One of my favourite reads is ‘The Crow Eaters’ written by Pakistani Parsi author, Bapsi Sidhwa. Apart from the ingenious plot, hilarious situations and interesting characterisation, what I enjoyed thoroughly in the book is the insight in the Parsi traditions and cultures alongside the story. For the Parsis hold a heritage quite unique and different from most of us in the country.
To me, the mention of Parsis always evokes images of plump, middle aged women, mostly fair with dark eyes and hair and often hooked noses, incessantly chatting and clad in brightly coloured saris, worn in a peculiar manner. But despite having lived most of my life in Karachi, which along with Lahore, had the most number of Parsis living in Pakistan, I never met one personally. Still, I knew enough about them to be intrigued, for my parents always spoke of them with respect – for their peaceful demeanour, and concern – for their dwindling numbers, which was most possibly the reason I never met one. The intrigue mostly arose from their solitary fire temple in the city, in which a non-Parsi can not be admitted and their custom of leaving the dead bodies in a tower of silence to be fed by vultures.
For me, it was some how fascinating also to know, that one of my favourite and one of the greatest lead singers of rock music, Freddie Mercury, was also a Parsi, although of an Indian origin.
Then, it was difficult to ignore their legacy: Mama Parsi School for girls, BVS Parsi High School for boys, the iconic NED (Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw) engineering university, the DJ (Dayaram Jethmal) Science College, and the Dow Medical College are just some of the examples of the fine educational institutions Parsis have built in the city. The same calibre of schools and colleges are to be found in Lahore, while a similar list can be drawn of their contribution in the health sector.
Not only that, the luxury hotels Metropole, Beach Luxury and Avari in Karachi are owned by Parsi families. Many business concerns like the Murree Breweries are run by Parsis, for they are famous for their shrewd business acumen.
But perhaps, the closest link Pakistan could have with the Parsis is that the wife of the founder of the nation, Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a Parsi, and so was his son-in-law, whom Jinnah refused to accept due to political reasons.
Yet today we are told that within two decades, there would be no Parsis living in Pakistan.
In a recent article for The News, Arshad Yousafzai quotes from ‘The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration’ that “After partition the numbers (of Parsis) initially increased further — in 1951 there were 5,018; but they began to decline ….. (and) until 1995, there were 2,824 Parsis in Pakistan, 2,647 in Karachi.”
Of the latest count of Parsis in Pakistan, Yousafzai writes that “The community has been reduced to 1,092, living in only Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi….in the next two decades there will be no Parsi anywhere in Pakistan, as almost the entire younger generation of the community has gone abroad with no plans to return.”
That Parsis as a community have always contributed to society and developed a harmonious relation with members of other communities, as well as maintaining their own distinct outlook, is entrenched in their heritage. Legend says that when Parsis or Zoroastrians as they are named after their prophet, fled Iran around the 8thcentury fearing persecution by Muslim invaders, they landed in and sought refuge from a king in the Gujarat of India. To convince of their faithfulness, the Parsi leader blended sugar in a bowl of milk sent by the ruler of the land, conveying a message that Parsis will not harm, but will in fact, enrich their new land. Until today, they remain true to their promises, which include their adaptation to Gujarati culture prominent in their cuisine and dresses, and also not to propagate their religion.
Hence, neither did the Parsis try to convert a person belonging to a different faith in to their own, nor did they accept their own followers who married outside their community. With the passage of time, many Parsis chose to have lesser number of children. Some chose not to marry. Others seeking a better future emigrated abroad. What happened over the years is that the population of Parsis in Pakistan as well as in India continued to decline.
The case of the diminishing of Parsis in Pakistan is not much due to an external threat; they themselves never posed a threat to any other. It is mostly a result of their own practices. But what is admirable, that despite facing a possible extinction, even from the world in more decades to come, the Parsis do not flinch from a promise kept centuries ago. Even in times of desperation, they maintain their honour, as well as the upholding of their belief, when they refuse to a different race mingling with their own.
Imagine a time, when in our country, there would be only one Parsi living. Possibly, that person would be too old to migrate or may be, too attached to his or her roots in Pakistan to abandon them. It’s hard to correctly foresee the feelings: the person may have regret that his community did not allow exceptions, that his dear ones left, that he or she has no one to share with thousands of years old language, history and tradition. But amongst emotions of sorrow and despair, the person is sure to have a feeling of pride. For even in death, his community sweetened the milk, which they consumed from their society. Even if the fire – the element which they revere, burns out in their temples, the legacy, which they left, would stay alive. For no community has contributed more in the sectors of education, health, business, politics and many others than the Parsis of the subcontinent.