Dr. Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, a renowned author, was nine years old in 1947. She lived in a building full of diverse tenants, in a Parsi family that espoused the ideals of acceptance, integration and justice. Her teachers at school were Satyagrahis, who supported the nationalists’ demand for independence from the British. In the context of these ideas, the violence of partition baffled her.
In December 1946, nine-year-old Roshni Behram Rustomji was preparing for her Navjote, a Zoroastrian ceremony initiating an individual into the Parsi religious community.
This was also the height of the nationalist movement seeking independence from British rule. On the one hand, Dr. Rustomji saw her father maintaining an apolitical distance: he had briefly joined the Royal Indian Navy and had escaped a bomb attack by Indian sailors rebelling against the British.
But Dr. Rustomji’s mother, Gulnar, was politically active. She was a Satyagrahi who firmly believed the subcontinent would gain independence from colonial rule. She taught her daughter about justice, and raised her to believe that she would witness the end of British rule.
When Swaraj, or self-rule, was not too far away, the nine-year-old Roshni found herself growing excited. But she also felt confused: she could not understand why there was so much conflict between different communities.
Because of her family’s history, Dr. Rustomji had always been surrounded by diversity. For one, the Parsis’ arrival in India was a story of coexistence — it is said that they came on a boat, fleeing persecution in Iran, and were granted asylum by the king of Gujarat. Her father’s family had origins in China, and had lived in Karachi for several generations; her mother was born in Japan, but hailed from Mumbai; and she remembered her great-grandfather Hormusji, who had built Karachi’s tramline, for his respect for all religions.
The Rustomji’s house was open to people from all walks of life. It was an unusual boarding house run by Dr. Rustomji’s paternal grandmother, a widow who earned by renting out rooms.
Dr. Rustomji spent time with all 20 tenants, including an elderly Muslim woman who told her stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
She always thought of Karachi as a small, close-knit community, a memory she carried with her throughout. But at a young age, she questioned it because of the trauma caused by the partition.
Of refugees and temple bells
On August 14, 1947, Pakistan’s independence day, Dr. Rustomji was at school in Karachi.
All the classes were taken to the school’s terrace. The principal then told them that Pakistan now had its own flag. The Union Jack, Britain’s flag, was pulled down, and students were told about the importance of the Pakistani flag as it was hoisted.
Meanwhile, her mother had joined a women’s group called ‘Poor Families Relief’. The group helped refugee women living in the camps, and taught them how to sew and embroider. The refugees were provided sewing machines bought from donation money.
Soon after the partition, Dr. Rustomji was sitting with her father, when a man came to their door and pleaded with her father. His wife had died, he had a son to care for and requested to build a small shack as shelter on Rustomji’s land. But her father refused: It’s not our land,” he said.
She remembered looking up at him furiously, only to find his face ashen. She had only seen him like that once before, when his eldest brother died.
Despite his cold reply, he opened up the empty science labs at the school he taught to house refugees, and allowed them to join his classes. Some parents were furious that he let Muslim boys in to the Parsi school. Still, her father held his ground. He said, ‘They are good boys and they speak Gujarati. We should let them have an education.’”
The post-partition years are somewhat of a blur in Dr. Rustomji’s memory. But she vividly remembered that temple bells in her neighborhood had stopped ringing. At the same time, she experienced anxiety attacks at sunset every day. This continued until she was 20 years old.
69 years later
Dr. Roshni Rustomji is a noted literary academic and writer today. She went on to study at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon on a scholarship. She had only intended to go for one year, but she fell in love with the city, and decided to stay and complete her entire degree there. She graduated with a degree in English Literature, and then pursued a doctorate.
This interview was conducted by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla and Katherine Brito.