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. Found in small, close-knit, and affluent groups the Parsis of Bombay and Karachi in particular are famed custodians of the inextricable trinity of wealth, high-culture, and social capital.
In both these cities, they have their own neighbourhoods, their own community centres, their own customs, places of worship, and businesses. All of these aspects are stitched together to create the veil of mystique that hangs over them. It is also a community that is fast disappearing.
Karachi’s Parsi Colony, a clean, gated enclave, is dotted with enormous mansions and bungalows with sprawling lawns, shady trees and huge balconies. The colony is different from the rest of Karachi. 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. In the middle of Pakistan’s embattled metropolitan, it is the remnant of a time gone by, of what an imagined past might look like. 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.
Its other distinguishing feature is silence.
Over the past few decades in particular, there has been an exodus from the Parsi Colony. Houses are boarded up, businesses have sold out or shut shop, the streets are empty and most of Pakistan’s Zoroastrians have moved abroad in search of greener pastures. That is a story that is all too familiar. A country with baggage, a fraught political system, a boom-and-bust economy, and appalling human development indicators is not a place anyone wants to live, do business, or raise their children. That is why, perhaps, Pakistan’s brain drain situation aggravated last year, as more than 750,000 educated young men and women chose to seek employment overseas mainly because of the uncertain economic and political situation.
As a small minority community, the Parsis have given the subcontinent a disproportionate number of household figures. Names like Cowasjee, Marker, Malbari, and Wadia are etched into the history of this region. Yet in Pakistan, perhaps no name holds as much weight or prominence as Avari.
Last week saw the passing of Byram D Avari, who died of a brief illness. A highly respected business figure in Pakistan, he was also a prolific swimmer, a gold-medalist in yachting, and perhaps, most significantly the quiet, genial figurehead of Pakistan’s dwindling Parsi community. He leaves behind two sons, Xexeres and Dinshaw, and a daughter, Zeena. He was 81.
As the Avari family grieves the loss of their illustrious patriarch, it is worth looking back at his life and taking stock. On the one hand, he was a famed business personality that grew and moulded his father’s legacy. On the other hand, he was perhaps one of the last men and women that represent a Pakistan that could have been — a generation that more than anything embodies and personifies a lost opportunity.
Pakistan’s fashionable minority
In the next decade, something monumental will happen. Somewhere either in a noisy Lahore suburb, a quiet village in interior Sindh, or the walled city of Peshawar the last person that was a full-grown, legal, adult at the time of partition will breathe their last. And with that, the generation that was to have built Pakistan will die out. Anyone who was at least 18 years old when Pakistan gained independence is currently 93.
At the time of partition, Byram D Avari was five-years old. As a child still forming core memories, Pakistan was the first home Byram would ever know. He was part of this rare generation that had the distinction and opportunity to craft and build a nation. These were the first doctors, lawyers, civil servants, soldiers, farmers, businessmen, and political leaders that were native to Pakistan. Their efforts were to determine the course the fledgling nation would inevitably chart.
And among them, Byram had a unique position of privilege. His father, Dinshaw Avari, was an up-and-coming star. A truly self-made man, Dinshaw had been raised at an orphanage after losing his parents young. Educated and taken care of by the Parsi community, he managed to find a career in insurance for himself and made good money from this professional path. However, business was his true calling and he left a successful career to start his own line of hotels. After rigorous training, Dinshaw acquired the Bristol Hotel in Karachi in 1942 — the same year that his son Byram was born.
Built in 1904 for the Raj, The Bristol was known for its parties and good food but had been on the decline. By the time Dinshaw started running the place and brought it back to its previous glory, Pakistan was born. Over time, using the money he made from Bristol and other investments, Dinshaw went hotel shopping. He bought Beach Luxury Hotel in 1948, Nedous Hotel in 1961 laying the foundation for the family’s own ‘Avari’ hotel chain which would be formally inaugurated in 1978.
As a young man, Byram was close at his father’s heel as he learned the hotel business and absorbed the strong protestant work ethic that his father had built his fortune on. And at the same time, he was also a man about town. As the scion of a successful Parsi business family, Byram had ins with the who’s who of Karachi’s social and intellectual elite.
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. 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.
It is worth imagining how Pakistan may have fared if minorities other than the Parsis had been allowed to thrive and contribute to this country. At the time of partition, Pakistan’s Hindu population stood at nearly 20%. In the time since, it has fallen to barely 1.5%. Similarly, the Ahmadiyya community has regularly been persecuted, with examples of their businesses (such as Shezan) being boycotted and attacked because of the faith of the owners.
A remarkable Pakistani
A true Karachi-boy, one of his first loves was the sea where he spent countless hours yachting and sailing. While his father grew and expanded the family hotel business, Byram became an avid sailor. Back in those days, yachting as a sport was an expensive hobby maintained either by rich philanthropists or officers of the Pakistan Navy — essentially people with access to yachts.
As Byram’s passion grew, so did the seriousness with which he approached the sport. In 1976, the pair of Byram Avari and Munir Sadiq of the Pakistan Navy won the Enterprise Class gold medal in the 8th Asian Games held in Bangkok. Byram Avari again won gold in the same class at the 1982 Asian Games in India, this time with his wife Goship Avari as his yachting partner.
In 1978, the same year that his father officially inaugurated the Avari Hotel chain, Byram also began to serve as commodore of the Karachi Yacht Club. Yet even as his career in sports grew, Byram was the heir to his father’s legacy and fortune. Yachting may have been a lifelong passion, but in 1988 Dinshaw passed away and Byram succeeded him as chairman.
Far from a muscle-head sportsman, Byram took the reins and grew the Avari empire with an eye on international expansion. In 1995, Avari Dubai was built and 2008 luxury Avari suites in Mall of Emirates in 2008. As of now, they operate the 200-room four-star hotel in Dubai, and manage the 200-room Ramada Inn in Toronto at Pearson Airport in Canada. In 2005, Avari Hotels received the internationally renowned World Travel award that marks excellence in all sectors of the tourism industry. The hotel chain became the only Pakistani enterprise to receive the award for eight consecutive years until 2013.
In these years of success, there were obviously troubles. In an article published in 2008 in Fezana, a journal for Zoroastrian, Avari’s son Dinshaw (named after his grandfather) mentioned that the Avari Beach Luxury Hotel struggled a lot when Martial Law was imposed, alcohol and night clubs were banned. It halted the foreign tourism, a major clientele of the hotel. The business faced losses but no staff was retrenched.
This was an outlook that Byram carried with him, and Avari’s HR policies have remained worker friendly. An academic study conducted by Namra Rehman and Dr Atif Hassan showed that Avari offered benefits to its employees which no other hotel does. This includes flexible working hours, health insurance to staff and their families, free meals during working hours, free transport to female staff, yearly appraisal and provident fund. This helped enhance the working culture of the hotel which translates into the overall performance of the hotels.
When Profit reached out to Beach Luxury Hotel’s staff, we learned similar things. His personal secretary, who sits at the Beach Luxury Hotel said that, “Mr. Byram looked after his employees really well. During covid lockdown, the hotel was shut for a while but he still did not terminate anyone.” In a conversation with Profit, his son, Dinshaw said, “During COVID, we took out a loan of about Rs 700 million to pay salaries so that no one would go hungry; we continued their medical allowance even though our hotels had closed down and they were sitting at home.”
“A lot has happened in this time, In the post 1971 era, there were a lot of non-Muslims that were driven out of the city and many recommended the Avari family to move out too, but our family preferred to stay because we were responsible for more than just our home, we had to take care of the hotel,” his son explains.
“My father managed every single situation. He said life goes on and we have to adapt and adjust to every single situation. His motto was ‘go with the flow’ and no matter wha happened, he never wanted to leave Pakistan,” says Zeena, Byram’s daughter. “He believed that he was what he was only because of the land he was from.”
The Pakistan Byram Avari leaves behind
Byram led a storied life. As a businessman, as a sports player, and as a leader of his community, he watched as Pakistan grew and turned into a shadow of what it was supposed to be. “He was a well connected man. All the politicians know him well. He was a community person and that’s why Beach Luxury Hotel also hosts a lot of events from various age groups. Sometimes the events are charged at discounted price or even free of cost, such as the function held by the blind trust association,” his son tells us.
Much of the social capital at the disposal of Byram and the Avari family comes from their unique position as the leading Parsi family in Pakistan. As mentioned earlier, the Parsi community has not had the lot of other minorities in this country. Money, education, and a pretence towards art and culture have given them a special sort of immunity. But Byram was a man well aware of this, and used this very privileged position to be an ardent defender of minority rights in Pakistan.
Byram became a member of the parliament in 1988 as the representative of minority communities elected on a reserved seat. His constituency spanned from the Kalash tribe of Chitral, to Sikhs of Punjab to Baha’is of Thatta and Zoroastrians of Karachi. As a member of parliament, he helped overturn the law of teaching in Urdu in Parsi schools which was passed in the Zia-ul-Haq’s era to prevent the exodus of Zoroastrians from Pakistan. “My father tried to ensure every Zoroastrian, especially the newly weds, had a roof over their heads to build their family. He organised a health scheme with other Zoroastrian trusts, so that all members of our community are taken care of with hospitalisation. It’s an ageing population with 75% being over 70 years of age, that’s when the most medical complications take place.”
We can only help but wonder how Byram must have felt near the end of his life, watching the vibrant community he had grown up in look elsewhere for home. His life was spent building not just a business empire but also a community that was lucky enough to count a man of his stature among them. Within the community, he was a natural leader. When his father Dinshaw passed away in 1988, he was the social head of the Parsi community of Karachi. Byram succeeded him in this role and was unanimously elected chairman of the Karachi Parsi Anjuman Trust Fund (KPATF).
Yet the country Byram leaves behind is one in a shambles. Pakistan’s Human Development Index (HDI) value for 2021 is 0.544 – which puts the country in the Low human development category – positioning it at 161 out of 191 countries and territories. Between 1990 and 2021, Pakistan’s HDI value changed from 0.400 to 0.544, a change of 36.0%. The great irony of this, of course, is the fact that this index on which Pakistan finds itself slipping fast was in fact developed by a Pakistani — Dr Mahbub ul Haq, who created HDI in 1990. The index was then used to measure the development of countries by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Meanwhile, the Gender Development Index (GDI), which measures gender gaps in achievements in three basic dimensions of human development: Health, education, and standard of living, shows a massive gap. The 2021 female HDI value for Pakistan is 0.471 in contrast with 0.582 for males, resulting in a GDI value of 0.810, placing it into Group 5, making it part of an unenviable group of countries that includes Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. Meanwhile on the Gender Inequality Index, Pakistan ranks 135 out of 170 countries.
In 2021, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index ranked Pakistan 130 out of 139 countries. Pakistan ranked second-last in South Asian countries behind the likes of Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. Only Afghanistan was ranked lower. In particular, the report showed Pakistan doing badly in the areas of corruption, fundamental rights, order and security and regulatory enforcement.
This does raise the question, what does Pakistan have to offer? Democracy has failed to take root, more than half of the country was lost in 1971, social turmoil, a bad relationship with debt, a boom-and-bust economy, and a tired political system have all been part of the package. Men like Byram believed in Pakistan. They lived their lives here, grounded their business in Pakistan and embodied it as their home. And they witnessed it fail.
There were many men and women that fit this bill. Most of them will not be remembered in the history books or eulogised in newspapers and magazines. But all of them tried their best, only for the results to be painfully disappointing.
Byram’s life has come to an end. In his time he 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. As the Jamsheed Markers, Ardeshir Cowasjee, and Byram Avaris of Pakistan go the way of their maker, the question is, will we see more of them? Already the Parsi community has dwindled down to a shadow of its former self. Anyone with talent and opportunity in Pakistan is running for the hills. One can only hope for more such dedicated Pakistanis to come.
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