MARCH ended on a zealous note for the Parsi community in Chennai, as it celebrated the Navroz, or the New Year with ardour and joy. But then, high spirits aren’t exclusive to special days, for this people.
Drop into a Parsi home in Chennai and your intrigue will be met by a steaming hot cup of cardamom tea, a plate of dal-ni-pori (a tea time snack) and a warm smile.
And if you’re visiting Mani Jehangir Clubwala’s house, you can be guaranteed of some intellectually stimulating conversations on Parsi history and evolution too.
“There are a very few of us in Chennai. But in a smaller community, you tend to be closer to each other. Every Parsi family knows another here,” she says.
At 82, Mani’s appetite for life is contagious. More fascinating is her appetite for books. Her tastefully done haven in Santhome has almost every book that was ever written on the Parsis. Among her top favourites is A Zoroastrian Tapestry — a riveting account of the art, culture and religion of the community, by Pheroza Godrej and Firoza P Mistree. “It’s very dear to me and is not even printed anymore,” she smiles, with the mighty book clutched between her nimble palms.
Mani moved to Madras from Mumbai in 1967, after her husband Jehangir Kaikhushru Clubwala was promoted as director of Parry & Co. Originally from Karachi, she married Jehangir, an Indian, in 1948, after their engagement on India’s Independence Day — August 15, 1947.
“The Parsis were never affected by the Partition. We were a community that was trusted by both the Hindus and the Muslims. We never left our own place, never migrated,” she recalls.
As a young woman in Madras, Mani devoted her energy and time for social service.
Among her other important positions, she has served as the president of the National Association for the Blind, Tamil Nadu branch. She was also deeply involved with the Bharat Scouts and Guides Movement, and received the prestigious The Silver Elephant Award from the President of India in 1977.
There are hardly 120 Parsi families in Chennai, most of them put up in Royapuram, where the first settlement arrived by sea. It is also the area that houses the Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman and the Madras Parsi Association, the Dar-E-Meher (the Fire Temple), Aramgah (the burial ground), the memorial hall, the priest quarters and a rest house for Parsi tourists.
Though a slim population, the community in Chennai is every historian’s pride. Right from 1893, when Cawasji Panday was the first Parsi to be appointed the Sheriff of Madras, they have left their footprints in the evolution of the city. The Aspy’s Litho Works by AF Byramshaw, the Tarapore and Company construction works by JH Tarapore, the Belgamawala and Company (building consultants) by MK Belgamwala and most recently, the Vantage outdoor advertising company founded by Darius Bahadurji, are proof to the excellent entrepreneurship quality that the Parsis have displayed here.
“Adaptability is innate in us,” says Perviz Dara Bhote, a former professor of MOP Vaishnav College and a Parsi in Adyar. “We first came to Gujarat from Persia roughly around 960 AD. We were a visibly different race — our skin colour, appearance and so on.
The then king was apprehensive of us and asked us to explain our religion. The Neryosang (high priest) put some sugar candy in a pot of milk and said, ‘This is exactly how we will live with you. We will dissolve among you.’ And we accepted the Gujarati culture and way of life, while still practicing Zoroastrianism,” she explains.
Over the years, the Parsis have settled down dominantly in Mumbai and Gujarat. “We have constantly adapted to the places we moved out to,” says Perviz. “That’s a part of being a refugee race. Unless you bend, you will break.”