Portraits, Dreams And Quirks Of Nine Young Parsis In Mumbai

There’s nothing quite like observing a creature in its natural habitat. Fortunately for us, India is one of the few places a particularly rare specimen are still fairly common. So, for the avid naturalist, here are a few tips for spotting and luring in that ever so endangered species–the Parsi.

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They are most active around dusk when the remains of their dhansak lunch has finally been digested. Leaving their siestas behind needs just the right amount of coaxing so you should have plenty of chai and batasas ready to soothe them. Be warned that even this offering may not stem the flow of grumbling, but don’t be alarmed for a Parsi that is truly bemoaning the state of the world is asleep, ill or eating. As the sun sinks below the horizon, you’d do well to have a bottle of whisky on hand though the sanctity of this ritual may vary drastically depending on which type of Parsi you’ve lured into your midst. Still, even if you scare your Parsi away, a simple call might help you find them. Clear your throat and cry as loud as you can  ‘Jamvo Chalo Ji!’ This could, however, cause a stampede as every Parsi in the vicinity may descend upon you expecting to be fed so only use it in the most dire circumstances. Of course, you could skip all the effort, plant yourself in a place that serves good food and better booze and just wait for them to come to you. They are an overwhelmingly friendly and fun-loving bunch so approach at will, though there’s one trigger you’re better off knowing if you want to stay unharmed–don’t insult the Queen.

It’s easy to poke fun at a minority community that’s most lovable for their ability to laugh at themselves. While the rest of the world is busy getting offended, Parsis have always been ready with a creative quip at hand, ready to move on to the bigger and better laugh. It’s perhaps this light-hearted, yet straightforward spirit that’s led them to have such a big impact on our country, despite their dwindling numbers. Although their population currently stands at 69,000, which is a mere 0.006 per cent of the country’s total population, their legacy speaks volumes. From industry to the arts and philanthropy to economics, the legacy of the Parsis may very well outlive the community at this rate but there’s no denying that the community is facing what seems to be an unstoppable decline.

There are many reasons behind the dropping numbers. Parsis, unlike other communities, don’t put such a great emphasis on marriage. Many Parsis remain bachelors and spinsters till they die. If they do marry, a lot of them decide to marry late—in their 30s and even 40s, when conceiving children becomes difficult. Additionally, their duality is well known. Outwardly, they are incredibly westernised and modern. Internally, they wrestle with many demons, the most vicious of which is a mania for blood purity—inter-caste marriages are heavily frowned upon. Moreover, it lays bare the community’s skewed gender rules, as a woman who marries outside is no longer considered a Parsi, and neither are her children. The same does not apply if the man is Parsi—his kids may still be initiated into the Zoroastrian faith.

Through agencies such as Jiyo Parsi, which is a government run scheme to promote the community, people are being made aware that without some help this eccentric race may be facing extinction. If that does come to pass it would be a sad day for India, not merely because of their contributions to the economy, but because their crazy ways and delicious food have become so ingrained in the country’s identity. Hopefully the future will see growth in the Parsi community because we aren’t ready to say goodbye to their big laughs, their big bellies and their even bigger hearts.

For those of you not lucky to have a Parsi in your life we volunteer 9 of our own on the celebratory occasion of Parsi New Year today so you can learn a bit more about this elusive community. We also assure you that this is not an attempt to cement stereotypes but a shout out to all the dikris and dikras who are carrying on living their lives, carrying the legacy of their community forward by doing what they do, the very best that they can. And they’re doing it with a sense of humour.

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I. Amyra Dastur | 23 | Actress

“I hope that I’m constantly busy with work as I am now at this point in my life. I love my job and all the adventures it entails and I just hope I get to travel more and shoot all over the world,” shares 23-year-old Amyra Dastur, looking forward to the future. An actress by profession, it’s her ‘madness,’ as she says, that’s perhaps the most Parsi thing about her. “I’m spontaneous and carefree, which most people mistake as crazy and when they start calling me mad I just say that I’m Parsi, and that I can’t help it!” she laughs.

Like most of us, Parsi or not, Dhansak would be Amyra’s Parsi comfort food, but she specifies that only the one her domestic help Mary makes, does the trick. “Everything about it makes me drool.”

“We’re absolutely mad! But I’ll tell you a secret, all the best people are.”

“If I were the last Parsi on Earth I’d make sure that all the Parsi properties in the world were given to me, and then I’d actually open it to the public. People have always asked me what our Agyaries look like and I would love for them to see our culture first-hand,” says Amyra adding that considering the small number of Parsi’s left in the world, “honestly, that’s quite likely to happen!” She wants to help increase the population rather than decrease it. “I would like them to stop frowning or looking down upon inter-caste marriages and to even allow other individuals from different religions to be able to convert to Zoroastrianism.”

Traditional members of the community are mired in a way of thinking that only causes problems. Despite having an old, rich cultural heritage and practices, the Tower of Silence is one thing that she doesn’t agree with. “Man, vultures eating my corpse just doesn’t sound too appealing to me,” she admits. Still, people have some set ideas about being Parsi that need be corrected.

On a Parsi stereotype that needs to be corrected:  “That all Parsis know other Parsis. Every time I meet someone and they realise that I’m a Parsi, they name some of their other Parsi friends and ask me if I know them! It’s so damn annoying. We do NOT always know other Parsis!”

II. Jehangir Dastur | 22 | Chef

At 22, Jehangir doesn’t skimp when it comes to dreaming. In five years he hopes to see himself heading a professional kitchen or better yet, owning one of his own,  although he is sure that his personal life won’t be evolving any time soon, don’t worry Jangu-bhoy, ghanoo time che. For him, being a Parsi comes down to the simple core belief ‘Humata Hukta Hvrashta’ or ‘Good words, good thoughts, good deeds’. But if you had to do a good deed for Jehangir the best move would be to bring him a big ol’ plate of chicken farcha – basically the Parsi answer to fried chicken – all the crunch and double the spice.

“Being Parsi means Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds”

Like any true Parsi he can break out an ‘Arrey Baap Re’ at the drop of a hat, but his one suspiciously un-bawa trait is his disdain for dhansak (watch your back Jehangir, you made some enemies today). He does however share the community’s famed fascination for cars. Parsis have long been known for their obsession with extensive and sometimes ancient car collections, and Jehangir is no exception. When asked what he would do if he were the last Parsi in the world, “I would go and find the best cars in the city and joyride to my heart’s content” is his unhesitant response.

A flaw he wishes the Parsi community would rectify: ”I do pray that certain old habits change among the community. In our community, if a Parsi woman marries outside the community, her children will not even be given the option of being parsi. I do not agree with this mindset and in my opinion, it is one of the main reasons for our falling numbers.”

III. Keki Modi | 30 | Operations and Brand Management – Ferrari India

Keki refuses to overthink his life, he prefers to live in the moment rather than micro-managing the future. As of now, he plans to watch the MotoGP Live in October but still hasn’t figured out what he’s having for dinner tonight. If there was one trait he would attribute to his heritage it would be his dependability and his rigorous, if somewhat intense, attention to detail.

“I honestly don’t live my life knowing what I’ll be doing 5 years from today. I’m not your stereotypical Parsi bawaji.”

To him being Parsi means never tiring of Sunday dhansak, being true to yourself and always minding the word of apri Rani on her throne in England. Although he doesn’t speak fluent Gujarati, aside from a wide range of profanities (which is really all you need), he does share the egg legacy, or should we say eggacy, that has been passed down through generations. His go-to comfort food is papeta per eedu which, as the name suggests, is a dish of potatoes topped off with the omnipresent egg.

Unsurprisingly he also shares a deep love of cars, and if he found himself the last Parsi standing he would strive to collect all the bawa-owned bikes and cars he could find as he knows their innate OCD and love of hoarding will ensure all their vehicles will be left behind in pristine condition.

He prefers not to involve himself in community politics but hopes that the outlook on religion will broaden in the future and perhaps arrest the decline in numbers. One thing that does get his goat however is the medical community and their bizarre standard, as he so succinctly puts it “Not being able to donate organs! What is up with that?!”

On what he’d do if he were the last Parsi left on Earth: ”Find anyone who can cook my favourite Parsi dishes. Get my hands on as many Parsi owned cars and bikes as I can.”

IV. Parizad D | 24 | Photographer

Parizad is one person who has found her place in the world and is determined to make the most of it. At 24, she is a successful photographer and she hopes that five years from now she will be doing exactly the same things only on a grander, more widespread scale. She would also love to travel more, but that may cut in to her time with the dozens of cats she hopes to have.

She thinks she has plenty of typical Parsi traits but believes the most telling one is her decibel range. As she quite humbly puts it, “I can be loud. Oh. So. Loud.” Although she likes to shatter eardrums, the one thing that being Parsi means to her is the multiple trips to Udvada, we envy all the doodh na puff and tari she’s being getting over the years. The one thing she believes is a true stereotype about Parsis is their love for alcohol, food as well to a great extent, but more notably Parsis need their daru.

Her go-to comfort food is dar-ni-pori, a flaky crust stuffed with sweetened melt-in-the-mouth dal stuffing. However, dessert isn’t the only thing she has her eye on, if she were the last Parsi on the planet she intends to “Stake claim on all the beautiful old Parsi houses and shoot in all of them.”

On her hopes for the future of her community: “That we hold on to out roots, but also accept the fact that all good things come to an end. And cherish the fact that even if this community ceases to exist a few years down the line, its legacy will probably live on forever.” More specifically, she hopes that the sexist laws regarding women who marry outside the faith will be abolished, she finds it disappointing that a community that prides itself on being well cultured and educated can still uphold such backward ideals

V. Neville Bhandara  | 27 | Family business

“I think it’s more important to ask not where, but what — Happy, successful and fulfilled.” 27-year-old Neville sums up his dreams for the future with characteristic Parsi nonchalance. He currently works for the family business, WaterMaker manufacturing machines that convert atmospheric water to drinking water in the hope of solving the world’s water crisis. He believes that his identifying trait as a Parsi would be taking life as it comes and making the most out of it. “Don’t stress anyone out and don’t stress yourself out. What more is there anyway? Have a good life.”

Image Credits: Tanya Prasad

“Being Parsi means being at peace with the knowledge that we have never, can never, and will never be able to cook palatable vegetarian food. We just can’t do it. #sorrynotsorry”

He feels like he is unapologetically bawa in all his actions, hedonistic lifestyle and he loves his Parsi heritage. As for food, he turns to dal rice with tareli machi (fried fish) when he needs comfort and is a steadfast believer of everything per eedu. As he so accurately sums up, “I’ve never met an egg I didn’t like.” Although, he strongly believes that Parsis should avoid cooking vegetarian food, for the sake of humanity.

Some aspects of the community do worry him, such as the fact that children born to Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers aren’t considered Parsis, while children of non-Parsi mothers and Parsi fathers are. This sexist bias bothers him and he believes this myopic view of religion is to blame for the dwindling numbers. He himself is not very religious and says visits to the fire temple are few and far between. The Slytherin-esque mania about blood purity and dismissal of inter-religious marriages is a cause for concern too, but he hopes that the positive aspects of the faith will outweigh the negative ones, the laid back, jovial nature and the levity with which life is embraced should win out against the more inane traditions.

On a Parsi stereotype that’s actually true: “The Parsi who eats a lot and doesn’t put on weight.”

Image Credits: Tanya Prasad

VI. Rhea Bharucha | 23 | Pastry Chef

Rhea Bharucha’s dream is one of sugar-coated glory. This 23-year-old pastry chef currently works from home in Colaba but hopes that soon she will be able to open a little café where people come for their morning coffees and afternoon gossip sessions. She loves to satisfy her own sweet tooth with a helping of lagan nu custard but despairs for its lack of availability outside wedding season.

If she were the last Parsi left on Earth she vows to take charge of Britannia and make sure no one has to miss out on their Sunday menu.

With the ever diminishing size of the community it’s no wonder that she feels like being related to every other Parsi is part of her identity, although she would like to clarify that people don’t marry their first cousins, second or third cousins at a stretch maybe, but they haven’t gone full Lannister quite yet.

As a totally true blue bawi she believes the downfall of most Parsis is their pronunciation of Hindi. Whether they are Bombay-bred or fresh off the boat, all Parsis somehow speak laughably bad Hindi, the fact that they’re thinking in Gujarati is probably what’s to blame.

On her ultimate dream for the Parsi community given its dwindling population: “That they all order from me!”

VII.  Sanaya Ardeshir | 27 | Musician & Music Producer

27-year-old musician and producer Sanaya Ardeshir (Sandunes) has already made an indelible mark on the electronic music scene in India, but she’s stuck her fingers into more healthful pies than we can count over the years. Whether it’s an audio-visual installation at an art gallery that represents the abstraction she’s currently aligned with, or her punctuated forays into the world of yoga and wellness, her interests are as varied and wonderful as her many talents. It’s no wonder then that her five-year-plan is more or less a reflection of who she is now. “I just want to be happy, healthy, and touring,” Sanaya states matter-of-factly.

“Being Parsi means nothing different from being anything else.”

She breaks more Parsi stereotypes than she conforms to too. She’s a vegetarian for one, a lifestyle choice you’d be hard-pressed to find many in her community adhere to, let alone be kind about, and you’re unlikely to find her flying off the handle hurling creative insults at people, even if it’s in jest.

Still, even she admits there might be a thing or two that she can’t stay away from as a result of her genetic make-up. She’s got the inherent spark of entrepreneurial spirit that many associate with the community, not to mention the humour. “There is something about listening to Frank Sinatra that makes me melt,” she smiles. “I think it’s because of my grandparents and their love for that specific breed of music, but I also think it might just be a significantly Parsi thing.” And of course, there’s no getting away from the love for food, even if she’s bid adieu to a significant amount of her options. “I’m actually not sure there’s any Parsi food that anyone should eat everyday,” she jokes.

On her dream for the Parsi community: “I’d like to break existing stereotypes around the community. To let and let live, accept everyone equally, and i’d like for progressive thinking individuals to lead the community.”

VIII. Yohann Marshall | 26 | Drummer

Yohan attributes his superior drumming to a childhood in the dry state of Gujarat and his family. “Growing up with three lawyers will make you hit things with sticks,” he says. He launched his solo album after years of gigging with the trio ‘The Family Cheese,’ and is now a core faculty member at the True School of Music. He exhibits his nose as his most Parsi trait as well as his propensity for bursting into Gujarati monologues without warning, but his tendency to break everything he touches makes him wonder where his bawa knack for preservation is hiding.

“If I were the last Parsi on Earth, I’d open a Parsi restaurant and convert all the vegetarians!”

True to form he thinks that the real meaning of being Parsi can be summed up by a menu. Lasan-Eddu or akuri for breakfast (his personal favourite), Ras Papeto for lunch, Gos for dinner. Also considering his solemn pledge if he were the last Parsi on Earth (summarized above) it’s clear that Parsi bhonu is safe in the hands of our resident drummer dikra.

The Parsi faith has always been very exclusive and he feels that the community is just getting in its own way. Rituals like entering the fire-temple, paying respect at the tower of silence, even sitting for a jashan (prayer) are impossible for non-Parsis, he feels the community should be open-minded to change. “A prayer at home and/or to be able to go pay your respect when someone has passed away, to me should not have anything to do with what religion you follow.” He also believes that the ostracism faced by children of Parsi women who have married outside the faith is bordering on cruelty and needs to be stopped.

On his dream for the Parsi community: “I dream that many Parsi women come knocking on my door so we can end this shortage once and for all.”

IX. Zarwan Elavia | 31 | Anything Metal Works

Zarwan always liked to work with his hands. This shaped all his professional moves, from sound engineering, to event management to his current profession in welding and metal fabrication. He was enamored by the ability to create and hopes that his future will continue to allow him to work with metal.

“Parsis always have an opinion about anything and everything.”

His bawa blood instilled a love for anything on wheels and his motorcycles are still his first love, although, unlike most Parsi collectors he believes they should be out on the open road not hoarded through the ages. He thinks that the Parsi baugs are the epitome of the community, where you can sit in peace surrounded by a whole host of unlikely and ultimately comical characters. He believes in the credo of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, and would attempt to spread this message if he happened to be the last Parsi left.

One thing that concerns him is the misconception that all Parsis are part of the super rich elite. He and other people he knows have had to struggle in a competitive world where they were denied financial aid because of a narrow-minded stereotype. In addition to this, he hopes that the attitude and discrimination against women who marry outside the community could be stopped and that people would adopt a more open-minded attitude.

On his favourite Parsi insult: “Oh there are a lot and they are too disturbing to be said! Though I would like to direct them all to the BMC for  our messed up roads. My ride from Andheri to Dahisar, where my workshop is, has become a nightmare.”

Photographer: Tanya Prasad

Words: Homegrown Staff