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.
Just before Partition, the British government decided that there was too much ammunition in the country... 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.”
“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.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd , 2015