Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Dosabhoy Framji Karaka

Karaka, Dosabhoy Framji [Dosoo] (1911–1974), journalist and writer, was born on 14 April 1911 in Bombay, British India, into a middle-class Parsi family, the eldest of three children of Framji Jehangir Karaka, imperial customs official, and his wife, Homai (d. 1952). He grew up in a house on Malabar Hill called The Cloisters, in a fashionable quarter of Bombay. His great-grandfather, Dosabhai Framji Karaka, was the author of the History of the Parsis published in Britain by Macmillan in 1884. After two years at the Jesuit college in Bombay, when the family moved to Karachi he attended the Dayaram Jethmal Sind College there, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature. In 1930 he entered Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating with a second in jurisprudence in 1933. At the same time, in October 1930, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn and was called to the bar in 1938. Two events which proved decisive in shaping his life and intellectual development occurred when he was still young. The first was when as a child in Bombay he witnessed mill workers shouting ‘Mahatma Gandhi ke jai’ and learned about the independence movement under Gandhi’s leadership. The second was his time at the University of Oxford and his eight years in Britain.

Article by Rozina Visram Oxford DNB

odnb-9780198614128-e-1014579-graphic-1-fullOxford in the 1930s was changing: there was growing student radicalism. Caught up in undergraduate politics, Karaka became active in several clubs and societies. He was president of the University Liberal Club and the Oxford Majlis. At a time of an upsurge in the freedom struggle many prominent Indian figures addressed the Majlis and there were heated debates on Indian independence. Although ‘essentially an Indian club’ (The Pulse of Oxford, 35) it exercised a considerable influence on some of his contemporaries such as Michael Foot. Considered ‘the chief star in our Union constellation’ (Lincoln College Record, 2003/4, 21), Karaka was active in the Oxford Union. He was secretary during the notorious ‘king and country’ debate, and the furore over the outcome meant that Karaka had to re-record the minutes, torn out by some angry undergraduates from the minute book. It was in this charged atmosphere that Karaka wrote his first book, The Pulse of Oxford (1933). In 1934, having worked his way through the society’s ranks, he became president of the Oxford Union, succeeding Foot. As he was the first Indian to hold that office his election made headlines in the national press. While still at Oxford he was commissioned by Michael Joseph to write a book on India, which he entitled I was Born Dark. But the publishers, thinking this would suggest African authorship, changed it to I Go West (1938). His first piece of journalism, ‘Colour Bar’, commissioned by the Daily Herald, was published in 1934.

In 1938, by now a firm believer in the democratic way of life and a ‘budding crusader for the equality of man’ (Then came Hazrat Ali, 103), Karaka returned to Bombay. In December he joined the Bombay Chronicle, one of the leading dailies and a newspaper in the front line of the independence struggle. Under the pseudonym DIM (from Dominus illuminatio mea, the Oxford University motto) Karaka wrote a racy daily half-column as well as a serious feature, ‘I cover the town’. As a reporter for a nationalist paper he met many luminaries of the Indian National Congress. During his nine years with the Bombay Chronicle he wrote a series of eloquent, well-researched pieces. Among his more notable articles was his graphic eyewitness report on the 1943 Bengal famine countering the version of events given to parliament by Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India.

April 1942 saw Karaka in Chungking on his first major assignment as the Bombay Chronicle‘s war correspondent. His daily broadcasts to India, permitted by the Ministry of Information, were aimed at raising awareness of Chinese resistance to Japan. His book Chungking Diary (1942) was a lively account of his experiences, including interviews with Chou en Lai and Madam Chiang Kai-Shek. Next he was on the China–Burma border witnessing the long-drawn-out run-up to the battles of Kohima and Imphal. His monograph With the Fourteenth Army (1944) narrated a human story of courage and endurance in this frontier war. In December 1944, wishing to gain a bigger picture of the war, he transferred to the western front to cover the allied forces’ final push into Germany. With his usual knack for securing interviews he gained an exclusive interview with Amery, which was reported in twenty-seven Indian newspapers on their front pages. Karaka summarized Amery as ‘a cunning little river fish’ (BL OIOC L/I/1/1423), skilful at manoeuvring interviews and difficult to pin down. Karaka was one of the first journalists to enter Bergen Belsen concentration camp. But his eyewitness account, one of the major stories of the war, remained unpublished as the proprietor of the Bombay Chronicle chose not to print it.

The event that was to haunt Karaka, which he witnessed and reported at the request of Brigadier B. S. Chimni, was the partition of the Punjab. His graphic description of the harrowing scenes of slaughter and the helplessness of the refugees lifted the curtain on what he called ‘virtually a war of extermination’ (Freedom must not Stink, 4). He saw no justification in whitewashing Indian shortcomings. He was to return again and again to the images, drawing comparisons between the Punjab and the stench of Belsen in several publications including his autobiography, Then came Hazrat Ali (1972).

After nine years with the Bombay Chronicle Karaka edited a weekly, The March, and in 1949 founded his own weekly, The Current. He remained steadfast to his liberal ideals of a democratic way of life and journalistic ethics. Increasingly disenchanted with Nehru—witness the title Nehru, the Lotus Eater from Kashmir (1953)—and the Congress style of government, he became fiercely critical of its policies, accusing Congress of ‘virtually creating a dictatorship’ (Betrayal in India, 82). In 1971, during the emergency, he was briefly imprisoned on grounds of national security. The Current was a financial struggle and affected his health.

A well-regarded and politically committed journalist, Karaka also wrote works of fiction. At Oxford he was renowned for his wit and sherry parties. A cultured man, he spoke French fluently. He was also fond of betting on horses and playing cards for high stakes. He married in 1952 and lived latterly in Bombay, where he died of cardiac failure in 1974.