Tuesday 13 December 2011
Source Pakistan Today
By Anahita Mukherji
Zarine Mavalvala’s views sum up the lives of the Parsis of Pakistan. Mavalvala, a Zoroastrian and former principal of the Mama Parsi Girls’ School in Karachi, was born in 1943, at a time when the city was still a part of undivided India. Over 60 years after Partition, there’s little that distinguishes the Parsis of India from those of Pakistan. Their homes in Karachi have the same old-world charm that they do in Mumbai, Parsi baugs have grand pianos in their halls. They speak Parsi Gujarati, and one gets to hear singsong sentences like Aapro Cyrus tun vaage club maa males (“Our Cyrus will be at the club by 3 o’clock”) emanating from Parsi settlements here too.
The Parsi community in Karachi, though highly religious, is rather more liberal in its practices. Parsis who marry outside the community and choose to retain their faith are allowed to pray at Parsi fire temples. Their children, too, are allowed to join the faith if they so desire. In a country where most women are covered from head to toe, if you come across an elderly lady with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a vintage, knee-length skirt, she will, in all probability, be Parsi. But in Pakistan, the Parsi population is declining far more rapidly than it is in India. There are only 1,600-odd left in Pakistan. Mavalvala said when she was the principal of the Mama Parsi Girls’ School, only 22 out of 2,000 children were Parsis.
Little wonder, then, that priests are in short supply, and are often imported from India. Take, for instance, Mohbed Burjise Bhada, a young Parsi priest from Mumbai who shifted to Karachi a few years ago at the invitation of the Parsi Anjuman Trust of Karachi.
Both Burjise and his mother Dinaz enjoy life in Pakistan. The only problem, said Dinaz, is that even though she is ready to pay big money to Parsi marriage bureaus in Mumbai, they refuse to register her son. No Parsi girl from India, they maintain, would agree to shift base to Pakistan.
Like in India, the Parsis in Pakistan are a largely prosperous, urbanised minority. «They are high up on the social ladder — mostly big businessmen, diplomats and philanthropists. Even though there are no direct threats to Parsis, the fact still remains that Pakistan is a country that does not respect plurality,» said Muhammad Badar Alam, the editor of a popular magazine. «As a secular organisation we too are a minority, and so we feel very strongly about communities like the Parsis», he added.
According to Byram Avari, chairman of the Parsi Anjuman Trust of Karachi, Parsis first thought of leaving Pakistan during the reign of General Ziaul Haq who tried to coerce Parsi schools to teach Urdu. This was a decision that Avari overturned when he became a member of parliament in 1988. Long after Ziaul Haq’s rule, Parsis continued to leave Pakistan in droves. «The present migration is probably due to the worsening law and order situation in Pakistan», said Avari, one of the best known faces of the Parsi community in the country.
In addition to heading Karachi’s Parsi Anjuman, Avari is also chairman of Avari Hotels, a popular chain of five-star hotels in Pakistan. It was at the Avari Towers in Karachi that Benazir Bhutto’s brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto celebrated his last birthday before his assassination.
At a time when there is large-scale migration of Parsis out of Pakistan, some, like Rayomond Kotwal, a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have chosen to buck the trend. After a 10-year stint in the United States and two years in Canada, Kotwal did the unthinkable and returned home to Karachi. «When I surrendered my Green Card, everyone thought I was crazy. A Green Card, after all, is viewed as a “ticket to jannat (paradise)», jokes Kotwal, who is now the chief financial officer at a local bank.
«While life here is often very difficult for the common man, at my level, one can lead a very good quality of life in Karachi», said Kotwal, adding that professionally he has achieved his goal of reaching the highest level possible. «Out here in Pakistan, I am a big fish in a small pond. Abroad, I would have been a medium fish in a large pond», he said.
Like Avari and Kotwal, many Parsis are highly influential in Pakistan. When it comes to jobs, Parsis say they are favoured by their employers and often paid higher salaries than their peers. Kotwal’s father Hoshidar recalled how employers would approach him saying, «Aadmi chahiye, koi Parsi hai kya? (“We need people, do you have any Parsis?”)»
It isn’t simply the well-to-do Parsis who enjoy life in Pakistan. The community takes care of the needs of its less privileged members. Take, for instance, the Karachi Zarathoshti Banu Mandal, a ladies association engaged in social work. Their rehabilitation sub-committee is involved in teaching poor Parsis skills such as tailoring to help them become self-sufficient.