There is an air that surrounds the Indian subcontinent’s Parsi community. It is the sort of local fascination that the rest of the world could never understand. The Parsis of Bombay and Karachi are found in small, close-knit, and affluent groups. They have their own neighbourhoods, their own community centers, and their own customs. But their considerable social capital often makes them the center of their CIty’s social scene.
The Parsis of Karachi, for example, live primarily in the City’s Parsi Colony, a clean, gated enclave. Within the gates of the colony are remnants of a time gone by. Enormous mansions and bungalows with sprawling lawns, shady trees and huge balconies hanging off airy block-like houses. Karachi’s Parsi Colony is different from the rest of the city. For one it is not cramped. If a stranger to the City were to be blindfolded and enter the area, they would never believe that Karachi has a real estate or a population problem. They would also not believe the violence and terror that the City has been a victim of for so many years.
Right in the middle of Pakistan’s embattled metropolitan, the Parsi colony is a slice of peace. It is a place where one would expect polite evening teas, brisk walks early in the morning, pedigree dogs, big cars and all the other things that come with money.
View of a street in Karachi’s gated Parsi Colony.
No one is quite sure when and how the Parsis of Karachi all so simultaneously managed to make their fortunes. What we do know is that there was an exodus from the community from Bombay to Karachi somewhere in the early 19th century. From here the Parsis got into business of all kinds. From shipping to factories, names like the Avaris and the Cowasjees soon enough became household.
In a country where minorities have not fared well, the Parsis are an anomaly. Not only do they, by now, come from old money, they are entrenched so deeply in the social fabrics of Karachi that their place has nearly become unquestionable.
Priests at Karachi’s Agyari (fire temple)
With this surplus of money, capital, education and a pretense to the finer things in life, the Parsi community has given Pakistan some of its finest. Businessman like Dinshaw Avari aside, the community has produced artists like Jimmy Engineer and Columnist like Ardeshir Cowasjee. But another giant of the Parsi community was Jamsheed Marker, who passed away last week at the age of 95 with the distinction of being a world record holding ambassador.
Famed mostly for his diplomacy, Marker was an extraordinary man that represents the best of the Parsis of Karachi. A real gentleman, he was one of the last of his kind, and with his passing one is left with the realisation that the Parsis of Karachi are a community slowly but surely dwindling away.
Many have moved to Europe or America, others have died and generations have left Pakistan for good. As beautiful and awe inspiring as the Parsi Colony might be, any visitor will realise soon enough that it has seen better days. Many of the houses are empty now, left to caretakers. The ones that still stand are often lived in by the old that refuse to leave their City.
Marker was one such man who stayed in Karachi to the end. His years as a diplomat kept him away from his City for long periods of time, but he stayed in Karachi until the end.
Marker was a special sort of man. His career as a diplomate began late, and perhaps he was so successful in it because it was not something he needed to do but something he felt he would be good at. And that was a feature of his life – he followed his passions and his heart seemingly without much concern for consequence. His first love was cricket, and it was a sport he played with great zeal while at FC college in Lahore. But it would not be as a player that Marker would make his mark in the world of cricket, but as a commentator.
Well before he was away solving international crises and making small talk with Presidents, Marker was a familiar voice on Pakistani radio. The first time Pakistan hosted India for a cricket match was at the Jinnah Gardens. It was here that the legendary pairing of Marker and Omar Kureishi first guided audiences at home on Pakistan cricket.
Marker with commentary partner Omar Kureishi
While referring to his stint as a cricket commentator, the seasoned diplomat noted in his memoirs that it was something he “carried out joyfully and with enthusiasm”. And enthusiastic he was indeed, because in the radio era commentary was even more important than it is now, and Marker and Kureshi in their clipped English and keen observations became iconic.
Osman Samiudin in his assessment of Marker mentions an old anecdote of the Quaid e Azam that is often related. The story goes that an old, haggard looking man was once found enthusiastically clapping at one of the Quaid’s speeches. When a man sceptical of his understanding asked him if he knew English, he responded that he did not, but it was enough that the Quaid was speaking for him to clap and he didn’t need to understand what was being said.
That was the comparison Sammiudin drew of Marker, that his and Kureshi’s voices on the radio were not understandable to most of the country, but they were reassuring enough for them to know what was going on.
But Marker was so much more than a legendary diplomat and an iconic radio voice. He was a lover of the arts with a taste for the finer things in life as well as an author and a successful businessman in his own right. This helped him even in his diplomacy. He also counted among friends the enigmatic oil czar Armand Hammer of Occidental petroleum. His friendship with the oil czar prospered over lunches fuelled by their mutual love for rare wine and western classical music.
Marker speaks at the United Nations.
In his obituary of Marker for ‘The Hindu,’ Kallol Bhattacherjee described Marker as “Pakistan’s Best.” Indeed, he was an ideal to be aspired to. A fine specimen of a man that wore many hats and wore them all with poise, dignity, grace and distinction. He was a true Parsi gentleman of Karachi, and Pakistan is poorer for having lost him.
But does the Parsi community have more Markers and Cowasjee’s left in its midst? The dwindling populations do not bode well, but these people still have high stakes in the City they have made their own. One can only hope for more Markers to come.