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Flashback: Like sugar in milk

August 12, 2012

The Bamjis at their Karachi residence – Photo by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Gulbano Bamji talks to Moniza Inam about her golden childhood in Quetta:

Legend has it that when the Zorastrian king of Persia, Yazedird, was defeated in the Battle of Nehavand, many Parsis fled their homes to escape persecution and moved to the mountains of Khorosan, where they lived for almost a century. In the mountains, they heard about India, and about 500 families got together and sailed towards the shores of what was then the land of opportunity.

The year was around 755 AD when they arrived at the coast of Sanjan in Gujarat, which at that time was ruled by the King Jadav Rana. The Parsi delegation went to meet the king who was somewhat puzzled by their arrival. As a symbolic gesture, the king sent them a jug with milk filled to the brim to indicate that there was no space for a new community in his state. The wise Paris priest added some sugar to the milk implying that the Zoroastrians would mingle with the natives of the land and sweeten their lives and country without disturbing the fabric of the community. The king was impressed and granted them permission to live in the country on the following conditions; a) their ladies must wear the local dress i.e., saree, b) they should learn to speak the local language, and c) they should not indulge in conversions. The Parsis accepted these conditions willingly.

This was how the Zoroastrians migrated to India more than a millennium ago. They rose to prominence under the British rule and ultimately achieved a great deal of social and economic success.

Under the Raj, the British army established the garrison town of Quetta in Balochistan to safeguard its north-western frontiers and keep an eye on the Iranian and Afghan borders while keeping the Bolan Pass under its control. To help achieve this task, many Zoroastrians migrated to Quetta to assist the British governance in the region.

Another legend says that when Sir Charles Napier came to Quetta in the 1800s, a Parsi gentleman accompanied him, and according to the claims of a senior member of the community, “We were the earliest settlers in the garrison town after the local Kansi tribe and now our fifth generation resides in Quetta.” The Parsi Colony in Quetta is a home for most of the community. In 1883, the British government allotted the site to them to build their houses. The colony was rebuilt after the 1935 earthquake.

Gulbanoo Bamji was among its residents, although she has been living in Karachi for the past 40 years. She is a mother of two grown-up daughters, has worked in various capacities at different schools and now she is busy with social work and is a member on the board of the committee of the BMH Parsi General Hospital to oversee its day-to-day management.

In this interview, she shares memories of her life in Quetta as a kid, teenager and young woman. When I went to meet her, I was dazzled by the beauty of the residence. Right in the middle of Saddar, with all its noise, congestion, pollution and hustle bustle, the premises were an oasis of calm and serenity. In a way it reminded me of the Parsi Colony of Quetta where you would feel the same emotion of peace and tranquillity. There is a neat row of apartment blocks surrounded by open space on all sides with lots of foliage and tall trees. Bamji’s own house is modestly yet tastefully decorated with classical artefacts and plants all over the place, as she has a passion for gardening.

Gulbanoo Bamji traces her family history starting with her grandfather, Behramjee, who came to this part of the world in the 1880s from the city of Yazad, Iran. He was married to her grandmother, Piroja, the daughter of Jamasjee. They had a house on Habib Nala in the compound, now known as Mission Hospital in Quetta. They shifted to the Parsi colony after the earthquake.

Her father, Merwan, was born in Quetta in 1901. She says, “Later he became a soldier in the British army. He married my mother Daulat in 1945, who was from Mumbai. We are three siblings; Roshan Bharucha, my late brother Mondigar Merwanji, and me.”

When asked about her childhood in the city, she exclaims nostalgically, “Life in Quetta was wonderful as the city was so picturesque and serene. It was more of a hill station than a town, a well-planned city rebuilt after the horrific quake. There were a few cars and the roads and streets were well-kept and lined with trees. Everything was within walking distance and we used to commute to our school, St Joseph’s Convent High School, Quetta, later college, Government Girls College Quetta, shopping centres, and visit friends’ houses on foot. Such was the beauty of the town and the simple lifestyle in those days.”

Describing her childhood further, Gulbanoo remarks that there were no more than 14 families living in the colony at that time. Those were bungalow-type houses and such was the level of security that none of the houses had to be locked. “We were more like an extended family than neighbours and there were genuine feelings of camaraderie and bonhomie.

“I was among the 25 kids living in the colony at that time. In those days the school syllabus never changed. Therefore, our parents never had to buy new books every year — the old books were passed on from student to student. I still have a book which has eight names written on it, my name being the last one. Similarly, the clothes were also shared amicably. We had a very simple way of life and there were no parties. On Nauroz we laid out tables and visited each others houses,” states Gulbanoo.

Elaborating further, she states, “After coming from school and finishing our homework, we all played different outdoor games in the compound. The biggest treat was to go to Hanna Lake or Urak for a drive; even that happened only once or twice a year. We had friends from all religions and ethnicities and we visited each other’s houses quite regularly.

“I was also a part of the Pakistan Girl Guides Association and toured most of the country with them. I met Field Marshall Ayub Khan and Queen Elizabeth II at the Lahore Fort, during our Girl Guide camp which is still a lovely memory. In college I was a member of the Rangers.”

At this point, her husband Jhanbux Bamji also joined us. Although he is a Karachiite, he lived in Quetta for a decade when he was working for a World Bank-funded project. As part of his work, he travelled to every nook and corner of Balochistan. He also has fond memories of his stay in the colony at his sister-in-law’s place.

The Bamjis have lived a very simple, happy and contended life and prefer to stay in this country despite coming across several opportunities to move to greener pastures.