Ardeshir Cowasjee shares his memories about his childhood and school days.
AMIDST the gloom and doom and the national scenario of death and destruction, with the horrific plight of the displaced persons hanging over us like a pall, plus the ongoing military operation in the Malakand area taking its daily toll, a few of us had a welcome break the other evening as we cast our collective minds back to better days.
Our old school, the Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School (BVS), housed in a proud building that stands on Abdullah Haroon Road in our now plagued city of Karachi celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding — not a bad record in these days of constant change and turmoil.
An old saying goes that one’s school days are the happiest days of one’s life — well mine may not have been the happiest days of my life, but they were undoubtedly happy and carefree days, of fun, joy and of course of learning —the last being the greatest gift that can be given to a child. My school days started in 1931, when I followed in the footsteps of my parents, Rustom Fakirjee Cowasjee and Mucca Rustomjee H J Rustomjee and all my various uncles and aunts. I was later joined by my two brothers, Cowasjee (better known as John) and Cyrus, and a large handful of cousins and friends.
Our principal in those far-off days was a skilled educationist, Dr Maneck Pithawalla, DSc, FRGS, FGS, who took on the job in 1920 and stayed until his retirement in 1946. The finest tribute to him was possibly that paid in 1955 on his 70th birthday when Old Virbaijeeites gathered to honour him. My cousin, Dr Roeinton Khambatta, spoke on the occasion: ‘ ... We have built no monuments for you and have erected no pillars. Great empires have built these and they have been razed to the ground, forgotten for ever. We give you something more — the promise of a thousand and more Old Virbaijeeites to tread the paths you hacked out so well, to pass on your teachings by word of mouth to the generations that come to seek that goal you set for us — Towards the Best Light [the school motto].’
Dr Pithawalla taught us geography, geology and English poetry — I can still (though admittedly with difficulty) trot out The Ballad of Inchcape Rock (which so stressed the old saying ‘Do as you would be done by.’)
For a brief period we were taught English and history by my cousin Behram Sohrab H J Rustomjee, an old boy of the school, before he went on to London to do his BA in education from Goldsmith College. An ardent musician, whilst there he took courses at the Royal School of Music. He went on to take over as principal, or headmaster as he preferred to be called, of the BVS in 1946, when Dr Pithawalla retired, and it was during his era that the school first opened its doors to non-Parsis, on the request of Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Behli (as he was familiarly known) served for 19 years. A story is told of Behli. One day in 1947, his friend Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla who had just written the music for an anthem for the new country dropped in to visit him and hummed the tune to him. Behli sat down at his piano and strummed out the melody. It is said that he was the first individual to so do — and thus his old piano has become a great family treasure.
But of all our teachers, the most memorable was the man who taught us ancient history and Zorastrianism, High Priest of the Parsis of Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and the NWFP, Asho Dastur-an-Dastur Shams-ul-Ulema Dastur Doctor Maneckji Nusserwanji Dhalla, known to his flock as ‘Dasturjee’. He was born in Surat in 1875 and died in Karachi in 1956.
He had studied Avesta and his religion at Columbia University, New York, where he did his MA and then obtained a PhD in 1908. He was later to be awarded an honorary D.Litt by his university. A true scholar, and a man of meagre means, he had no problem with gratefully accepting support from members of the community for his frequent academic-related trips to the US.
One clear recollection is the exchanges between Dasturjee and my paternal grandmother on his many visits to our house. My maternal grandmother, Dinbano Rustomjee H J Rustomjee, was loving, liberal and lovable, whereas Aimai Fakirjee Cowasjee in whose house we grew up was relatively orthodox and severe — she had to be strict as she ruled over a rebellious crew. Aimai would harangue Dasturjee on the subject of smoking and insist that in his preaching to the community he firmly instruct that Zarathustra had forbidden his followers the use of tobacco. Dasturjee would inevitably patiently explain to her, ‘My dear sister, Zarathustra lived and died long before Raleigh found and brought tobacco back to England from America.’
He was the most tolerant of men, and constantly preached and instilled into us the spirit of tolerance in all manner and walks of life. In this fraught day and age, where bigotry and prejudices reign and flourish, what is badly needed, and particularly in this country, is tolerance, and more tolerance. One of his essays sticks in my mind — an essay he made us read over and over again so that we fully understood what it was he wished to din into us. It was entitled ‘Let none nurse intolerance’ and it told us:
‘Intolerance and bigotry and dogmatism are the bitterest enemies of religion upon earth. They make religion a tyrant, a persecutor....
‘All religions come from one and the only God, who makes Himself known by many a name … All religions make man equally good upon earth … All open their hearts to the same God ... Man has no right to demand that his neighbour shall address God after his pattern and shall pray in his own way and worship according to his liking and sacrifice unto God in the manner he does....
‘Teach me, my God, to see that I have no right to impose my own way of thinking upon others. Teach me to acknowledge and honour the right of all to pray and worship and sacrifice in their ownway ... Teach me to discern true religion from religiosity. Fill my mind and heart with the spirit of toleration.’