Migrants, Settlers & Originals: Mustanshir Barma 2
Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Duration: 00:25:06; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 30.658; Saturation: 0.243; Lightness: 0.483; Volume: 0.148; Cuts per Minute: 0.996; Words per Minute: 119.978
Summary: Interview with Dr. Mustanshir Barma (Mr. B). Interviewer Madhusree Dutta (M). Shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore. Dr. Mustanshir 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.
(M): Can you tell me something more about your impressions. Generally any community or group of people who travel due to trade or hobby pick up languages. How good is the general Bohra person in picking up languages. Like Bengalis are very bad.
(Mr. B): I am personally very very bad. I'm extremely bad at picking up languages. The only two languages I can speak with some facility are English and Gujarati. Even my Hindi is totally sort of Bambaiya Hindi. I mean I can get around but sometimes it's a shock to others when I speak. My wife is much better, so she speaks better Hindi certainly (looks to his wife and says "why are you laughing?)
Does a community known for its mobility and adaptability posses a better acumen to pick up new languages?
Manhattan, New York
Sunny House, behind Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba
Bohras has displayed general facility with language - in speaking Hindi in Bombay, Malay in Penang, Chinese in Hong kong and so on.
(Mr. B): So but Bohras as a whole have a facility with language. Because I remember my mother and her sisters whenever they wanted to discuss something they did not want us to know they spoke in Malay because they grew up in Penang. Much to our exasperation, so we would insist on knowing what they are talking about, but they would say not for you. My cousins who grew up in Hong kong certainly spoke fluent Chinese. So I think they do have a fluency in language and I think I am an exception to that.
Being a community who essentially travel, atleast did so in the last century, far and wide, the Bohras meld well with the local culture. Though distinct in their clothes and look, broadly they adopt to the new society with relative ease.
(Mr. B): And I also think they sort of meld very well with the local culture. Again I am thinking about my cousins in Hong kong, they are very much part of the Hong kong scene. After China took over many people left but I don't think any substantial migration affected the Bohra community. They belong to where they are, and certainly that is very true of the Bohras in Bombay. They're part of Bombay. My elder son for instance studies right now in the US. He studies engineering, and he made a trip to NY went to Manhattan and said its very nice but can't compare to South Bombay. This was his….I mean I was very pleased to hear that for two reasons; one it says that he has something and also I agree with him, I think South Bombay is very unique. So, but more generally, I think Bohras do fit in very well. Although they are distinctive, like the traditional Bohra garb of the white cap and the white robes can be recognized, but in a real sense they mix very well.
Manhattan, New York
Have the Bohras migrated to Pakisthan after partition in any significant number? Dr. Barma does not think so. He talks about Karachi as just another port city destination for trade.
(M): Has your family or anybody you know of, after or around the time of partition has thought of leaving India?
(Mr. B): well in my family, one of my aunts and uncle did move to Karachi and they settled there. But it could have been before partition that I don't know. It probably was. So it's not that they moved during partition. Later on my sister married somebody living in Karachi, so she moved there in 1956. But it wasn't a move at the time of partition. So at the time of partition I don't know of any Bohras who specifically left. I mean those who were already there in Karachi were there, I mean mostly in Karachi. (M: because that's again a port city). Yeah it's a port city that's right yes. So in fact some Bohra surnames reflect the port character like Shipchandler is a known family among Surti Bohras and they were Shipchandlers. Trying to think of others. (takes time) can't think readily, but maybe it will come to me. (M): no that's nice, this is a very interesting thing).
Bohra surnames reflect the occupation of the family. Arsiwala (mirror seller) etc. Memories of steamer and ship journeys that the elders had made from the Bombay dock to other port cities in Asia. The social life was substantially centered around voyages.
(Mr. B) Yeah I mean Bohra surnames more than others do reflect occupation like Arsiwala, Kachwala. Many Walas. So Shipchandler is certainly there. There must be others I'll think, I'll try to think as you go on, something that strikes me. So the port aspect. What I remember from my childhood about the port is, these P and O's steamers used to come by. Of course this is the pacific and orient lines and they would be bringing people from Singapore and Hong kong so our family had connections there. So there were these 2 steamers that would regularly come and go, Asia and Victoria, and when they would come we would always know about them that look today Victoria will be coming. Often there were Uncles or somebody coming or going and we would go to Ballard Pier, go into the ships and sort of look around. So my father being a business man would often have to go. He would go to Srilanka… Ceylon, he would go to Singapore, not so much Singapore but Hong kong and Japan and he would always go by ship. So we would of course go and bid him goodbye, go to welcome him back. So these were different days. Journeys were of course large events.
asia and victoria
p & o
pacific & orient line
A time when the aeroplane was in its infancy and sea voyages was popular and considered adventurous.
Aeroplanes were just coming in I mean TWA and BOAC and all that, and to travel by plane was a very big deal. Ship was much more common. So my sister Shabnam's mother and her sister took a famous voyage before I was born from Hong kong to Bombay and I was brought up on stories of that voyage that oh we did this and oh we did that, and we used to sleep in bunk beds. I mean that was a big thing in the mind of a six year old. So that sort of thing. But the voyages were very big events. Of course its not a port city as connected to trade, but trade was at the back of the mind. The reason why people went back and forth was trade.
By the virtue of being part of the trade system which was spread all over Asia the Bohra men in early 20th century were international citizens. They had the exposure to other cultures and social institutions.
Now at that time the Bohras had a certain way of running their trade and that was that…like if you had an establishment in Hong kong a few people would actually be living in Hong kong. But, there were many more people required in the business, so these people would come from India, but of course their families were in India. I mean it wasn't practical in those to bring the family and then go back. Usually it would be the male earning member who would go, but he would go for a short period. He would go for about a year. So there was this rotation that was always in practice and so there are many Bohras who are presently in Bombay whose parents or uncles have been to many of these other port cities for short times and short times that repeated, but …so its like a sabbatical, like you may come and go and…so the influence of this trading between ports extends far more than just the managers. There are many many people who have an idea of what life is like in Penang for instance simply because their grandfather used to go and come. That way.
Early 20th Century
Bohras are essentially traders and urban. They were converted by the missionaries of Imam Mustanshir, Caliph in Egypt, around 1930 in Rajasthan.
(M): So is it that one is unlikely to find a Bohra family in agriculture area?
(Mr. B): This is my impression. I've never heard of it and I'm sure there will be exceptions, I mean I've heard of richer Bohra's having a strawberry farm somewhere, but that's not the same thing. But agriculture I think you will not find Bohras. The earliest Bohras are supposed to be, I mean according to our rivayats or stories, converts in Rajasthan around 1030. This is the time when the Imam Mustansir, after whom I am named, was the Caliph in Egypt. So he had sent some missionaries over and these missionaries, so this was long before any organized thing and they went to Rajasthan. There were people who converted. Tarmal and Varmal, these are the legends, I mean they became Bohra Muslims and one doesn't know too much about the history of that period but this is when we hear about the earliest accounts of the Bohras.
Bohras were persecuted by the Mughals around 1550. Though secular philosophy of Akbar shielded them, later Aurangzeb made a campaign against the Bohra community in Gujarat.
The large migration occurred around 1550 or so, I don't know the exact date, when the Syedna moved from Yemen to Gujarat and then the community is spread in Gujarat. But the Bohras were persecuted, they were persecuted both in yemen which is why they left. This is by the Turks in Yemen, and also in Gujarat, not by the community there but by the Sunni Muslim Kings, particular the Mughals. I mean after Akbar. The Syedna at that time actually went and met Akbar. A very tolerant and open minded person Akbar was, but later at the time of Shahjahan, Aurangzeb was not in power yet, but he made a campaign to Gujarat. That was a time of great horror for the Bohras because they were persecuted, the Syedna was actually martyred, I mean he was killed at the orders of Aurangzeb. So this thing is there in the background.
So the Bohras ….it was a community under attack. It wasn't just Aurangzeb, because people before that and after that also. In that sense Bohras were not very outgoing at that time in history. It was only much later that this relative prominence has come in being. So this part of our history is with us and we have this doctrine, that if you are being persecuted and life is in question, then its alright to dissemble and to say something not entirely the truth, life is the most precious and get on with it. (ponders) so…yeah.
The series of persecutions made the Bohra community look to the wider world for livelihood. The practical and strategic lessons in the religious doctrine helped them to cope with adversities.
Do the people on the move, whether due to persecution or economic reason or wonder lust, evolve to be more urban and adaptable?
(general ambience talk)
(M): I am just wondering, sitting here only I am thinking, that this movement because of the persecution, also mean a kind of people, people who can migrate, people who can start fresh, who can go to wonderlands, do you agree, also made them very urban people.
(Mr. B): Yes for one thing it forced them to, I think, weld well with the communities they were in, because if you were marked out, you know you were an obvious target. I'm just speculating but that might have been the case. So that maybe the reason actually why we get along with anybody, I mean I think we had to at that time. (Thinks) I think that's very plausible, I don't know, its hard to tell
A wide shot of Dr. Barma with his son. General talk and ambience recording.
Dr. Barma remembers the 1992-93 Bombay riots against the Muslims as the most horrendous period of his life.
(Mr. B): In Bombay during the riots, again this is anecdotal and I'm not very sure that its correct, but my impression is that, during the riots, what I mean is the 93-94 riots, (M: 92-93 riots) the Bohras were less affected than many other Muslims. I'm not very sure this is really right, but this could have been also part of the reason that they've blended better and are perceived by the community as large as having blended better. But certainly that was a horrendous period, so that's another thing that I remember now that this has come up. That was certainly the worst week of my life, I mean and from the perspective of staying here, the thing that I remember most vividly was of course the streets were deserted, I used to go to work occasionally, but I used to walk. Its always safer to walk during such times.
Dr. Barma wondered what level of desperation can push people to leave their homes and city instantly and run away. His resident, work place and other shelters offered to him were all safe places. Was safety also a matter of class?
TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research)
(Mr. B): Of course the army was out, but the thing I remember is people just running with suitcases in their hands. People just running away. That was very sad, striking because people are leaving everything, just to get out. So one would think that what sort of situation is this that you just have to run. Of course large numbers of people left the city at that time. (M: did that thought cross your mind? ) Mr.B: No the thought did not cross my mind to leave Bombay at all, although I received a letter from a friend in the United States, an American Physicist, who was reading about this, so he said if you would want to come immediately, but I regarded that as a very odd suggestion. From TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) colony people did say that why don't you come and live here for a while, because it was probably safer there than other parts of the city.
(Mr. B): Colaba was affected of course by the riots but not in the worse possible way. So for that we were sort of thankful. But what was very strange, and this is something about Bombay that I don't understand, was that there were large numbers of people who were affected, both as victims and the other side (M: as perpetrators) yeah perpetrators. So we often think of the trauma of victims, you've seen your brother being killed or mother being burnt or whatever. Ok so that is very clear, but what about the perpetrators, I mean how do they view it and how do they live with themselves. That is something I've never understood, because you have to live with yourself later.
Dr. Barma wonders how the perpetrators of violence could go back to their normal lives once the storm subsided. How do they live with the memory of the crime committed by them.
Once the violence stopped the city of Bombay went back to its own insular, professional routine and its brisk pace. How is this quality of Bombay hailed as a virtue!
(Mr. B): After the riots of course, the riots as we know stopped (hand movement) as suddenly, well they took some time to start, but the stop was absolutely sharp and sudden, and a day later it was back to normal. I mean people were taking buses, going to work as if nothing had happened. This is something I just could not understand. And even in conversations it was not good to talk about what had happened, not good in the sense not considered good. So it was very strange thing. So Bombay is always praised for its very business like attitude, but I feel there is something bad about it…. yeah its quite bad
Such experience with you own beloved city. Does it kill something in us?
(M): Has something changed in you and your relationship with Bombay since then.
(Mr. B): Well at that time, yes but over the years I mean its sort of integrated back. So I think Bombay has changed because of that, but I am still very much at home here. I wouldn't like to move out or anything like that
The plural identity of national, religious, regional, professional….
(M): So if somebody asks you, you are Surti (Mr. Barma interrupts saying yes), you are Bambaiya, you are a Bohri, you are a scientist, which is your first identity?
(Mr. B): Indian. Did you mention that? (M: no I did not). Yeah, so that is the first thing. (M: no but beyond that…) Oh beyond that. I think all of them together (zoom out with son in frame) Surti, Bohri, maybe Surti no so much, maybe Bohri scientist. Actually Surti also. As you know, I don't know if you know but Surtis are regarded as very effete, (asks questioningly: is that the word I want, effete, is that correct. slightly snobbish, interested in the outward appearance of things, very good at…when gifts are to be given, they'll make sure the wrapping is very good. What's inside may not be very…. So they have this reputation, I think it's a deserved reputation. People from Kathiwar, Jamnagar will make fun of us.
(Mr. B): We of course regard ourselves as the really cultured people. So there is this sort of tussle between communities. At one time the, what should I say, the large (fumbles) the money was largely with the so called Surti Sethias (traders / trade owners), at the time I am talking about. No longer is. That's the way it is. I mean we have very few industrialists among the Bohras. There are exceptions Akbarally's, Khorakiwalas are doing very well, but not enough. Where are the Tatas and Birlas (famous industrial houses of India)? (M: you cannot call Akbarally's industrialists anyway. There are manufacturing units but that's not industry) Mr. B continues: yeah ok yeah, true, pharmaceuticals etc. you would not call? (M: not at the scale of heavy industry). Mr. B: yeah not at the scale of heavy industry. ..You're right. So this is missing. Several people in the community are thinking about this and why this has happened but, there have been no good answers.
Camera pulls out to include the son… he enjoys the jokes about the community. The community for him is a given space of comfort, familiarity and fondness, but not really of any serious engagement. If not attacked or persecuted, he, most probably would never even assert the religious identity.
Like all urban people, the native land for this Bohra family is a matter of annual visit and socialising.
(M): Husain do you have anything to do with Surti identity (asks the son.) Because you can't even speak fluent gujarati.
(Husain): No not much, except when I go to all these jamans (social function) and meet all these people. But it doesn't play a very vital role. More of a Bambaiya.
(Mr. B): (off screen) but we do go to Surat very often. I mean very often means like right now my wife is in Surat. She'll be back tonight. We go largely because my wife's sister lives there. (camera pans to Barma)
(M): so its more like visiting the ancestral house. But that's not really part of your identity. (Husain speaks in the background)
Camera on the two shot of Dr. Barma and his son Hussain. Our interest in this project is to understand the texture of cultural and human exchanges during the sea borne trades. The context of this search is the de-humanised structure of the contemporary commodity market.
(Mr. B): (beginning of statement not clear) it is still unique. Maybe it will change as things get more similar. I don't know, but do you think there is something about it that will keep going?
(M): Frankly Mr. Barma, I'm more interested in culture, that is my discipline, and I think culture of a port city is definitely more unique and far more refined than any other settled community which is settled to a land, because many influences come, its like germs, come shiploads, and that I think is one reason one can see after 92-93 has become thin. (Mr. B interrupts: so people are more settled.) so the fluidity of a port city is not there so the tolerance level of the city is also going down. That's my very very personal opinion. Its not a question of some CEO coming by a flight and signing an agreement. It's a question of shipload of merchandise coming, people staying here for 6 months, doing some business and then going back, and make a home for people who come for 6 months.
There are many and yet more communities in this region whose journeys are yet to be recorded.
(M): And that is why I am interested in the traders' community.
(Mr. B): I guess I know much more about people going out from India to other port cities than of people coming in. Amongst Bohras of course that would not happen because we are from India, so they went out. But there must be other communities that came in.
(M): Any photograph of the dock of that time, the steamers that you were talking about?.
(Mr. B): yes we have quite a lot. I can take those out.
(M): will that take time, will it be inconvenient for you?
( Mr. B): no no its not inconvenient, but it will take time to get those precise photographs