A policeman, an army ranger and a government schoolteacher come to the home of a Parsi married to a Christian. If you think that sounds like the beginning of a joke, you are partially right.
My driver informed me that the census team had arrived. It was a dry, gusty day, and the three looked rather the worse for wear. I invited them to come in and sit down, but they bravely refused, saying that this would take just a few minutes. Famous last words.
So we stood in my gateway, amid little dunes of piled-up sand. Balancing his register on one arm, the schoolteacher held his pen poised over the page.
“Names?” he asked.
“Here we go again,” I thought. Our names have been mangled so many times by Pakistani officialdom, that I have lost count of the variations. To spare him and ourselves this misery, I offered to write them in for him. He wouldn’t have it. He was writing in Urdu, so this would be a matter of phonetics.
I carefully enunciated each name, watching as the man exercised all his ingenuity to translate the alien sounds into letters.
Then the inevitable question, “Are you Pakistani?”
Yes, I assured him, we are all Pakistani.
He asked me if we had moved to Karachi from another country.
I told him that we haven’t.
“Well, my husband came from India with his parents when he was a child, but he is now very much a Pakistani, and the rest of us were all born here.”
“Yes, our first language is English. Yes, we are Pakistani, but our first language is English – look, I’m talking to you in Urdu right now, aren’t I?”
‘It is a religion’
Ages, marital status, education and employment all went smoothly. Then came religion. The pen hovered over my husband’s name.
“Parsi,” I said. Blank stares.
“Zoroastrian,” I said. More blank looks.
“It’s a religion,” I assured them.
Three heads crowded together as they searched the alternatives in the form: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Ahmedi, and Scheduled Castes. No Parsis. Consternation. The policeman came to the rescue. “Other!” he said triumphantly, pointing to the last alternative. Sighs of relief all around. So they chose “other”.
As they were about to put me into this category as well, I delivered another bombshell. “I’m a Christian.” Well, at least that had a category to itself, but I still received incredulous looks. Before they could ask again, I reassured them that we were Pakistani. They needed my NIC number, so I produced my card, which must have gone some way towards reassuring them of my citizenship.
However, true to my profession, I couldn’t let go of this teachable moment. “You must have heard of Parsis,” I said.
“There are very few of them left now, but they were and are an important part of this city. Jehangir Kothari Parade?” They had never heard of it.
“Avari? Avari hotels?” I asked in desperation. Finally, familiarity flickered in their eyes when I told them Mr Avari is a Parsi.
Then I delivered the coup de grace: “Haven’t you heard of the Quaid-i-Azam’s wife? Ruttie Jinnah? She was a Parsi.”
They laughed and looked at each other in amazement. They clearly hadn’t heard of this part of history.
“Today we have increased our knowledge!” Grinning good-naturedly, they thanked me.
As they were leaving, I gave them a bottle of cold water to toast their enlightenment.
Lynette Viccaji lives in Karachi and is a teacher and teacher-educator.
This article first appeared on Dawn.