Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Growing up Parsi and gay in Bombay

Ten years of a Parsi Purgatory. But that still did not prepare me for the American ‘Paradise’. In 1958, in the proverbial sexual encounters of Bombay’s fast trains, I came to know about sex. We lived in Bandra, school was in Churchgate.

By Hoshang Merchant |  DNA

So every morning, I had undiluted fun for a full half an hour. I had a first class train pass but I’d prefer to travel second-class, thinking the proles would be more obliging. Wrong! I looked an upper-class kid, and the ‘aam-admi’ was more afraid of the ‘saheb log’ back then than they are now. Looking back, I had an easy run. In today’s metropolis, I would be murdered as that poor boy Adnan was a few years ago, when he went on a blind-date rustled up on the internet, only to encounter the local bully and death. I was seduced in class VI. I couldn’t tell my older sister till class XI. I had no one else to confide in due to fear and shame of being outed.

So there be pros and cons. I am Parsi. So let’s start with the pros. Parsis then as now were Westernised. So I was sent to a psychiatrist instead of being beaten up by macho elder men in the family as they do in Hyderabad. Dr Vahia secretly told my father, “Your boy is highly intelligent. And it will be hard to change him. Anyway, it is almost impossible to change homosexuals to heterosexuals. Just let him do what he wants.” I came to know about this only two years ago. Of course, the psychiatrist blamed me and not my parent who was paying his fees. Then it was the Freud oedipal paradigm that ruled. Now, homosexuality is considered to be genetic. I lived for 20 years under the guilt bred by the Parsi religion. I understood when I was in Iran that Zoroaster was pro-life. So dead bodies, menstruating women and homosexuals were taboo. Dr Dasturji Kooka’s book on Zoroastrianism in English explained to me at 30 the meaning of the ‘Jashn’ ceremony performed in our fire temples. The initiate (young priest) holds the flower of evil, but forsakes it for the seven flowers of good, strikes the waters of experience nine times for the nine directions, and having experienced evil and chosen good returns to life (the older priests). Zoroastrianism is a mature religion. Its interpretation is narrow.

Of course, patriarchal religions and societies breed machismo. Men are men; women, women. Zoroaster was no metrosexual, god forbid! So my mother became my enemy when she found out that her son was a ‘sissy’. This was an unbearable cross to a sensitive boy who loved the mother that shielded him from a disciplinarian father.

I am giving you the anatomy of a Parsi household of the ’50s, which bred social and sexual hypocrisy. Men had mistresses if they could afford them. But for social occasions, the wife always came first. Discovery led to social humiliation. I saw this in the case of my father. So I decided early on that whatever I do, I’d do openly. (As a single man, I could afford the decision that householders cannot.) Growing up under India’s then-Victorian laws, a homosexual’s testimony counted for nothing in the Parsi Matrimonial Court — even if he was honest and an eyewitness to a crime, as I was during my parents’ divorce trial. Under such a regimen, it is hard to love yourself and grow up guiltless. Strike down clause 377(b) of the Indian Penal Code, I say!

In a small in-bred community, adolescent homosexuality thrives (among cousins; schoolmates) but conversely, it also encourages subterfuge and silence on the issue due to naming and shaming by community busybodies and gossips. Hence the conspiracy of silence: Don’t ask/Don’t tell. I was disinherited for being gay. Relatives use this as a moral excuse to veil their own greed while depriving gay children of their patrimony. The coming-out ritual of America is a typical Puritan truth-telling — very in-your-face. It does not allow for the ‘letting-be’ and the delicacy of social compassion of older societies.

America, by contrast, lives by ghettoisation. Jewtown/Fagtown/Indian town actually exist in Chicago. Fagtown became upmarket due to the Pink Dollar and Jewtown became Indian-town when the upwardly-mobile Jew moved out of the ghetto to the suburbs. My American brother-in-law took my sister dancing to Chicago’s gay clubs ‘for the new music’ but could not brook me, a queen, for a brother-in-law.

I myself am no paragon of virtue. When Dina Mehta published both Firdaus Kanga and me in the now-defunct Kaiser-I-Hind in the mid-’80s, I refused to meet poor Firdaus. Being a lover of beauty like my mentor Anais Nin, I quoted her on my fear of “ugliness”. I decided to write my book not only out of a queen’s exhibitionism but also out of a Parsi sense of do-gooding, because even now, young gays routinely commit suicides.

Hoshang Merchant is a poet and author. His latest book is The Man Who Would Be Queen