Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Carrying Hope: The Parsis of Surat

As the world’s population crosses the seven-billion mark, the dwindling Parsi community is trying to make its contribution

By Mayank Austen Soofi | LiveMint

Farzana Kharadi is carrying the weight of her community’s hopes. Not because this 29-year-old is a former beauty queen or a trained fashion designer. She is trained in Bharatanatyam, but that’s not it either. Her community is looking to her simply because she is seven months pregnant.

Kharadi is a Parsi, a section of society whose countrywide population would just about fill Kolkata’s Eden Gardens. “I have a three-year-old son, so this one will be an addition to my family,” she says, cradling the rounded curve of her stomach. “It will also mean one more Parsi.”

Descendants of the Zoroastrians who landed on Gujarat’s shores from Iran a thousand years ago, India’s Parsi population flourished till 1941. According to Demographic Transition or Demographic Trepidation? The Case of Parsis in India, a paper presented at a National Commission for Minorities seminar in 2004, the Indian Parsi population peaked at around 114,000 in 1941. By 2001, their numbers had declined to 69,000.

Kharadi lives in Surat, a town in Gujarat that is bucking this downward trend. The Parsi population here—the fourth largest in the country (at least 3,700, according to the directory of Zoroastrian residents of Surat, 2010)—has increased by 6% over six years. Sixty-five Parsi babies were born in the last five years in the city. Surat today has 200 more “Bawajis” (the local term for Parsis) than it did in 2005, according to the Surat Parsi Panchayat. The city’s directory of Parsis extends to over 100 pages.

“The increase is substantial considering our tiny size,” says Parsi novelist Bapsi Sidhwa from her residence in Houston, US, on email. Sidhwa says that at 700, Houston has as many Parsis as Delhi.

Eric Bhathawala and Zenobia got this one-bedroom flat from the Surat Parsi Panchayat in Shahpore’s Zarthosti Building, where they now live with their family, including their year-old daughter Manashni and Eric’s mother Beroz.Eric Bhathawala and Zenobia got this one-bedroom flat from the Surat Parsi Panchayat in Shahpore’s Zarthosti Building, where they now live with their family, including their year-old daughter Manashni and Eric’s mother Beroz.

“It’s only in Surat that our numbers have gone up,” says Darayas Master, president of the Surat Parsi Panchayat, the administrative body for the community in the city. Sitting in his office, a palatial building donated by an erstwhile nawab, he says, “Our scheme of giving flats on cheap terms to newly married couples can be followed in other panchayats.” In 2006, the panchayat started renting out flats at nominal rates to young people on the condition that they got married. Thirty-five flats have been given, and a new apartment building is coming up in Shahpore, the biggest enclave of Surat’s Parsis. The Gujarati slogan reads: “You provide children to the community, we will provide you shelter.” Kharadi’s soon-to-be-born baby is independent of the panchayat’s scheme. She lives in suburban Surat with her banker husband. But the scheme has been a boon for others.

The market value of each one-bedroom flat is Rs 6 lakh, and they are all owned by the panchayat, whose real estate holdings are worth Rs Rs 6,000 crore, according to Master. The flats are rented out for Rs 200 a month. “We give precedence to those who are not in a position to buy or rent a flat and, for that reason, don’t get married,” says Master.

As we converse over cups of chai, a girl in salwar-kameez enters the office carrying her wedding invitation, a document that has to be submitted with the application for a flat. Ferzin Rustom Guard is from Valsad, a town 72km away. A banker, she is getting married later this month. Her fiancé lives with his parents in a one-bedroom flat. “If there was no such scheme,” she says, “I would have postponed my marriage.”

“This has brought hope to us,” says Dinshaw Mehta, chairperson of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, the administrative body for the community in India. “We are copying the Surat formula.” In 2007, the Bombay panchayat started allotting housing on a priority basis to couples wanting to get married. It rents out flats in areas such as Andheri and Navroz Baug. Flats are also coming up in Goregaon and Andheri. “We’d started with 25% priority for young couples; now we have made it 50%,” says Mehta.

What accounts for the rise in Surat’s numbers? Ghambars, or social get-togethers, have helped young Parsis meet, steal glances, and have matches fixed by aunts over food. The yearly frequency of such get-togethers has increased nearly fourfold over the last decade, from 20 to 75. The migration of Parsis from the surrounding towns and villages, attracted by the accommodation on offer, has helped boost Surat’s numbers. While this may have led to a fall in the population in rural regions, the chances of finding a partner from within the community improved.

Although the city is a hub for the textile and diamond industries, Surat’s Parsis work in banks or run small businesses, operating electrical shops, pharmacies and travel agencies. The women pursue handicrafts—weaving saris with Parsi embroidery or making chutneys and preserves.

“Seeking higher education is not very much in evidence in Surat,” says Villoo Morawala-Patell, founder, chairman and managing director of Avesthagen Ltd, a Bangalore-based life sciences company that is conducting a genomic study of India’s Parsis. “So early marriages take place, hence the child-bearing years are long,” says Morawala-Patell, who has interviewed many of Surat’s Parsis.

Despite being just 0.08% of the city’s residents, the Parsi presence is disproportionately visible. The most beautiful houses in the old town are Parsi-built. The most popular bakery, Dotivala Bakers and Confectioners, is run by a Parsi.

The city has four Parsi pockets—Shahpore, Syedpur, Nanpura and Rustampura. Of these, Shahpore—home to the panchayat—is the community’s heart. With residential blocks, badis, bungalows, mansions, schools, hostels and old-age homes, parts of Shahpore remain a Parsi cluster. A store selling sandalwood sticks does brisk business outside the Shehensahi Atash Behram, the city’s biggest agiary (fire temple). Young dasturs, or priests, walk the streets dressed entirely in white. Men sit on terraces wearing the mandatory soudreh, a white muslin vest, and kusti, a string of sheep’s wool tied around the waist.

Shahpore’s Parsi General and Maternity Hospital, built circa 1920, has winding staircases, carved pillars, sprawling hallways, framed portraits and ornate windows. Its centrepiece is the labour room, complete with an old-fashioned crib. Until 30 years ago, Parsi women stayed in the hospital for 40 days after delivery and regularly hosted evening parties at the hospital; the hospital food was apparently so delicious that stories are told of Parsis faking illness in order to be admitted. Wandering its corridors today, however, there are no pregnant women in sight. The rooms are empty, the doctors’ quarters are closed, and the last few residents are elderly people left behind by their children. Outside, the children of Muslims, Shahpore’s newest settlers, are using the street as a makeshift cricket pitch.

Many subtle shifts shaping Parsi society are overlooked on the grounds that they don’t matter greatly in the face of the greater crisis. These issues, such as religious orthodoxy, women’s rights, a growing concern among the young about numbers, and evolving dynamics with other religions, are easier to detect in Surat than, say, in Mumbai, where one’s sense of the community can be limited to the neighbourhood or housing complex within which one lives.

“I want to marry, and I’ll marry only a Parsi,” says Kayomarz Homi Gyara, 21, a BCom student. Staying single is not a stigma among Parsis. “If people like me have at least two children, we can maintain our present number.” Gyara’s eldest sister is 26; she is getting married this month. She will be applying for a flat in the new building.

A Parsi girl who marries outside the community is still allowed entry into agiarys provided she hasn’t converted to her husband’s religion; her children, however, are not considered Zoroastrians. The children of Parsi men married to non-Parsi women are Zoroastrians, but the wives are not permitted to convert.

“Almost 30% of the girls in Delhi, Mumbai and the US are marrying out of the community,” says novelist Sidhwa. “Their spouses should be allowed to convert to the faith if they wish to. The wives of Parsi men should also be permitted to become Zoroastrians. Many men are marrying outside the community, and although their children are allowed to retain their faith, they seldom choose to, because their mothers are not accepted into it.”

There have been instances when women married to non-Parsis have been refused entry to agiarys. In Valsad, one such person was denied permission to attend a funeral. In 2010, the issue reached the Gujarat high court in the form of public interest litigation.

Taboos, however, won’t die out with a favourable verdict: “Once you pick a non-Parsi as your husband,” says Kharadi, “you have cut off your ties. There can’t be an entry after an exit.”

The Zarthosti Building in Shahpore is home to 100 residents. These congested single-bedroom flats might usher in a baby boom, but they may also put an end to joint families. Eric Bhathawala and Zenobia, who run tuition classes together, are a couple who have managed to keep their family together. Eric, who met Mumbai-based Zenobia on the matrimonial website Shaadi.com, came to Surat from his ancestral village only on receiving a flat from the panchayat. Soon after, his parents moved in with them. The couple’s year-old daughter is the youngest Parsi in the building.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hoshang Vesuna, a 37-year-old bank manager, a Parsi who left Shahpore to integrate into Gujarat’s mainstream society. His is the only Parsi family in the apartment building in which he lives. “I didn’t want my children to grow up in a ghetto of Parsis and Muslims,” he says. “They should live in a cosmopolitan set-up.”

One afternoon, Aadil Bhoja, a Parsi businessman living in a posh duplex apartment on Ghod Dod Road, drove around Shahpore, where he spent his childhood in the 1970s. Pointing to an alley, he said: “This is Machlipeeth, the butcher’s street. The Muslim area ended here. Ahead were the Parsis.” A minute later, Bhoja stopped the car and, waving to his right, said: “Here was Karnak House, my home. There were two storeys and the entire structure was of wood. We had carved doorways, balconies that jutted out, sculptured jaalis and a red-gabled roof. Our neighbour had 10 children.” The house has been replaced by a modern apartment block called Al-Marhab.

On the other side of the street is a wooden house raised on a platform, where a Parsi family continues to live. Step inside, and it’s like a museum: an antique clock, a wooden chest, iron trunks, a period mirror, an ornately carved table and a portrait of the prophet Zarathustra. Dressed in blue jeans and wearing his soudreh and kusti, Khusro Ruwala, the 27-year-old accountant who lives in this house with his father, says: “There’s pressure on us to sell this property. Soon, I’ll need another place to live. That’s why I’m thinking of marrying. I’ll get a flat then.”
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