Challenges of being Parsi in a mixed marriage

At 20, India-born Dilnawaz Zaveri nee Bharucha was gasping to see the world. The daughter of a retired engineering company manager and a doctor, she was looking for a ticket out of India.

Now 46, she recalls: “My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but I wanted to do something that was not academic.”

Article by Cheong Suk-Wai | Straits Times Singapore

That “something” was hairdressing and she insisted on going to the Morris school in London because, among other things, her boyfriend Manesh Zaveri would be doing his further studies there. After he qualified as a chartered accountant, they married in 1995, with their parents’ blessings. By then, she had returned to Mumbai and been a hairdresser there for three years.


India-born Dilnawaz Zaveri nee Bharucha is married to a Jain and she feels it is “absolutely not correct” that if she should want prayers to be done for her at a Parsi burial ground in India after she dies, it would not be allowed because her husband is non-Parsi.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The thing is, Mrs Zaveri is a meat-loving Parsi of the fire-worshipping faith of Zoroastrianism, while her 47-year-old husband is a Jain. His faith is so strict that he must not eat meat, eggs or subterranean plants such as garlic, onions and carrots.

Right after marrying, the couple lived with his parents in London for two years and vegetarian meals were hard to stomach.

“Parsi meals have a lot of meat. If you asked a Parsi to cook vegetables, she would go ‘huh?'” she says. She coped by nipping out for fried chicken or ham sandwiches, or to a Parsi pal’s home for a meat fix. She was careful not to bring eggs home, so as not to irk her in-laws.

Then her husband got a job offer in Singapore. So, in 1996, they moved here. They became Singapore citizens in 2001. In their Siglap apartment full of laughing Buddha figurines, she says: “He thought maybe we would move to China eventually but we never did; we love Singapore so much.”

While her husband is very accommodating of her faith, Mrs Zaveri, who was president of the 61-year- old Parsi Zoroastrian Association of Singapore from 2009 till 2011, rues two consequences of her mixed marriage.

First, her daughter Tanvi, 13, can never visit Zoroastrianism’s fire temples in India, much less be initiated into the religion. That is because Mr Zaveri is not Parsi. However, if he were a Parsi and she a Jain, Zoroastrianism’s emphasis on the father’s bloodline would allow Tanvi to be initiated as a Parsi.


Mrs Dilnawaz Zaveri shows readers her impressive collection of hand- embroidered brocade with Chinese motifs and explains why Parsis have long loved such hand embroidery, often replete with little Chinese figurines which they call “cheena cheenee no garo”, garo being Gujarati for embroidery, cheena for male Chinese and cheenee for female Chinese. Z2r4

Mrs Zaveri says: “Most of our family friends are Parsi, so my daughter has been to all her friends’ navjote (initiation) ceremonies. She keeps asking, ‘Why not me?'”

Second, Mrs Zaveri adds, if she should want prayers done for herself at a Parsi burial ground in India after she dies, it would not be allowed because her husband is non-Parsi. “I’m quite religious,” she muses. “So not allowing that, I feel, is absolutely not correct.”

Parsi priest Zubin Dastoor, who is 48 and the director of operations of an engineering company, clarifies that there has never been anything in the fire-worshipping faith against the initiation into Zoroastrianism of the offspring of Parsis married to non-Parsis.

“It is more of a family decision,” he says. “While the Parsis in India tend to be very orthodox, our religion itself is quite liberal and does not distinguish between Parsis and non-Parsis.”

Fellow priest Rustom Ghadiali, who is 80 and the current president of the Parsi Zoroastrian Association of Singapore, adds: “That may have something to do with the Parsis’ original promise to Indian King Jadav Rana not to mix with anyone else who was not Parsi, not to marry outside their community and not to convert any Indian to their faith.”

Over the years, the Parsi birth rate worldwide has been declining alarmingly; for every Parsi born, four die. By some estimates, the 110,000 Parsis worldwide might shrink to 20,000 by 2020.

In July, BBC News reported that the Indian government was so concerned about its 60,000-strong Parsi community dying out that it is spending US$1.5 million (S$2.1 million) to boost its birth rates through fertility treatments. On top of that, it has posters exhorting Parsis to “be responsible. Don’t wear a condom tonight”.

Mrs Zaveri muses: “Some Parsis believe that even if the groom is a Parsi and the bride is not, the ethnicity is diluted, or that the culture will die because both are culturally not so involved in doing things that Parsis are meant to do.”