The Parsis of South Bombay

By Aakar Patel

No Indian community internalised the civilising mission of the British as did the Parsis. Only 50,000 remain, mainly in South Bombay, the most disciplined and cultured part of India. In South Bombay, the cutting of lanes by drivers is punished, jumping a red light is impossible, parking is possible only in allotted areas, roads are clean, service is efficient, the restaurants are unmatched – civilisation seems within reach. South Bombay has some of the finest buildings in India, many of them built by Parsis.

The Parsis came to Bombay after Surat’s port silted over in the 17th century. Gerald Aungier settled Bombay and gave Parsis land for their Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill in 1672. The Parsi dead were fed, then as now, to vultures. The Parsis were traders armed with a high-trust Gujarati ethic and they profited from the biggest drug running operation in history: the British sale of Malwa opium to China.

They made millions through the early and mid-1800s and they spent much of it on public good. Hindu philanthropy means building temples.The Carnegies built 2500 libraries, the Birlas built 3 temples in Hyderabad, Jaipur and Delhi. The Mellons built the National Gallery of Art, the Ambanis built Dhirubhai Ambani International School, where fees are Rs348,000 and where the headgirl is Mukesh Ambani’s daughter. Mukesh Ambani is worth US$ 43 billion and the world’s 5th richest man. His brother Anil is sixth on the list, worth US$ 42 billion.

John D Rockefeller spent millions educating black women and eradicating hookworm disease. He built the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Rockefeller University. He gave away $550 million ($13.5 billion in today’s money) over the years, always setting aside 10 per cent of his earnings. The Mallyas gilded the insides of the Tirupati temple with gold.

Bill Gates (who is 53) has given away $25 billion to combat malaria and poverty. In 2006, Warren Buffet gave away $30 billion to charity, the largest donation in history. Lakshmi Mittal, the fourth richest richest man in the world says he’s too young to think of charity. He’s 57 and worth $45 billion.

The Hindu’s lack of enthusiasm for philanthropy is cultural. The Hindu cosmos is Hobbesian and the devotee’s relationship with God is transactional. God must be petitioned and placated to swing the universe’s blessings towards you and away from someone else. Society has no role in your advancement and there is no reason to give back to it because it hasn’t given you anything in the first place.

Two centuries of British education was unable to alter this. The Parsis understood that philanthropy – love of mankind – recognises that we cannot progress alone. That there is such a thing as the common good. They spent as no Indian community had on building institutions, making them stand out in a culture whose talent lies in renaming things other people built.

The Indian Institute of Science was built in 1911 by Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was built by Dr Homi Bhabha, the Tata Institute of Social Science was built in 1936 by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. The Wadias built hospitals, women’s colleges and the five great low-income Parsi colonies of Bombay. JJ Hospital and Grant Medical College were founded by Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. By 1924, two out of five Indians – whether Hindu, Muslim or Parsi – joining the Indian Civil Services were on Tata scholarships.

The Parsis patronised art and culture. They gave Bombay Jehangir Art Gallery, Sir JJ School of Art and Taraporevala Aquarium. The National Centre for Performing Arts, the only place in India where world-class classical concerts are held is a gift of the Tatas.

There are 161 Friends of the Symphony Orchestra of India (www.soimumbai.in). Ninety-two of them are Parsi. For an annual fee of Rs 10,000, Friends of the SOI get two tickets to any one recital in the season, they get to shake hands with artistes after the concert and they get to attend music appreciation talks through the year. Donations of Rs1 million to the Tirupati Temple (www.tirumala.org) will bring the donor and his family three days of darshan in the year, one gold coin with the lord’s portrait and 20 laddoos.

With this money the temple runs charities for health and education, and feeds the poor. But the really rich do not want to give the temple cash. They know who their gift is for – not society – and so diamonds and gold are the preferred offerings, things that cannot be used other than as ornamentation to prettify the deity. The temple’s budget for 2007-8 was Rs 9 billlion (Rs904 crore).

The Parsi dominates high culture in Bombay and this means that a concert experience in the city is unlike that in any other part of India. Classical concerts in Bombay are always full in halls that can seat as many as two thousand. Zubin Mehta, the most famous Parsi in the world, is in Bombay this month for a series of concerts. Mehta, director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra since 1969, will conduct the tenor Placido Domingo, the pianist Daniel Barenboim and the soprano Barbara Frittoli. Four concerts will be held at the Jamshed Bhabha Opera House and then one at Brabourne Stadium with a capacity of 25,000.

No other city in India has this appetite for classical music and in Bombay this comes from the Parsi. Despite their tiny population, the Parsi presence in a concert hall is above 50 per cent. And they all come. Gorgeous Parsi girls (remember that Jinnah only ever fell in love with one woman: a Parsi) in formal clothes – saris, gowns – children, men and the old. Many have to be helped to their seats. Most of them know the music.

The people who clap between movements, thinking that the ‘song’ is over, are non-Parsis. Symphony Orchestra of India concerts begin at 7pm. Once the musicians start, latecomers must wait outside till the movement ends. The end of each movement also signals a fusillade of coughs and groans, held back by doddering Parsis too polite to make a sound while Mendelssohn is being played. No mobile phone ever goes off as is common in cinema halls: his neighbours are aware of the Parsi’s insistence of form and his temper.

The Parsis were also pioneers of Bombay’s low culture. Gujarati theatre remains the most popular form of live entertainment in Bombay. Any week of the year will see at least a half dozen bedroom comedies, murder mysteries, love stories and plays on assorted themes on stage. The Parsis were the pioneers of this, writing and acting in the first plays of Bombay. They also built the institutions that supported this. Bombay’s first theatre was opened by Parsis in 1846, the Grant Road Theatre, donations from Jamshetjee Jejeebhoy and Framjee Cowasjee making it possible.

A Parsi gang also ran the illegal liquor business of Falkland Road in the 1880s, where now India’s largest brothel stands. The Parsi in Bollywood caricature is a comic figure, but always honest, and innocent as Indians believe Parsis generally to be, rightly or wrongly.

In the days before modern cars came to India the words ‘Parsi-owned’ were guaranteed to ensure that a second-hand car listed for sale would get picked up ahead of any others. This is because people are aware of how carefully the Parsi keeps his things. His understanding and enthusiasm of the mechanical separates him from the Hindu, whose horror of it comes from his culture. Most of the automobile magazines in India are owned and edited by Parsis.

The Parsis are a dying community and this means that more Parsis die each year than are born (Symphony concert-goers can also discern the disappearing Parsi from the rising numbers of those who clap between movements). As the Parsis leave, South Bombay will become like the rest of Bombay – brutish, undisciplined and filthy. The British left when they had to, presiding over a most incompetent famine management and leaving four million people to die in Bengal in 1943. But they left some of their civilisation behind and the best of it remains the possession of this great Indian community.

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  • Kishor

    This article is beautifully written…Kudos to the Parsi community…May the community thrive…

  • farsheed96

    the last paragraph is really veery very true

  • farsheed96

    the last paragraph is really veery very true