In the masterfully tucked away Dinshaw Avari colony in Karachi, Syrus Doctor spends every business day looking after a tiny and all-but-forgotten library towered over by the Tower of Silence, a unique structure used by Zoroastrians during funerals, next door. He is of short stature, a middle-aged man in a striped T-shirt, standing next to a golden dog that, considering the Parsi adoration of dogs, probably belongs to somebody in the colony.
“It used to be active,” I detect a hint of melancholy in his voice, “But the vultures don’t come anymore. If the vultures don’t come, our corpses just sit there to rot. We have to use chemicals now, but that’s not the same.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Shahveer, the brother of my close friend Nelofer, who had introduced me to Mr Doctor, has already explained to me why it’s especially important for Parsis to be ‘buried’ via vulture.
“Look,” he turned to me with a smirk on his face, “you know these oldies are going to keep talking about good thoughts, good words and good deeds and blah and blah. They’ll never admit it, but this is kind of an unorthodox and disturbing way of disposing of a body.”
“I never said that!” I said, suddenly defensive.
“Look, it’s not for everyone. I’ll tell you how I came to terms with it.” I was intrigued.
Article by Elia Rathore | Mangal Media
Illustration: Sabrina Lodhi
Shahveer talked to me in a flippant way — I realize he didn’t take me very seriously as an ethnographer, but that’s okay. I didn’t need him to. I didn’t take myself very seriously, either. Everything I said felt like an imposition of sorts. He went on:
“It’s because even in death, we’re giving back. Instead of taking up land and acting as if our bodies are anything but meaningless vessels for our souls, we feed an animal. We give back, even after death. A last act of charity.”
The ethic of philanthropy, of selflessness, is one that Parsis value deeply. It is something that the Prophet Zarathustra advocates for his followers, and that is part of the reason why Mr. Doctor continues tending to the small library located in the corner of the closed-off Parsi colony, across from a sign written in Gujarati. I had asked Shahveer to translate it, but like many of the Parsis I would meet, he told me he doesn’t read Gujarati.
“I think we Parsis stand above the other minorities in a certain way, because we’ve always valued education, and giving back to the community,” Syrus Doctor is a man who smiles a lot when he speaks, his bespectacled eyes crinkling up into slits. But I suspect that isn’t the only reason for his sweet demeanour; I can always tell when someone genuinely welcomes me into their space.
As we speak, the library is in the process of renovation. Books probably older than I am stacked in boxes scattered all over the ground, the shelves emptied of their precious material — I have a quick thought about how some of these books probably don’t exist anywhere else. Termites have attacked, Mr Doctor tells me. Half of them will be thrown away. He allows me to look around the library freely, apparently in shock that a non-Parsi is interested in the Dastur Dhalla Library. Usually, as I’ve been told by others, non-Parsis don’t come inside. Taxis get dropped off at the gas station nearby, and the guards at the entrance of the gated community are hyper-aware of who comes in. We do live in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, after all. When I asked why it’s closed off, Shahveer simply rolled his eyes at my naïveté. The security situation, obviously.
“Everyone in Karachi knows of this colony, but I guarantee that most of them have never been inside,” Shahveer treats me like what I am: a friend of his younger sister. He decidedly does not cherry-pick his words. For him, I’m just another kid asking dumb questions about random Parsi-related topics. In other words, I’m not a threat.
That is probably also why Mr. Doctor finds it easy to speak to me in this little colony so far away from prying eyes, despite saying he doesn’t like giving interviews. A 22-year-old girl, and a friend of the Patels; there is nothing suspicious about my intentions. He tells me stories of the grand days of the library, back when it was packed with healthy books, and people still used to visit. He shows me books of interest, entire volumes of the Avesta (translated into Gujarati), original copies of important books I’ve never heard of, YMZA (Young Male Zoroastrian Association) pamphlets from forever ago, and pictures of Dastur Dhalla and Zoroaster, alongside a Faravahar sitting on the wall. I can tell he hasn’t spoken to someone about this in a while.
“Now, I am not allowed to do this, but since you’re interested, I will make an exception,” he leads me, with Shahveer following behind, outside, to the back of the Tower of Silence, where, he informs me, “the funeral rites are done.” This is where the Parsi priests get the bodies of the deceased ready for burial. As the sun starts to set, it hits me how truly quiet the colony is. In the middle of a city like Karachi, this is a feat. The light of the golden hour leaves the flowers that surround the area basking in a fiercely yellow glow. It is calm, and I feel like I am on hallowed ground, but Mr. Doctor urges me to look around before somebody catches us here. He’s not sure about the rules, because although it’s not the Fire Temple, and I am not going near the actual Tower of Silence, my presence here is still questionable. I do start to look around, (actively not leaving that small designated zone, mind you) and it is beautiful. Greenery everywhere, lush, and clearly looked-after. There is a grey slab with names on it, also surrounded by various flowers, and my suspicions about it are confirmed when Shahveer tells me that those are the names of the dead. He looks a bit lost in thought, wandering around. I ask him if he’s okay.
“It’s the first time I’ve visited my grandmother since she died,” he tells me, “I really had to justify the whole vulture thing to myself the last time I was here.”
As the residual yellows of the sunset start to ebb away, all three of us stand silent, looking at our own pieces of the garden. The air suddenly becomes heavy with a presence. I’m not sure what it is, but it is reminiscent of the feeling one gets when stepping into a graveyard. For today’s purposes, I chalk it off as a sense of solemnity, though I’m certain there’s more to it.
Eventually, one of the two remaining priests comes followed by a dog and I leave quickly before I’m seen, back to the library. There, Mr Doctor begins to lament.
“I don’t know what is going to become of this place.”
I ask him if he means the library or the burial area.
“Both,” he responds, “the priests are getting older, I am getting older, all of us are getting older, and the young ones don’t care. Nobody cares. Nobody is learning how to be a priest, nobody is taking care of this library. The colony is emptying out. There is no interest.” I notice Shahveer disappearing into a corner of the library as he says this.
As I say goodbye and thank him, Mr Doctor thanks me as well.
“Maybe if you write about this, maybe people will read it and there will be some interest. Good luck.”
He also gives me a small book (A Review of the Date of Zoroaster as given by Prof. Jackson in Zoroaster, The Prophet of Ancient Iran in light of Archaeological Information obtained in the last few years by T.R. Sethna) published by somebody in the Parsi Colony, back when the library used to be more active in the collection of works by Parsis. In 2004, the library reached local news for retrieving seven out of the twenty-one manuscripts of the Dastur Dhalla collection from England, after the manuscripts had been stolen under the ownership of Pakistan’s archaeological department. That the robbery took place without a peep of concern from the relevant authorities is telling of Pakistan’s efforts in preserving Parsi history. Privy to the dismal attitude of Pakistan’s authorities toward anything that does not fit into the imagined Islamic national narrative, the Parsis took it upon themselves to document their history instead. The library was not in the news again, and there are no directions to it on Google Maps. In fact, before I asked Shahveer about it, that one article about the recovered manuscripts was the only reason I knew it existed.
Leaving the colony, I ask Shahveer if I can interview him for my project. He refuses, flatly.
“I’ve done enough of these. I’ll get you a copy of one of them. There’s even a video online. It’s like everyone’s interested in us now that we’re dying out.”
This reaction is not completely unexpected. In doing my preliminary, and thus purposefully limited, research, I also noticed the distinct tone of pessimism with which the Parsis, and particularly the Parsis of Karachi, are written about. A quick google search and you will find that the Parsis are ‘vanishing’, there is a ‘crisis’, a ‘decline’, they’re on the path to ‘self-destruction’. It is the kind of pessimism that sets in when the finish line is in sight when the houses start emptying out when you cannot hear the children playing outside anymore, when your friends and family move away and when the ‘long-lived’ make up the bulk of a population which once thrived in youthful exuberance. For the Pakistani Parsis, there is a remarkably low chance of any kind of community revival. Therefore, I understood not wanting to dwell on the topic. Repeatedly reading about the imminent ‘extinction’ of your people probably isn’t the most pleasing experience. In Karachi, by most estimates, there are around 1200 Parsis left. In Lahore, which is frequently overlooked and used to be a home for many Parsis, there are no more than 25 Parsis left and there are rumours of one or two families left in Quetta. While conducting the 2017 census, Pakistani officials made national news when they failed to comprehend the identity of a Parsi woman. The very thing that kept them safe from prying majoritarian eyes for centuries has now turned around and aided in their disappearance from the national memory, and perhaps the nation itself.
It was this realization that initially compelled me to learn about the Parsis beyond the quick Q&A sessions that I held with Nelo every now and then. Ever since I was little, I have always been fascinated by the concept of extinction. My first ever dream job was to be an archaeologist, á la Indiana Jones, digging up the remnants of a past that had no place in the present. I wondered what it must feel like to touch something ancient, something that once was. But scrutiny is different when it’s not objects you’re looking at, and extinction is less exciting when your dear friend tells you she’s scared of having nothing and no one left in a place she’s always known to be home.
Finding my Place
Nelofer Patel and I met in an uncanny way in the very first week of our freshman year of university, and subsequently never forgot each other. We both mistook the timing of our first pre-calculus class, and when we got to the classroom, breathless and frazzled… we were the only two people in one of the too-big-to-make-sense auditoriums that characterize the Management Sciences building. Having arrived half an hour earlier than necessary, we started talking.
“Are you from here?” I asked, in a way that I would probably find too nosy now.
“Yes, born and raised.” She smiled her friendly smile, the one I know now, the kind of smile that takes up her whole face — I would later learn it was an exact copy of her mother’s. My eyes wandered to her hair, which was a distinctly not-Pakistani colour.
“Is your hair naturally like that?” I had no tact.
“Are you a Pathan?”
“You don’t look Lahori.”
“I am Lahori. Oh, I’m also Parsi.”
“…Parsi.” Ah. Then it made sense. My mom had told me Parsis were from Iran. She looked like she was from Iran. A fire-worshipper! I thought it was awesome, but didn’t pry. Only in our sophomore year did she mention how annoying it was when people thought she worshipped fire. I didn’t tell her I used to think that too, and nodded along with the appropriate amount of righteous annoyance required for such a situation.
Over the years, Nelo became an irreplaceable fixture in my life. Amidst her mother sending her to my dorm room with homemade soup and soft foods when I was so sick I could barely lift my head off the pillow, her unimpressed monotone always poking fun at me for being so earnest, making peanut butter cookies in her mother’s stuffed and homely kitchen, attending the BBQ’s she held at the end of every semester, homemade Sunday breakfasts of omelettes, mushrooms, and sausages (Nelo’s speciality), I began to love her deeply. Ours was a friendship completely separate from all my other ties, with no group dynamics to contend with and no compromises to be made for any sort of third party. Here, in the privileged circles of Lahore, I was different, and she, despite never wanting to stand out much, was different too.
In conversations with her and her parents, I slowly began also loving what I knew of the Parsis. That was the first spark — the love of a friend who had sustained me. I wanted to know more.
For me, the distance and facade of objectivity in traditional academia had always been off-putting. How could I, an outsider of the community, talk about Nelo and her family in a conclusive way, just because I’ve read a tome on their religion? How could I attempt to speak their truth by conflating them with the Bombay Parsis, on whom the bulk of scholarly work is centred?
With an issue so close to the heart, the only recourse is a method that has respect for the personality of it all. Intimacy is vital in the search for honesty that boasts depth; a truth that has a human texture, rather than the cold, disenchanted, and shallow truth that accompanies dispassion. Pretending you don’t exist, as a researcher, is a lie by omission.
Like most minorities in Pakistan, the Parsis are wary of outsiders, for obvious reasons. Muslims, the majority (of which I am a part) are, to put it kindly, quite sensitive about matters of faith. As an outsider, I know that the responses I got would be different had I asked someone Parsi do the interviews for me. I asked about this directly in most of the interviews, just to confirm what I already knew. However, this did not deter me. I could not hope for proximity and distance myself at the same time. Instead, I found solace in the common ground that me and my interviewees shared. The mode of communication was always English, my first language. I have done interviews with Partition survivors in Urdu and Punjabi, with great hesitance and occasional embarrassment. Further, because the Pakistani Parsis generally live well, there was no socioeconomic gap to bridge. This made for a fun back-and-forth, and sometimes even cross-questioning. Also, talking to other Pakistanis, especially Pakistanis who are influenced by Western culture (like me), about the grievances of living in an increasingly intolerant Pakistan is a national pastime. These conversations are distinguished by an exasperation that one only reserves for their home.
Finally, I am a woman. After the initial round of interviews, I decided I wanted to privilege the female narrative. That is not to say that the choice was made out of self-important notions of my own feminism (even though on some subconscious level it could very well have been influenced by that). It occurred to me after my first visit to Karachi that at the heart of this threat of extinction, and thus at the focal point of this impossible future, is the figure of the Parsi woman. Many of the problems associated with the decline of the community (birth rate, conversion, and late-marriage) all have a distinctly female tilt. omen, and their bodies, are always central to concerns of extendability. To reflect this unequal role in the construction of the future, and to have more in common with my interviewees, I decided that I was going to interview women exclusively. However, if I had simply decided to focus on women due to the historical lack of attention given to female testimony and experience, I would consider the choice justified, even if only as reparation. One way to combat the manly tradition of erasure is to give extra attention to the traditionally silenced. I spoke to fourteen women. Therefore, this is a herstory.
It is who we are
In doing research on the partition of British India for a class, I came across a film based on a book, Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa, the Sitara-i-Imtiaz recipient and beloved Pakistani Parsi novelist. It is called 1947: Earth, a movie banned in Pakistan for its apparently provocative message of fraternity. In it, there is a scene in which the main character, a little girl named Lenny Sethi, from an upper-class Parsi family in Lahore, is dancing with her mother to some classical music.
“[People say] tea, but I think ballroom dancing is the best invention of the British,” says her mother, Bunty Sethi, nearly cooing.
Lenny looks up at her mom, perturbed. The conversation that follows is telling.
“But Mummy, cousin Ali says we Parsis are the bum lickers of the English.”
“What?!…. Well, I don’t think that we are bum lickers, actually.”
“You know, have you seen those lizards in the garden? The ones that change colour? The chameleon?”
“The Parsis are a little bit like that, actually.”
“No, no, chameleons. The Parsis also take on the colour of the people around them. They have to, to survive. There are so few Parsis in the world, Lenoo, it is safer not to stand out.”
Bunty then goes on to tell Lenny the celebrated sugar-in-milk story, in an attempt to ease her concerns.
If you have heard of the Parsis, then you have probably heard about the sugar-in-milk story.
“God, we need some new concepts circling in our collective subconscious. I am so sick of that old story,” Anushka Rustomji rolls her eyes as her (adorable) Rottweiler snores softly in the corner of an artfully decorated waiting room, somewhere on the University of the Punjab campus.
Veera, her little sister, reiterates this the next time I go to Karachi: “I find it so bizarre that people rely on this account so heavily. It’s not even accurate. It’s been largely mythologized. People take it too literally.”
Veera had fact-checked the Qissa-i-Sanjan, the account of the Zoroastrian arrival in the Indian subcontinent off of which the orally-transmitted legend is based, and found large parts of it to be embellished, even down to the dates. In my study of memory, I was interested by the notion that some pasts triumph while others fail, as certain interpretations of one’s own history are more appealing. We all like remembering ourselves and our community in a particular way. In the case of this story, I understood exactly why. The Parsis, a hushed minority cherished by the Pakistanis who remember them, have been giving to Pakistan since it’s inception. I guess there’s just something about the sugar-in-milk story that’s so telling of the Parsi ethic, something so recognizable, that not one person I spoke to failed to bring it up in one way or another. Like Shahveer told me earlier, the Parsis value giving back as a core tenet of their presence, even after death, even today.
As the story goes, when the Zoroastrians fled from Iran sometime after Muslim invaders toppled the Sassanians, in the 8th or 9th or 10th century (the timeline, as mentioned, is murky), taking the sacred fire (Iranshah) with them, some of them arrived in Sanjan, Gujarat, where they were greeted by the Hindu Raja, Jadi Rana. Since their language differences posed a barrier, Jadi Rana sent the Zoroastrians a full glass of milk, to indicate that his kingdom was filled to the brim. In response, the Zoroastrians poured sugar into the milk and gave it back, without spilling a single drop. The gesture was meant to represent the intentions of the Zoroastrians; they would be like sugar in milk, undetectable but adding a sweetness, and richness, to any land they inhabited. Indeed, most people who have heard of the Parsis would agree that they lived up to this pact. Perhaps that is why the myth has persisted.
The Zoroastrians got their ‘Parsi’ tag when they arrived in the Indian subcontinent, when Iran was still called Paras. According to the aforementioned tale, Jadi Rana let the Zoroastrians in after placing certain stipulations to the Dastur, or High Priest. The Qissa-i-Sanjan relays them:
“…if we give you shelter, you must abandon the language of your country, cast aside the tongue of Iran and adopt the speech of the realm of Hind. …as to the dress of your women, they should wear garments like those of our females. … you must put off all your arms and scimitars and cease to wear them anymore…”
The Parsis were, as the legend goes, true to their word. They adapted themselves to the culture around them.
To this day, the Parsis speak Gujarati, even if they can’t read it.
“I just picked it up at home,” Nelofer says.
“Oh, my parents spoke it with us, it just comes instinctually,” Veera confirms. There were some things that were common to all my interviewees. Learning Gujarati mainly through family interactions is one of them. Family life is, after all, where the most potent material of remembrance is.
“Yes, every Parsi speaks it. We even had inside jokes in Gujarati at Mama Parsi,” Fiona Noshirwani tells me, referring to the all-girl Parsi school renowned throughout Karachi. I remember Anushka saying something about having jokes in Gujarati too, and she went to Karachi Grammar School, another elite educational institution.
“I can understand it,” Sabrina Lodhi’s dad is a Muslim, but her mom is a Parsi, and her cousins are Parsi, so it makes sense.
“Yeah, that much even I know,” Nina Aklesaria smirks, after telling me she knows nothing about her heritage. She is related to the Cowasjees and the Dinshaws, two of the most important Parsi families in Pakistan’s history.
I didn’t know that Nelofer spoke Gujarati until sophomore year of university when I went over to her house and realized that I couldn’t understand what she was saying to her mother. Before then, I had only heard her speak English, with that characteristic British lilt that all Parsis have, and Urdu. I had known her for over a year. But according to Susan Samata, author of The Cultural Memory of Language, “language is not an all-or-nothing proposition”, and I know now how skillfully Nelo inhabits the zones she’s been given. It is a skill with which a lot of Parsis negotiate their various levels of identity.
To this day, Parsi women wear saris. There is a distinctive way of putting on saris called ‘Parsi style’, where the pallu, the luxurious, loose end of the sari, is at the forefront. Nelofer showed me pictures of her sari perawanu, the sari-wearing ceremony considered a rite of passage for girls in the Parsi community. Anushka was there too. After putting on the sari, with the help of the elder women, you are initiated into womanhood.
To this day, the Parsis stay out of armed conflict. The Parsi position of neutrality during Partition is what kept them from being “mangled to chutney” (as a British officer in 1947: Earth put it) after the British left. Shireen Patel, Nelofer’s older sister and a part of the World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum, says this lean toward pacifism is because “we’re cowards, we run away whenever there’s a problem. That, or we hide.” Dr. Spenta says something along the same lines: “We’re a little cowardly, I find even I get scared sometimes.” However, Kermin Parakh, the principal of BVS, another elite educational institute in Karachi, say’s it’s because “we’re here to say good things, and think good thoughts, and do good deeds. Does war fit in anywhere there?” I suppose it could be either, or both. It could also be what Bunty Sethi told Lenny about not standing out, one way or another. The result is the same: a non-controversial minority group with a reputation for “modernity” — certain socially liberal attitudes that many claim are left behind, at least in part, from their proximity to the British.
It is a well-known fact that the Parsis prospered under the British Raj. There is still a certain nostalgia about the glory days, when the British were still here.
“The old ones definitely want the British back,” Veera tells me with a grin on her face.
“We were a big deal once upon a time, and a lot of people prefer to live off the glory of that time, rather than working on the now,” Nina pauses, “but you can’t really blame them, can you?”
Under colonial rule, the Parsis went from a “small, insular minority to a prosperous, highly-educated community with a pluralistic outlook.” Many Parsis will gladly tell you that they were the first ones to play cricket in India. They worked as traders, financiers, and cultural, as well as economic, mediators, their casteless status enabling them “to move more freely than other groups and to interact more freely with the British.” This is not to say that they were completely subservient to the British, and especially not when it came to blatant disrespect of Parsi sensibilities. The British found this out the hard way in the so-called ‘Dog-Riots’ of 1832.
“The one thing I noticed growing up that made me realize how different we are from you guys [referring to Muslims] is that our homes are different,” I had asked Nina when she first started realizing she was Parsi, “I realized that my Muslim friends would have all this Arabic calligraphy all over the house, and my Christian friends would have crosses and Bibles, while we had pictures of Zoroaster. And Muslims don’t really keep dogs. We love dogs.”
The Parsi love of dogs was clear to me from the beginning of my project. Simba, Nelofer’s dog, is treated like a king. And rightly so, considering he’s absolutely beautiful and elicits nothing but love from whoever meets him. Kermin Auntie (as Nelo calls her) had two dogs in the room while I was interviewing her. Anushka’s Rottweiler is treated like a baby. After doing a little research, I found that this is not a coincidence. Parsis attach a religious significance to the dog and use it during funeral rites. In Zoroastrian tradition, the dog is “the guardian of the Bridge of Judgment or Chinvat, before which every Zoroastrian is judged following death, and the faithful companion of the righteous Bridge to paradise”. So, in 1832, when the British started culling stray dogs en masse in Bombay, the Parsis, including Rustomjee Cowasjee Patel, a “trusted servant of the East India Company”, protested strongly. Despite being the wealthiest group in Bombay, and amassing that wealth through colonial rule, they led a strike, which Hindus, Jains, and Muslims joined in solidarity. This involved closing down shops and amassing large, angry crowds of hooting people to intimidate the British. Of course, despite the chaos, the Parsi-led strike was not a violent one. (Only two soldiers died, and that too from heat exhaustion.) However, it did prove to the British that their “claim to the loyalty of Indians,” and even their favourite ‘natives’, was fragile, and could always be disrupted. Even so, the Parsi-British relationship recovered quite quickly. Rustomjee Cowasjee’s contract with the Company was also eventually renewed.
While Iran’s Zoroastrian community deteriorated under totalizing Muslim rule in the 19th century, the Parsis were doing so well under the Company that they sent financial aid to their Iranian counterparts, on top of building schools and clinics for them. In 1882 they lobbied Iran’s government and convinced Naser al-din Shah to repeal his tax on non-Muslim subjects. Zoroastrians tend to look out for one another, especially when they have the money to. The Pakistani Parsis, unlike their Indian counterparts, can all afford to live well and educate their children. There are too many Indian Parsis for the entire community to live well — this is not a problem in Pakistan.
“It’s what’s given people the impression that we’re all rich,” Anushka tells me, “the rich Parsis are really rich, and there are several funds and organizations set up to take care of those that are less well-off. Education and housing are not a problem within the community.”
“There are houses and apartments that are rented out to Parsis for 100 rupees (64 American cents) a month, even today,” Nelofer’s mom, Yasmin Patel, tells me.
Nelofer adds to the sentiment: “There are so many oldies with so much money and nothing to do, and you know how much we love charity. Plus we’re so few that agar day bhi dein gay sab ko, toh phir bhi bach jaye ga (even if they give their money to every single one of us, there would still be money left over.)” It’s true, the rich Parsis are very, very rich. Maybe this is why, the first time I asked my mother about the Zoroastrians living in Pakistan, she told me they’re a “high-class minority, very refined, you know the type, very British.” In Pakistan, ‘very British’ is still quite a compliment. For the Parsis, beyond that, it is revealing reference to their not-too-distant history.
The first Indian to ever receive baronetcy was a Parsi, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. In 1830, the Governor of Bombay, John Malcolm, conveyed the British stance on the Parsis: “there is nobody of natives in India so remarkable for their intelligence and enterprise as the Parsis.” As one can imagine, the Parsis became significantly Westernized, which is probably why all of them spoke to me in that particular kind of well-rounded English. When they moved to Sindh, and then particularly Karachi, they moved under British authority. By the mid-twentieth century, it became a principal trading centre, being the sole port of the region. Karachi remained the industrial hub of Pakistan after Partition, boasting cultural diversity and a cosmopolitan outlook. It also remained the place in Pakistan with the highest number of Parsis, the 1951 census putting the number at 5,018.
Sitting in Veera’s corner office, at the Vasl Arts Association in Defence, Karachi, I ask her about some common perceptions surrounding Parsis, like their stellar work ethic:
“Well, you could say that… yes, we are hard-working, and yes, we do have a great work ethic, generally,” Veera doesn’t seem to want to press on about this point, and I know I shouldn’t urge people to self-congratulate. Veera did her bachelor’s thesis on Parsis too, and it was also an oral history. I think she really gets what I’m going for. So when I turn to the topic of what the Parsis have done for Karachi, she is more forthcoming.
“I don’t think Karachi would have been what it is today without Parsis. Definitely not. Not with what we’ve contributed to the infrastructure and the cultural landscape,” she lists universities and schools among the top contributions, like the NED University of Engineering and Technology, named after Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw. You can still see his statue standing in the Karachi Parsi Institute, formerly called the Parsi Gymkhana, established in 1893.
“I’m sure you know,” Veera continues, “the first mayor of Karachi was also a Parsi,” I do know this; Jamshed Nusserwanjee Rustamjee is often called the ‘real Father of Karachi.’
“And, of course you know, Avari hotels. Roads, hospitals, schools, you name it, we’ve done it. I think Karachi owes a lot to it’s Parsis.”
Vineta Dastoor asks me if I want something to drink, and I order myself a green tea. I wonder if her last name is a result of both her grandfathers’ work as priests. I remember reading that children are provided access to the distant past through their grandparents, who are “a living history.” She tells me they’ve both died. I don’t press on.
Vineta is quite direct with me. That might be because her close friend, who goes to my university and is my sole connection to her, is sitting across from her and laughing at everything she says. The coffeeshop is noisy, being one of the more upper-class and popular ones in Karachi, so her comments are coming at me with a little force.
“Being a Parsi is cool. You get away with a lot of shit, especially in Karachi. Cowasjee got away with so much shit! I doubt they’d let any other minority get away with as much shit as Cowasjee got away with,” she’s talking about Ardeshir Cowasjee, a markedly outspoken businessman, columnist, and philanthropist who passed away in 2012. I know about him, and I also know he was jailed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once for being loudly critical of his ways. But it was only for 72 days, so I assume Vineta is referring to his relative insulation from the wrath of our many authoritarians. We both know too well how easy it is for people to be tortured, even put to death, for lesser, crimes here. Bhutto himself is an example of how quickly tides change. But the Cowasjee name is famous in Karachi, and deserves a book in and of itself.
“Hah, look, another Parsi,” Vineta says as she waves to a man sitting behind me, “told you, this is our city.”
I am used to the grey artificiality of Jammin’ Java, a cafe in my university mainly popular for it’s air conditioning. I go to the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Dr. Spenta, who also lives on campus with her husband (a professor of mine) and their two twin girls, is sitting across from me. People have been telling me to do so for a while, I’ve been meaning to talk to do so. But I have been intimidated by her reputation for being “really smart.” The reputation is accurate, but she’s also very warm, and I realize I’ve been putting it off for no reason. Dr. Spenta grew up in Karachi, and tells me about it fondly.
“I think some of us are still really resting on the laurels of our forefathers, you know, who built Karachi.”
Growing up in a city so heavily influenced by her community, she never really got hassled or rudely questioned about their religion. Being at Mama Parsi early on also helped. The famous Parsi girls’ school is why she’s one of the few people I spoke to who could read Gujarati. She moved to a different school in the 80’s, due to fears about being targeted under Zia’s Islamization program. At a certain point in the conversation, I ask her about any stereotypes she’s had to dispel as a Parsi.
“Other than being called a fire-worshipper, I’d say the main stereotype is that we’re all honest and hardworking,” she laughs, adding that this isn’t exactly something that has profoundly affected her life, “I don’t know if there’s any truth to that.” Generalizations of any kind can be annoying, I note.
“I think it’s something that stuck onto us from the time of the British. Of course, I’m talking about in Karachi. I don’t find many Lahoris who know what a Parsi is. I stick with ‘non-Muslim’ here, mostly. Lahore, as you know, is a different kettle of fish altogether.”
Nelofer’s mom and her Great-Aunt are chatting with me in Nelofer’s garden, and it’s a lovely day to be doing it. They both grew up in Lahore, so I ask them how that was.
“Those were the days,” Nelo’s mom says, “there used to be more Parsis in Lahore. Not as many as Karachi, but still enough to have a community. I think there were at least 2000 here. Now, there are just, what, 24?”
I look at Nelo instinctively. I know she’s never known anyone her own age here, she’s always talking about the ‘oldies’ that make up the bulk of the Lahori Parsis now.
“It was a good time, we all knew each other, and we would all do things together,” her Great-Aunt chimes in, “my father set up a cafe, as Iranis do. His biscuits were famous, they even used to be sent as far as Amritsar.”
“The 70’s and 80’s were the best,” Nelo’s mom seems to be thinking about something, a smile on her face, “no phones, no tablets, everyone just played together. We had fun.”
It sounds a lot like when Nina described growing up with the other Parsi kids. “Except, now, people don’t really gather like they used to. It’s not cohesive like it once was,” she looked like she hadn’t really thought about it before then.
I tell them it definitely sounds like fun.
“But they’re all gone now. You can’t have that fun without a community,” Nelo’s Great-Aunt is still smiling, but she looks a little sad.
Nelo nods furiously. No community is all she’s known. I would resent it, too. Especially knowing that it wasn’t always like this. The loss is still felt by people who remember the days of Parsi prosperity, especially Partition survivors. A Pakistani novelist writes:
“The Plaza Cinema, where we would go to watch Hollywood movies, had a Parsi gatekeeper who supervised the entry to the second class. He was a quiet man of sixty or sixty-five in strict Parsi attire who wore thick glasses and who always kept smiling. I would sometimes see him walking on the footpath that runs along the Lahore Zoo. In Nila Gumbad there used to be a Parsi Bank in an old two-storey building. The sign outside showed an evenly balanced pair of scales held by a woman who resembled a figure from mythology. I have not been in that area for some time but I am sure the bank no longer exists. The Parsis of Lahore, like its Anglo-Indians, were like an ornament that the city wore. Their disappearance has left it poorer in more ways than one.”
Everything the two ladies tell me sounds charming, and I almost can’t believe it. I never liked Lahore, preferring the woodsy calm of the valley of Islamabad instead. Lahore is hot, dusty, sticky, and noisy. But the way people remember it makes me rethink the way I’ve written it off. After all, as long as the old city is alive in someone’s memories, it cannot be considered completely lost. This city is haunted in ways I never cared to look before, even it’s darkened nooks boasting more character than my limited imagination can comprehend.
The reminiscing ends before long, and we keep talking. When the conversation turns to Gujarati, I’m surprised when they tell me they don’t know how to read it. For some reason, I thought that was something that just the younger generation didn’t know how to do.
“We never had schools like Mama Parsi or BVS, to teach us,” Nelo’s mom tells me, “that’s just in Karachi.”
One thing that everyone who knows anything about the Parsis knows is that when it comes to schooling, the renowned Parsi sense of humour can be paused. There is nothing more unfunny than education. Every single Parsi I spoke to stressed the importance of education in the community at least once, often coupled with a tingle of pride in their voices. Their reasons ranged from an intense need to secure children’s futures, to general respectability, to the seeking of knowledge as a Parsi value.
“Were they strict?” I asked my friend Yusra, who had been at Mama Parsi most of her life. While I was in Karachi, she invited me over to her house on the day she was throwing a lunch for her former teachers and classmates. Like the Parsis, the Mama Parsi community is tightly knit — everyone knows one another.
“No, not at all,” her voice dripped with sarcasm, “it was actually torture.”
One of the teachers, who everyone referred to as ‘Auntie’, apparently overheard us.
“I made you productive!” she laughed.
“You threw my notebook out the window because you said the work was subpar!”
On my first trip to Karachi I met Kermin Auntie, an educationalist (the principal of BVS High School), and a generally prominent woman in the community, I knew her interview would be incredibly informative. Shahveer led me inside her house, past an aesthetically tiled kitchen with pictures of Zoroaster, and a couple of tiny candles lit aflame. (“I hope you don’t mind dogs.”)
I would later think about these markers of identity as essential to her space, as our “habitual images of the external world are inseparable from our self,” and provide us with “mental equilibrium.” The way one structures the space around them holds great meaning, as Nina noted growing up in her multicultural environment. Familiarity with certain objects associated with a group means familiarity with the group, and I suppose that is why Anushka keeps a copy of the Avesta in her house despite having officially converted to Islam after marrying her Muslim husband.
“That’s just on paper,” she tells me, “I still consider myself a Parsi.” She says it’s “easier” to keep the book around, and I think I know what she means.
Auntie Kermin tells me a lot of things really fast, and I let her lead the conversation.
“A Pakistani Parsi thinks like a Pakistani, an Indian Parsi thinks like an Indian,” she says at some point, “but either way, we are a people charitable by nature. We do good things for the people around us. We sweeten, we do not take. It is who we are.”
As I roam around the library, I ask Mr Doctor if I can look through the books.
“Of course,” he smiles at me and goes back to sorting the books. He does it with love, picking up every single book individually, and placing it gingerly in one of the boxes on the floor. I wonder who he does it for.
Shahveer is looking around, too.
“I bet we could make so much money selling these books online,” he says, “there’s no way books this old aren’t precious.”
I laugh, but he’s serious. He goes to Mr Doctor to see if he can sell the books for the library. Shahveer has an entrepreneurial spirit. I realize that’s also what the British used to say about the Parsis, which irritates me just a tad. Maybe there’s a connection, or perhaps there isn’t. But if there is, then I would attribute it to the muscle memory of the past, a concept I first came upon in a class on decolonization. It occurred to me just as I was discovering the timeless wisdom of James Baldwin. In Notes of A Native Son, he explains:
“It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead; it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten… It is not a question of memory. Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless, the marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him. The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and the darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight.”
Our history is ingrained in us, in ways we will never concretely know. There are many pieces of knowledge we harbour that cannot be empirically traced back to their source. We are culminations; the legacies of people that time has defeated, as it will one day defeat us.
I go ahead. This is a dusty library, and you can tell it’s faced some damage. I wonder what it looked like in the beginning.
After a little while, I find this old book, with binding coming loose at the seams. You know that smell that old books have? That one smell that smells kind of like Earth, and clay, and dry air. It coaxes me into a flicker of the passage of time, a montage of memory floats all the way up from where it was so skillfully hiding. It’s familiar.
The book is a collection of poetry by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I’ve never heard of him before. Names do tend to elude me, but this one is strong, it stamps an impression somewhere lasting. The first poem leaves me glad I’m in an unseen corner of the library because there’s just a manner about it that elicits a dull ache, what feels like a stone in my throat. Sometimes, things feel urgent, and you can’t explain why. Almost like it’s something I should commit to memory, and keep with me. The poem reads:
I have been a wanderer long
In this world of transient things.
I have known the passing pleasures thereof,
As the rainbow is beautiful,
But soon vanishes into nothingness,
So have I known,
From the very foundation of the world,
The passing away of all things
Beautiful, joyous and pleasurable.
I take a picture and save it for remembrance.