By Ahmed Yusuf
There was a royal feast at Aunty Villy Engineer 96th birthday. There was cake, and there was suuji ka halwa too. Everybody inside the Parsi General Hospital came to the party; Aunty Nargis Gyara, Aunty Khorshed Malbari and her sister too. Then there were Gulbanoo Bamji and Homy Gadiali, secretaries of the hospital. The men from the male ward came too. So did the doctors. And the physiotherapist. All the attendants too. Nobody wanted to miss it.
And why would they? After all, Aunty Villy is a superstar. Some boast that the 96-year-old Parsi woman was the first lady admiral of the country’s navy. But Aunty Villy dampens all such talk. “You know I don’t like boasting,” she says dismissively.
Outside her ward, in the corridor, the evening shuffle begins to pick up. It is almost time for tea, and some of the other women have already secured their place on the benches.
On one of the benches are Aunty Nargis and Aunty Ami Jeriwalla, two sisters, both spinsters, now living in one of the wards. “People ask us why you didn’t get married,” exclaims Aunty Nargis. “But then they tell us it was the best decision of our lives!” In terms of agency and choice, the Parsi women living in Pakistan were well ahead of their times.
The chatter in the corridor steadily grows louder.
Meanwhile, the men lodged in the adjoining male general ward are only beginning to rise from their afternoon slumber. Word has spread though that teatime is nigh; there is some shuffling on the beds and some make an effort to sit up. Nobody has bothered to switch on the television till now.
A little later, a male patient from a private ward heads outdoors to smoke a pipe. He chooses the entrance by the main road to smoke, while an attendant keeps him company. The noise and smog around him don’t seem to matter; this is an evening ritual that must be performed.
The 30-bed Bomanshaw Minocher-Homji Parsi General Hospital, commonly known as the Parsi General Hospital, is a pre-Partition facility that was built to provide subsidised quality healthcare to poor Parsis and was run by the Bomanshaw Minocher-Homji Parsi Medical Relief Association.
Although the hospital was inaugurated in 1942, the association expanded the premises as needed. “We didn’t have the 30 beds that you see today, we just had three rooms. We didn’t have the population either that necessitated the setting up of a larger facility,” explains Homy Gadiali, secretary of the association. The infirmary, for example, was set up in 1965.
But the story of the Parsi General Hospital and its inhabitants perhaps mirrors the fortunes and fate of the Parsi community in Karachi.
They were once the crème de le crème of Karachi society and polity, with the city’s first mayor, Jamshed Nusserwanji, also hailing from a Parsi family. Those admitted to the hospital today are all septuagenarian, octogenarian or nonagenarian; many would have seen Nusserwanji and witnessed how the city evolved too.
“The land for the hospital was donated by Sir Kavasji Katrak in 1942. He was the gentleman who built the bandstand at the Jehangir Kothari Parade; the bandstand itself was not donated by the Kothari family but by the Katraks.
Photos by the writer
The hospital initially was built through a donation by a gentleman named Minocher Homji,” narrates Gadiali.
But over time, the number of Parsis in Karachi has dwindled. Gadiali estimates that the Parsi community has shrunk from about 5,000 at Partition to about 1,200 people now. Much of this decline in numbers is attributed to migration and birth rates.
“Even though Parsi people live long lives, deaths were never replaced by a corresponding number of births,” explains Gadiali. “There was a time when people didn’t get married because there was a lack of housing facilities for them. Now, much of the community-run accommodation facilities are lying vacant.”
While the Parsi community set up trust funds to take care of their own, the community saw major demographic shifts within. In pursuing their careers and sometimes due to insecurity, the younger generations began migrating from Pakistan. The older ones were left behind, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of choice.
“It is difficult to travel with an ill parent or parents if you are migrating from Pakistan,” says Gadiali. “There is the obvious tension of travelling, sometimes with kids, handling them, looking for a new home, settling down in a new place and other teething problems. Many people can’t afford to take an ill parent along, because medical costs abroad can be extremely prohibitive.”
It is because of this dynamic that the many of the 30 beds in the hospital are now occupied by elderly people whose families have either migrated or who have nobody to take care of them at home or even those whose families cannot afford caretakers able to tend to them around the clock.
In its essence, the Parsi General Hospital also doubles up as an old home facility. The hospital is a safe space for many Parsi elderly, because a sense of community and belonging pervades the hospital environment. Room rents are minimal in general wards; only Rs300 are charged per day. The maximum daily cost is Rs1,750 for a private ward. Four meals are served to patients every day. Every now and then, some Parsi families also send food and fruits over.
Many families arrange live-in attendants for their loved ones, but those who can’t still rely on the hospital without much hesitation. In the infirmary, for example, an elderly woman in her 90s is taken care of by an attendant around the clock, except at 7pm every evening, when her son arrives from work. The woman’s memory is failing, but what she knows is that her son will have dinner with her every evening.
Life is assisted for many old Parsis but it is normal too; there are no qualms about accepting medical help, nor does it hurt anyone’s ego or sense of self in doing so. Their age brings with it peculiar ailments; the majority admitted on temporary basis have arrived due to fractures, weak muscles, and other orthopaedic complaints. The hospital employs a physiotherapist; he helps patients practice movement exercises and walk.
“We might have a small staff, of doctors and attendants, but what we ensure is that those admitted here will be taken care of. There is an element of trust and reliability involved, since those living abroad need to know that their loved ones are safe,” says Gulbanoo Bamji, joint secretary of the hospital.
From time to time, donations received by various trusts and individuals have allowed the hospital to expand and keep the existing operations running smoothly. Gadiali regrets that it is only a matter of time before none of it will be needed, since there wouldn’t be many Parsis around to begin with.
But for those who live at the hospital, there is much to be grateful about, much happiness to share and many more days to look forward to. There are no regrets of being left behind. There is only an acknowledgment that those in the hospital shall take care of each other, in the best ways possible. This year, they celebrated Valentine’s Day too. They sang songs together, they ate extra snacks too, and they chatted for hours on end.
“All you need is three magical words,” says Aunty Villy, “Thank you God. Thank you for the gift of another day to serve you better. If you run into mishaps, know that ‘this too shall pass.’ Life is what you make it, so make it nice and bright.”
The writer tweets @ASYusuf
The original shippers
As Karachi’s oldest shipping moguls, the Cowasjees have many stories to tell about the city by the sea and its port
By Madeeha Syed
There is an old sign from the Colonial era that reads ‘Cowasji’ outside the brick structure of the Cowasjee building in Karachi’s port area, Keamari. Inside, 86-years-old Cyrus Cowasjee’s office still maintains its rather vintage design and interior. There are portraits of several generations of Cowasjees adorned on the walls: his father Rustom Faqir Cowasjee, his brother Ardeshir Cowasjee, and a grand uncle, Hirjibhouy Cowasjee, who died very young.
The Cowasjees have been a part of the city by the sea since 1883.
“I think they came by boat,” says Cyrus Cowasjee, referring to his ancestors. He is the ‘youngest’ board member of Cowasjee group, the oldest shipping company in Pakistan. “They came on an old sailing ship from Bariawa from the West Coast of India,” he adds.
“We started off as coal and salt merchants and then moved on to ship owning,” he says, “it went on until last year when we shut down the business.”
After 107 years of being in business, this legacy of Karachi too has come to an end. But equally, it does give him a lot of stories to tell.
“I started work after leaving college in late 1946,” relates Cowasjee. “Back then, we could cycle from home to the office in 10 minutes! We lived near the Cantonment station at the time. The first project I was assigned to by my family was to dump ammunition into the sea. Isn’t that strange? Why should we throw ammunition into the sea?”
Why indeed, I wonder.
“Just before Partition, the British government decided that there was too much ammunition in the country. And since there was friction among the people, the fear was that it would escalate into conflict,” he explains. “We were given the responsibility of dumping 15,000 tonnes of ammunition. It was live ammo and any mistake would make it blow up. That was my first experience.”
A young Cyrus Cowasjee managed to learn the ropes of the business by 1947; the rest was for him to enjoy and savour.
“Immediately after Partition, we worked at the port and there were labourers of every community. In those days, only women would work on the coal on the ship. Once a woman came to me and told me another woman was in labour in the hull of a ship! I went down and found that a child had just been born,” he narrates.
“There were no clean clothes for the child to wear. There was no way to get her up, so after covering her in a piece of clothing we had to lift her up in a tub. We’ve progressed to a point where this doesn’t happen. But since then, minorities have been slowly pushed out.”
Did the Parsi community ever face any kind of major discrimination, I ask.
“Discrimination? Not really,” he says, remembering an incident in early 1948. “Back then there were only two shipping companies. It was our turn to buy ships. The other side came to the government and says we are representing one million Muslims and this is only one Parsi family so we should get the priority.”
The minister at the time gave it to them out of turn.
“My father went to Jinnah to complain. He went with Jamshed Nusserwanjee. Jinnah replied, ‘Mr Cowasjee, this was the best government I could give you. The next one is going to be worse.’ So forget about it. So what if the Paris community is small? We are entitled to that port around the ship. That was early 1948. Such minor things go on but nothing major.”
And what of the community at large?
“The community is safe. Because it’s so tiny, it’s out of people’s minds. It’s not a threat to anyone because we don’t convert others so the orthodox Muslim doesn’t feel threatened in any way,” he responds. “Everybody has to move with the times and assimilate with the majority communities. They make do and live in their colonies. My children now have more non-Parsi friends than Parsi friends. It’s a good thing in a way.”
The community has strict rules against converting or including ‘outsiders’ into the community. “The original objection was that if you let non-Parsis become Parsis then they would get access to the trust funds!” laughed Mr Cowasjee, “There was a very serious case in the Bombay High Court, whether that should be allowed or not allowed. We were far more affluent as a community. The money in the community was so much more as compared to the other communities.”
He’s referring to the case in 1906 regarding the right of the French wife (Susanne Brier) of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata ‘to be initiated into the Zoroastrian religion and to gain access to religious and charitable institutions, including those maintained by the Panchayat: for example, funeral grounds and temples.’ Not surprisingly, the verdict went against her: she could call herself a Zoroastrian but couldn’t enjoy the ‘benefits’ the community provided for being a Parsi. Since then, no one has challenged this ruling predominantly because the term ‘Parsi’ is more ethnic, referring to descendents of those that followed the Zoroastrian faith and who migrated to India in the 1800s.
But the draining of Parsi brainpower out of this country is of great concern for Cowasjee.
“It’s slowly going down. It’s going down very fast! Younger people don’t feel there is much of a future here, that’s why. They usually come back when they get old because it’s not easy living in countries abroad once you get old. Basically, it’s like an elephant coming back to die.”
India’s Parsis grapple with tradition
The Parsis may have continued endogamy to safeguard their identity but today they confront a dwindling community
By Raksha Kumar
“It is not hidden, but it is so seamless that it goes unnoticed. That reflects how the Parsi community has quietly sunken into the societal fabric of India over the past 1,500 years,” said the 74-year-old Cyrus Dajee, talking about the Parsi Colony — a bunch of buildings owned by the Parsis in Dadar, Mumbai.
Unlike the other Parsi Colonies in this coastal city, it is not bound by a wall or fence that would isolate it from its surroundings.
The corners of his starched white kurta flapped in the moist evening breeze, a black oval cap sat comfortably on his head. He spoke with ease and confidence, even though age had made his voice slightly shaky. Wielding his walking stick was his favourite distraction, I noticed.
It was 2013 and I was strolling in a garden in the Dadar Parsi Colony, when Dajee approached me and struck up a conversation. We just sat on a nondescript bench in the middle of the worn-down park. When asked for details about his religious community, he said, “I am a nobody; there are those who run the religious bodies, ask them.”
But, in time, he went on to tell me all about it anyway.
“Don’t you think we only talk about the glorious past of the Parsis?” I asked. “We rarely talk about the turbulence that the community is going through.”
“Well, you certainly haven’t spent enough time in a Parsi household, then!” he smiled. “All we talk about over dinner is the decadence in the present generation.”
When I said turbulence, I didn’t mean that the young were at fault, I pointed out. But, Dajee didn’t seem to concur. “When we were young, Zoroastrianism meant something to us — a religion, a way of life,” he began his long monologue. “Today, the religion and its practices are lost,” he shook his head disapprovingly.
According to several accounts, the Parsis first came to the subcontinent from Persia in the eighth or 10th century, in order to avoid persecution by the Arabs who were conquering that country.
The Parsis follow Zorastrianism, a religion based on the teachings of Zoroaster. According to the 2001 census, there were a little less than 70,000 Parsis in the India. More than half of them, about 45,000, live in Mumbai. And about one third of those live in the upmarket Dadar Parsi Colony.
Even though Dajee began his monologue with the rehearsed contempt for the younger generation of the faith, his views on the problems Parsis face, gradually became more nuanced.