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Memories of a Parsi/Zarathushti
Youth During the Early Years of Pakistan (1940-1965)


















The Novjote (initiation) ceremony of the author in Summer of 1950 at the Jehangir Rajkotwalla Baugh on Victoria Road in Karachi. The ceremony was officiated by the community priest, Ervard Dinshawji Bhada. Standing Left to Right are: Shahrokh's father, Minochehr, sister Avi, Shahrokh, mother Sheroo, and aunt Piroja

1961 - Family photo at a Parsi wedding reception in Karachi
1948 - Karachi BVS Parsi School: Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, followed by his sister Fatima and other officials being received by members of Parsi community and the BVS Highschool founder's family. Mohammad Jinnah marriage to Ratti, a Parsi girl from Bombay did not endure long, and she never moved to Pakistan. Jinnah's sister acted as the first lady of Pakistan.
Seated in the middle is Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, wife of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, meeting with the Who's is Who of the Karachi Parsi/Zarathushti Women's Organization (Banu Madal) in 1956
Karachi Darbe-Mehr (Zoroastrian temple and community center) - 1962
Karachi 1968 - The BVS Parsi school.
Karachi 1959, (three images above)

All of us have stories of our childhood. My story is set against the backdrop of the final years of British rule in India, the division of the Indian subcontinent into two sovereign nations, and the emergence of a new Muslim country – Pakistan. To fully understand my story, it is important to understand the history of Karachi, the story of its citizens including the small Parsi/Zarathushti community, and the subtle adjustments as well as dramatic transformations that were experienced by the residents of this growing metropolis and the nationals of the new Pakistan.

Karachi, The Capital of the New Nation of Pakistan:

It was on the 14th day of August in the year 1947 that the port city of Karachi, my city of birth, which had once been a clean, quiet, and laid-back city of some 450,000 citizens, suddenly became the designated capital of the newly carved-out nation of Pakistan. The creation of this new homeland for Muslims was a dream-come true for many freedom lovers and freedom fighters. As the largest city of this emerging nation, Karachi hurriedly became a make-shift city, ready to welcome and accommodate millions of Muslim refugees by land and sea. In a short period of 10 years following the creation of Pakistan, the population of the city of Karachi increased five-fold to 2.5 million. Today, almost sixty years later, Karachi has an estimated population of 14+ million people and continues to grow.

My personal story begins in Karachi as a young Parsi/Zarathushti boy, eight years prior to Karachi becoming the capital of Pakistan and ends some 17 years later, with my permanent departure in 1965. During the first decade and a half of the new Pakistan, I witnessed many celebrations and mourning, riots and strikes, civil disobedience and violent demonstrations, stability and chaos, shortages of water and electricity, the creation of new suburbs, poor quality construction throughout the city, all during these formative years as its people struggled to have  an identity, create a Pakistani society, and build a new nation. The new Islamic Republic-in-making lacked a national roadmap, inherited measly coffers, faced widespread corruption, experienced untested political will, and displayed minuscule expertise in governorship and legislation. The basic British infrastructure remained intact however the legislative implementation was absent or inconsistent. 

I remember watching the extraordinary events in the months and days preceding that turbulent day in August 1947 from the five balconies of my second-story home on Bunder Road (later changed to M.A. Jinnah Road) in the heart of the city of Karachi. I saw the mass exodus of Hindus with minimal possessions leaving their homes and neighborhoods, the constant turmoil throughout the city, the departure of thousands of British troops in trucks en-route to the waiting ships at the Kemari harbor, the spontaneous jubilations in the streets, and the proud waving of the new green flag with white crescent and star. I also remember seeing the Hindu turban-clad traffic constables on the run, hurriedly replaced with beret-wearing Muslim policemen.

Parsees/Zarathushtis under the British:
To fully understand how the lives of the residents of Karachi were changed by the creation of a new nation, one must understand their life under the British Raj, especially during its final years. Part of that history is the crucial role that the tiny Parsi/Zarathushti community played in the transition period. After 200 years of British autocratic colonial rule in the Indian sub-continent, the British influence on the local culture and people was tremendous, especially on the members of the small Parsi/Zarathushti community. Like all communities, the Parsees/Zarathushtis in their minds believed that the British liked them and favored them over members of other communities like the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Goanese (Catholics of Portuguese origin). The Parsees/Zarathushtis were one of the most adaptive communities and their inherent love for education and social progress brought them close to the British. Their passion for everything western, their appetite for elements of western culture, and their aptitude for ‘learning’ were insatiable. The British genuinely liked the Parsees/Zarathushtis and respected them for their integrity, work ethics, and charity. They trusted the Parsees/Zarathushtis, but always had a hidden political and social agenda of divide and rule. One thousand-plus civil servants are said to have ruled a nation of 400+ million people for over 200 years! The British considered the Parsees as their loyal and non-threatening subjects, having modest ambitions and few political aspirations.

The Parsees/Zarathushtis learned to speak English with a British accent, (and) dressed like the British in western clothing, and adopted British mannerism. Although they enjoyed mostly their own Parsi food, they digested it with drinks like beer, scotch and whiskey that were introduced by the British. They worked hard like the British, adopted western classical music as their own, celebrated their holidays and festivities like Christmas, Easter, and Gregorian New Year and became accomplished at playing their sports like cricket. Culturally and socially some Parsees/Zarathushtis even considered themselves as distant relatives of the British. The only thing on which the Parsees/Zarathushtis did not compromise was the practice and worship of their own religion and rituals! Most Parsees/Zarathushtis took pride in being like the British (some even called them local-foreigners) and many Parsees/Zarathushtis considered the departure of the British from Karachi (India) as outright betrayal. Many Parsees/Zarathushtis immigrated to England in the early fifties to continue the legacy and affiliation. Many followed later, for higher education and eventually settled down in England.

Parsees/Zarathushtis did enjoy a unique relationship with the ruling British, especially when compared to Hindus and Muslims, for several obvious reasons. Most Parsees/Zarathushtis did not have any restrictions in eating meat, unlike the Hindus. Many Parsees/Zarathushtis did not have any restrictions on drinking alcohol, unlike the Muslims. Parsees/Zarathushtis did not have major concerns about socializing along with their spouses, while most Muslims and many Hindus did not feel comfortable in doing so. Parsees/Zarathushtis were champions in educating both the sexes and therefore had an advantage over other communities in academia, business, and industry. And, Parsees/Zarathushtis fought side-by-side with the British during the first and especially the second world wars in the middle-east including places like Iraq and Iran and also in Italy and Burma. Three members from my immediate family joined the British/Indian Armed Forces during the Second World War. My mother joined the British/Indian Navy in the Intelligence Dept. as a cipher operator. She was sent for training at the Naval Academy in Bombay in the early 1940’s. With several promotions, she left the Navy at the end of the war with the rank of Chief Petty Officer (CPO). My uncle joined the British/Indian Army as a soldier and was posted in Basra, Iraq. He managed the supply stores including the army equipment. My cousin joined the British/Indian Army as a nurse. Women in the army at that time were known as WACI (Women’s Auxiliary Corp. India.)  I can still picture them in uniform and “march past” celebrations, and recall the heroic stories they told. I also remember the pride I felt knowing that in some small way they were part of the fight against tyranny, expansionism, and “military domination.” 

The intercommunity relations between the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Goanese (popularly known as Goans), and the Parsees/Zarathushtis were mostly congenial, but there were always professional and social rivalries in the background. The so-called “one-up-man-ship” was always evident especially once a year, when the inter-religious rivalries were tested on the cricket grounds of Hindu, Parsi, Muslim, and Goan communal gymkhanas. The cricket tournaments became the battlegrounds of skill, wit and humor. Although supposedly friendly and sportsmanship in nature, it was far from friendly when passions ran high. Instant advices and critical comments from the spectators became part of the cricket match. The Parsees/Zarathushtis, Goans, Hindus, British, and the Muslims all had strong contingents of well-known cricket players, and none of the teams had any distinct advantage, which made the matches very interesting. This made the religiously-segregated and ethnically-divided sports teams fun to watch, and I recall the excitement of attending with friends and family, cheering on players and teams. Parsees/Zarathushtis in spite of their smallness in numbers always were the loudest in applaud and vocal support.

Parsees/Zarathushtis had settled in large numbers in Karachi for about 120 years prior to the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan. The tiny community of about 5,000 at the time of partition had established two schools (Bai Virbaiji Soparivala High School – popularly know as BVS (estb.1859) and the Mama Parsi Girls High School (estb.1918), Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw (N.E.D.) Engineering College – (estb.1924), two fire temples (Atash Adaran, consecrated 1869 & 1875 ), a tower-of-silence (Dokhma, estb.1847), a sports gymkhana (the Karachi Parsi Institute, popularly called KPI, estb.1893), community halls (Katrak and Jehangir Rajkotwalla Baughs) where most of the navjotes, weddings, and Ghambars were regularly held, several hospitals, clinics, and dispensaries owned and operated by Parsees/Zarathushtis, a library, and a Ladies Association (Karachi Zarathushti Banu Mandal – estb.1912) engaged in community service and charitable activities. There were several well-established Parsi/Zarathushti community housing complexes (colonies) built generally within the city limits in addition to affluent bungalows in some of the best sections of the city. The city of Karachi had several statues of prominent Parsees/Zarathushtis industrialists and philanthropists in busy thoroughfares recognizing the overall contributions of these individuals to the civic life of the city of Karachi.

My father Minochere Mehta worked as an accountant for 36 years at the Sind Club. This exclusive members-only all-white residential club catered to all the pampered needs of its selective British and few European residents. This club was a bastion of English aristocracy and snobbery, exemplary of the British Raj. Even as a young boy, I use to detest going there. The first non-British / non-European “token honorary member” ever admitted to the club was the governor-general and father of the newly created nation of Pakistan – Mohammad Ali Jinnah.   

On aside note, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was born and educated in Karachi, then Bombay, and later went on to London to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. He had been a great admirer of Parsi/Zarathushti political leaders such as Dadabhoy Naoroji and Sir Pherozeshah Mehta.  When Dadabhoy Naoroji ran for the English Parliament, Jinnah and other Indian students worked tirelessly campaigning for him. Their efforts were successful and Naoroji became the first Indian to sit in the House of Commons. Jinnah’s second wife was Ratanbai Petit, a young lady twenty-three years his junior and a member of the elite Parsi/Zarathushti Petit family of Bombay. The day before her marriage, she converted to Islam and changed her named to Mariam. She passed away in 1929 only 11 years later. The marriage was never openly discussed and/or publicized in Pakistan. Jinnah's sister Fatima was considered the "mother" (Madr-e-Millat) of the nation. Fatima was very kind and generous towards the Parsi/Zarathushti community, but always behind the scenes and in private.

Parsee/Zarathushti Community Activities:
My early memories of growing up in Karachi as a young boy and teenager are those of attending school and college, participating in scouting and sports activities, riding my bicycle to school and later motorcycle to other locations throughout the city, going on outings to the Hawks Bay and Sandspit (beaches), socializing with friends and family, attending community events like Navjotes, weddings, and Ghambars and taking part in citywide events. Ironically, I met my future wife Gool (Khambatta) at a ‘square-dance’ session sponsored by USIS (United States Information Service) in 1957.

Growing up, religious events were an important part of my life. For example, during the ‘Muktad’ prayers including the last five days of Gathas, we used to participate in the “hambandagi” prayers at the community hall. Several hundred members of the community would sing the hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, together, in the early hours of the morning followed by narrated Gujarati translations by the choirmaster, after each couplet. This was indeed a spiritual and tranquil experience. It is said (and I believe) that a community that sings together, stays together in harmony. We had similar experiences at the BVS School during the five holy days of the month, with the Parsi/Zarathushti boys in the Assembly Hall, praying the Atash-e-Niyayesh in front of the fire, led by religious leaders such as Dastur Maneckji Dhalla and Ervad Godrej Sidhwa and Principal Behram Rustomji and Vice-Principal Behram Minwalla. It was due to the efforts of these Parsi stalwarts that religious education for Parsi/Zarathushti boys and girls became part of the mandatory syllabus in college.

The Parsi/Zarathushti community always looked forward to the annual visits by distinguished Dasturs/scholars from Bombay, including Dastur Khurshed Dabu, M.A. and Dastur Dr. Framroze Bode, Ph D. These and other Dasturs brought with them the teachings of the prophet Zarathushtra and both in my opinion were far ahead of their time, in teaching the real meaning of the scriptures. At an impressionable age of 10+ years, listening to these giants of the Zarathushti religion (including resident scholar Shams-Ul-Ulema, Dastur Dr. Maneckji Dhalla, Ph D.) molded my knowledge and created an interest in the true religion and message of Zarathushtra during my formative years. This message of freedom in thinking, responsibility for one's actions, making decisions based on facts, and helping fellow-human beings are some of the things that I have continued to practice throughout my life.

On the lighter side, the Karachi Parsi/Zarathushti community was endowed with very talented stage actors and musicians. They performed regular Parsi Nataks (drama skits) in entertaining and self-deprecating humor. These talented Parsi/Zarathushti artists made the whole community laugh together, often at themselves, some times non-stop with live audience interactions as well. The annual Navroze sports event on March 21 was a traditional field-sports event that continues even today, where community members of all ages participated and thoroughly enjoy the festivities. The Parsi/Zarathushti dinner-dances, the Ghambars, the Nataks, the social functions, and of course the Weddings and Navjotes brought the community together and continue today, except now in smaller numbers and in four-star hotels owned by Parsi/Zarathushtis rather than in the community hall. The Ghambars had great significance to me in understanding important aspects of charity and community brotherhood. A single wealthy family would pay for all the food costs and services in feeding the members of the Parsi/Zarathushti community, especially the school-aged children. What was remarkable to me then and now, is that every one, regardless of their personal wealth or social community status would be sitting side-by-side eating the same meal, most using their hands. The traditional meal served on a large banana leaf (substituting for ceramic plates) consisted of Dhan-Sak (rice and vegetable/lentil dahl) and Kabab-Kachoombar (spicy meat balls and shredded onion salad) was always delicious.

As a drummer in my school marching band, on Navroze and Papeti days, I remember visiting the Parsi/Zarathushti residential colonies and housing areas in the wee hours of the morning to raise funds for various charities. This was a fun event and the student band players of BVS School always looked forward in participating. Getting up at 4 AM, we were ready to play our tunes (British regimental marches) in the darkness of the dawn. The marching band was well received by the housing residents with smiling faces, shaking our hands, and patting our backs. “Navroze Mubarak,” was the underlying facilitation. The residents gave the ‘band-boys’ culinary delights and an exotic breakfast, generally consisting of sweets (halwa and jalebi), freshly fried fish and Bombay-ducks (bumla), sweet yogurt, rawa (cereal), sev (vermicelli), milk, and of course generous cash donations. It was not surprising that even community members of modest means opened their hearts and homes, donating generously to charity. The motto “Parsi Thy Name Charity’ which I heard and observed throughout my childhood, has its roots in these poor and middle class community housings!

In addition to the charity that was synonymous with the Parsi/Zarathushti community so was their reputation of integrity and honesty. As mentioned earlier, the events leading to the independence of India and creation of Pakistan included the massive and rushed departure of thousands of Hindu and Sikh families, who had lived in Karachi for generations. Many of the fleeing Hindu families entrusted their homes, personal belongings, and businesses to Parsi/Zarathushtis as interim caretakers and custodians. In my own apartment building complex, several Hindu families hurriedly left their homes with everything of value inside, handing over the house-keys and entrusting my father and aunt. Members of the Hindu communities trusted Parsi/Zarathushtis explicitly. I also remember when these same Hindu families returned to Karachi a year or two later when the political situation became quieter and safer, to settle their property and contents. They found their homes and personal belongings, as they had left them - intact. This experience was repeated throughout the city of Karachi with many other Parsi/Zarathushti “caretaker” families. The trustworthy reputation of Parsees/Zarathushtis displayed at that historic time during the birth of a new nation, continues today, and has always been a source of pride for me.

The Changes:
There were many changes that I lived through, especially during the initial years of the new nation. The once sparsely populated and clean streets of Karachi became congested and dirty. ‘Pak Sarzamin Shad Bad’ replaced the often-heard anthem of ‘God Save the King,’ and the new green flag with white crescent and star was flown in movie houses and government buildings, instead of the familiar Union Jack. The statues of British Kings (George and Edward) and Queen (Victoria – Empress of India) were conveniently removed from city centers. And the streets named after British monarchs, commisioners, and military leaders like Victoria, Elphinston, Napier, Burns, Denso, Frere, Marston, Mansfield, Meriweather, Mcleod, and Preedy were changed to names of Muslim leaders and Islamic words, many of Persian origins. In the very beginning, the old British-India currency notes and postage stamps remained in use, with the name “PAKISTAN” printed-over or embossed on these legal monetary instruments.
Auto-rickshaws gradually replaced horse-driven buggies (popularly called Victoria) on streets of Karachi. The new nation had a daunting task - not only to get rid of 200 years of British influence on local culture and on people’s lives, but also removing the depictions of everything Hindu and Indian. However, the reminisces of the British judiciary (wig-wearing barristers and solicitors), the armed forces (handle-bar moustaches and bag-pipes), the police (solar hats, short-pants, and wooden staves), the St. John’s ambulance brigade (with many Parsi/Zarathushti volunteers), the parliamentary system (provincial and national assemblies with blueprints for the failure of democracy), the governmental bureaucracy (rubber-stamps, triplicates, stamp duty, and thriving corruption) all remained evident in one form or other.

As a coastal city, Karachi had been known for its beautiful clean beaches, well-kept buildings with Victorian Gothic architecture, bazaars filled with gold and silver jewelry, exotic spices, silk saris, camel carts, and snake charmers. With the creation of Pakistan, Karachi became a city of kababs and parathas, sprawling shanty towns, artfully copied hand-woven Persian carpets, gaudily decorated trucks and buses, curbside dentists and fortune tellers, and a kaleidoscope of paan eating/paan spitting ethnically diverse millions. Karachi became a city of immigrants and an instant metropolitan mega city. Less than 5% of the City’s population can claim having roots in Karachi, and Parsees/Zarathushtis have become one of the oldest residents.

In my own school, I saw immediate and sad departures of my Hindu sari-clad and dhoti-wearing teachers and the arrival of Urdu speaking, sherwani-clad, paan-eating Muslim teachers. The language of Urdu replaced the Gujarati textbooks. The once predominately Parsi Boy’s School, in less than two years after the partition became a predominately Muslim boys school. My history class for the first time taught about the life and times of Prophet Muhammad, Quran, the battle of Kerbala, Ramazan (Ramadan), Mohram, and about the holy places of Mecca and Medina. World history and especially European history, took a backseat!

At the school, one of the biggest social and emotional blows felt by the Parsi/Zarathushti students at BVS was in the game of cricket. The once ALL PARSI cricket team (the winners of the coveted Ruby Shield trophy, in interschool cricket championship for decades) had just one Parsee boy left on the team, by the time I left the school, exactly 50 years ago this year - 2006) The Muslim players were superior cricketers and became tough competitors in sports as well as in academia. Although the school is still owned and operated by Parsees and has many Parsi teachers, the Parsi student body is less than 10%. All the students of the school had been previously divided into three ‘houses’ for scholastic and healthy sports competitiveness purposes. These houses were named after illustrious persons and/or families: Sir Lancelot Graham, Reza Shah Pahlavi, and Soparivala (founder-family). With the influx of Muslim boys into the school population, a new house was added, called Quaid-e-Azam house, named after the founder/father of Pakistan. The BVS Parsi School facilities also become the temporary sanctuary of statues of prominent Hindus like Mohandas Gandhi, which had been removed from the city centers.

I used to regularly visit the Parsi/Zarathushti Agiary (Atash Adaran), located in the heart of old Karachi, in the congested area of Saddar. This was an area which once had many Zarathushti/Irani tea shops on many crossroads but now consists of hundreds of small vendor shops selling everything imaginable, connected by narrow and crowded streets, filled with noisy hawkers, chaotic traffic, and children begging for alms. In the center of it all is a majestic structure of stone and bricks with Persepolis-Susa type architecture with winged-bull columns, stained glass, and marble floorings. Consecrated in 1849, this remarkable sanctuary, set in the middle of chaotic hustle and bustle, has become a landmark of peace and tranquility for the thousands that pass by it daily.

Irani Zarathushtis immigrants mainly from Yazd and Kerman started settling down in Karachi at the end of the nineteenth century. Jehangir Rustom is known to be one of the pioneers in setting up Irani tea shops in the Saddar area, in the heart of the old Karachi. The famous Jehangir restaurant owners have been known to have helped many later Irani Zarathushti immigrants in the tea shop businesses and in settling down in Karachi.

My family used to take annual summer trips from Karachi to Bombay by train to visit my grandparents and the childhood home of my father. The journey took almost four days. After the creation of Pakistan, travel became more difficult as we now needed to obtain passports and visas as well as undergo “border crossings” at Lahore.

Other changes included the introduction of the public celebrations of ‘Eid ul Fitur', the fasting month of Ramazan, the mourning during Mohram and Ashura, all replacing Diwali, Christmas, midnight mass, poppy day, Easter, and Boxing Day. From eating mince pies, hot-cross buns and plum puddings, we gradually acquired the taste for halwa, tandoori, mughlai palao, parathas, biryani, and nihari. Parsees had been exposed to 200 years of everything British and now everything was gradually becoming Pakistani. Some Parsi women gradually started wearing shalwar khamiz and dupata. Some men too, started wearing sherwani and shalwars. As a boy scout in school in the early fifties, my scout uniform included a black ‘Jinnah’ cap, named after and made famous by the founder of Pakistan. Each year on the death anniversary of Quaid-e-Azam or Great Leader, as a boy scout in school, I participated in the processional parade to his mausoleum (mazar). It is ironic that Jinnah, who fought the British his entire life for the “independence” (swaraj or self-rule) and for the creation of a Muslim nation, died within 13 months of the creation of Pakistan.

A few of the unique events that the Parsees witnessed first-hand immediately after the partition were the citywide slaughter of lambs and cows, during the Eid-ul-Fitur celebration. Some Muslim neighbors began to send a ‘leg-of-lamb’ to their Parsi/Zarathushti friends on Eid, which in the beginning years caused some dismay and disbelief, but eventually the Parsee/Zarathushtis got accustomed to and anticipated the neighborly gifts! The Ashura celebrations were always chaotic as the Shia (Shi’ite) and Sunni groups, invariably fought openly in the streets of Karachi. As part of the celebrations, special arrangements were required from the Karachi Electric Supply Company, to raise the street electric wires, so that the tall taziyas (wood-made mosque-type dome floats on wheels) were able to pass under the electric wires. It was on this day that the emotional and physical displays of self-inflicted blows by the Shia male mourners on their chests and backs, resulting in bloodshed, produced high drama and uncontrollable emotions.  Each year during these celebrations, dozens of mourners were killed and hundreds injured. Many Parsees/Zarathushtis would leave the city limits to find sanctuary at the many fine beaches surrounding Karachi in search of tranquility. Others were obliged to witness in dismay the procession of mourners and their self-inflicted pain and suffering.

The cultural life of individuals living in Karachi at the time of creation of Pakistan gradually began to change too. Our TV screens, for those who could afford them, started showing classical plays in Urdu and our radios started broadcasting qawwali and ghazal songs. No matter where you lived in Karachi, the newly constructed mosques were only a short distance away. The loud early-morning call for prayers, broadcasted over loud speakers became daily part of the Parsi/Zarathushti lives. This call-for-prayers (the aazan) to the devoted ironically became a reminder for some Parsees to get up and pray to Ahura Mazda in the sanctuary of their homes. The movie houses too, had been a regular pastime of many Parsees and Goans. Soon after Pakistan came into existence, the popular American and British films we used to watch, (sometimes even two films in one day), were gradually replaced by action dramas/hero films, Pakistani films, and pirated Hindi movies. During the times of the British rule, the movie houses had four to five different ticket prices for the same movie and for the same show time. This was the typical epitome of the English class-system. The front row seats were the cheapest and the rear house seats were comparatively pricey with individual seat reservations. Many cinema houses also had individual boxes (opera type rooms) for families, generally catering to the British.

With the departure of the British, a vacuum was created in this sensitive geo-political part of the world that was willingly filled within a short period of time by the massive US AID program to Pakistan. With American dollars came American businesses, like banks, insurance and oil companies, cultural and educational institutions, hospitals, the largest embassy staff, and so on. Parsees/Zarathushtis jumped at the opportunity to enroll in these American organizations and institutions and many became professional staff members and managers. The Parsi/Zarathushti community members once again found their “old cousins once removed” in the friendly Americans. Unlike the British, the Americans were more inclusive and saw the Parsees/Zarathushtis as westernized, free spirited, entrepreneurial, and with a passion for American education and culture. Many Parsees/Zarathushtis started driving the big American cars (left-hand-drive) on right-hand drive roads, adopted American pop music as their own, and became big fans of American movies and Hollywood celebrities. In the mid-fifties, my future wife, Gool Khambatta and dozens of other recently high school graduated Parsi/Zarathushti boys and girls went to America on a cultural exchange program, sponsored by the American Field Service (AFS). They enrolled as high school seniors in schools around the U.S. and lived with an American family for a period of one year. A majority of these one-time Parsi/Zarathushti students from Karachi now live and work in United States.    

Parsee/Zarathushti Community Leaders:
As a young boy, besides the American movie stars that we all idolized, I cannot underestimate the impact of Parsi/Zarathushti community icons: school principals Maneck Pithawalla, Behram Rustomji and Deena Mistri
, high priest Dastur Maneckji Dhalla, three-term Mayor of Karachi Jamshed Nusserwanji Mehta, maker of modern Karachi, social worker/humanitarians, Khan Bahadur Sheriar Contractor, Sohrab Katrak, and social worker/theosophist Gool Minwalla. These visionary leaders played a crucial role in directing and transitioning the Parsi/Zarathushti community, during the early days of creation of Pakistan. They opened the community schools to accommodate the influx of Muslim students. They stood firm on the rights of the Parsi/Zarathushti community and as a religious minority. 

The community leadership of Parsees/Zarathushtis of Karachi displayed phenomenal resilience in quickly adapting to the impending change in political and religious ownership and structure of the country and pledged its alliance to the new rulers of the country, while keeping its independence in worship, service to its community, and in protection of its property and the community’s assets.

The old Karachi Parsi/Zarathushti community strong-hold areas included the Rustom and Edulji Dinshaw Chawls, the Preddy Street and Saddar areas, Khurshedbai Chawl and Tari-no-Gutto, Parsi Colony, Gari Khatta/Chowk area and Panchayat Wadi. Overwhelmingly, Parsi community members lived in these localities, essentially walking distance of each another. This is where most Parsees/Zarathushtis lived, studied, worked, raised families, prayed, and eventually died.

As the nation of Pakistan progressed, new community leaders and business entrepreneurs began to emerge. Among them were Cyrus Minwalla and Dinshaw Avari as hoteliers, who prospered during the formative years of the nation. Today, their legacy and business continues, with their sons. Cyrus Minwalla and Dinshaw Avari were truly men of vision who made sure that no Parsi-owned land, property or businesses were randomly taken-over by the newly formed, property-grabbing governmental machinery. The Zarathushti Anjuman-owned land surrounding the tower-of-silence, once considered sacred and located on the outskirts of the city, gradually became part of the growing metropolis, due to the expansions of the city limits in accommodating the influx of significant refugee populations. (During the initial months after the creation of Pakistan, It is widely believed that some Parsi/Zarathushti properties in the city of Karachi were the target of influential politicians. When Governor-General Mohammad Ali Jinnah was made aware that, he quickly put an end to this land and property grabbing.) The vision of growth for Karachi by these entrepreneurs and community leaders became the vision of growth for Parsi/Zarathushti community housing. Their vision in building two large upscale housing complexes (named after them – the Cyrus and Avari Colonies) on this vast Anjuman-owned land became modern homes for 300+ Parsi community members in a safe and secure environment. 

The Parsees/Zarathushtis of Karachi are indeed a unique community. Every one in the community is looked after by the community social workers, leaders, and well established institutions. This is done when the privileged have used their resources to provide for the poor and unfortunate. This is a community which has 100% literacy rate and an average Parsi/Zarathushti is known to live in late eighties to mid-nineties. Most of elderly in the community are taken care of by their own family members. Such are the entrenched family values and sense of responsibilities. They have come a long way in maintaining their identities and demonstrating their ongoing values of truthfulness and charity, and in helping their fellow citizens. They continue to be known for their honesty, hard work ethic, and abundant philanthropy. Karachi Parsees/Zarathushtis are mostly affluent and are engaged in professional careers and small business ownership. The Parsi/Zarathushti community institutions remain active in helping those within the community as well as those outside the community (i.e. the Spencer Eye Clinic) that need assistance. The Parsi/Zarathushti community in Karachi today in 2006 is estimated to be about 1,900 individuals, much less than half in size from the time of the departure of the British some sixty years ago. The reduced population is mainly due to emigrations and low procreations. Parsees/Zarathushtis continue to live freely and enjoy the benefits accorded to all citizenry. The contributions made by the Parsees/Zarathushtis in the city of Karachi, far exceed their miniscule numbers. In a country where 99% of the population is Muslim, the Parsees/Zarathushtis continue to command well-deserved respect and the admiration of the ruling Muslims and are considered exemplary citizens.

My Karachi:
Although I left Karachi at the young age of 25 and witnessed only about a decade and a half of life in Karachi after the creation of Pakistan, I personally and professionally saw and/or faced no discrimination due to my being a Parsi/Zarathushti. As a student at the Sind Government College of Commerce and Economics, where more than 99% of the student-body as well as the faculty were Muslims, the Parsi/Zarathushti students were always respected and identified as progressive and enterprising. I became the Swimming Captain of my college varsity team as well as member of inter-varsity Table Tennis team. At work as an auditor, I was entrusted with high-visibility governmental and private corporations audit engagements in a Muslim owned Accounting & Auditing firm. These corporations and projects included the audit of PIA, Pakistan Shipyard, PIDC, Zeal Pak Cement, OGDC, and many other private and publicly funded corporations. As a high-profile CFO of a major American offshore oil drilling operations (first of its kind in Pakistan), I worked well with workers and staff consisting of many nationalities. Professionally, I became a Pakistani first and a Parsee/Zarathushti second. In my heart, I was an Indian first and a Parsi/Zarathushti second. Socially, I was a Parsi/Zarathushti first and a Pakistani second. Spiritually, I always thought of myself as a Zarathushti first, second, and third!

In my heart, I will always remain a Karachiite. I dream of Karachi every day of my life – the Karachi I left behind, some 40+ years ago. Although I have visited Karachi over the years, the Karachi I will always remember is the city I rode my bicycle to and from school and later traveled around on motorcycle with my future wife Gool sitting behind me; the Karachi where most places were walking distances or a bicycle ride away and the community hall (at Jehangir Baugh) was the center of celebrations and enjoyment; the Karachi, where I took a tram (trolley) to work and at times stood on its sideboard, barely clinging on with one hand; the Karachi where I grew up eating culinary delights from the street-side hawkers, the delicacies of ice-cold kulfi (cardamom-flavored creamy ice cream), freshly-made hot jalebees (crisp coils of fried batter in syrup), freshly-fried bhajia (vegetable fritters), and delicious falooda (rose syrup milk shake); the Karachi, where life without regular visits to cinema houses and daily visits to the beloved KPI sports gymkhana for a quick session of contract-bridge or a game of billiards would be considered dull; and finally the Karachi, which made me what I am today – a proud Karachiite and a proud Parsi/Zarathushti.

[i] This article was posted on vohuman.org on June 17, 2006.  The author acknowledges the following individuals for providing some of the photos posted in connection with this article:

Sunnu Golwalla of Karachi

Afshad Mistri of California

Rumi Sarkari of Dubai

Fali Engineer of Houston