The Parsis fighting to stop their culture dying out, and why it appears doomed

The birth and death notices in Parsiana tell a stark story. The June edition of the Mumbai-based magazine for Parsis lists two births and 46 deaths in the city. Perhaps June was not a typical month, but India’s most illustrious minority are aware of the numbers – for every Parsi born, four die – and know what they foretell.

Article by Amrit Dhillon | South China Morning Post

A copy of Parsiana is given to me by Rati and Yezad Kapadia, a retired Parsi couple in their 70s who are clearly still in love, as I’m leaving their home in Gurgaon, just outside Delhi.

“What can I say? You can’t argue with numbers,” says Yezad, who heads the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, a social orga­nisation in the Indian capital. “What other possible inter­pretation is there of the figures except that we are going to disappear? It is a fait accompli. In 50 years’ time, there will be no Parsis left in India.”

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FROM 114,000 IN THE 1940s , Parsi numbers have plum­meted, falling by approximately 10 per cent a decade. In 2011, census figures showed the rate had accelerated to 18 per cent, and there are now just 57,000 Parsis left in India, most of them living in Mumbai. In New Delhi, only 750 remain. The global figure is about 100,000 – 200 of whom call Hong Kong home.

Historians and anthropologists in the future may wonder how a people that has excelled in the fields of business, medi­cine, science and the arts came to such a pass. They will no doubt question how a group who, with the rise of Islam between the eighth and 10th centuries, fled Persia for India to preserve their kind and their ancient religion of Zoroastrianism; who enriched their new homeland to such a degree that they were described by the author Amitav Ghosh as having “essentially created modern India”, with their factories, mills, hotels, steel plants, hospitals, educational institutions and research insti­tutes; who showed Indians how to be philanthropists; who established business empires such as the Tata Group; and who shaped early Bollywood, reached the point where they could not make enough babies to perpetuate their communities.

“Parsi women are highly educated and high achievers. Not many want to leave their careers to start a family early,” says Kapadia, who is a priest and often travels to Hong Kong to perform the Navjote (the initiation ritual) and wedding rites in the city. “For a long time we thought our daughters would never marry at all.”

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Eventually, Rukshna married, but when she did so it was to a Hindu. The couple have two sons who, according to the strict interpretation of religious laws, are not Parsis, because their father is not. Jeroo has not married. Both daughters live abroad, Rukshna in Hong Kong and Jeroo in Auckland (which is home to 1,200 Parsis) in New Zealand.

These circumstances broadly capture the plight of the people as a whole. About 30 per cent of Parsis never marry and those who do wed late and have no children, or have just one or two. Many marry non-Parsis or migrate.

“We know the solution is for couples to have four or five children but young Parsis don’t want so many,” says Minoo Shroff, a retired corporate executive who headed the 350-year-old Bombay Parsi Punchayet for 20 years. “They want a good quality of life, good homes, holidays and the best education for their children, and this is only possible if they have one or two. They think of themselves as individuals and not of the community and its needs, which is, on one level, understandable.”

The Bombay Parsi Punchayet has tried various schemes to encourage procreation, which have included offering housing subsidies and cash allowances to young couples. Alarmed at the prospect of losing its most dynamic minority, even the Indian govern­ment has taken action, in 2013 initiating a scheme called Jiyo Parsi (Live Parsi) to provide free fertility treatment. Speaking at its launch, the then minister of minority affairs, Najma Heptulla, said, “This is a small step to pay our debt to the Parsi commu­nity for their contribution to the country. We cannot afford to lose this community.”

Pro-reformists hold the priesthood, which has stubbornly refused to alter the patrilineal rules, responsible for their plight. Children born to Parsi women who marry outside the faith don’t qualify as Parsis and such women are barred from entering the fire temple and parti­cipating in religious ceremonies. For liberals in a community whose thinking has always been progressive – its women were the first in India to receive an education, as early as the late 19th century, and later the first to work – this anachronistic piece of sex discri­mination is deeply distressing.

“The top clergy knew this was going to happen but have refused to dilute, to change their policies on the purity of blood,” says Kapadia, who declines to follow the rules. In Delhi, the children of interfaith marriages are accepted as Parsis and women who have married outside the faith are given voting rights in the Delhi Parsi Anjuman.

“How can you survive without change?” asks Kapadia. “Has any religion survived without adapting to change? We have been static and this is the result.”

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Rukshna Kapadia Kishore, who lives in Pok Fu Lam, is as forward-thinking as her father.

“I love to go to the fire temple,” she says. “I love the aroma of sandalwood that burns in the holy fire. When my first son was born, in Bombay, some relatives tried to discourage me from taking him, the child of a non-Parsi father, to the fire temple, but I took him anyway.”

Those in the priesthood are often reluctant to speak. Dr K. Jamasp Asa Dastur, high priest and a scholar in Mumbai, would say only this to Post Magazine: “Don’t you worry. We have survived all these centuries and will live on. Don’t you worry. We will not die out.”

We have brought it upon ourselves. It’s as though we would rather go down into oblivion with our laws of exclu­sivity intact than change our laws and survive

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Another optimist is Neville Shroff, president of the Hong Kong Zoroastrian Association, whose family has been in China for five generations. The association supports the overseas study of students from India. He says: “We don’t have figures of how many actually return to India. This means the Parsi popu­lation outside India may actually be increasing but, without an accurate survey, it is difficult to know the demographics.”

He concedes, though, that “the stalwarts of our commu­nity are doing their utmost to encourage our younger gene­ration to marry within the community and provide incentives to have more children, but we are so few it is difficult for our young couples to find each other in such a small pool.”

SOONI TARAPOREVALAwas not looking for a fellow Parsi to marry but happened to fall in love with one anyway. The Mumbai-based screenwriter and photographer married late and she had two children (“I know, I know, I should have had four but I was too old”).

When they speak of the coming extinction, progressives sometimes sound like characters in a Gabriel García Márquez novel struggling to grasp a melancholy destiny.

“We have brought it upon ourselves. It’s as though we would rather go down into oblivion with our laws of exclu­sivity intact than change our laws and survive. We have always embraced change and now that it is crucial to change, we aren’t doing it,” says Taraporevala, whose mother and grandmother went out to work at a time when almost no women did so. “That is our tragedy.”

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Nevertheless, says Taraporevala, “at social occasions, it’s not something that people talk about. Everyone knows it intellectually but it’s not uppermost in people’s minds”.

Jal Shroff, Neville’s cousin and the founder of Fossil watches in Hong Kong, says that whenever his close-knit community, which is based around the Zoroastrian Building, in Causeway Bay, gets together for Navroze, the Persian New Year or other festivals, the atmosphere is joyful.

Jal Shroff’s children – two daughters and a son – have all married outside the faith. His wife, Pervin, is widely respected and, among much else, helps cancer patients cope with their illness through meditation and visualisation. The couple now focus much of their resources on philanthropy and have donated US$20 million to the Bomanjee Dinshaw Petit Parsee General Hospital, in Mumbai, which has traditionally treated less affluent Parsis. With patient numbers declining, the 1912-built facility could no longer fund itself.

“Those who say we will survive are talking rubbish,” Shroff says. “Facts are facts. But despite many Parsis marrying outside the faith, I find that they are performing the Navjote and carrying on the religion and culture. So even when Parsis have died out, at least Zoroastrianism, which is growing in many parts of the world, will survive.”

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Anyone can become a Zoroastrian, but Parsis must be born to a father who can trace his lineage back to Persia.

THE FIRST PARSIS to arrive in China settled in Canton, Macau and Shanghai in the mid-18th century, to deal in spices, opium, silk and cotton.

“When the Union Jack was raised in Hong Kong on 26 January, 1841 […] three of the four Indian merchant firms represented there were Parsi – Cowasjee Pallanjee & Co; F.M. Talati; and Rustomjee Dhunjishaw,” writes John Hinnells, in his book The Zoroastrian Diaspora (2005).

They established businesses and built great trading houses. The Star Ferry was begun in the late 19th century by Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, for example, and Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, after whom Mody Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is named, was the principal donor of funds for the establishment of the University of Hong Kong, in 1911.

However significant their disappearance for Hong Kong, though, Parsis will be missed more in India, which knows them affectionately for their customs and quirks.

All Parsis love eggs, as every Indian knows, and the more the better. Russi Mody, for decades chairman and managing director of Tata Steel, was famed for the 16-egg omelette he would demolish each morning. And Parsis seem to be living proof that eggs do not clog arteries; the Parsiana death notices show hardly any die before their late 80s. Mody passed away in May 2014, aged 96.

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Indians are familiar, too, with the strange sounding names, many deriving from the family trade or profession: Vakil (lawyer), Doctor and Engineer.

Mumbai residents are well acquainted with the beautiful low-relief sculptures of the Parsi fire temples – the devout believe fire is symbolic of God’s purity and wisdom, and so they worship in front of a flame.

The city is awed by the practice Parsis have of leaving their dead to be picked clean by vultures in the Towers of Silence, an eerie, circular structure located in a dark, dense forest in the heart of Mumbai, where only corpse bearers set foot.

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Yes, they can be eccentric, but it’s rare to hear another Indian being critical of a Parsi. They are characterised as a decent, gentle and likeable people, and in a nation that is synony­mous with corruption, they are known for their integrity.

“I think we are treated with affection and respect because, by and large, we are honest and we have never asked for anything,” says Rati Kapadia. “We are Indians first and Parsis second.”

As might be expected of a group faced with issues of identity and survival, internal debates, many of them reflected in the pages of Parsiana, are fierce.

“It is a fact that obsesses us – whether we fear our demise or deny it – whether we are optimistic and believe we have survived for so many centuries and will continue to do so, or whether we are orthodox and believe it is better to go down guns blazing, with our laws of exclusivity intact,” writes Taraporevala in the foreword to her book of photo­graphs, Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India (2000). “It is an issue we never tire of, that we debate and fight over endlessly with passion.”

Other subjects that vex the readers of Parsiana include the question of whether, with almost no vultures left, an electric crematorium should be installed inside the Towers of Silence. And whether organ dona­tions and blood transfusions from non-Parsis are permitted.

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“Having said that, though, it was still depressing to see the extinction is happening even faster than we thought,” he says.

If, and when, they go, what will become of the Parsi heritage – their temples, architecture, mansions, jewellery, immense and priceless tracts of land, artefacts and religious and cultural icons?

“I feel sad when I travel around India and see our heri­tage crumbling from neglect,” says Yezad Kapadia. “Fire temples swallowed up by markets, ancient Parsi sanatoriums in Bombay lying in ruins. Elderly couples living alone in Bombay mansions, their children abroad. The land mafia know this, they will grab the property and land.”

Jal Shroff has heard disturbing tales from India: “There have been stories of old wealthy couples being murdered by the house help, who has been put up to do the job by criminals who want to grab the property.”

AND SO THE STAGE, it seems is set. The majority of Parsis are resigned to soon going the way of the Thracians and the Scythians.

“We will be seen as having gone down without a fight,” laments Taraporevala. “We should have initiated reforms long ago that would have saved us. At least we would have been seen as doing something.”

Nevertheless, she clings to a significant hope: “Our faith should survive even if our race does not. It would be an unbear­able tragedy if our faith, that we hold so dear, were to die with us.”