INTO THE MINDS OF THE PARSIS
There’s more to Parsis than gated colonies in Mumbai. Despite dwindling numbers, the 69,000-strong Parsi community, spread across the country, continues to flourish
I’LL GROW up to be a math teacher,” declares Delicia Billimoria. Looking at the ease with which she tackles a multiplication assignment on a canvas blackboard hung in the living room of her Surat apartment, the seven-year-old with a bucktooth smile appears to have a way with numbers.
That shouldn’t be surprising considering Billimoria is a Parsi. Perceived as a community of mostly affluent number-crunching entrepreneurs, ironically, the biggest anxiety gripping Parsis these days is their dwindling numbers.
“In 2013, the last year we have data for, we had just 195 births in the entire country and 950 deaths. We are a community on the edge,” says Dr Shernaz Cama of the Delhi-based Parzor Foundation, a community organisation.
Cama isn’t painting an alarmist picture. In the last 60 years, even as the country’s population tripled from 318 million in 1941 to a billion in 2001, the number of Parsis fell from 1,14,000 to 69,000 in the 2001 census, the most recent to classify population by religion. “The population data of minorities in the 2011 census is still to be finalised,” Census Commissioner C Chandramauli told HT Brunch.
When one puts together a Parsi map of India, one sees that a chunk of the population outside Maharashtra (which has the largest number at about 46,000 including affluent Mumbai and Pune) lives in Gujarat.
But the Parsis in Gujarat and other non-metropolis cities are significant not just because of their numerical strength. They also have a unique place in the cultural history of Parsis in India.
Not all Parsis are rich businessmen who obsess over automobiles. Which is why, to move away from the stereotype of Mumbaibased Parsis – affluent individuals who stay insulated in Dadar Colony, so often caricatured in Hindi films – we’ve looked beyond Mumbai to explore the loves and lives of this fascinating community, in other parts of the country.
As of March 2014, according to the directory of the Surat Parsi Panchayat, the city’s Parsi population stood at 3,584, down from 3,696 in 2010. Community bodies are dangling affordable housing at those who marry within the community and start families. With monthly earnings of 16,000, Delicia’s parents, 37-year-old office executive Nariosong Billimoria, 37
and his wife Benaifer, 35, couldn’t have afforded an apartment that has a market value of 6 lakh. But the Surat Parsi Panchayat rents them the flat for 200 per month.
“The community takes care of us if we think of the larger good” says Nariosong. “Many a time the panchayat itself hosts the wedding,” he adds.
WEDDING IN A BAUG
About 40 km southwest of Surat, in the bustling town of Navsari, the entire Parsi community seems to have turned out for a Sunday evening community feast at Jamshed Baug, a convention centre, to watch Sharmin Pithawalla tie the knot with Rayomand Gole.
Gole, 26, who works at a photocopying shop in Surat, sits opposite Pithawalla, 21, as a cloth is placed between them. After the icebreaking ceremonies, the couple sit together as shlokas are read in Gujarati as well as Sanskrit. “On an average in a year, businessmen in Navsari sponsor 30 weddings and 10 Navjot ceremonies, where the holy thread called the kusti is tied to children to induct them into Zoroastrian faith,” says Kersi Mandviwalla, the dastur (priest).
OF SUGAR AND MILK
“Surat and Navsari are among the most traditional Parsi townships in the country,” says Yezdi Karanjia, 79, a veteran Parsi actor, sitting in a small, anachronistic office of the Surat Parsi Panchayat with yellowing wall paint, dusty ledgers and ornate furniture. “This is where our story in India began.”
When a band of fire worshippers from Pars (Persia) first landed at Sanjan on the coast of Gujarat in 936CE, escaping persecution from Arab invaders, the local king, Jaditya Rana, asked their head priest how these migrants from Iran planned to live in an already overpopulated place.
The priest carefully blended a spoon of sugar into a bowl of milk filled to the brim, without spilling a drop. ‘Like sugar in milk, Parsis will blend with the population and sweeten society,’ he said.
The Zoroastrians made Gujarati their mother tongue, wore saris, surrendered all their weapons and held their wedding ceremonies only after sunset. “We follow these traditions in Gujarat even today,” says Jamshed Dotiwala, president of the Surat Parsi Panchayat.
Near a chaotic traffic crossing in the city, the aroma of freshly baked cakes brings us to Surat’s legendary Dotiwala Bakery. Jamshed Dotiwala’s son Cyrus, sixth in a generation of bakers who’ve been running the business, founded in 1825, says his two school-going sons are under no pressure to carry the family legacy forward. “We may be traditional in our religious beliefs but we’ve always kept our minds open to progressive lifestyles,” says Cyrus.
“These contradictions – between modernity and convention – are what make the annual Navroz celebrations so interesting,” says Cyrus, as he invites us to witness Jamshedi Navroz celebrations at a few homes in the city.
Surat’s Parsi community turns out in large numbers for the Jamshedi Navroz celebrations at the city’s fire temples.
In the religious pecking order, the most revered fire temple is called the Atash Behram. On the second rung is an Agyari fire temple and on the third, the Daadgah.
The origins of the festival go back 3,000 years when Jamshed, the king of Persia, ascended the throne on the day of the vernal equinox, when the length of the day equals that of the night. At home, they set up ‘ Haft
Seen’ tables. In Persian, Haft
means the number seven and Seen signifies the letter S. So the
Haft-Seen is a tableful of seven articles that start with the letter S. Maharukh Chichgar, 47, a teacher, explains the tradition. A mirror is placed in such a way that you can see the reflection of the pomegranate, a diya and the photo of Zoroaster in a line. “At the time of the equinox, the earth turns a little,” says Maharukh. “We believe this movement is caught in the mirror and the pomegranate moves at the same moment. So looking into the mirror on Navroz brings you good fortune.”
More than just good fortune will be needed to reverse the population decline, says Dinyar Patel, a historian and PhD scholar at Harvard University. “Over the past few decades, many Parsis chose to have fewer or no children, rues Patel. “There was little family pressure to marry. As a result, the community’s fertility rate may now be as low as 0.88, whereas a total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed for replacement,” says Patel.
This can be traced to cul- tural issues, says Villoo Morawala Patell, managing director of Avesthagen, Bangalore, which is conducting genomic studies of the Parsis. Conversions are taboo, Parsis tend to live isolated from other communities in baugs, marriage with members of other faiths is frowned upon and non-Parsis are not allowed inside fire temples.
But marriages outside the community have become common, says Dinyar Patel. According to an estimate, close to 30 per cent of Parsis in the bigger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Pune are marrying outside the community.
The Parsis of Surat, too, are shedding their conservatism, says Jaosh Tata, 41, brand manager with IDBI Federal Insurance. “I don’t want my children to grow up in a ghetto with dingy lanes. That’s why we are planning to move into a condominium.”
Kulpreet Freddie Vesuna, 41, a Sikh married to a Parsi IT professional based in Pune, says it is time the community began displaying more flexibility towards spouses from other communities and religions. “While they allow their sons to marry non-Parsi girls, they don’t accept them entirely and don’t allow them to visit fire temples. This is one thing I long for in this otherwise affectionate and energetic community.”
Dinyar Patel says most people are related to or know someone who has married outside the community. “There is no guarantee that the children of mixed mar- riages would want to remain in the community.”
The Mumbai-based organisation Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation (ZYNG) hosts youth meets akin to speed-dating exercises, which will eventually lead to marriage. Recently, a series of provocative ads designed for Jiyo Parsi, a government-funded programme to help India’s ageing Parsi community have more children, came under fire for its depiction of the community as endangered species who should procreate for survival. The taglines for the ads included: “Be responsible, don’t use a condom tonight.”
The Parsi of 2015 doesn’t quite know whether to break free, or conform for the sake of the community. Yezdi Karanjia sums up the dilemma poignantly:
“How can we forget our past? Our elders have ensured that we’ve kept the connection with our traditions alive. If we keep marrying non-Parsis, our community will become extinct.”
A traditional wedding in Navsari, Gujarat, sponsored by the local Parsi Panchayat, to motivate young couples to start a family
A WHOLE NEW WORLD Above, from left: The Tata family – daughter Shanaya, mother Queenie, son Pakzad, husband Jaosh and grandparents Jai Nariman Tata and Amy Tata – is looking forward to moving out of the old Surat Parsi neighbourhood of Sayyadpura (above, right); Opposite page: Three generations of Surat’s prominent Karanjia family get together for a Navroz feast