Roshni Rustomji’s father Behram’s family was from Karachi and had lived there for at least three or four generations. Her grandmother set up the boarding house in a large two-storied building, which she rented at a low price from her best friend.
By Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla
[Dr. Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, renowned author, shared her story with ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’. She was born Roshni Behram Rustomji into a Parsi family in Mumbai in 1938. Her father Behram’s family was from Karachi and had lived there for at least three or four generations. Her mother Gulnar’s family was from Mumbai. Dr. Rustomji was named Roshni, meaning light, as she was born during Diwali, the festival of light]
Dr. Rustomji describes the story she heard growing up of how the Parsis first came to India. It is said that they first arrived into India by boat after fleeing persecution in Iran. They requested the king of Gujarat to grant them asylum. The king told them that his kingdom was completely full and there was no room for more people. He demonstrated this by sending them a tumbler of milk that was filled to the brim. At this point, one of the Parsi elders on board the ship added a pinch of sugar to the milk, thus indicating that they would not bring the vessel to overflow and indeed make the land sweeter. It is believed that the king accepted the Parsis into the kingdom and they were required to adopt the local language, Gujarati, and wear the local clothing.
Dr. Rustomji says that while her father maintained this apolitical stance, her mother was very politically engaged and active. She describes her as a Satyagrahi who always maintained that the subcontinent would someday gain independence from British colonial rule. She says that her mother taught her about justice. She also says that she was brought up with a sense of, ‘we are going to be independent.’ Dr. Rustomji says that people in Karachi referred to her family as the HJ or Hormusji-Jamshedji family. Hormusji was Dr. Rustomji’s great-grandfather, an entrepreneur who became very wealthy and well known in Karachi. Dr. Rustomji says that the thing she read that struck her most about Hormusji was that he respected all religions. She also mentions that Hormusji built the tramline in Karachi, which no longer exists today. Dr. Rustomji says that the stories she heard about her own family’s history led her to think about diversity from a very young age. Her father’s family has origins in China, while her mother was born in Japan. Listening to these stories also gave her a sense of Karachi as a small, closely-knit community, which, she believes, was carried on into her family life.
She says that her house was very open to people from all backgrounds. Dr. Rustomji grew up in a boarding house run by her paternal grandmother. She mentions that her grandmother was widowed at a young age and the Rustomjis lost a large part of their fortune at this time. With seven children to bring up, she explored different ways of making money such as giving piano lessons and sewing. Around this time, many young Parsi men were arriving in Karachi to study or search for jobs. To cater to them, Dr. Rustomji’s grandmother set up the boarding house in a large two-storied building, which she rented at a low price from her best friend. Dr. Rustomji has vivid memories of being the only child growing up in this big house, surrounded by twenty or so boarders whom she would play with. She remembers there being an elderly Muslim woman at the house who told her stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. She also narrated other popular stories like Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnu and Sohni Mahiwal. Dr. Rustomji was first educated in a Montessori school in Karachi. She says that Madame Montessori herself had trained some of the teachers in the school. She recalls that many of her teachers were Satyagrahis.
Dr. Rustomji’s father briefly joined the Royal Indian Navy. The family therefore moved to the different places where he was posted. They spent a short period in South India. When Dr. Rustomji was about six years old, the family moved to Mumbai where they lived in an apartment. Dr. Rustomji enrolled in a Parsi school. She recalls that her father escaped a bomb attack that was launched by Indian sailors rebelling against the British. After a year in Mumbai, the family moved back to Karachi. From the second grade, Dr. Rustomji started going to Mama Parsi Girls’ High School. She mentions that the school is still highly regarded today. Though it was a Parsi school, there were students of other faiths who studied there as well. In December 1946 at the age of nine, Dr. Rustomji had her Navjot, the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony. It is considered to be one of the highlights of a Parsi youth’s life. She says that since there were very few Parsis in Karachi, nearly the entire community was invited, as well as friends from other communities.
Dr. Rustomji recalls that her Navjot was conducted in a Parsi hall in Karachi. During this ceremony, the Parsi boys and girls wear, for the first time, the sadra or muslin undershirt, and the sacred thread. Dr. Rustomji recalls that her Navjot was conducted by the High Priest of Karachi. Dr. Rustomji remembers that around this time, the subject of Independence from British colonial rule was being discussed. She recalls being very excited at the prospect of Swaraj or self-rule. But she also felt confused, as she could not understand why there was so much conflict between the different communities. She believes that the first time she learned about Partition must have been when she was in school. Dr. Rustomji was in Karachi when Pakistan got its independence on August 14, 1947. She remembers that she and the other students were taken up to their school’s terrace. Their principal declared that Pakistan now had its own flag. Dr. Rustomji recalls her bringing down the Union Jack flag and proudly raising the Pakistani flag. The students were taught the symbolism of the flag.
Dr. Rustomji mentions that during Partition, her mother became part of a women’s group called ‘Poor Families Relief’. The group was concerned with how to help refugee women living in the camps. They taught the women how to sew and embroider. They provided them sewing machines that they bought with money received from donations. Dr. Rustomji remembers an incident that occurred about a week or two after Partition’s announcement. “My father and I were in a dining room. I am eight or nine years old. A man came to our door and he was begging my father that he could build a small shack for himself and his small son on his land. Their mother had died. But my father said, ‘No, we can’t. It’s not our land.’ I was furious at my father. I remember looking up at my father and his face was ashen, gray. I had only seen him like that one other time, when his eldest brother died.” Her father, a teacher, opened up the empty science labs at his school to house refugees, and allowed the refugee children to join the classes. She recalls, “Some of the Parsis were furious that he let Muslim boys in the Parsi school. He said, ‘They are good boys and they speak Gujarati, we should let them have an education.’”
Dr. Rustomji remembers that the temple bells in the area stopped ringing after Partition, when she was ten years old. At the same time, she began experiencing anxiety attacks at sunset every day, which continued until she was about 20.
Dr. Rustomji went on to study at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon on scholarship, intending to go for one year but decided to stay and complete her degree there, falling in love with the city of Beirut.
Roshni Rustomji-Kerns earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon (1961), a Master of Arts in English and American Literature from Duke University (1963) and a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature (English Literature, Classical Sanskrit Literature and Classical Greek Literature) from the University of California, Berkeley (1973). She taught at the American University of Beirut in the General Education Department 1961-1962. She is Professor Emerita from the Hutchins School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Sonoma State University (California), 1993. She began her career at Sonoma State in 1973 as the Coordinator of the BA Program in India Studies. She was a member of the Hutchins School faculty from 1989- 1992. During her tenure at Sonoma State University she taught in the India Studies Program, the English Department, the Women’s Studies Department and the Hutchins School of Interdisciplinary Studies. She was the coordinator of the India Studies Program from 1973 to 1989 and the coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program from 1978 to 1980. She was a Consulting Professor and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies, Bolivar House, at Stanford University 1997-2005. She was an adjunct faculty member at the New College of California in San Francisco 1997-2008.
Roshni Rustomji-Kerns is the coeditor of Blood into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War (Westview, 1994) and the editor of LIVING IN AMERICA: FICTION AND POETRY BY SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN WRITERS (Westview, 1995). She is the editor of the anthology, ENCOUNTERS: PEOPLE OF ASIAN DESCENT IN THE AMERICAS (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).
She continues to work in the area of contemporary literature and ethnic and colonial studies.