Migrants, Settlers & Originals: Mustanshir Barma 1
Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul KIshore
Duration: 00:37:23; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 32.054; Saturation: 0.251; Lightness: 0.474; Volume: 0.153; Cuts per Minute: 1.658; Words per Minute: 128.089
Summary: Interview with Dr. Mustanshir Barma (Mr. B) Interviewer: Madhusree Dutta (M). Shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore. Dr. Barma is an eminent scientist at TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) and a member of the Bohra community. The interview was conducted in the context of exploring the history of migration in the region. Representatives of many communities were interviewed in order to understand the demography and current identity politics of the city. The interview was taken in his family home – an apartment in Sunny House, Colaba. It is one of the oldest urban settlement areas in the city, which is also known for its cosmopolitanism. The area has a heady mixture of aristocrat old family homes, backpackers’ dens; affluent clubs, restaurants and hotels; high brow art establishments and low brow govt. institutions, heritage buildings and vendors and vagabonds.
Dr. Mustanshir Barma, in his family home, starts re-visiting his childhood.
Madhusree (M):Mr. Barma as I told you we don't have an agenda, this is more an exploration, an exploration also of the communities which have been here for a long time. We are trying to arrive at a position on both sides. We are also interviewing lots of people who have just migrated, like one month or one year at the most; they want their children to be educated, of all class. And people who have families for a long long time here, old memories of their community. Basically, of course we are trying to reach at the cosmopolitan fabric of Bombay. So if you can talk a little bit about your earliest memory of this city.
Mr. Barma (Mr.B): My earliest memories of this city are memories of this house, because I was born here and grown up here, and somehow come back here and this is where I am. So I was born in 1950, so my earliest memories are from the 50's. So basically it's the house which sort of dominates my memories, and of course my family. You know we had old neighbours and ok so its something to do with that.
Sunny House, behind Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba
world war i
world war ii
So at some point like about 20 years ago, we noticed that this building, actually we have people of almost every religion that you can think of. So that was rather unique. We are Muslim, neighbours are the D'Souzas, Christians, actually Derek D'Souza is a very well-known footballer, his brother Nevilles is a legendary hockey player. We have Parsees on the first floor, we had a Jewish family also on the first floor, a Hindu family both next door and above, even a Sikh carpenter below. So I mean that was rather unique and says something about Bombay already I think. It was just great to be growing up here. Of course there were tensions, you know, the neighbourly tensions. 1950's the big problem was water. I remember my grandmother was here, this was her bedroom, this room, her bed was there. She regarded water as a, what should I say, something from god not to be wasted. Always we were reprimanded when we kept the tap open for long. Now of course things have changed. This is one respect in which certainly Bombay has certainly changed for the better. We have water, electricity etc. etc. But you asked for, yeah, so my earliest memories are memories of the neighbours, the family and we had a...my parents and my sisters and me, my brother actually elder to me was growing up in Hong kong, for reasons that I will tell you about and so we had a very very happy childhood, the fact that this house was large you know was very nice, we used to play around.
The Colaba in the mid 20-th century - in an apartment building a different community lived in each flat. A mixed neighbourhood.
(M): Some anecdotes about that time, about the neighbours, the area, about the house
(Mr.B): yes, let me just think. Yeah ok. Well not directly the neighbours, but I'll just say, the other big influence for me was my grandfather. So he lived about 3 lanes away. This is another old building called Sergeant House, and I used to go to his place everyday or every second day and if I didn't go there would be an immediate message, where is Mustan, so I would run there, and I think I have spent a large fraction of my young life you know just with my grandfather and he used to tell me lots and lots of stories and so that was for me a rather strong influence. About my grandfather there are many anecdotes which I can tell you. He was a sort of… ok he made his money or fortune or whatever in Singapore in the 1930's or something and he retired….
A childhood surrounded by grandparents and neighbours. His grandfather worked in some overseas trade at Singapore.
Bohra community had this tradition of working in overseas trades and in import-export business. So they traveled along the port cities of Asia - Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Hong kong, Shanghai, Yokohama etc. The peak season of that was end of 19-th century to the first world war.
Far Eastern countries
(M): What was his business?
(Mr. B): Ok so its like this. It's a sort of, it was a big enterprise at that time. This was around the turn of the last century. There was a sort of trading firm that was established. Basically it was export, right, and my grandfather was asked to go to Singapore at a very young age, like 16 or 17 and he just went, and there was a small office there which was part of this trading concern. So they had offices in Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Hong kong and Yokohama. So it was a sort of network and so import and export amongst these people. So they...this was as I said around the 1890's that it started. 1890's to the First World War. So my grandfather was a manager of this enterprise and this enterprise at some point collapsed just before the first World War, and these managers became your business people. So his main business was spices. So my grandfather on the other side, my father's father was also a manager in Hong kong. So this is why our family somehow has this earlier Far Eastern connections.
far eastern countries
first world war
(Mr. B): So in fact the chair you are sitting on, my grandfather bought in an auction. This was in Singapore but its Chinese. The unique thing about it is that it doesn't have any screw. Its just wood fitted into each other. Ok so anyway. So my grandfather came back, and he retired at a fairly young age like 50 or 55 and stayed in this place for many more years, and this is the time that I knew him. He was a very impatient man and was always impatient with us and everything, and what he would say is book knowledge is no use, you need practical knowledge, what practical knowledge do you have. You know I used to do well in school…ok ok good good but you know…yeah so this is one of the earliest memories I have that you know he would come down in his kurta, come down and just clap. This was the way we communicated, he would come to the street and clap and my mother would go to the...and then he would call her for various things. So you had to go down, usually sign something, take it back, you know and that sort of thing. Conversely when I would go to his place I would clap and the neighbors across the road they remember me shouting. You know I would shout 'mota Bappa' and he would come and basically rattle this (pointing to the window stopper) acknowledging that he is there, and I would go up.
Dr. Mustanshir Barma remembers his grandfather, a successful businessman who retired at the age of 50 and settled in Bombay.
A large part of the Dowoodi Bohra community hail from Surat in Gujarat. As the men of the families were mostly abroad on business assignments, the memory of childhood were often comprised only the image of the mother.
(MR. B): So he (grandfather) would tell me a lot about his old days. How he grew up as a very very poor you know in poor circumstances in Surat. So we are from Surat originally. So we are Dawoodi Bohras and our particular family and families come from Surat. So he grew up…I mean think I …I'm not sure exactly which year he was born in but we can work it out backwards, but basically the end of the 19th century so he grew up there and his stories about that period would be about his mother who was a very good person. Never about his father. Father was not talked about very much, And often you will find this in Bohra families that the mother is often the large influence but he would often talk about her. She was a very pious and good lady and she brought up her children, whole lot of them in a very well…
Due to the periodic and regular absence of the men folks in the family, the social visibility of the Bohra women were high. Men were generally traveling to Hong kong, Shanghai, Singapore etc.
(M): That's true. Like if I close my eyes, about say 19th Century Bohri community the image that comes to my mind is a strong woman and I have to really think of a male image, I mean it doesn't come off hand. What comes off hand is that strong woman.
(Mr. B): Yes this is true. In fact so her mother was somebody that we all have heard about through many many sources. Her name was Motibo Khadija. She was like the scion of the family. Again her husband was Motabhai, who's also my ancestor in other ways, but we don't know many anecdotes about Motabhai, but this lady was quite and lady and her daughter was this, my grandfather's mother. Her son was my father's father and he was also well regarded and one knows a lot about him, I have some old photographs also and so on. So he also was part of this business enterprise. So my grandfather, grandfathers from both sides were part of this but my father's father was much older. So he was in Hong kong and Shanghai actually Hong kong mainly but he had in some sense an overall you know, view of the full business although he was in Hong kong. He kept the accounts I'm told. He was not the owner. The owners were the 3 brothers who stayed in Surat I think but these guy would manage.
Around 1910, before the first world war time the Indian business enterprises made huge profit. Could these establishments be considered as early phenomena of muli-national trading?
Hong kong university
So I actually dug up some figures and in 19 something just before the war 1910 or so this firm made some 20 lakh rupees which at that time was a large amount. So that gives you an idea of the scale of what was happening. But when the war came the losses were also of that magnitude, I mean that order so you know it was. So these are the stories that I would hear about. My father spent a lot of time in Hong kong, he grew up in Hong kong because my grandfather was there and he was an electrical engineer, my father. So he graduated in 1923 and he was the first something called the King Edward scholar from Hong kong University. However a year before he graduated his father died and there was immense pressure for him to get into the family business so he did do that but he did it after getting his degree.
hong kong university
So in the 1920's it was rare to find graduates I think among communities. But I think Bohras in that sense were a little forward looking and my grandfather, father emphasized education very strongly, I mean not only in words but they actually sent their children as much as they could. And I think even today literacy amongst Dawoodi Bohras is large, I mean I don't know the exact figure, but education is stressed strongly I mean it's a community thing. I mean higher education is regarded as good. There's a sort of tug, I mean its also good to be in the family business. Like I've in research for many years at the Tata Institute, but when I go to these jamans - as we call it, we meet people who don't know us very well but we sort of exchange information and they say, oh that's very nice you are doing research but you know when will you actually sit in your father's business. Its like that, that is the community make up. Yes they admire people who are lawyers and doctors and so on but the core is still trade and business. So this is the way it is.
Though basically a traders' community Bohra community pay general and broad attentions to education.
TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research)
tata institute of fundamental research
Import-Export trade along the port cities exposed members of Bohra community to other cultures. Spices with Far Eastern countries and fire crackers and China grass from China were some of the trading commodities.
(M): As for these communities… I wanted to know whether it had relationship with port cities.
(Mr. B): Very much. All these places that I mentioned are all port cities. The fact that it's a port city was crucial to the import-export character of at least this enterprise. So I think its 2 things. If you look at the earlier, this is my impression, of the earlier Bohras in Bombay in the earlier part of the last century there were people, certainly this was not the only concern, there were many such concerns involved with the trade usually with the far east, spices and bringing back things like china grass, and fire crackers I remember. So that's another of my earlier memories, I mean I remember these large crates which would come from China full of crackers because at that time somehow, I don't remember very well, but ok we used to get crackers from China. I think but now of course the Indian cracker industry is very strong, but in the early 50's we used to get these things.
Far East countries
Places and lands which have grown so distant and unreachable in the second half of the 20th century, were destination of regular visits till 1950s.
(M): So you had a port trade route with China?
(Mr. B): yes indeed, because my father's brothers, we had an uncle in Hong kong and one in Japan and the third brother was in Bombay he was an architect, but these three had a lot of trade. The other thing that would come from China is torch lights. Again this was early 50's so I think there were not enough factories. Now of course we can make and export anything you can think of.
Changes and evolutions, both fundamental and cosmic, - how do we measure them? What can be considered part of history and what is a mere anecdote or nostalgia?
(M): Mr. Barma if you can please tell us, because this itself is interesting that you are trying to think and you are trying to remember so please do go ahead. This whole thing this trading and also outgoing community that traders' community is bound to be and that's a kind of wonder lust and something to do with Bombay itself.
(Mr. B): Ok so, so I don't know much about the early history of Bohras in Bombay but I can tell you about my own sort of experiences. I mean as I said it was a very sort of cosmopolitan city at that time and still is as you know…so like there are some differences one can see immediately like I'll tell you, I have a friend who works at JNU, he's a physicist. He worked at TIFR for a number of years and he's gone there. He always asks me how are things at Sunny House, this is Sunny House. So I said its ok, but you know this whole area is changing so much. So he said actually its not changing much, the Taj (Tajmahal hotel behind his house) is still there this is there. So its changes less than lets say the Soviet Union. I mean this was his. So then later I often thought about what he said and he's right in a way, but many things have changed.
I mean so I don't know where the change is bigger. Externally things have not changed so much but I think there are a lot of changes. In some sense there are the obvious changes, I mean the sounds one hears on the streets are completely different. There were the old peddlers, tachi, malai ice-cream and then these people would come for the cotton thing. So they've died down clearly. The other sounds that I miss is, there used to be a very large gulmohar tree right across and that was home to sparrows a whole lot of sparrows. So every morning and evening there was around 10 minutes of intense sparrow chirruping. Sparrow population has gone down I am very glad to see in the last couple of months I'm seeing sparrows again in the house. So I'm hopeful. I'm told the sparrow population has become only 40% of what it used to be. So that's very sad. I hope it will come back. Now ok…so that's one thing that sort of struck me so…but what else…
Vendors calls on the streets are erased, sparrows and other birds left the city - are they history?
The recent trend of writings in English on Bombay. Other minority communities have made achieved substantial visibility in these narratives through Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga and others. Bohra community remains an exception.
(M): So there are many English novels written by Bombayites written in last one decade or two decades and they look like someone like you who grew up in old Bombay. Anyone of those is your favourite? (Barma asks "from our community"?) M: not necessarily but even Salman Rushdie or this Parsee writer Rohinton Mistry. How do you respond to this, because they talk about your time actually?
(Mr. B): yes yes, alright. Actually I haven't read Rohinton Mistry or Salman Rushdie actually. I've tried very hard to read Midnight's Children, usually reach page 17 or 23 and I don't know I can't go forward. My favourite Indian author is Shobha De and she writes of course about a different time and a different set of things. I mean I feel she does capture something about Bombay as it is, of course lots are extravagant, but ….about those times.
There have been attempts to write commissioned biographies. But the community is yet to receive any proper literary representation.
(M): No I'll just explain why I asked this question. It is very important that it came in last 10-15 years. It has been written from the perspective of the Parsee community but at the same time it's a Bombay narrative, it's not to any community. It has been written from Salman Rushdie's point of view, so touching little bit about Muslim community. I was wondering, because Bohra community here is from quite a long time. It is one of the originals so to say, and we are yet to see a narrative from that angle. I was wondering.
(Mr. B): Your are right, but I mean it will happen I'm sure. I mean there is somebody I know who writes, but he is settled in the US. I haven't read what he writes, this is Farazdar. But I'm sure it will happen. Bohras and Parsees have much in common, as you might have seen. The love of food, the sort of Gujarati they speak which is little not very shuddh (pure) Gujarati, lot of English, Hindi sort of words thrown in. So, of course Parsees are much more prominent in the public life of Bombay, that is true, but given the similarities and overall large sense I'm sure there will be Bohra narratives coming up. There is a sort of privately commissioned book that I have a copy of, which is the biography of one Bohra gentleman who however grew up in Calcutta, so there are efforts of this sort. So you can have a look at that. So I'm sure it will be coming in that sense.
Mr. B: Now you wanted a sort of perspective about the communities.
(M): Yeah community, its relationship with this city, growing up with this city, making this city.
(Mr. B): Well ok. Again I'll come back to a more personal thing. In the Bohras we have this institution, its not really an institution, it's a social thing called Dodsidars, Dosidards, Sayyids. So Dosidars are usually a group of 8 to 10 people, who are sort of handpicked, I mean this group is handpicked by their parents when they are very young like 3 or 4 years old and they are roughly contemporary, I mean they are contemporary within a year or two of each other and they sort of keep in touch with each other for the rest of their lives. So like they will often meet with each other every week. I'm not a member of any such thing, but these Dosidar's and Sahelis, is the woman's counterpart certainly survive to this age, but my parents both had active such groups. So they would come whenever it was my father's turn to host some such thing, and every week my father would go to one of his other dosidars. Those I remember well because it was a time of, sort of like camaraderie, lot of exchange of information this that …but it was a rather unique institution in the sense that people who first meet at the age of five or six continue till they are 85 or 86 and this is something that I remember well.
There is a tradition of friend circles in Bohra community which once formed at childhood remains till death. This is an unique social institution.
Communal eating is an important Bohra social characteristic. The tradition cuts across class and family barriers.
Of course we eat in something, you might know, the Thal, and there are usually eight people around the thal, and of course as far as these dosidars and sayyars were concerned these would be the people. But when we have these bigger community jamans or meals, then the nice thing about the thal is you just go and sit, and you don't know who the other people are necessarily and nothing matters there, I mean economic status, where you are from, you just sit. That's actually a very nice thing. It really, it is one of the things that binds are community, this tradition and the talk in the thal is sort of general to personal and you know often about food. You know this is one of the great thing about the Bohras. They love food.
Food is an important cultural phenomena and also a social engagement for Bohras.
If you ask about Bohra culture, I think food is a very large component of that. For instance if my wife goes to some place for instance and comes back, the first thing we ask is what was the menu, nothing else. And so it goes on and 3 sweet dishes interposed with 3 non-sweet dishes and this was not as good as it should have been etc. So very critical. On the whole Bohra food is good, it is also innovative and I am also surprised to see that new dishes come up every few years. I don't know if you know about these Bohra caterers, a whole lot of them, and they certainly contribute to something in Bombay, I mean the food I think is known beyond or outside the community and…
Though it is a business community and known for its elaborate food culture, there are no commercial food joint or restaurants for Bohra cuisine. There are commercial caterers for weddings and parties but no regular restaurant.
(M): What about the restaurant outlets for Bohra food? I mean you can go to Bohri mohalla and eat but what about middle class restaurants?
(Mr. B): Yes. There is no real Bohra restaurant. I don't think there is. So that is a pity. I'm sure it can be rectified but Bohra mohalla is the place to go, yes.
(M): But that's strange because this community's acumen for trade is good, so why they are missing on this opportunity?
(Mr. B): You're right, I mean I didn't think of this earlier, but its certainly an opportunity. I'm mean I think they found a good thing in the catering thing and the caterers are happy doing their thing. I mean if you have a wedding party for 600 people they will happily supply the food and do it but there is no single restaurant that I can think of. Where as there are Parsi restaurants, there are restaurants of all types. Conversely in Calcutta would you say there are many Bengali restaurants, I'm sure there are, but not as many.
(M): no no, its just started in last 5-6 years but there was none earlier, (Barma interrupts "there was one on Chowringhee now 'Peerless' I'm told') because Bengalis have a problem, Bengalis can't trade anything that's their problem.
Indigo, the elite restaurant has a Bohra manager, but they do not serve Bohra cuisine.
(Mr. B): Sorry but yeah, I don't have a good explanation of why not.
(M): That itself is an issue to explore, because Bombay is a city of restaurants, it's a foody city
(Mr.B): That's right, indeed so this is an obvious niche in which if Bohras enter they would do well. In fact Indigo (an up market restaurant next to Mr. Barma's house), one of the managers used to be Bohra but you know he doesn't serve Bohra food. (M: they serve eclectic food) Yeah we've actually not eaten there, we've gone there couple of times to complain about music and other things late at night.
Location mapping of the community. Present day Bombay is segregated in various community based settlements. The post-modernity has brought in acute segregation in social life. But Mr. Bohra thinks that Bohras had managed to avoid ghettoisation.
(M): So tell me is the community more or less concentrated in some pockets in the city or how spread out.
(Mr. B): Yes certainly theres a large population in and around Bhendi Bazar, I mean if I'm thinking of South Bombay, but it is actually spread out rather well. Colaba itself has many many many Bohra families, and Byculla is another place where you'll find an enclave of Bohras. But you go to any part of Bombay you'll find Bohra's, yes but a large concentration in the Bohra mohalla areas around Bhendi bazaar. And In the suburbs, I think there's a large population in Mumbra, and where else…so these are the largest pockets. But on the whole I would say Bohras are quite mixing.
United states of America
Local customs, rituals and ingredients always seeps into the forte of the settlers' community. No hostility, no doctrine, no resistance, no insecurity can stop this process.
(Mr. B): I mean certainly many of our traditions we have in aspects like marriage and so on are Indian customs. They are not particularly Bohra or Muslim. Like for instance the coconut plays a large role in everything that we do. Like birthdays are celebrated by 7 rounds of coconut around the person. Coconut is auspicious. During anybody's wedding four aunts sit around and they grind supari (areca nut), so supari is also auspicious. So things that we associate with are Gujarat and India. I mean so as you know Gujarat is that place that all this started from. Today I don't know the precise numbers. The number I've been hearing is 1.2 million, that is the worldwide population. But certainly the large number is in Bombay. Some in Africa, lots in Gujarat all over and of course today now people are migrating all over like United States, like in all other communities.
In the neighbouhood of Colaba, where Dr. Barma lives the population Bohras is substantial and visible.
(M): 1.2 million is actually not a very substantial number. I mean has it declined, the population?
(Mr. B): No the population is certainly not declining and I've hearing this number of about a million since 1980's, so it can't be correct if the million was correct earlier, but its not hugely larger? Would you know, by any chance? (M): no we can check that but I mean its just not sounding very correct, 1.2 is actually a thin population in that sense) Of course number of Parsees is even far lower so I don't know.
(M): so that's what I was thinking there is a major hue and cry about Parsee population going down so is Bohri population also going down?
(Mr. B): no the Bohri population is certainly not going down, and certainly the population in Colaba is going up tremendously.
There are spots of social spaces for the Bohra communities which are vitalized during Ramzan or Moharram.
(Mr. B): So we have a local mosque near the old handloom house and there is a very fine old building there. Its called the Badri Mahal and on the ground floor of that building is the Badri Masjid. That is the place where we congregate, we meaning the Bohris in Colaba and this area during the time of Moharram and also other occasions like Ramzan and Id and so and so forth, so that's when you get an idea how many people there are. It's a large number. I wish I could be more quantitative right now, I just don't have the precise number.
(M): no no information we can get from the net always, its more about stories and memories. So Mr. Barma any memory of the community coming to Bombay, because it was not a city, I mean the city was made in last 200 years, ok maximum 500 years, but any such stories that you know of earliest port or when the islands were still situated
For the Bohras the influx of migration from Surat to Bombay happened when the spiritual guru Sydena shifted here. But even earlier there were some Bohra population and business establishment in the Fort area.
(Mr. B):..ok.. unfortunately the stories I know of that time is not about Bombay. It is about .. Hong kong or Penang. Because my parents unfortunately did not grow up here. But… let me think… the community as a whole came to Bombay when Sydena moved from Surat to Bombay and that was in the early parts of the last century. However long before that… (M).. was it 19th century… or 20th century? (Mr. B): 20th century, early 20th century… there were quite a few Bohra shops here earlier. The earlier Bohras were settled around the Fort area…. There are Modi street and Bohra Bazaar street… there were many trading establishment there. What they were doing I don't really know. But earlier Bohras were involved in trades and also in hardware business. Well, so this is what.. I don't really know but imagine the case was.
bohra bazaar street
early 20th century
So the earliest Bohra settlers in Bombay would be around end of 19th century, even before Sydena shifted here.
(M):That means late 19th century some Bohra families must already be here
(Mr. B): certainly by late 19th century there were here, maybe some even earlier. In fact recently we had a renovation of our mosque so I had gone for its opening, and, there the Syedna had recounted something of the history of the Bohra's in Bombay, before the Syedna himself had moved from Surat to Bombay. He was in fact recalling the history of this particular building, and he mentioned that there were 40 to 50 shops and establishments in the time that might have roughly been the 1850's or 1860's. So this is my rough impression.
late 19th century
Sydena always encouraged the community into business and trade. Bohras are spread in many parts of Africa too. They supported Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa.
(Mr. B) But I do believe that the Syedna moving here….the Syedna is of course important figure in our outlook and lives and so on. Syedna Tahfurddin who was the previous Syedna to the present Syedna, was a very practical and enterprising person and strongly encouraged people to take up their own business in preference to salaried jobs. So this was the advice and it worked very well. My impression is that, that's the time that the community actually went out with many many things, so many many families and enterprises sort of came up. Post 1915 -1916, that's when they sort of actually became commercially important. But actually I'm thinking back, there were even earlier there was a large Bohra population in eastern Africa, Kenya, Nairobi etc. and even South Africa. So at the time of Gandhi's time in South Africa, there were several Bohras there who of course strongly supported Gandhi. It must have been that there were more links than I know about, but these are the scattered bits of information that I know.