Murree and minority matters

“Every community has different problems, whether it is in a village or a city, but I would put my finger on religious intolerance as the biggest problem staring the minorities,” specifies Isphanyar Bhandara, Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan (NAP). Holding the minority seat in the lower house of Parliament, Bhandara represents the Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is and Kalasha people in the Pakistani population of 18.9 crores.

Responding by email to Parsiana queries during the Ramadan break when “our sessions are off,” Bhandara elaborated on his association with NAP, the Murree Brewery (MB) Company Limited where he is chief executive officer (CEO) and the largest shareholder with 14.2% holding, the Parsi community in Pakistan and the Zoroastrian faith. Dividing his time between MB and NAP “is not a big issue,” for the 42-year-old who says, “It does keep me busy and I like it. What I don’t like are Sundays when I have nothing much to do!”

The only Parsi in the National Assembly, along with three Hindus and two Christians from the PML (N) [Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif group)] ruling party, Bhandara was selected by the Prime Minister to represent the minorities. Out of a total 342 Members of the NAP, 272 are directly elected and 70 come in on reserved seats. As he further explains, “Minority seats in Pakistan are by selection and not by direct election.” For every 27 general/Muslim seats won by a political party, they are entitled to allocation of one minority seat. “My party PML(N) won the majority i.e. over 140 seats in the National Assembly so they were entitled to six seats out of 10 reserved for minorities.”

Since his appointment in 2013 Bhandara’s priorities have been passing of legislation “that helps and protects minority rights as well as get as much financial funds for the uplift and welfare of minorities.” His late father Minoo was “much more vocal than me!” acknowledges the son. As Member of NAP from 2002-2007 Minoo “was instrumental in getting minority quota seats in the National Assembly during Gen Zia ul Haq’s time. He was also very vocal on minorities and women’s rights.”

But as he further points out, when his father was minister in the 1980s and NAP member two decades later, things were yet “mild. The menace of terrorism and religious intolerance was quite under control and the religious minorities used to feel less threatened. Unfortunately due to geopolitical events engulfing the subcontinent and the rest of the world, this has created fear and unrest not only in Pakistan but the whole world as we have seen in the form of Muslim Rohingyas or the Shiites, etc.”
The Parliament in Pakistan meets “whenever the President of Pakistan summons the National Assembly session… (but) not less than 130 working days in a year… The Parliament meets throughout the year with gaps of two to three weeks as Members also have to go to their constituencies to work… The NAP session can also be requisitioned by one-fourth (86 members) at any time when the Speaker is bound to call the session within 14 days,” Isphanyar explains the workings.

Since he dons a dual role, Isphanyar says, “I like to ensure (that) NAP and MB operations are separate. I would certainly not like them to mix or depend on each other. This is something I am very particular about.” He further reiterates that the guiding principles/philosophy for him and his company have been “honesty and truthfulness. We manage to circumvent problems by sticking to this philosophy… Remember that the Zoroastrian ethos is good deeds, good thoughts, good words. This is something everyone should live by.”

Isphanyar Bhandara at the Murree Brewery
Isphanyar Bhandara at the Murree Brewery

He further reminds us that Pakistan being an Islamic country, under the present prohibition law only foreigners and non-Muslims, or roughly five percent who constitute the minorities, are allowed by their religion to consume alcohol. The government though appreciates that the liquor segment is among the highest taxpayers of the country. “The alcohol business…like in India…is heavily regulated by the government… We cannot advertise or market alcoholic products.

“Since there is not much marketing, quality production has been our focus. Our famous Murree Beers can be compared with any European lager and we are using mostly German and English machines and imported raw materials,” states the CEO. Besides their Millennium and Classic Beer, included in their premium products are Lite Export Pils, Single Malt Whiskies, Vintage with a blend of a Scotch Grain Whisky, Silver Top Gin, Bolskaya Vodka and Doctor’s Brandy.

In their pursuit of product excellence the company has been modernizing plants to facilitate brewing, malting, maturing, canning and bottling of their beer. Another division of the company, Tops Food and Beverages, was introduced in 1969 that processes and markets fruit juices and allied food products like sauces and vinegars at their two manufacturing units in Rawalpindi and Hattar. One more offshoot, Murree Glass, has been manufacturing quality glass containers since 1974, and Murree Sparkletts, established four years ago, has entered the drinking water industry.

Amongst all their enterprises, “the liquor business is more profitable followed by juices and soft drinks and mineral water which are heavily in competition with other brands,” reveals Isphanyar, adding, “I don’t get time to think about any other business as the food and beverage market is galloping away in double digit growth so I see a lot of potential and growth in our own business.”

Having joined the family business in 1999 as a sales clerk after completing his MBA in marketing from the Islamabad School of Business and Commerce, Isphanyar recalls his father making him work in almost all the departments of the company. Born in Karachi, Isphanyar had studied at the American School in Islamabad and later at the Rayan Community College in Texas before he returned to Pakistan.

Murree-3The Company’s vision statement is enshrined in the acronym CARE: Continuous improvement, Alignment of our mission and goals, Responsibility and respect for our jobs and each other, and Educating one another. In their endeavors to reduce “our environmental footprint even as we grow our business,” they recycle glass bottles/aluminum cans as also plastic bottles, corrugated cardboard, newspaper and metal scrap. Spent grain, after its use in alcohol production, serves as cattle feed and yeast sludge as nutrients for plants. Casks that can no longer be used for aging are reused as corking material or cut into half and sold as garden planters.

Besides being the only brewery in Pakistan, MB enjoys the distinction of being “the oldest continuing industrial enterprise of Pakistan…and one of the oldest public companies of the sub-continent (whose) shares were traded on the Calcutta Stock Exchange as early as 1902,” notes the website of the public limited company.

MB was established by the British in 1860 and incorporated a year later at Ghora Galli, located in the Pir Punjal range of the Western Himalayas at an elevation of 6,000 ft above sea level near the resort town of Murree, where the climate was suitable for fermentation and beer storage, and a significant presence of army troops ensured there was a steady demand. In 1876 MB was awarded a medal for product excellence at the Philadelphia Exhibition, with many more acclamations that followed in later years. Between 1885 and 1890 the company established breweries in Rawalpindi and Quetta, and acquired an interest in the Oticumand (South India) and Norailiya (Ceylon) breweries. After a massive earthquake in 1935 totally demolished the Quetta brewery, brewing was mainly undertaken at Rawalpindi which is blessed with deep aquifers of good water. With water scarcity becoming a problem at Ghora Galli, only malting operations continued there till the ’40s when the property was sold. This historic brewery built in Gothic style architecture was burnt during the Partition riots of 1947-48.

The Bhandara family’s association with MB commenced at the time of Partition when Isphanyar’s grandparents, Peshotan and Tehmina Bhandara, bought it from a Hindu family, Kilparam, and an English family, Duncan. The head office of the company was located in a beautiful property, Park Lodge, until 1959 when it was taken over by the Government of Pakistan to house the office of the President of Pakistan.

From left: Minoo Bhandara; Isphanyar, Zaal, Jasmine and Zane Bhandara
From left: Minoo Bhandara; Isphanyar, Zaal, Jasmine and Zane Bhandara

On the adjoining property where the Bhandaras reside are signs of discord. The Company website features a “public notice/defamation” announcement pertaining to a family conflict but Isphanyar refrains from commenting on it. He states instead, “I pray that it will be resolved soon and commonsense will prevail. There is an army of people and lawyers who are financially benefitting from this family feud.”

Married to Jasmine, a homemaker, they have two sons, Zane who is 14 years old and Zaal, 10. For the sudreh-kusti wearing Isphanyar, Zoroastrianism is “all about good and evil. It is a constant war between what is correct and incorrect. Our great religion is very simple to follow and does not profess its superiority over other religions and faiths.” In the absence of an agiary in his town he says he always visits them when he is in Lahore and Karachi or Delhi and Bombay. Although he supports the dakhmenashini system he mentions that in Rawalpindi they have an old Parsi cemetery that has been in existence prior to the Partition where they bury the dead.

Whilst not in favor of interfaith marriages, he believes, “It is a personal choice and one must respect the choice of an individual. I take this liberty of appealing to the Parsis to have more children and encourage marriage within the Parsi fold.” Regretting that “there are only about 1,200-1,300 Parsis left in Pakistan and the majority of them are over the age of 60,” Isphanyar reveals, “Those who are still in their prime have migrated from Pakistan due to terrorism/law and order situation and for a better economic future.”

The promising industrialist would like to encourage “not only Parsis but anyone to do business in Pakistan. Doing business has never been easy but that should not be the reason not to do it. Doing business in India and Pakistan is highly rewarding, having a very big consumer market.” Sharing his dream of finding a joint venture partner in India who would be willing to brew and sell Murree Beer, Isphanyar reveals, “Saying ‘cheers’ over a glass of beer which is half Pakistani and half Indian will be the biggest return I am looking for. I will proudly say that India-Pakistan might be at loggerheads, but not over beer!”

Interactions with Isphanyar

On the recommendation of her relatives Rati Cooper and Perin Boga, the popular educationists of Lahore, Niloufer Bilimoria along with Bharat Avalani, their student, met up with Isphanyar at the Islamabad Club during the course of the Islamabad Literary Festival in 2015. Both the visitors were gifted two books: a collection of speeches/writings of Minoo Bhandara and another handsome coffee table book on The Kalasha of the Hindu Kush, co-authored by his late father, documenting the history and culture of the Kalasha tribes and the welfare work done by the family in that region.

(Above): Isphanyar Bhandara’s office; casks at Murree Brewery; brewery at Ghora Galli burnt during the Partition riots
(Above): Isphanyar Bhandara’s office; casks at Murree Brewery; brewery at Ghora Galli burnt during the Partition riots

Bilimoria writes:
Even though I had a visa for Rawalpindi where the Brewery is now located, being an Indian I was unable to go either to the Murree Brewery or the residence of Isphanyar as it is in the restricted cantonment area. (Not being an Indian, Avalani could visit the cantonment area.)In fact, the army chief happens to be his neighbor.

Hence it was at the exquisite Islamabad Club that we met Isphanyar and his endearing young family with a wonderful Parsi sense of mischief and humor. “As salam alaikum,” his younger son Zaal solemnly greets us in the respectful Muslim style, much to Isphanyar’s amusement, to which we respond with “Wa alaikum alam.” Isphanyar’s too young to run an empire I think, and yet I know from different accounts that this young CEO has turned the Brewery around and taken it on a different trajectory.

My first exposure to the Bhandara family was Bapsi Sidhwa. Her brother Minoo, who ran Murree Brewery was a ‘bum chum’ of the legendary sardar Khushwant Singh. When Bapsi made a brief stopover in Bombay in the 1980s, Khushwant Singh had asked her to look me up at the Oberoi where I then worked. Years later I was destined to be back in touch with Bapsi through a common friend, Mani Amrolia (née Meherhomji), who worked at the Reader’s Digest and then married and moved to Houston where Bapsi also lives.

Avalani writes:
Murree Brewery was a totally different world. A blend of old and new; old-world charm and old-world values at play. The people spoke very highly of the Bhandara family and how they have been looking after the welfare of all their employees, providing staff housing, schooling, hospitals, subsidized meals, etc. In fact on the passing away of Minoo Bhandara in a car accident in China in 2008, his entire provident fund was devoted to his employees’ children, their education, medical treatment and other financial help for retired employees.

Isphanyar’s office is a like a temple! It had paraphernalia of all the major religions of the world. The furniture was all original and in excellent condition. His writing desk was fit for a museum display!

I must say that the best beer I have ever tasted was at the Brewery. The person showing me around told me it was like drinking fresh milk straight from a cow!

Published in Parsiana.