Such a long journey: Malika Abbas

On her first visit to Mumbai, a Pakistani photojournalist embraces her Parsi roots and learns about a community her ancestors once belonged to.

On arriving in Mumbai last week, Malika Abbas barely knew what her plan ahead would be. “I wanted things to take their own course and lead me to a story,” says the 31-year-old Karachi-based photographer with a photo agency, White Star Photo Pvt (a sister concern of Dawn newspaper). Abbas was one of the five Pakistani photographers to be selected for the Tasveer-e-Mumbai & Tasveer-e-Karachi project, helmed by Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. The initiative entailed two contingents of photographers from India and Pakistan travelling to Karachi and Mumbai to shoot. Their work will be shown at the two cities, respectively, next month. “A few of the ORF members were giving us options to shoot and they suggested Parsi cafes ,” recalls the Mumbai-Karachi Friendship fellow. “That sparked the initial idea. And I asked them if I could visit the Parsi colonies instead.”

Article by Reema Gehi | Mumbai Mirror

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1. Dolly, who lives at the quarters in Khareghat colony; 2. Military Parsi Café; 3. An elderly man at the Marzban Parsi Colony; 4. Marzban Parsi Colony — near the Navjivan Society — at Mumbai Central; 5. A dog taking cover from the rains at Marzban Parsi Colony

A curator at Gandhara-Art Gallery, Abbas saw this as an opportunity to learn about a community her ancestors once belonged to. “My father’s family is from a place in Baluchistan called Kharan and their family is Nosherwani, the ruling family of the state,” she explains. “The Nosherwanis were a Parsi clan in Iran and were exiled to Pakistan. Those who stayed behind converted to Islam. The rest travelled on to India.”

Walking down the streets in Fort, and viewing the buildings around built mainly by Parsi patriarchs, Abbas mentions, “I have always held great respect for them for all the development they had done in Karachi. It is believed that the Parsis have built Karachi, and our first mayor was also Parsi.”

Armed with a camera and some hope to learn more about her Zoroastrian roots, Abbas’ project began taking shape on the following day. “Looking for old Nosherwanis I knew would be tough, so I thought it would be better to look for Parsi community members who’d know something about them,” she says.

A meeting was arranged with publisher Maneck Davar. He connected Abbas to a friend who lived in Cusrow Baug. “But they didn’t agree to me photographing them, so we headed straight to the next colony, Khareghat,” she says. “I was told this is an older colony and the people there are much more welcoming.” The colony’s genial caretaker, Aspi Irani, didn’t disappoint. He allowed Abbas to shoot. “An old woman,who was heading home after shopping for her groceries, seemed friendly, so I approached her. The next thing I knew, I was sitting inside her friend’s house. We had a long conversation about how life has changed for all the older Parsis,” she smiles.

The next home was that of Mr Naushad’s. His old mother was sitting outside in the balcony, reading a newspaper, when she saw Abbas photographing the colony. “She invited me over. And her son told me about the Marzban Parsi Colony near Navjivan society. He said the oldest Parsis all lived there. I thought, here was my chance to learn about my ancestors,” she says.

In her words, “a beautiful surprise awaited me.” “I met so many lovely people. In fact, an old woman here was very excited to find out that I was of Iranian descent. She shared how she dreams of visiting Iran but she can’t afford it,” says the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture graduate. “While we mainly spoke about their life, they didn’t seem to know much about mine.”

It was day three, Abbas didn’t entirely lose heart. Her project, she saw, was turning into her impressions of the Parsis in Mumbai. “I wished to document the old home at Khareghat now. Yusra (the ORF fellow from Karachi) mentioned she has family friends in Khareghat, so I decided to meet and shoot them too,” she says.

To her luck, it was here that she met Pheroza Mistri, who knew of her ancestry. “When I spoke to Mrs Mistri, she told me that she has been researching on Parsi history and she would be interested in talking to me,” says Abbas. “She shared that the Nosherwani family is one of the oldest Parsi families (maybe that’s why I couldn’t find any on my own).”

The gracious Mistri also allowed Abbas to shoot her son’s birthday ceremony at their house, which incidentally was her last day in Mumbai. “This was an amazing experience, as it brought back memories of my friend’s Parsi wedding that I had documented in Karachi, a few years ago,” she says.

Abbas is back home now. Mistri and she have promised to stay in touch. “I have to get back to her with my family tree. Let’s hope we can trace it back to the exact Parsi ancestor,” she says, excitedly. “She also mentioned that this is the first time she has actually met someone who has made that connection with the ancient Nosherwanis.”