Labour of love started by late wife comes to life as book on local Parsi community launched
After his wife Suna died in 2015, retired pilot Mr Rustom Kanga knew what he had to do.
He and his two children, Cyrus and Nazneen, had to finish the labour of love she had started the previous year – a book on the history, culture and customs of the little-known Parsi community of Singapore meant as a tribute to their adopted country.
Article by Natasha Lee | Straits Times
He and his late wife’s co-author Subina Aurora Khaneja, 54, would spend 10 to 12 hours a day poring through archival material, while painstakingly sourcing for photographers and tasting more than 40 Parsi recipes that would be featured in the book.
Tonight marks the fruition of their work, as The Parsis of Singapore: History, Culture And Customs was launched on Wednesday (April 19) at the MICA Building attended by 350 people, including 80 Parsis. The publication was sponsored by the Institute of South Asian Studies. Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, was the guest of honour.
The book, published by Epigram Books, is the first volume produced in the country on the history of the Parsis in Singapore.
Mr Kanga, 79, said he was “very, very happy” to see the book being published. “That’s our vision, to let the community know who we are,” he said, referring to informing local readers about the Parsi community.
“Suna, we are all proud and thankful to you for giving a voice to the Parsis in Singapore,” he said in a speech given at the launch.
The 256-page book was inspired by Mrs Kanga’s desire to let Singaporeans learn more about the Parsis, as she and her husband often received questions about who they were since they arrived Singapore in 1974, having migrated here from Nagpur in central India.
The Parsis are descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who fled from present-day Iran after the Persian Sassanid Empire was conquered by Arab Muslims in the eighth century.
Wanting freedom to pursue their distinctive religion, which is based on the belief in the deity Ahura Mazda, they settled in western India and became known as merchants, shipbuilders and brokers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Despite the community’s small size, some Parsis managed to make notable contributions to Singaporean society. Famous local Parsis include the Under One Roof star Ms Daisy Irani and Dr Jimmy Shiavux Daruwalla, the founder of the Dyslexia Association of Singapore.
The book has different chapters dedicated to the history of the Parsis in Singapore since the 19th century, Zoroastrian customs, as well as unique aspects of Parsi culture, such as the unique gara fabrics they wore and their distinctive cuisine that blends Indian and Persian influences.
Having received a grant from the National Heritage Board for the production of the book, Ms Kanga began to work tirelessly on gathering research and taking photographs despite being plagued by a serious illness that eventually took her life.
After Ms Kanga’s death, a family friend recommended Ms Subina, a full-time writer and artist, to the Kangas to help them complete the work. Subina, who is not a Parsi and had never met Ms Kanga, felt it was a coincidence that she was asked to work on the book as her younger daughter had been named after a word from Parsi scriptures.
“I had no more social life,” she confessed sheepishly about how she had been drawn into working on the book. However, she said she found it “very, very fulfilling”, enjoying her role as creative director of the work. “I felt I got to know Suna through the people she met,” she reflected.
Ms Khaneja not only found comprehensive information on Parsi textiles for the seminal work, but also managed to complete or even correct anecdotes related to Parsi history in Singapore. For instance, she found information on Parsi merchants who had settled in Singapore by 1820, which might disprove the fact that the convict Muncherjee was the first Parsi in Singapore to enter recorded history in 1827.
Other members of the 350-strong Parsi community contributed wholeheartedly to the making of the book. Several prominent Parsi families such as the Medoras and the Mistris loaned out artefacts, old photographs and specially cooked dishes to be photographed for the work.
“We were very excited. I told her to just go for it,” said Mrs Roshan Mistri, 70, whose husband is a descendant of philanthropist Navroji Mistri, after whom the Mistri Wing in the Singapore General Hospital is named.
Mrs Mistri had moved to Singapore in 1968 and once hosted Ms Kanga. The two became close friends and often appeared at functions together, with Mrs Mistri contributing her embroidered garas and a recipe for almond chicken curry for the book.
“I feel like Suna’s soul and spirit is with us right now,” she added, her voice trailing off as she reflected on the departure of her friend.
The Parsis of Singapore: History, Culture and Customs will be sold at $55.90 from tomorrow on Epigram Books’ and all major bookstores.