The Zoroastrian diaspora as we know it today is spread across the globe. As a mercantile community the Parsis have been traders and no place was considered too far or too dangerous to venture, if it meant we could trade with the other.
Towards the middle part of the 19th century Parsis had established links to the far-flung corners of the British Empire, Burma and as far east as Shanghai in China. By the time we gained independence from the British, the Parsis of Pakistan were a well-established community, having contributed toward the growth of the country far more than any other minority community pre-partition. For that reason and more, Parsis were often looked upon, and admired as beacons of success and respected city builders.
However, something changed in the mid-1950s and Parsis started moving out of Pakistan and emigrating to the West. Yazdi Kabraji was one such pioneer and among the first Karachi Parsis to come to Canada. According to his niece, Nilufer Mama, who came to Canada in 1972 to join her husband Danny, “Yazdi uncle had no compelling reason to leave a well-established life in Karachi, except that he wanted to live the Western lifestyle,” she says.
What started as a trickle in the mid-1950s turned into a flood by the time the 1971 war started.
It was then that a young Pakistani-Parsi chartered accountant by the name of Sam Vesuna decided that enough was enough and wanted out of the country.
“The loss of East Pakistan, the nationalisation of many industries by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the threat (which did not materialise) to nationalise private schools spurred me to leave.”
Vesuna came to Canada in the winter of 1972. The tragic loss of East Pakistan and the conditions he witnessed during his business trips to Dacca, coupled with rampant bureaucratic corruption, was cause for concern. “As political conditions deteriorated, so did the economic environment. That’s when I realised that I didn’t want to bring up my three sons in this scenario, so we left,” he adds.
Vesuna, the son of a Parsi doctor, initially had a lot of hope for Pakistan. “After completing my studies I returned to Pakistan in 1961 to contribute my knowledge and skills. Pakistan was a developing country with great potential. In the late 1950’s and early 60s, the World Bank and IMF had cited Pakistan as an example of solid development and the best return for every dollar invested in loans and grants. Sadly, I left in December 1972 with my family, completely disappointed and frustrated.”
After completing my studies I returned to Pakistan in 1961 to contribute... Sadly, I left in December 1972 with my family, completely disappointed and frustrated.”
The first Parsis to move out of Pakistan were the professional class. They had no businesses or property of great value to leave behind. These professionals felt confident that their skills will be recognised and accepted in the new country. They were prepared to accept the early sacrifices of loss of job status, extreme cold and other hardships new immigrants face, for the reward of a safe, uncorrupt and secular environment.
Jang Engineer was one of them. As a 20-year-old commerce graduate, he was part of a group of almost 15 young Parsi men who left Pakistan, a majority of them for England. “I had many friends in the UK working to become chartered accountants. And we used to hear stories of rampant racism in England. I decided to try another country and zeroed in on Canada.”
The trigger to leave happened at a job interview at a British bank in Karachi, when the white man interviewing Engineer told him that while he found his qualification matched the job profile he had applied for, the bank needed to hire someone from the ‘political class’ for obvious reasons. “That did it for me,” says a not-so-bitter-now Engineer. “I said better to leave now than later.”
He came to Canada in 1970 and while he’s returned several times to visit a large extended family, he has no regrets. A recent grandfather, the Engineers have thrived in Canada and never looked back.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, family class immigration allowed many young men to sponsor their wives, parents and siblings, thereby eliminating to a large extent the anxiety and loneliness that a new immigrant faces when going to a new country. Soon, the numbers were such that by the mid-80s, the Parsis had established places of worship in Toronto and Vancouver.
In the mid-1990s the lesser skilled among the Parsis decided to leave Pakistan. These immigrants to Canada faced greater initial hardships, but were prepared to make the sacrifice for their children.
That said, the well established, wealthy business and landlord class were not inclined to take chances and leave Pakistan as they had a very comfortable lifestyle, a lot to lose materially and socially, and could afford to live with corruption and still get what they needed.
“The moneyed Parsis stayed behind,” says ZavareTengra who came to Canada in 1996.
“Life in the beginning was tough; the long cold winters, the lack of social status and above all the downgrading in workplace, were challenges I knew I would face and have to cope with when I came here.”
Tengra who owned and operated a small family business was deeply involved in the socio-cultural scene in Karachi. Once in Toronto, he was prepared to take up any job to make do in the early days. “I missed my domestic help a lot. But then, that was expected and I was prepared for it even before I came here.”
While Tengra’s immigration process took less than a year, settling in took longer. He soon realised that coming to Canada was the easy part. “I really can’t think of a reason why I left except to experience a differing lifestyle. I wasn’t a professional back home so was willing to take on any challenge.”
Nineteen years later, Tengra has no regrets. A well-known figure on the Toronto arts and social scene, he is the face of Pakistani Parsis in Canada.
Through participation in interfaith activities, the Parsis are slowly being recognised both as a faith group and a religious community. Vesuna has been a long standing president of the Zoroastrian Society on Ontario. He also sits on the board of the Ontario Multi-faith Council and Toronto Area Interfaith Council. As well, the Parsis have been represented as Zoroastrians in the annual opening services of the Courts of Ontario.
Ron Kharas an early immigrant to Canada succinctly puts it, “The Parsis who came to Canada have been trained to work at a job and few have businesses to write home about. It’s the professionals and working class that came here. While we haven’t reached the social standing we had in Pakistan, Parsis have been in Canada just over 50 years, and for that I think we’ve done well for ourselves.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd , 2015