarosh Challa and his wife Aban though they are keen to get their own mobed from India. The fact that I could place sukhad at this Agiary on the roz of my mother’s death anniversary in her centenary year helped me bond with my roots.
A surprise encounter in Lahore was with Kersi Dubash of Bombay’s Pan Tours. Anyone who has visited Tiger Tops in Nepal knows Kersi. He has transformed into a successful entrepreneur and was exhibiting garas, bags and furnishings that were being picked up by the cream of Pakistani society.
Next day we drove down to the Parsi cemetery located near the historic Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque. The beautiful city of Lahore is a showcase for Moghul architecture in the Punjab. En route to the cemetery Perin called for some roses from the cemetery garden. We were greeted with a cane basket full of the most fragrant pink variety. Located off the main road it is a beautiful green, leafy area full of history. We placed the fragrant roses on the graves of Bapsi’s parents and family friends Tehmina and Peshotan Bhandara, as also on the many Coopers buried there, and a lone Daji (the family my grandmother married into, who later became Rustomjis).
A simple marble plaque remembers Ardeshir who died on October 30, 1919. The date of birth of this remarkable man remains unknown.
“The Parsis of Lahore…were like an ornament that the city wore. Their disappearance has left it poorer in more ways than one,” wrote A. Hamid, Urdu novelist and short story writer. In the years following Independence, he remembers, “What I always noticed about them, in both men and women, was their dignity. You never heard them talking or laughing loudly. They had great poise and they would take their evening walk with measured steps, smiling shyly and talking to one another…”
The liquor business in Lahore was once a Parsi monopoly with the Gandhi Wine Shop, Edulji, English Wine Shop, French Wine Shop, another on Temple Road and also in the Lahore Cantonment, recalls Hamid. There was also a Parsi Bank in an old two-storeyed building and a Parsi laundry. Among individuals, Hamid remembered pediatrician Dr Bharucha who was known for his healing touch and the cheerful Parsi gatekeeper supervising entry to the second class at the Plaza Cinema which showed Hollywood movies.
Parsis were drawn to Lahore “by the commercial opportunities in this growing colonial city,” mentions Prof Ian Talbot of the University of Southampton. At Parsiana’s request he shared his research findings from “Parsis in Colonial Lahore: A Brief Overview” wherein his list of wine merchants includes Framji Khajurina, who was also the proprietor of the Clifton Restaurant, and Peshotan Bhandara.
In the early 20th century, Parsi businesses were located in the Civil Lines and the Cantonment, states Talbot. Dinshawji Challa who resided there, along with the Machliwallas and Ghadiallis, provided groceries and drinks in several outlets. Challa’s store known as Jamsetjee and Sons in the heart of the Cantonment was “a favorite haunt of the foreign military personnel stationed there during the British Raj. Besides the military, the majority of the customers were foreigners working in Lahore as heads of companies or banks. Jamsetjee and Sons were also suppliers to the British Military Hospital and the Indian Military Hospital in Lahore Cantonment.
“Apart from wine/provision business, another field ventured in by Parsis was auctioneering on behalf of the North-Western Railway from Karachi to Peshawar, and the Ministry of Defence for the entire Punjab. At the end of the colonial rule, private auctions were conducted for those returning home to Britain,” writes Talbot. Dara Cooper owned the famous Ritz Cinema and a toy shop in the Mall where many Parsi families resided. The Dajis and Rustomjis who were prominent lawyers lived on Queen’s Road. The community would get together to celebrate festivals like Jamshedi Navroz and Khordad Saal.
Whilst not much is known about the Parsi Bank, as per the history of the Punjab National Bank, among its founders in 1895 was E. C. Jessawala, a well-known merchant and partner of Jamshedji and Company. Along with a group of visionaries like Lala Lajpat Rai, Lala Harkishan Lal, Rai Mool Raj, Kali Prasono Roy, Dayal Singh Majithia, he believed that Indians should have a national bank of their own which was started with an authorized total capital of two lakh rupees and working capital of Rs 20,000. After Partition, the Bank’s registered office was shifted to Delhi. Although it lost 40% of its deposits that came from West Pakistan, the Bank is known to have honored all the deposit claims of the refugees based on whatever little evidence they could produce.
Links to Lahore
Images of Lahore have been succinctly portrayed by Sidhwa and artist Jimmy Engineer, both of whom grew up in this city and continue to return to it through their works. Whilst Sidhwa was afflicted by polio as a child and Engineer suffered from kidney failure, both of them overcame their handicaps and succeeded in making their nation and their community proud of their accomplishments.
Despite “leading a sheltered life in Lahore,” where “I felt I was always watched,” Sidhwa was able to convey the pathos of Partition when writing her novel Ice-Candy-Man in her early thirties. There were bodies on the streets, houses on fire and religious fanatics raising slogans. The book that was subsequently made into a movie, 1947 Earth by Deepa Mehta starts with a scene lifted from young Bapsi’s life when hoodlums in horse carts barged into their compound shouting “Yeh Hindu ghar hai… (This is a Hindu house).” Fortunately the cook came to the rescue of the helpless mother and her young children explaining to the miscreants, “These are Parsis and not Hindus,” a distinction that has kept the community apart in many ways.
Viewing Lahore as a feudal society in comparison to cosmopolitan cities like Bombay and Karachi, Sidhwa had conveyed to Parsiana (see “Lahore as Sidhwa sees it,” Zoroastrians Abroad, December 7, 2005), “I’ve never had anyone tell me to cover my head but some friends have had that experience.” She considered the purdah a status symbol expected from the women of affluent homes. According to her, Parsis have “this deep-seated loyalty to the land where we live. (Are we) rising to the challenge of the warring communities around us?… Once borders become porous, the subcontinent will become like Europe. It’s the animosity that must go.”
Her book City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore, published by Penguin in 2005 was considered “particularly good at evoking the smells and sounds of Lahore.” The anthology carries a reminiscence of Sidhwa’s brother Minoo Bhandara, beer baron and former Member of Parliament in Pakistan, as a teenager sitting next to American filmstar Ava Gardner at a Lahore cinema (she was filming Bhowani Junction). She turned to him twice, saying something that he just could not understand. She then shouted at him, “I want to go to the shithouse? Do you understand ‘shit?’” and he dutifully accompanied her to the nearest toilet!
Sidhwa’s earlier book The Crow Eaters that held a mirror to the idiosyncrasies of the Parsi community earned the wrath of some zealots who felt she had “betrayed them.” Drawing inspiration from this work, Bhandara had started the Croweaters Art Gallery situated in the heart of the Mall near the old Tollington Market in 1999 that served as a sales window for indigenous arts and crafts, and a place where budding artists could display their works. Parsi cuisine was a feature of the Croweaters Café, situated on the first floor directly above the Gallery.
Using different media and styles, the versatile Engineer has presented historical and religious paintings as also nature, still life, architecture, calligraphy and abstracts. Engineer’s architecture series of paintings presents the intricate details of prominent landmarks of Lahore, whether the railway station or museum or fort, the Lohari Gate, the Sindh Badshahi Mosque, the Marble Pavilion in Hazuri Bagh or the Victorian Moghul architecture of Aitchison College. After his early education at St Anthony’s High School in Lahore, he spent a brief period at the Forman Christian College before finally enrolling at the National College of Art, the oldest art institute in Lahore where he studied for three years before treading on his chosen path. Although born seven years after the Partition, his series of paintings on this subject captures the mood of the people who were uprooted, the suppression, the dejection, the aggression. In fact one of the Pakistan postal stamps (Rs 5 denomination) is based on his painting of the Freedom movement.
“My muse is the people on the streets who work hard to make ends meet. They don’t have lavish houses, they don’t eat very good food, but they are …my inspiration,” says Engineer whose mission in life is to improve the life of the downtrodden and special children and to project a positive image of Pakistan overseas.
At an exhibition of his works in Singapore, Engineer declared that he did not restrict his identity to that of a Parsi/Zoroastrian but viewed himself as belonging to all religions and creeds, with his art seeking to uplift and unify. Ten years ago he was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence), the third highest civilian honor in Pakistan, but the humble artist proclaimed, “I call myself the servant of Pakistan because that is what I am.”
Published with permission from Parsiana.