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Karachi's Katrak Parsi Colony  [i]


















About eighty-five years ago (in the decade of 1920s) it was a barren piece of land, situated between the present M. A. Jinnah Road and Soldier Bazar Road. And very few among those 3,000 souls, that then made up Karachi’s Parsi population ventured to build a house of their own in this wilderness and succeeded in founding a housing society on 29th May 1920 under the Co-operative Societies Act.

All those who labored --the visionaries who laid the foundation of the housing society and that enterprising middle-class who became its members, built houses and contributed to the development of the society. Thus they became the pioneers in the movement of co-operative housing society in Karachi. Those pioneers are no more with us but they are gratefully remembered, for without them there would have been no Parsi colony.

Among those visionaries were the late Sir Kawasji Hormasji Katrak, Jamshed Nusserwanjee, and Khan Bahdur Ardesher Mama, who entailed a protracted correspondence with the authorities to acquire land and worked out its terms and conditions with the Indian government. But it was the good offices of Sir Katrak that enabled the Society to acquire on lease about 96,000 square yards of Government land in 1924 at the yearly rent of Rs.360/-. For this valuable service rendered by Sir Katrak, the colony was named after him, viz. Katrak Parsi Colony.

The plans were drawn whereby 58 plots, each measuring approximately 1000 square yard were laid out with wide roads and an amenity plot in the center for a garden and a library. The plots were allotted to those who became the members of the Society, but it was the society’s magnanimous policy not to recover the cost of land from the plot holders but only to recover the rent payable to the authorities accelerated the construction of houses. By 1926 first houses were built and by 1930 there were houses on all the plots, classified in three categories. Those who built the houses entirely at their cost were categorized in Class “A”, those who built the houses half at their cost and half by borrowing money from the society were categorized in Class “B”; and those who built their houses by borrowing the entire cost from the society were categorized in Class “C”.

The borrowers repaid the sums in monthly installments @ 4.05 %, but without this loan facility, it would not have been possible for the Parsi middle-class to build and own houses of their choice.

Charity, a positive and cultivated communal virtue can never go unnoticed wherever Parsis reside. Such was the case with this society; when Sir Katrak built five blocks comprising twenty rented tenements for less fortunate members of the community, and a ‘Sohrab Katrak Park’ named after his son. Bhedwar family built a reading room and library at one end of the park for the residents of the society. One of its room houses the society’s office, but its main hall has served as a reading room and library and also as a communal hall for events, be they meetings or jashans, and even funeral rites. About forty years after the society’s inception, there emerged another larger edifice –‘Manijeh Mehta Building’ built at the other end of the park, through munificence of Sorab Hommie Mehta, in memory of his mother, for the community’s prestigious organization –Karachi Zartoshti Banu Mandal. Thus the Katrak Parsi colony, which was just one Parsi locality in Karachi, became a communal hub, where Parsis from other localities thronged to benefit from its social events.

The colony’s main aim, to provide housing on co-operative basis, and to create an ethnic environment was obviously one way for the people of common faith to meet and interact. This aim was achieved once all the houses were built and families in large numbers occupied them. Most of them belonged to the middle class. They were simple people, who conversed more in Gujarati than in English, lived frugally, either walked or cycled to work and so did their children who went to school. If the distance was a long one, a horse-carriage was hired for women and children only. A few enjoyed the luxury of cars, and those couldn’t be more than two or three and very few houses had telephones. But all our elders who lived there, away from the noise of the city, enjoyed the peaceful open surrounding of the place. Contented with their plain living, they naturally cherished a hope that their children and their children’s children would enjoy the same peace and continue to live in the houses, which they had built. Their hopes weren’t in vain, their children grew up, some married and stayed in the same houses, some married and moved out of Karachi. But it never dawned on them that the political divide of the country in 1947 would alter their lives. Initially there was a growth of prosperity and a semblance of affluence, but a gradual numerical decline coupled with lure for the West that spurred the youth to migrate and by eighties the entire generation born after 1947 had migrated, and deaths diminished the numbers in every home.

Where once there were more than half a dozen people living in each house dwindled to four and then to two. Today there are houses where the sole occupant may be a solitary soul living out its last earthly span of life. A few children and at times none at all can be seen in the park, where once gathered many to play and while their evenings. There are houses, which are vacant and uncared for, as their owners and in some cases their heirs are living abroad, there are houses that no more belong to Parsis. From a strictly residential locality, there are houses that are commercialized.

How long this once thriving Katrak Parsi Colony will remain entirely a Parsi entity? No one wishes to be a prophet of doom, but can a stark reality be ignored which is facing the community, viz. its fast dwindling numbers. This is equally true today for this eighty-five years old Parsi colony. Today there are cars practically in every home, and very few are seen walking its roads. A comfortable life style with modern amenities is visible in every home. Undoubtedly all those and mostly over the age of sixty-five who presently reside in the colony still enjoy its peace and quiet, and its tall shady trees planted decades ago in barren soil; but sadly enough they now live behind close doors and at times in fear of life and property.

It’s all a matter of time, may be a decade or three for some historian to scroll that once in the city of Karachi there lived Parsis in large houses in an area known as Katrak Parsi Colony.

[i] This article was posted on vohumna.org on November 22, 2005.