Vanishing point:The last remaining parsis of Delhi


October 3, 2016

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Delhi’s Parsi community is by far the smallest minority group residing in the city. According to the 2011 Census report, the number of Parsis in the national capital is now down to three figures, which has caused great concern among those campaigning to preserve the cultural heritage and collective identity of India’s Parsis, writes Srija Naskar.


Family portrait of Dinbai Jal D.B. Irani (extreme left), who was the first Parsi woman entrepreneur in Delhi and owned the Empress Aerated Soda Water factory here during the 1920s.


The population of Parsi Zoroastrians in Delhi has reached a historic low — down to three figures. “We are about 235 in Delhi, according to the recent Census. And about 500-600 intermarried Parsis,” informs Shernaz Cama, director of the UNESCO Parzor Foundation. In 1999, Cama, as part of her field work in minority studies, visited the southern regions of Gujarat, where the Parsis had initially settled when they migrated from parts of Central Asia to India. She found that some of the old Parsi villages here were absolutely empty. In her paper, she discussed this as the “deserted village syndrome”. She also wrote at length about certain strange medical paradoxes she had encountered right at the heart of Gujarat’s Hazira belt – one of the oldest and biggest industrial belts in India, which was once a Parsi stronghold. During her field work, Cama observed that some Parsis in Hazira had crossed the age of 100 without many health issues, while those who belonged to the age-group of 15-16 years were facing very serious medical concern: the highest rates of cancer were recorded in this group; many teenagers were found to have contracted the G6PD enzyme disorder; and some were even suffering from a lack of fertility, with a worryingly high number of dropped pregnancy cases. 

Richard Engelhardt of UNESCO Bangkok, who was aware of Cama’s work in this area, later contacted her and asked her to start a project on the Parsi Zoroastrians (Parzor), because theirs was a heritage that had to be saved.

“Our demographic studies, which were done with Dorabji Tata Trust’s funding, have shown that we are a community which has a 0.88 replacement-level fertility for two. You need 2.1 for survival, you need 3 for progressing. In the last census, we were 0.88, now we are lower than that. I have just received the census results of 2011, and while we expected a 10% decline, it is sad to see that there has been a 20% decline. From 69,601, we are now only 57,264. We are so below the 100,000 figure, that we have been clubbed with the ‘others’ category in census reports,” says Cama.

Replacement-level fertility refers to the average number of children that must be born in order to keep the population figures stable from one generation to the other. “For every one married Parsi, we have an unmarried Parsi. Even the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act is patriarchal. It discriminates against Parsi women with non-Parsi spouses, as in such cases, children born cannot be raised as Parsis,” adds Cama.

The Parzor Foundation had approached the Ministry of Minority Affairs to develop a scheme that would address such grave issues as rampant drug abuse within the Parsi community, alarmingly low fertility rates caused by late or no marriages, problems of immigration, intermarriage and divorce. It was only in September 2013 that the Union Government passed this scheme under its Jiyo Parsi programme. Three years on, although the recently released census 2011 figures are disheartening, there is more awareness about these issues than ever before. “Demographically we are an ageing community. So the latest census report is basically a reflection of what we have been discussing for years now:  200 births to 800 deaths on an average, that has afflicted the community. The 20 % decline was bound to happen because the majority of the people in the community all over the country belong between 50-60 years, who would very naturally in a few years’ time pass away and the numbers will dwindle. That is where the Jiyo Parsi (JP) programme becomes important because JP aims to get the birth numbers going up, bridge the gap between the birth and death ratio by changing mindsets through advocacy programmes,” says Pearl Mistry, counselor of JP. Mistry became a part of JP in June 2014 and gives an outline of the campaigns that have been undertaken over the years: “Our target is the youth in the community, with who we conduct workshops on parenting in which we encourage parents to opt for more than one kid. I was one of the first few Parsis in Bombay to break this tradition. I am a mother of three children. I also specialize in counseling programmes for the youth, encourage routine health check ups by assuring medical reimbursements to families when they register with JP for continued treatment on infertility, etc. You have to realise that IVF is a major taboo even among educated middle class Parsis. We have been promoting these campaigns through rigorous advertisements and press releases.”

Today JP is a household name in Bombay, organizing workshops, community programmes, in Parsi ghettos like  Jogeshwari, Andheri, Dadar, Colaba, to name just a few. They have also been conducting outstation programmes in Gujarat, Secunderabad and Hyderabad, where Parsis form the second largest population after Bombay.

Earlier this year, Parzor, with the support of the Indian government, organised an exhibition titled Everlasting Flame in Delhi that, for the first time, brought to global attention the significance of Zoroastrian culture and civilization, tracing it from Iran and Central Asia, across China and the entire Silk Route, to India and then to Europe. The official recognition of the Parsis as a community dates back to the Mughal rule. “The first Dastoor Meherjirana library in Navsari, Gujarat, has been a constant source of information for not only the locals but also for us, the Parsi scholarly community. It records how Akbar while wanting to create the Din-i llahi had called for a congregation of all the wise men of all religions in Kankanwadi, Gujarat. It was then that he got so influenced by the first Dastur Meherji Rana (the undisputed spiritual leader of the Parsi community in India during the late 16th century), that he invited him to Fatehpur Sikri, ordered for a fire temple to be built and charged Birbal to keep it burning always,” says Cama.

The earliest link that the Parsis shared with the Indian subcontinent was on a linguistic level, as both the Parsi priests of the 1670s and Emperor Akbar spoke the Persian language. “When the British came to India,” Cama says, “the Parsis had already become a favoured minority group in the Bombay Presidency. But it was when Reverend Wilson, during the 1830s, took upon the conversion programme of many high-profile Parsi young men into Christianity, that the ripples of threat to the Parsi identity were felt for the first time among reformists like K.R. Cama and moderate leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji. The Parsis began to realise that the favoured minority status they enjoyed under the British was purely for the benefits of the ‘white man’. A strong sense of patriotism grew and revolutionaries like Bhikaji Cama went on to create the first Indian flag. But later, when the Indian government under Morarji Desai, pushed for a liquor ban in Gujarat, it went on to affect the economic independence of middle-class Parsis, for whom manufacturing of toddy was a major sustenance. Then came the nationalisation of banks, Tata Airlines being taken over, Palkhiwala losing the Land to the Tiller Act, and the first stream of migration happened in 1947. This marked the beginning of a demographic loss. Parsis today form the oldest immigrant community in England. Now we have Parsis living in Alaska, Australia, America, everywhere.”

A Parsi emigrant from India and currently living in California, Rustom Sorabji’s family had first landed in Delhi during the 1870s Industrial Revolution. Now well over 80, Sorabji believes that it would take an enormous coffee table-sized picturebook to convey an abbreviated account of the Parsis in Delhi. An expert on the Zoroastrian diaspora, he has been writing for pleasure for over 65 years in various prominent journals in India, USA, UK and Pakistan about the Zarathushtis, the beginnings of the Parsi community (the Zoroastrian community in India), as they migrated from Greater Iran.

One of the oldest Parsi residents of Delhi, Rustom has given a brief account to Guardian 20 [see inset] of the Parsi way of life as it was led in the old walled city of Shahajanabad spanning over almost three decades, from 1920s until Partition – of the Connaught Place area during that time which happened to be one of the most popular Saturday haunts for Delhi’s Parsis, of the decades-old Minerva, Novelty and other theaters in old Delhi, which have now either shut shop or are under litigation, and a sneak peek into traditional Parsi jashans or festivals.

His sister, Mani Sorabji is now Mani Thakur, living in the sprawling suburbs of Gurgaon. The first Parsi woman to have opted for an inter-community marriage, she says, “My father was a secretary of the Anjuman (Delhi community of Parsis). He was a staunch Parsi, so staunch that he would never let me work anywhere else other than Godrej.  When I married a Rajput, he was unhappy but he supported me. In fact, he continued to stay with me at our house in Shakti Nagar, old Delhi, until he passed away.”

Mani continues:  “I stayed in Roshanara Road until the time I got married. When I came to Gurgaon, I had already become a grandmother [laughs]. There are almost 60 Parsi families in Gurgaon today, mostly staying in the DLF, Sushant Lok area. There are a few families in the Defense Sector, too, where I stay. We often meet for kitty parties. In fact, when we attend Anjuman functions in Delhi, more of us come from Gurgaon, than from Delhi.”

The burden of responsibility now lies on the shoulders of the young. The new generation of Parsis are now required to carry the flag of this community forward. Schemes like Jiyo Parsi as well as exhibitions and workshops undertaken by the UNESCO Parzor Foundation are meant to educate, to create more awareness and community feeling within this generation. But scholars like Cama believe that when it comes to the young, liberal Parsis of today, any sort of rigid regulations like curbing of inter community marriages, migration, encouraging bigger families to save the community from demographic extinction is going to be a far cry from victory. Does that then mean that the days of the Parsi community in India are numbered? 

Tracing my roots in Parsi Delhi

image019I was born in the 1920s, and my memory of Delhi and life within the gracious Parsi community encompasses nearly 10 decades. I was told the proverbial stork deposited me a few hundred meters away from two of Shah Jahan’s greatest structures in his capital city, the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort. The landing place, Victoria Zanana Hospital, was named after one of the greatest and longest reigning monarch of the British Empire, Queen Victoria. Victoria Zanana Hospital near Jama Masid, was the place where most Parsi babies in those days were born. It is now known as the Kasturba Gandhi hospital.

Most of the Parsis lived in rented flats on wide open roads within the old walled city of Shahjahanabad. Parsi drawing rooms would typically have a large picture of King George V and the royal family, fondly referred to as “Apro Rajo and Rani”. Parsis mostly walked, tonga-ed or cycled to work. Tongas, bicycles, bullock carts, horse back, and camel carts were the main modes of transportation, besides the electric trams, which had no schedules.  One could cycle around the city in less than an hour. 

The Delhi Power Station then was the largest employer of Parsis, and then came the Railways, followed by Singer Sewing Machine Company and the Textile Mills. Naorosji Kapadia was the President of the fledgling Delhi Parsi Anjuman. Jal Dhunjibhoi Bomanji Irani was the chief engineer of the Delhi Power Station. Mr. Malloo headed the Singers Sewing Machine Company with a large Parsi staff consisting of Mr. Bomansha Billimoria, Mr. Nariman Surti, Mr. Sabawala and others.

The Singer Sewing Machine Company’s signboard in Connaught Place was an iconic place. It was somewhere here, opposite the company’s New Delhi showroom that for several years Parsis met every Saturday during the early 1930s till the mid-1940s. Every Saturday, the band, Brass & Bagpipes, played at the Connaught Place Band Stand (present day, CP subway station). While the band played popular tunes, marches and the drums rolled, the bawas (members of the Parsi community) enjoyed yummy Parsi homemade snacks, “chana-jore-garam” from the many hawkers who used to go around the park, or fresh cream-rolls or pastry from the cakewalla who carried bakery products in a wicker basket.

The meet always ended with the band playing, “Rule Britania, Britania Rules the Waves“ followed by “God Save the King”. Many a time, during the long summer evenings, we also had dinner there. It was usually potluck arranged by families living in Connaught Place and Chemlsford Road railway bungalows. That is what a typical Saturday was for us.

Parsis were a highly respected community who shared public offices and facilities with the Europeans, Brits and the Anglo-Indians. Dinbai Jal D.B. Irani, my grandmother, was the first Parsi lady entrepreneur in Delhi, and owner of the Empress Aerated Soda Water factory. Mr. Fozdar was the chief agent of the first Parsi owned bank, The Central Bank of India. Central Bank of India and Godrej had offices in Chandni Chowk. And Chandni Chowk had a Ghanta Ghar (a high gothic clock tower ), with the statue of Queen Victoria keeping an eye on the clock. Pollution-free electric trams ran on either side of the Clock Tower, one heading to Subzimandi at the Northern end of the city and the other to Bara Hindu Rao Western End of the City.

Queen Mary’s school, founded in 1910,  was run by English Missionaries. My sister, Mani Sorabji, and I studied there along with some very famous people. In 1939, I found myself in the St. Theresa Presentation Convent, where each class had many Parsi kids. Later on, the Parsi students were admitted to the European section of the school and the others to the Indian section that opened in 1942.As the construction of New Delhi progressed, during the 1930s, two new schools were built, the all-girls convent of Jesus & Mary and the co-ed Modern school.  St. Columbus school was built in the late ’30s. 

If you have ever stayed at the Parsi Dharamsala in Delhi, then you must have had the opportunity to be a witness to traditional Parsi festivals or jashans like the Navroze (Iranian New Year) or Khordasa (Prophet’s birthday). During our time, these jashans were held along the banks of the Yamuna, behind the Khyber Pass market, at the Metcalf House, at Qudsia Gardens, at the Ghats and at Okhla.

Movies came to town in the early 1920s. Parsis were the pioneers in this field. They owned and managed many cinemas, namely, Roxy Cinema (opposite Kashmere Gate), Novelty Cinema and so forth. Majestic Cinema, in Chandni Chowk, opposite Kotwali was one of the earliest cinema halls with a balcony. I remember, it was during the Quit India Movement that I had gone there with my brother and sister to watch Tufan Mail Ki Wapasi. We had to pay 10 paisa for balcony tickets.Midway during the movie, in a megahorn (since there were no microphones those days), it was announced that the screening would have to be stalled due to a curfew in Delhi. That was the day I saw riots so close; anybody in sola topis (traditional hats that most Parsi men wore) or what looked like British clothes was being attacked.

Often renting a theatre house for a wedding was a preferred choice among Parsis. Besides, the Parsi owners of the theatres were pleased to help the community use their facilities at a nominal price. In 1929 my parents got married in the Novelty Cinema, opposite the Duffrin Bridge, which was then owned by Madan & Co. of Calcutta and was available to the Parsis of Delhi for lagan, Navroze and community dinners.

Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Minerva Movitone Company, founded by Keki & Sohrab Modi, opened the Plaza Cinema at Connaught Circus. The Modi brothers made the Plaza Cinema available to the Anjuman (Delhi Parsis) twice a year, free-of-charge, to celebrate either the Jameshedji Navroze, Shenshai Navroze or Khordadsal. All Parsis would meet and greet each other in the foyer of the cinema at about 9.30 a.m., savour some Parsi snacks and soft drinks from the Empress Soda Water Factory and enjoy a movie specially screened for the occasion.

At the 1947 Khordasal celebration, the movie was interrupted and suddenly all were asked to leave as Delhi was under curfew orders. Communal riots had erupted. Next morning our school bus stand was machine gunned while we waited for the bus. We ran for home which was 300 yards away, there to be locked inside for three horrific nightmarish weeks, amid the stench of hundreds of decomposing dead bodies outside our compound walls.

Sometime in 1945, with the arrival of Mr. Bomanshah Sethna, the new manager at Plaza Cinema, most of the Parsis began to get complementary passes to the movies. He did not like to see us boys standing in a queue to buy a ticket.  The Sethnas lived above the cinema. Sometimes during the intra-mission, his wife Tehmina would send hot tea and bhakras for us. It was on the roof of Bomanshah Sethna’s house that we started the first Parsi Badminton Club. The roots of the Delhi Parsi Social Center also took place here. With a membership fee of one rupee per month and some 40 members,  the club was formed. We started with six tables and 24 stool-type muhrahs. Within a year or so, the center’s membership more than doubled and with eight tables and 32 muhrahs, we moved the activities to the Anjuman Grounds at Mathura Road.

My mother’s maternal grandfather, Nusserwanji Mehta, had come to Delhi during the Industrial Revolution, in the 1870s or 1880s. It was also the time Delhi Cloth Mills and Gadodia Textile Mills were being constructed and the Mutiny Memorial had just been constructed on the Ridge.

Though I have been away for 40 years, I am an annual visitor attending Anjuman functions to meet old friends and relations. Besides Khorshed Italia (my mother’s cousin) and my sister Mani, I do not know of anybody who can lay claim to family roots in Delhi as old as mine.

—Rustom Sorabji