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In the heart of the city, surrounded by beautiful mountains, Quetta’s Parsi Colony is picture-perfect. The lush green trees sway in the breeze. There is a rare feeling of trust: instead of the common elevated walls demarcating boundaries of houses, there are flimsy grills with open, inviting doors.
To the unsuspecting eye, this scene may not look like one from a metropolis in Pakistan, let alone one from the troubled province of Balochistan.
Despite the oft-reported turmoil in the region, however, Parsis have peacefully lived here since before partition. It was during the British Raj that the community was allotted this colony.
Today, of the many Parsis who once resided here, only about two to four families remain. Others have either died because of natural causes or migrated out of Quetta.
Read: The Balochistan saga
The presence of Parsis in the provincial capital has not been documented by the mainstream media like that of their counterparts in Karachi. This is understandable, Parsis, after all, migrated from Iran to Sindh as far back as the eighth century. Furthermore, the community is relatively bigger in Karachi as compared to the one Quetta.
Yet, there are Parsis who prefer their home city to the concrete jungle that is Karachi.
Khurshid Minocher is an 85-year-old resident of the Parsi Colony who was born in Allahabad, India. She fondly remembers when Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi man, married Indira Nehru (later Indira Gandhi) and became the son-in-law of Jawaharlal Nehru. She also remembers seeing Mahatama Gandhi in his iconic dhoti and walking stick garb.
With these memories of her childhood home, Ms Minocher moved to Karachi as a young woman. In 1949, she started working at the prestigious Mama Parsi School, but quit the job soon after. The educationist did not like how, “The Parsi teachers, the Christian ones and the other teachers who belonged to different religions, would sit on different tables”.
After marrying her late husband, Mr Ardeshir Minocher from Quetta, she moved to Balochistan. She found a sense of camaraderie, one which was missing at the Mama Parsi School in her experience, at Quetta’s St Josephs Convent School.
She gets wide-eyed as she talks about the city’s not-so-distant past; a time when foreigners would come to Quetta and stay at a hotel owned by a Parsi named Feroze Mehta.
She complains that now the city has become too noisy and crowded. But to her it is still home.
Quetta’s Zoroastrian community has always been special to Parsis around South Asia, Ms Minocher tells Dawn.com. She recalls how in 1935 during a catastrophic earthquake, when 300 Parsis (including her father-in-law) died, Parsis all over South Asia donated money to help out. It was through these donations that the colony was rebuilt.
Houses in the Parsi Colony are owned by the 'Parsi Punchayat' (alternatively called the Parsi Anjuman). The general secretary of the body is another well-respected Parsi woman, Former Senator Roshan Khursheed Bharucha.
Parsis, she tells Dawn.com, have contributed greatly to the province’s education, health and, perhaps most notably, journalism sectors.
They are largely considered to be the pioneers of the English press in Balochistan.
In March 1888, a Parsi man Nawsarwanji Mancharji set up the Victoria Press. The press published the Monthly Balochistan Advertiser, Border Weekly News, Balochistan Gazette and The Daily Bulletin. It ran successfully in pre-partition India until 1935, when the same earthquake in Quetta destroyed the press offices.
Another Parsi-owned English-language press, Albert Press, had similar beginnings. A man named Dadabhai Golwala started this press in 1891.
Like Victoria, the Albert Press was also pro-British and worked for the government. The press usually published content pertaining to the military. It also enjoyed the patronage of the local government.
When the Albert Press building, like that of Victoria Press’s, was damaged in 1935, Mr Dadabhai’s grandson-in-law, Shawak Rustomji got it renovated.
The administration of the press remained in the family. When Mr Shawak died, his wife Gul Rustamji took over and continued to run it until she finally sold it in 1990, moving abroad with her sons.
She was not alone, many Parsis from Quetta, and indeed all of Pakistan, have moved away. In the recent past, freedom of expression is perennially under threat in the city. Journalists frequently come under attack in Balochistan. Similarly, in the current political landscape, the region has also become an unsafe region for minorities.
The ill treatment of minorities in Balochistan is a relatively new phenomenon.
Rashed Rahman, a former editor of the Daily Times, believes that protecting minorities has historically been in the fabric of the Baloch society. “One of the outstanding characters of the Baloch society was tolerance. But now we have [given way to] intolerance, hatred, and violence [simply] on the basis of the fact that they are minorities.”
Former senator Bharucha disagrees with the notion that Parsis are treated poorly in Quetta. “As compared to the Christians and Hindus, we have lived peacefully and harmoniously [in Quetta]. We receive respect wherever we go. For example, I myself work as a chairperson at different institutes of the city, where I have not faced a single problem. I have always been given honour wherever I have gone.”
She does, however, point to a major problem faced by affluent members of the community: Kidnappings.
A prominent kidnapping case within the community is that of Abadan Faridoun Abadan, a former minister and influential Parsi in Balochistan.
When Mr Abadan was kidnapped in 2002, his wife Niloufar Abadan vowed not to sit quietly. In hopes of recovering her husband, she met Balochistan’s chief minister and the country’s prime minister at the time. She also visited Iran and Afghanistan looking for a lead. Her tireless efforts however were futile. In 2011, on World’s Women’s Day, Ms Abadan met the same fate.
“I was kidnapped at gunpoint for ransom during broad daylight. After getting blind-folded, I was taken to an unknown place where I spent about ten months in great agony,” she told a national magazine in an interview, recalling her abduction.
She was released after paying a hefty ransom to her kidnappers. Ms Abadan lost more than money to this kidnapping.
Her kidnapping proved to be too much for her 35-year-old son Bomand Abadan. Struggling to deal with his mother’s disappearance, after 10 years of his father being missing, Mr Bomand died before his mother’s return.
“I don’t know if my husband is alive or dead,” Ms Abadan had said during the interview. 14 years later, her husband’s whereabouts are still unknown. Some suspect he has died in captivity, as his family could not fulfil the demands of the kidnappers.
Leaving remnants of a trying life behind, Ms Abadan has reportedly moved to Karachi.
The wide streets of Parsi Colony, which were once filled laughter of playing children, are now mostly quiet. While a lot of community elders have opted to stay back, they are sending their younger family members abroad, looking for greener pastures.
Many from the community are relatively affluent, and can afford to move away. Increasingly, Parsis in Quetta, and indeed Pakistan, are availing this option.
While maintaining her optimistic view of how Parsis are treated in Balochistan, Ms Bharucha concedes that even her own children have moved abroad in search of a better life. “I have three children who are abroad; they are doing jobs there.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously said Mr Dadabhai Golwala moved to Quetta after the Second World War.
Photos by Adnan Aftab | Illustrations by Zahra Abdus Samad