Zabel Joshi, the last surviving Armenian in Mumbai
The Indian iDiva.com portal presents the story of Zabel Joshi, the last surviving Armenian of Mumbai
By Vasundara R
The famous Dalal Street, home to the Bombay Stock Exchange always looks like a place that’s in a hurry to go somewhere. Tall and old buildings mark that street and the area surrounding it. Regardless of the age, there is one thing common amongst all of them – flourishing commerce. Amidst this hustle and bustle lies a far quieter and very old edifice, which stands still, almost forgotten.
St. Peter’s Armenian Church was built three centuries ago in 1796 for a thriving community of Armenians in the Bombay of old. Today, the number of Armenians in Mumbai has dwindled to exactly one woman, and the church has no Armenian priest to conduct their services.
“There are no services for Armenians, though we use the church to do our prayers,” says Zabel Joshi, the last surviving registered Armenian in the city. Mother to model-cum-actress Tulip Joshi, Zabel once had all her three daughters baptised in this church.
The Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Government in Turkey in 1915 may seem like another world away and in a different time zone to most of us Indians, but for Zabel Haykian, it has played a big part in establishing her roots.
“Due to the genocide, our ancestors were forced to leave and settle in different parts of the world,” she narrates. “I was raised in Beirut, blessed to have had wonderful parents, along with two brothers and a sister. Beirut, which was considered the Paris of Middle East, was home for me then.”
Zabel had whirlwind romance in Beirut with Gujarati cloth merchant Kishore Joshi, who made frequent trips to the city for his business. At the age of 23, Zabel married Joshi and moved to India and the romance continued, this time also with India and with Bombay, its melting pot of languages and cultures.
“Bombay has been very kind to me,” says Zabel. “I have a wonderful family and great friends who are Indian Hindus. In fact, today I feel like one. I speak Hindi fluently, I also speak Gujarati.”
Armenians first came to India via Kerala and established solid roots in Kolkata. They then expanded to Mumbai, Chennai, Agra, Gwalior and Lucknow. Over the centuries, the community has had significant economic and cultural association with the local Indians. Today, they are as much a part of India’s melange of cultures as anybody else, speaking the local language, absorbing some customs and feeling perfectly at home.
Kolkata still has a visible Armenian community of over 150 people, but Chennai’s Armenian population is long gone and over the years, Mumbai’s Armenian population or what was left of it migrated to the US and Canada, while the older generation joined their ancestors in the cemetery at Antop Hill. Zabel now remains the sole registered Armenian in Mumbai and the trustee for the Church.
With no community to conduct services for and no priest to conduct the services either, St. Peter’s stayed shut for a long time. But the ivory coloured walls of the cathedral speak of cheerful tales, of a happy community that once got together for festivals, for Easter and for a Christmas, that was celebrated twice.
“That’s my favourite part about Christmas-having two Christmases!” gushes her daughter Tulip Joshi. “Armenian Christmas is on January 6, so we celebrate both Christmases – the regular one in December and the Armenian one. We decorate the tree and have traditional sweets and Christmas pudding (anooshabour).”
Tulip and her sisters, all of whom speak Armenian fluently, are particularly fond of Armenian food. “It’s so healthy – it’s very Mediterranean in flavour and composition. And I just love the dolmas and sarmas that my mum makes – that’s grape leaves rolled and stuffed with either vegetables or minced meat and steamed until soft.”
Zabel’s memories with the Armenians in Mumbai go beyond just festivals, though. “Every Sunday morning my family would attend Sunday mass along with many Armenians who were alive back then,” she says. “In fact we used to wait for Sundays. Easter was our favourite one. After the mass, we would go for lunch and play Easter games.”
“Things are very different now,” she continues. “I am the only Armenian living in this city. Of course, my children have Armenian blood and I am proud to say that they speak the language, which is really the first step towards preserving anything that might not be around forever.”
Recently, St.Peter’s Church, after lying forlorn and silent for years, has opened its doors to the Syrian Christians of its sister church – the Malankara Orthodox Syrian church for use during Sunday services. Feet once again troop through the doors of the church, the pews now sigh under the weight of the faithful, but they are not the people the church was built for.