Parsis: The makers of Karachi

A Parsi religious monument in Karachi | AFP

Being Parsi works to your advantage at Karachi airport. “At the security checkpoint they often look at our names and say, ‘Let them go ahead; they’re OK,” smiles Arnab Lakdawala, 56, looking over at her mother-in-law, who is nestled comfortably on the drawing room couch. They live in Karachi’s Parsi Colony, a clean, gated enclave of the city. Shirin Lakdawala nods vigorously in agreement, gesturing with animated strokes that belie her 83 years. “Even when we go to shops, we get a little bit of preferential treatment,” she says. “Parsis are known for being honestand hard-working.”

She is not wrong. To conclude that Parsis (or Zarthustis, in the more traditional terminology) have enjoyed a relatively hassle-free existence compared to Pakistan’s other non-Muslim communities would not be an exaggeration. But perhaps this is because, upon arrival in Sindh in 1825, they wasted no time in getting down to business — pun intended.

According to the late Jehangir Framroze Punthakey,author of The Karachi Zoroastrian Calendar, Parsis are “the makers of the Karachi of today.” In the mid-1800s, around the time of the Indian mutiny, Parsis quietly setup shop while Muslims and Hindus were more preoccupied with one-upmanship. Records of Parsi contractors, doctors, watchmakers, tradesmen, candle-makers, jockeys, tax collectors and even auctioneers are abundant from 1830 onwards.

But despite the empires they once built, Parsis do not, by a long shot, have the influence they once did. “These days everyone feels a little unsafe here,” Arnab explains quietly, “so most of them are leaving Pakistan because of that. Many younger ones went abroad to study and stayed back.” And the community is not just spreading itself out — it is also shrinking. By 2020, it is estimated that there will be only 23,000 Parsis worldwide, reducing their status from rom a community to a tribe.

But Arnab has stayed in Pakistan by choice. Even though her entire family has a Plan B by way of either Australian or British citizenship, she is one of the few who is here for the long haul. “I have no plans to move,” she says. “This is home, whatever happens, and it will always be.” She pauses. “Sometimes I just regret that people are leaving, it’s the law and order situation, that’s what gets you. Otherwise it’s great.”

Arnab’s mother-in-law, Shirin, believes the community is dwindling because most of the older generation has died and their children are scattered across the globe. “There were 5,000 to 6,000 of us when we first came,” she says. “Now there are a little over 1,000 here. The youngsters migrated and the old people died, so what do you expect? They don’t come back, like my own children. My daughter took a Swiss husband and settled down there. My other son went abroad and stayed.”

The Parsi graveyard 'Tower of silence' in Karachi | AFP
The Parsi graveyard ‘Tower of silence’ in Karachi | AFP

Shirin herself was forced, in a manner of speaking,to move to Pakistan from India following Partition because her husband was working with Habib Bank at the time. “When they started in insurance, they asked my husband to come to Karachi,” she says.“We knew about Parsi Colony, we had heard of Britto Road and that’s where we ended up.” Hailing from Santa Cruz, a suburb of Bombay, Shirin did not know what to expect when she reached Karachi. “It’s funny but I never found any discrimination at all. I would be out all the time, walking freely in Bohri Bazaar and such. We went to the Gymkhana and Karachi Club, Boat Club, Sindh Club … we had a great circle of friends,” she recalls. “When we were leaving India they gave us a real scare. They said, ‘Look they’re all Muslims there,’ and this and that and God knows … but when we came here we found it was nothing.

And it was from nothing that the Parsis created a great deal of Pakistan’s economic infrastructure. Founded by Dinshaw Avari, the Beach Luxury was the premier luxury hotel in Karachi before the arrival, much later, of establishments such as the Pearl Continental and the Sheraton. Today, to picture a public – let alone swinging – party scene in Karachi requires imagination, but Beach Luxury’s now defunct 007 was something of a nightlife institution in the 1950s. There were other big contributors, such as the Cowasjee Group, which began shipping and stevedore businesses. It is now the oldest shipping firm still running in Pakistan.’

Today, Parsi culture seems to be bleeding out along with the community’s decreasing population. Jennifer, Arnab’s 28-year-old daughter, enters the room and joins the discussion. Three generations are now here, each with a different sense of identity. Jennifer recalls being much more involved in the Parsi community when she was a child. “I’ve definitely made a few more friends in the Parsi community since we moved to Parsi Colony around 15 years ago,” she says. “But most of my friends are still Muslim; I didn’t go to a Parsi school or anything. I used to be more active at the Karachi Parsi Institute before but now, well,” she laughs, “it’s just so hot there and it’s so far. Does Shirin still have any Parsi friends that she met when she first came to Karachi? “Darling, at my age it is very difficult to remember things like that,” she laughs

Some Parsi beliefs have recently been scrutinised and deemed impractical. It is Zoroastrian culture, for example, to take a person’s body to a Tower of Silence when they die so that it can quickly be consumed by vultures. Cremation and burial are not permitted because earth, fire and water are considered sacred elements that should not be involved with death. Of late, however, a shortage of vultures has developed in Karachi and Mumbai due to extensive urbanisation, which leads to bodies slowly decomposing outdoors.

Parsis are being urged to switch to other methods of burial. They now have to make a choice between efficiency and preserving their culture and customs. And with their rapid global displacement and numerical decline, Pakistan will soon have even fewer reminders of the builders of Karachi.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

This was originally published in the Herald’s August 2009 issue. To read moresubscribe to the Herald in print.

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