Like sugar in milk

Like sugar in milk

COMMUNITY WATCH

Like sugar in milk

Ratan Tata of the Tata Group, Adi Godrej of Godrej Industries, writer Rohinton Mistry, sculptor Arzan Khambatta, actor Boman Irani, singer Penaz Masani, musician Zubin Mehta, painter Jehangir Sabavala, Field Marshal General Sam Manekshaw, business conglomerate Shapoorji Pallonji, cricketer Farokh Engineer, singer and songwriter Freddie Mercury (aka Farrokh Bulsara), dancer Shiamak Davar, scientist Homi Bhabha, journalist Russi Karanjia, legal faculty Fali Nariman, freedom fighter Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and... the list is endless.

 All have one thing in common: they are all Parsis. Descendants of the Zoroastrian community who made India their home way back in the 8th century, having fled Persia following the Arab conquest, arriving at the port of Sanjan, Gujarat.

Think of any profession and it’s very likely that they have excelled in it. Besides achieving success in their respective fields and becoming world famous, they have made a great difference to the progress of India, be it in industry, business, science, sports, medicine, legal, banking and finance, arts and other fields.

Owners of distinctive facial features, distinctive names, mannerisms, special cuisine and attire, they are best-known for their philanthropy and supreme business acumen. Institution builders in their own right, the munificent Parsis have lent their name to Mumbai’s iconic landmarks like Nariman Point, Jehangir Art Gallery, Sir J J School of Arts, J J Hospital, Parsi Dairy, Parsi Gymkhana, Wadia Hospital and several others. Interestingly, the Hindi film industry has depicted them as cantankerous, moody, garrulous, and affectionately called them as ‘Bawas’. Having worked with ebullient Russi K Karanjia, editor of Blitz, and making friends with few others in the same profession, this writer can vouch for their charming and courteous manners, helpful nature, and honesty.

Parsis are a miniscule community and are clustered more in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, Pune and Dahanu followed by Navasari in Gujarat, Hyderabad in Telangana, Kolkata in West Bengal, Delhi, and Ooty in Tamil Nadu. A small number of Parsis do live in Pakistan while many have migrated to the other parts of the world in search of greener pastures. In fact, the third largest number of Zoroastrians (Parsis) live in North America where a new Parsi Temple came up recently in New York.

Their quest for better environment, favourable living conditions, and of course, preservation of their faith brought the first batch of Parsis to the shores of Gujarat. Historically, they are one part of two major communities of Zoroastrian residents of Greater Iran.

“Every Parsi is proud of his or her origin and achievements of the community. Even the younger generation may not completely know everything about our religion, but still adhere to rituals, cuisines, customs passed down from generations,” comments a slim-built, fashionably grey- haired Jehangir Patel, editor of Mumbai based Parsiana, a 52-year-old community publication.

A keen observer of the community, Patel who bought Parsiana from Dr Pestonji Warden in 1973 for Re 1, continues to be its editor while being a guest faculty at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s Institute of Communication.

Parsis shouldn’t be confused with Persians who landed later in India in early 20th century. These were fleeing from the repressions of the Qujar dynasty. The latter are known as Iranians. Many of them got into food business and Mumbai has a splatter of distinctive eateries, popularly known as Iranian joints, offering mouthwatering bakery products, the most popular items being bun-muska (hot buns with oodles of butter). Iranians still speak the Persian language whereas Parsis who have completely integrated in India speak ‘Persianised’ Gujarati.

The integration of Parsis in the Indian culture has been so smooth that today, except for their distinctive features, attire as worn by the older generation, and their religious rituals, it’s difficult to tell a Parsi apart from other Indians. This, in fact, corroborates with the Parsi legend of they being allowed to stay in Sanjan.

The story goes that the first batch of Parsi immigrants landed in Gujarat and sought asylum from Jadi Rana, the Rajput ruler. Showing a vessel full of milk, Rana is supposed to have said that as his kingdom was already bursting with people, he couldn’t afford to take anymore. To which one of the Zoroastrian priests accompanying the immigrants added a pinch of sugar to the milk without the milk spilling over. He promised that the migrants would be like sugar in the milk!

Well, it may be true or just a legend growing over the years, but the fact remains that Parsis have really proved to be a great asset to their adopted country. Keeping their ethnicity intact, adhering to their own distinct customs and traditions, they grew in numbers and have spread to other regions of the country. They began humbly by cultivating land and continued to live in the farming communities of India. Women adapted to Indian attire — wore saris, draping it in Gujarati style. They took to conversing in Gujarati but never left their own religious customs or worshipping in the Fire temples.

When opportunity knocks...

“Our lagans (weddings), Navjotes (initiation of young Parsi boys and girls into Zoroastrianism, similar to the thread ceremony of Brahmin boys or the first communions of Christians) are still performed in the same age-old ways and I am asked to prepare the same kind of food which has been customary with Indian Parsis for centuries,” smilingly explains Tanaz Godiwalla, the community’s uncrowned catering queen whose Godiwalla catering service caters to nearly 150 important Parsi functions in the season. Its menu includes staple items of the food-loving community like patra-ni-macchi, lagan-nu-custard, pulao, dal, chicken farcha and dhansak.

It was the East India Company which unknowingly shepherded Indian Parsis into a new lifestyle and livelihood from tilling the land. When the Company officials received permission to reside and build factories in Surat (Gujarat) and other places, Parsis grabbed the opportunities and moved in the British-run settlements. When the Company leased the Seven Islands of Bombay, now merged into Greater Mumbai, Parsis too moved to Mumbai and took up higher posts based on trust and their capabilities.

It was their ingenious business sense that helped them flourish and acquire massive wealth and establish business houses, especially in Mumbai. Between Godrej, Tata, Wadia, Mehta, and a few others, the Parsis almost owned half of Mumbai’s real estate. What helped them succeed was their access to education in the British schools, and their fair skin and sharp features that got them easy acceptance by the British as one of them. And soon they grew in numbers.

Their spectacular growth was summed up by James Mackintosh, Recorder of Bombay, from 1804 to 1811. He noted, “The Parsis are a small remnant of one of the mightiest nations of the ancient world who, flying from persecution into India, were for many ages lost in obscurity and poverty. When they met a just government (British) they speedily rose to be one of the most popular mercantile bodies in Asia”.

But sadly, in the last couple of decades, the alarm bells have started ringing. The wealth and fame are still intact but the numbers are diminishing at an alarming rate. The dead are outnumbering the newborns.

“It’s true. This is neither an alarmist view nor pessimism,” nonchalantly observe the Parsis this writer spoke to. “Maybe we will sail through the 22nd century, but the fact remains that we are a community on the edge!”

It’s unthinkable, but the community is slowly but steadily heading towards extinction. “The number says it all!” says Jehangir Patel. “Calculate it and see for yourself.”

Well-read and well-informed, each Parsi has the statistics of their current population status in India on their fingertips. In 1901, there were 93,952, which by 1976 came down to 82,000. By 2001, their number had further come down to 69,000. The 2013 data says there were only 195 births to 950 deaths in the entire country in that year. The birth figures for 2015, released by the Bombay Municipal Corporation, show a drop of 17 births compared to the previous year. In 2014, the figure was 208. In India, and in fact in the world, Mumbai has the densest Parsi community. At the last count, the population stood around 40,000 in Mumbai and Pune. This number has further diminished after the last census. And it is sliding down faster than one would think.

Everyone, including the Government of India, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP) and prominent community members, are doing their best to stop this slide down. BPP, founded in 17th century, is the largest Zoroastrian institute and helps the Parsis by offering a monthly incentive of Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 to a couple bearing a second and third child, till the child reaches 18 years of age. But mere financial incentive isn’t going to get couples to have more children as in the current situation, where both parents need to work, the caretaking of a child is a huge problem.  

The numbers game

There are many reasons attributed to the declining numbers like late marriages to no marriages to only intracommunity marriages. The community’s strict marital rule has not been encouraging. Parsis are not allowed to marry outside their community, which has catastrophically reduced their gene pool to a bare minimum. The older members of the community continue to favour the tradition of marrying within the community and are not open to inter-community marriages. 

“Why should we? We will lose our identity,” questions Mithoo Jesia, a social activist and a trustee of Mancherji Trust. Along with other members of the Trust, they try to get young and marriageable Parsis to meet and interact with each other.

But this censuring from the older generation isn’t stopping youngsters from opting to marry outside their community. Way back in 1988, Parsiana had published data on interfaith marriages in Bombay which proved highly controversial and a public outcry followed as the world at large came to know that 14% members of the community had chosen non-Parsis as their marriage partners. Since then, this number has increased a lot for various reasons. 

This is one community in which girls in the last two decades or so have progressed much faster compared to the male members. Better educated, they hold good jobs and higher posts, with the result that there is a dearth of suitable matching partners. Many are trying to revive the community. Like 38-year-old Viraf Mehta, vice-president of CLSA India, Asia’s leading and longest-running independent brokerage company.

“Girls have become very picky, and they have every right to be, as at educational institutes and workplaces they meet less number of Parsi men and more from outside their community who are doing very well and so it’s but natural that they want to marry outside,” explains Mehta, who along with a few others, has founded ZYNG (Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation).

ZYNG is a six-year-old organisation which is making space for young Parsis to interact with their age-group partners. Parsi/Irani Zoroastrian, as recognised by the Bombay Parsi Panchayat’s definition of Parsi Irani Zoroastrian, aged between 15 and 40 years, can register with ZYNG which began with only 40 members and has now nearly 4,000 active members.

Then there is model and television actor Viraf Patel who, along with his partner Victor Daruwala, is launching Aapro App for the young to get together, interact and get contacts. “The App is not only for matchmaking, but also to get to know about the professional opportunities available elsewhere. As youngsters today are more active on social media, we thought an App would help global young Parsis to come closer than anything else,” says Patel.   

Community members like Mehta feel that one of the main reasons for the declining numbers, apart from strict religious rules, is a vacuum created in the aspirational growth of Parsi community. The philanthropy of the rich and the famous actually increased the number of lazy Parsis who started taking life easily. Several men, as they got a house to stay and money for their daily needs, just didn’t feel the need to work, achieve, and so became very complacent. Whereas girls not only worked at home, but also pursued higher education. This increased the chasm. How can successful girls marry a complacent man who only lived on the charities of others? So, naturally, they looked for better pastures outside their communities.  

Then comes the marital rules of the community. Though highly progressive, the community continues to be patriarchal where men marrying an outsider retain their identity but a woman marrying outside loses all rights of being a Parsi, including entry into Fire temples. Very few women who have married outside have questioned this religious practice, but Goolrookh Gupta is one of them. Goolrookh, who married outside the community, has approached the Supreme Court to allow her the right to enter the Fire temple at Valsad, while another woman Roshni Maloo, who wanted her children’s Navjote to be performed in Mumbai, was denied the permission.

Incidentally, the community is witnessing a perceptible change in their funeral rituals. Depleting number of vultures in the Mumbai sky has forced many Parsis to opt for cremation instead of the customary sky burial or the tower of silence. Priests are offering same religious prayers for the dead before cremation.

The world doesn’t want to lose this beautiful community which has done oodles of work to help it flourish. There is a perceptible change in their funeral rituals. So, maybe, time is ripe for them to rethink on the marriage rules also!

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