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

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - by Aasheesh Sharma; photos by Gurinder Osan

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.

NAVROZ MUBARAK!

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.”

NUM­BERS GAME

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.”

DES­PER­ATE MEA­SURES

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

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