Chennai and its old Parsi flame

Its legacies far outnumber this fast-dwindling community with two centuries of ties to the city

In North Chennai’s populous and noisy Royapuram area, the tranquil 104-year-old Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher Fire Temple appears an anomaly. A man in trousers, a half-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap arrives on his scooter and introduces himself as Bomi Vazifdar, the Zoroastrian temple’s priest. “Not many people come to the temple,” he says. “Earlier, Royapuram was the base for the city’s Parsis.”

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As you drive down the arterial Anna Salai, or Mount Road, the contributions of Parsis — as the earliest Zoroastrian settlers in India are known — jump out at you: Dhun building, Tarapore Tower, Casino Theatre, and the long-gone Elphinstone and Wellington theatres. Equally prominent are the several small Irani cafés on this stretch.

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The art deco Casino theatre in Chennai was built in 1941 by JH Irani, an ice factory owner, and designed by his engineer-son, Firoz. Photo: N Sridharan

A quick afternoon chai at one these cafés proves they are nothing like their counterparts in places like Mumbai, which are cherished for their spacious interiors, wooden chairs, marble-top tables, chandeliers, and a sharp-eyed Parsi owner behind the cash counter. In Chennai, though owned by Iranis, the cafés are like any other local tea-stall, with only a customary portrait of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, to distinguish them.

Parsis and Iranis both follow Zoroastrianism, but are differentiated based on when they migrated to India — the former fled Iran circa 8-10th century, while the latter arrived in the 19th century. The community has whittled down to 69,000 members across India, largely in Gujarat and Mumbai, and only about 250 remain in Chennai.

Zarin Mistry, a Chennai-born Parsi and Secretary of the Madras Parsi Association, says, “Language is a huge barrier here, but people do come on transfers and some have businesses here. My father, Dr MM Cooper, moved from Lahore to Chennai in 1934.” As head of the Anatomy department of Madras Medical College, Dr Cooper was a key figure in the city’s medical fraternity and Parsi community. When he died in 2002, an obituary in the Journal of Anatomical Society read: “Meherji’s outstanding achievements and principled life have helped to (sic) put the Parsi name firmly on the map of Madras.”

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Zarin Mistry is the secretary of the Madras Parsi Association. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Other notable Parsi Chennaiites include social worker Mary Clubwala Jhadav (who founded the Madras School of Social Work in 1952); cinematographers Adi Irani (Alam Ara, SS Vasan’s Kamadhenu and Bala Nagamma) and Mehli Irani; Minoo K Belgamwala, one of the founders of Madras Motor Sports Club; builder JH Tarapore; civil engineer Hormusji Nowroji (who the historian Sriram V calls the “father of water supply in Chennai”); Soli Darulwala, who opened Chennai’s first modern art gallery; and many more.

“I think we have all prospered and, as far as I am concerned, I have imbibed all I can. I speak a little Tamil and I love the Southern culture and food. Many people who come from Mumbai are eager to leave this city, but some get comfortable and choose to stay,” says Mistry.

According to her, the first official account of Parsis setting base in Chennai is of Heerjibhai Maneckji Kharas arriving from Coorg with five other Parsis and two priests in the early 19th century. The East India Company was strong in the then fledgling city of Madras. The Parsis chose to put down their roots in the Royapuram area.

It was much later, in 1910, that the Clubwala family built the local Parsi fire temple — the first and only in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the former French colony of Puducherry.

Today, only a single member of the Clubwala family is left in Chennai. Karachi-born Mani Clubwala married into the family in 1947 and moved to Chennai with her husband, a director at EID Parry, in the 1960s. Her sons and grandchildren are in the US, and the 86-year-old lives by herself in a sprawling bungalow in Santhome, in south Chennai. As the Parsi families flourished through the decades, they gradually moved out of Royapuram to other localities, she says.

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Karachi-born Mani Clubwala has lived in the city since the 1960s, although her offspring have moved away. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

The close-knit community congregates for monthly get-togethers, the Parsi New Year and during Jamshedi Navroz at the Clubwala Hall next to the fire temple.

The Parsis in Chennai, like elsewhere in the country, are concerned about their fast-declining numbers. Clubwala endorses, tongue firmly in cheek, the Government-supported Jiyo Parsi campaign, which explicitly asks Parsis to make more babies. “We are nearly a gone species,” she says with a laugh. “I think the ads are fun. All these people should wake up and do something!”

Mistry’s children too have moved away from Chennai to pursue their careers. “We don’t have enough youngsters who can socialise and, hopefully, get married within the community,” she points out.

The Parsis and Iranis of Chennai are determined to support their predominantly ageing community. “It is our duty, as a community, to see that they live with dignity. The Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman has a guesthouse and we provide them with medical help, subsidised rent and so on,” Mistry says.

The priest Vazifdar acknowledges that whether it is his daughter’s school fee or his wife’s medical expenses, the Trust and the community are always at hand to support him.

After more than 200 years in the city, time may be running out for Chennai’s Parsi community, but their immense legacy lives on in the many sterling institutions they have bequeathed to their adopted home.