Periodicals of protest

Over the decades, Parsi journalism has managed to fiercely guard its democratic character

By Manoj R Nair for Mumbai Mirror

The terms, ‘cosmopolitan newspapers’ or ‘community press’ may not figure much in our regular conversations and reading. But these words are a regular part of the periodic debates that generate a whirlwind in the Parsi community.

For a group that is so small — pegged at around 65,000 in the city — the community could boast the highest per capita number of newspapers and periodicals that write and debate about community issues. There are so many such publications that there is a term for them — community newspapers. In fact, when this newspaper reported on the controversy over the Doongerwadi issue a few weeks ago, much of the debate in the community was not whether the old system of funerals at the Towers of Silence stood the test of time, but whether the issue should have been discussed at all in the mainstream media — called the cosmopolitan press by Parsis.

The beginnings of the community’s obsession with newspapers could be traced back to the late 18th century. Parsis could be called pioneers of the newspaper industry in Mumbai because some of the first newspapers in the city were owned or printed by them. The first English newspaper in Mumbai was printed by Rustomji Keshaspathi in 1777. The first newspaper in an Indian language was the Gujarati daily Mumbai Samachar, published in 1822 by Fardoonjee Marzban. Though the newspaper is now read widely by other Gujarati speaking groups like Bohris and Jains, it still has two weekly columns on Parsi affairs.

In 1851, Dadabhai Nowrowjee started Rast Goftar that questioned conservative thought in the community. He also published a journal called Dharma Marg Darshak that discussed Parsi religious issues. Around the same time, Nowroji Chandaru edited Chabook (whip) that regularly wrote about corruption in the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP). There was even a satire magazine called Parsi Punch inspired by the British Punch.

Though their numbers have now reduced, the community can still boast of an exceptional number of journals and newspapers competing for what is clearly, a shrinking readership.

Eruch Desai, former BPP chairman and senior partner in leading legal firm Mulla and Mulla and Craigie Blunt and Caroe, attributes this multiplicity of community journals to the fact that even in the 19th century, issues that affected the community generated fierce debates like now.

Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana magazine, says that whenever a new debate engrossed the community, new journals advocating divergent views sprang up, only to fold up once the issue died down. “As a group that largely believes in constitutional methods to solve issues, the Parsis debated the issues in journals and newspapers rather than by taking out protest marches,” said Patel.

Adi Doctor, who edits the three-year old traditionalist Parsi Voice, says much of the debates were on issues like mixed marriages, conversions and the state of affairs at the Towers of Silence — subjects that are vociferously debated in their journals and papers even now. And then as now, these journals belonged to either of the two groups — one that attacked established customs and the other group which defended old traditions.

For instance, the Kaiser-i-Hind that started in 1882 advocated the reformist viewpoint. The weekly closed down a few decades ago. The Jam-e-Jamshed, one of the oldest newspapers in the country represented orthodox views. The glossier Parisana, a newer entrant, avowedly tows the reformist point of view. And the weekly Parsi Voice is orthodox to the core. Some years ago, a now defunct orthodox newsletter, Parsidom, screamed about financial scandals in community trusts. The widely scattered Parsi diaspora, too, have their own publications like the FEZANA and HAMAZOR journals.

Some publications changed sides as years went by. Mumbai Samachar became a cosmopolitan newspaper though it continued to be owned by the Cama family. However, Jam-e-Jamshed, once the stronghold of orthodox opinion now pushes the reformist agenda.