Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Shernaaz Engineer Editor of Jame Jamshed In Conversation.

Behind the Ingrid Bergman-esque smile is a steel gritty woman, steering over one-and-a-half-century-old boat in turbulent waters.

Shernaaz Engineer speaks to the Deccan Herald

The journalistic journey of Shernaaz Engineer from covering fashion shows in early 90s for newspapers and magazines to handling the editorial convolutions of a newspaper revered by the fire-worshipping community whose populace is fast dwindling has been a long haul.

Ten years after the first Asian news paper–Bombay Samachar–was launched in Mumbai by Indians in 1822, an influential Parsi family–Marzban — started a Gujarati daily newspaper titled Jam-e-Jamshed, celebrating this year its 180 years of existence.

Techno-info onslaught has not been able to throw them into the annals of history; the very existe­nce of these old newspapers has become a multi-faceted metaphor of India desperately wanting to protect its sense and sensibilities in a stark world.  Engineer spoke to Prabhat Sharan of Deccan Herald about the newspaper turned newsweekly Jam-e-Jamshed that loyally reports to Parsis, community issues interspersing it with important national and international news.


What does Jam-e-Jamshed means? And is the origin of newspaper  connected to the growth ofMumbai as a trade post in the early 19th century?

Jam-e-Jamshed is the second oldest newspaper in Asia; the first being Mumbai Samachar, which interestingly still comes out from the same place where it was started. Jam-e-Jamshed also had its own iconic red brick building at Ballard Pier near Mumbai Docks before shifting out.

The paper was started by extremely influential Marzban family of Mumbai. In Persian language it means the goblet in which you can see the future.

And then if you accept that premise then it becomes clear. See this was the time when Gujaratis, Parsis and Bohras–the three key trading communities–were slowly establishing themselves in and around Mumbai port.

And with the trade bourse coming up, the emergence of  a newspaper was bound to be there. And the first newspapers carried reports primarily revolving around businesses in Europe as well as events that affected the Indian sub-continent then.

During early 20th century the newspaper reported on freedom struggle and if Parsis were the first to embrace several aspects of western life-styles then the community was also heavily into freedom struggle.Parsis are politically extremely volatile as the flames we venerate.

But has the newspaper always been catering to Parsis? Did it have a spectrum of diverse readership from other communities?

The newspaper primarily had a readership from the trading communities. And Parsis, of course, comprised a major chunk. But then other huge chunk of readership came from the Bohra community. Both are  business communities. And since Parsis are the original “argumentative Indians” the newspaper also had moorings in carrying extreme views and debates on every topic on the earth.

That brings us to the sensitive issue –volatility of a Parsi psyche. The community has always fascinated fiction writers, film makers and caricaturists.

In fact in the very word Parsi is a trope in films while depicting “eccentricity”; for a community newspaper focussing on sub-cultural happenings, it must be requiring an arduous balancing act.

There is an old saying among Parsis that we are such an argumentative lot that if there is one Parsi left in the world then that Parsi would be arguing with the

mirror image.  And the arguments are on virtually every topic.

It is a fact that Parsis are a highly literate lot; so you can very well expect the kind of topics that are debated upon and the references that are cited to prove one’s point. The newspaper is a platform we provide.

And it is surprising that despite the popularity of media networking I have found people still use newspapers to air their views and to top it all people even use newspapers to inform public about the views that have been put out on social networking sites. The contra­diction of media seems to be like that of our community.

True but the question still remains, as to how do you tackle community issues which intrinsically harbour diverse contradictory views? Say for example the issue of exogamy for women. While the men are allowed to marry outside the community, the women are

ostracised if they opt for marrying outside the community.

The attitude reeks of patriarchal structures and the community was the first to

encourage education for women.

Absolutely. Parsis continue to harbour patriarchal structures. They do not want to leave their old structures like they do not want abandon their antiques.

Of course, the two things are different but seriously, it is a dichotomy in a community which prides itself on being extremely progressive and at the same time wants to retain ideas which are anti-woman. We have had so much of debates on this issue but frankly speaking it all boils down to the fact that there are so many trusts and bodies with heavily laden coffers. And that’s the sole point.

But then isn’t it also going against the very existence of a community which is demographically fast getting decimated?

There seems to be a lot of misconceptions regarding the shrinking of community population across the world. A sociological research has revealed that there are primarily three reasons behind it: a) Late or no marriage and mind you there are more unmarried Parsi women and men then in any other community in country at least it seems so; b)

Girls marrying outside the community and the  ex-communication; and c) Parsis those marrying within community opting for one child option. And see another problem is that most of the Parsis are settling abroad… so today we have a 60:40 ratio of population. I know this for a fact because the newspaper is sent abroad in countries like Australia, the UK and Canada. And mind you this is done through post.

But the controversy does not end at the ostracism. There have been issues like Tower of Silence for–several Parsis now opt for cremation, while the clergy still frown upon .The clergy has never been able to  influence our editorial policy.

That is also because Parsis are so loyal to Jam-e-Jamshed that every family even if it is staying in Auckland, it subscribe to it. And that is why the paper is bi-lingual. Earlier we had only  four pages in English and 16 pages in Gujarati. I reversed it. There was uproar but the winds of changes sometimes manage to change the tides.