Jews, Chinese Parsis of Lahore and Calcutta

Parsi couple divorce cases

If you proceed along Lahore’s M.M. Alam Road, just before reaching Hussain Chowk to the left is a lane. As to travel along to the right is a large brick building. This is where the last of the Parsis of Lahore are slowly fading away.

When I last visited this place two years ago there were only 28 Parsis left in Lahore. Today barely 12 old Parsis inhabit this special hostel built by a Parsi entrepreneur. The total number in Lahore today are 23 only. Of recent I have been researching how small minority groups have been faring in large metropolises of the sub-continent. The idea is to understand how these old small groups have managed in Lahore. So for the sake of this piece, let me try to compare how such groups fared in Lahore in Pakistan, and in Calcutta (Kolkata) in India.. If anything it will bring forth how our own society functions, or even cares, and tries to understand, let alone tolerate, the narrative of small minority groups.

So let us start with the Parsi population of Calcutta. We see the first Parsis coming to this Bengali city in the 18th century. In Calcutta amazingly, the first Indian Census of 1837 shows 40 Parsis out of a population of 229,705.. By 1901 this population rose to 274 and in 1921 it reached 620 Parsis. In 1947 there lived 3,465 Parsis who used three Parsi fire temples. It seems that the killings of ‘freedom’ hit them hard. In the 2001 Indian Census, the whole of India had 69,601 Parsis, of whom 98 lived in Calcutta. In 2016 that number had dramatically shrunk to a mere 27. Depressing to say the least.

In Lahore, a very similar situation emerged. The first Parsis came during the Mughal reign and stuck to business and provided the rulers with products not available within their domain. So the Parsis were always into shipping and trading, as they remain to this day. In 1947, Lahore had a Parsi population of 1,867 according to census sources. Then the decline started. In our youth we lived next to the Parsi Temple on Rattigan Road, which sadly closed down in the 1970s. Today in Lahore a mere 23 remain, and their Parsi hostel in Gulberg lies almost empty as there are none left to occupy the rooms.

So where have they all gone. A research by the eminent historian, the late Sir Chris Bayly, puts forth three reasons to explain this dramatic decline. Firstly, they themselves are to blame for they do not marry outside their faith. Hence a natural decline is inbuilt into this equation of ‘limited choices’. Secondly, they have tended to move towards the major shipping cities, like Bombay (now Mumbai) in India, and Karachi in Pakistan, where their main population is concentrated. Lastly, the educated young, like other educated Pakistanis, have all flown away to the West. It seems the older generation refuses to leave these two cities and are slowly fading away. The young take their chances abroad.

In the sub-continent the Parsi community was always highly educated, westernised and tended to work in shipping, films and theatre and were excellent and very honest corporate officers. Even today business companies prefer them for their competence and honesty.

Let us study another now almost extinct community, they being the Jews. Lahore had a Jewish population in 1921 of 56 persons. Karachi has a higher number, even though Gen. Ziaul Haq got their only temple knocked down. Their only graveyard still stands. But then let me share some very interesting statistics. In the 2013 elections 809 adult Jews were enrolled as voters. Amazingly, against 427 women, only 383 men were on the rolls. What is even more interesting is that in the 2017 voters list, their number has risen to 900 voters. As these are official figures there is little to doubt them. But as opposed to communal extremists, my view is that this is a good sign as opposed to the fate of our Parsis.

The point is where do they live in Lahore? The last Jewish family that we knew lived on Queen’s Road, but then they sold out 10 years ago and moved to their ‘Promised Land’. As a journalist who walks the lanes of the old walled city, I do know of two families who allegedly are Jews, but then they are very poor and keep to themselves and celebrate every local festival with gusto … and why not. There was a time in the 1930s when Lahore’s money lenders, as well as some ‘businessmen’ in Taxali Chowk, were Jews.

In Calcutta, the picture is very different. In 1947, this Indian city had a Jewish community of over 6,000 as the famous writer Shalva Weil’s book tells us. Today that number has shrunk to a shocking 20 Jews only.. Again they are all older people. Also the five once-thriving synagogues have been reduced to only two, which sadly are maintained by ‘foreign’ Jewish organisations. The Calcutta Jews were known as Baghdadi Jews, as were those of Karachi. In 1947 as the Partition riots erupted in Calcutta with Israel also being created, shiploads of Jews left this port city for their new ‘motherland’.

Lastly, let me dwell on the Chinese populations of Lahore and Calcutta. In our school days the Chinese population, which had originally come to the sub-continent at the height of the Opium Wars in China, worked either in leather tanneries, in restaurants or in laundries.. If you read Rudyard Kipling’s story titled ‘The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows’, we see that in Lahore they ran opium dens inside the walled city. And though by the late 1960s their numbers had shrunk to a mere 36 persons, their Chinese food outlets started to become the rage.. Initially they opened up shoe shops, but even these cobblers opted to open up restaurants. Today their food is the rage.

Of recent a lot of Chinese investors from the now prosperous mainland have come to exploit local business opportunities, but they leave after having done ‘milked their profits’. For them China is where the action is. But for the Chinese of Lahore this is their city. Some even tried to return to China, but returned rather disillusioned. Their children now seem more interested in going to the West.

The Chinese in Calcutta are a different story. The port of Calcutta is the nearest to China, so the first Chinese arrived there in the 1780s, and they did well. Their numbers increased as more and more came, running from an impoverished China. But the Indo-Chinese war saw many turn towards the West. But like in Lahore their food and the leather trade interested them more, and they have done well by any account.

So we see minority groups tend to shrink in ‘relatively’ intolerant societies, invariably tending to move towards where they are together in sufficiently ‘safe’ numbers. The younger off-springs, being more educated, tend to fly to where the best economic opportunities exist in more ‘tolerant’ environments.

The old, no matter whether minority or majority populations, tend to stick to their ‘birth roots’.. No wonder Lahore’s DHA has so many older parents living alone as their children, having flown abroad, do not intend to return, except for the annual pilgrimage to enjoy the food and meet relatives and old friends. Humans never cease to amaze with their predictable behaviour patterns.


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