One small community that has continued to punch way above its weight and even today sweetens the rich cultural diversity that is India is the Parsi community. And just as Indians started immigrating to Canada, so did some of India’s Parsi community — and they continue to sweeten the fabric of Indo-Canadian society, and of the wider Canadian mosaic.
Article by Bhaswati Ghosh | South Asian Focus
In India, the Parsis need little introduction. But Canadians may not know their unique history as well.
Zahin Khatow with family.
For nearly 13 centuries, Parsis have remained one of the most unique South Asian communities. Deriving their name from their ancestral links to Persia or present-day Iran, Parsis are followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions of the world, predating both Christianity and Islam.
Once the dominant religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism came under threat following the Arab invasion of Iran in 641 AD. Religious persecution and forced conversions (to Islam) forced a small group of Zoroastrians to flee to Gujarat, India in the late eighth century. They settled mostly in the Bombay (now Mumbai) region and created a distinctive identity.
In the late 1960s, some members of the Parsi community started moving to Canada. Currently, their numbers in this country range anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000, with the greatest concentration being in the GTA. With the Parsi Navroze or New Year celebrated earlier this year (March 21), we spoke to some members of the community to reflect on their life in Canada, traditions, achievements and challenges.
The Zoroastrian Society of Ontario was the first institution built by the Parsi community in the 1970s. However, over the decades, “as the community grew, there was a need to build a bigger place or another community centre. So the newer immigrants who came settled in the west end, and as a result, it was decided to start a new community centre because everyone couldn’t be accommodated in one small hall. A group of 10-12 people got together and bought the piece of land which is now the Ontario Zoroastrian Community Foundation (OZCF),” says Havovi Bharda, an OZCF board member.
Nilloufer Bhesania’s father was among those earliest Parsis to arrive in Toronto in 1967. The job market wasn’t as competitive as it is today, and he secured a position with Revenue Canada within a week of his arrival. Being a small community, Parsis were very well-knit at that time. Says Bhesania, “My parents were very active in the Zoroastrian community. In fact, many Parsis called my parents as soon as they landed and my parents assisted them in finding a place to stay.”
Keeping traditions alive
Being so far away from home — India or Pakistan — can make following traditions challenging. Take for instance the Zoroastrian custom of sky burials for the dead — a system in which corpses are exposed to the elements, including open-topped ‘Towers of Silence’, the last of which operates in a Mumbai suburb.
Says Bharda, “Our religion says that our bodies come to the earth and must return there — so in India dead bodies are left for vultures to eat. However, here we have to accept the idea of being buried or cremated. This goes completely against our religion’s guideline to not pollute the environment, but we have to accept it.”
There are other adjustments to be made, too. “As most of us do not have big extended families here in Canada, other community members become family to enjoy festivals with. Most of our festivals are enjoyed by us as a community function,” says Kobad Zarolia, an insurance broker, his statement indicating the shift from celebrating religious festivals at Agiaries or fire temples as is the practice in South Asia.
His thoughts are echoed by Zahin Khatow, an IT project manager who moved to Canada from Mumbai in 2012. “While the celebration part remains unchanged worldwide, it’s the fire temple that we miss when we are away. Since Parsi worship places are few and far between in North America, you are not always lucky to be staying close to one. A lot of Parsi groups try to make up by having a religious ceremony (Jashan) at a common place or residence,” he says.
The community holds the belief that ten days before the Parsi New Year, the souls of the departed visit Earth. Various ceremonies are observed to remember them, including ten days of prayers, known as Muktad days, at the end of which the souls are believed to go back. During these days, food is also served to the departed souls.
Bharda, who lost her mother in 2010, observes this ritual, while also adding, “Due to a limited number of priests here, we can’t offer individual prayers. Instead prayers are carried out on a communal basis and for five days instead of ten.”
A distinctive facet of Parsi culture is the cuisine developed by the community by blending influences from Persia with the culinary traditions of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the regions where they settled in India. From dhansak, a delicious synthesis of meat, lentils and vegetables, to patra ni machhi — fish steamed in banana leaf, and to delectable desserts, food is often the magnet that draws and keeps the community together. And although there are few restaurants exclusively serving Parsi food in the GTA, community members make conscious efforts to preserve recipes handed down from one generation to the next.
While most Parsis prefer to make their own cuisine on a daily basis, there are several instances of enterprising Parsi women operating catering businesses. A recent food festival organized by OZCF was a testimony to the popularity of Parsi cuisine, attended as it was by both Parsis and non-Parsis in big numbers.
Despite being a relatively small community, Parsis have made notable contributions to the history and progress of India. From playing an active role in India’s independence movement and military to industrious community members acting as torchbearers of Indian industry and making a mark in fields of science as well as arts, Parsis have been known for their vigour and progressive outlook.
The pattern remains unchanged in Canada.
As Bhesania, herself the owner of Chemsynergy, a chemical and distribution business she runs along with her husband, says, “There are many members of the Parsi community in the GTA who hold senior positions at large and small companies. Many of them have also been recognized by trade associations. Parsis are also active in the arts community, as actors, artists, and musicians.”
For Bharda, the community’s biggest accomplishment is the sense of community cohesiveness. “As a community, we live in harmony. Even though we have two associations and there are conflicts of power, we still tend to work together. In spite of coming from South Asian countries where the culture of maids and servants still prevails, once here, community members don’t hesitate to mop the floors of our community centre even if they live in a million-dollar home. There is no rich-poor distinction and everyone works together,” she says.
All the camaraderie and bonhomie notwithstanding, the community faces challenges of its own. The belief that one is a Parsi only by birth (that is by being born to Parsi parents) precludes the idea of conversions. This has led to a continuous decline of the community’s population worldwide.
According to a UNESCO report, in India, the community is declining by about 10 per cent every decennial census. A touchy issue in this respect is the idea of intermarriages, or Parsis marrying non-Parsis. While a near-complete taboo in countries such as India and Pakistan, the practice is becoming more and more common in Canada.
Opinion on its acceptability remains divided, though.
“My friend just got married to a Vietnamese girl which was difficult, but eventually well received by the family,” says Khatow, even as he admits that a Parsi parent’s greatest fear or insecurity is that their children will not marry within the community.
When asked if he was aware of such unions in the GTA, Zarolia answered with a brief but clear, “More than I would like it.”
With time, however, the community seems to be more accepting (if not welcoming) of intermarriages. Explains Bhesania, “Inter-community marriages are generally well received by the majority of Parsis. At one time, many Parsis were opposed to inter-community marriages — but their opposition was overcome once their own children married non-Parsis.
“Among my group of friends, being a good person, well-educated and capable of earning a good living is more important that one’s religious or community affiliation,” Bhesania adds.
As an OZCF board member, Bharda has insider knowledge of which priest will perform an inter-community marriage and who won’t, and she helps community members reach out to the right person for the right task. The tussle between conservatives and liberals is constant and similar to what every community experiences, yet efforts are made to help everyone co-exist.
Other challenges include keeping the language (Gujarati for Parsis from India) and food traditions alive as more and more second or later generations of Parsi youngsters opt for the convenience of communicating in English and eating/making fusion food.
Despite all challenges and differences of opinion, the Parsi community continues to integrate well and thrive in the multicultural mosaic that Canada is, even as they continue to foster stronger inter-community ties. Bhesania summarizes it well when she says, “Most of my friends and family have a good mix of Parsi and non-Parsi friends, although the bonds between Parsis are stronger than those with non-Parsis. The ties that bind us are strongly related to culture rather than religion, especially among the younger members of the community.”
Tracing Parsi roots
The word Parsi means Persian. Parsis are the descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India following religious persecution by Arab invaders.
One interesting, perhaps apocryphal, Parsi legend harkens back to the newly-landed community in Gujarat noting, charmingly, that they would assimilate into the existing society “like sugar in milk”.
The story relates the course of the initial meeting between the Indian king, Jadi Rana, and the newly landed emigrants. When the Zoroastrians requested asylum, Jadi Rana motioned to a vessel of milk filled to the very brim, to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept refugees. In response, one of the Zoroastrian priests added a pinch of sugar to the milk, thus indicating that they would not bring the vessel to overflowing and indeed make the lives of the citizens sweeter.
Parsis today live chiefly in Mumbai and in a few towns and villages mostly to the north of Mumbai, but also in Karachi (Pakistan) and Bangalore (Karnataka, India).
Several landmarks in Mumbai are named after Parsis, including Nariman Point. Parsis prominent in the Indian independence movement include Pherozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Bhikaiji Cama.
Notable Parsis in the fields of science and industry include physicist Homi J. Bhabha, Homi N. Sethna, Jamsedji Tata, regarded as the “Father of Indian Industry”, and members of the Tata, Godrej and Wadia industrial families.
Other eminent Parsis include rock star Freddie Mercury, composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and conductor Zubin Mehta; cultural studies theorist Homi K. Bhabha; screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala; authors Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ardashir Vakil and Pakistani investigative journalist Ardeshir Cowasjee; actors John Farhan Abraham and Boman Irani; and India’s first woman photo-journalist Homai Vyarawalla.
Actress Persis Khambatta was a Parsi who appeared in Bollywood. Dorab Patel was Pakistan’s first Parsi Supreme Court Justice.
According to India’s last fully published census of 2001, the population of Parsis has declined from just under 115,000 in 1941 to 69,601 in 2001. The numbers are believed to have declined even more since then.
Community leaders feel the very progressive outlook of Parsis, which encourages equality between men and women, has been one reason for their dwindling numbers, owing to women marrying late in life and giving birth to lesser number of children.
UNESCO started a Parsi-Zoroastrian Project to generate an awareness of the community and create a revival of interest within the community, country and the world.