Fortune’s fallout: Parsis are victims of their own wealth


June 23, 2006

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Religion and real estate make a lethal alloy, and its the one piercing the heart of the Parsi community. Its latest manifestation was the resignation on Tuesday of four out of six trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP).

This unprecedented pull-out created a constitutional crisis in the 350-year-old institution, one that has become de facto community leader because it controls the purse-strings of virtually all the fabled Parsi trusts.

This also makes the Bombay Parsi Punchayat the second biggest landlords in a city where, more than anywhere else in India, property is to die for and kill for. Think of only one of its holdings, the 45-acre Towers of Silence property embracing the platinum crest of Malabar Hill.

The current crisis has arisen over the anger of the majority of trustees against the way one of their board, Dinshaw Mehta, has vitiated the disbursement of Bombay Parsi Punchayat-controlled housing.

The specific trigger was a flat in his daughter’s maiden name, which he recently made over to a third party. The flat was in a building given to the community by a trust, named after Mehta’s father. The file relating to the trust itself has allegedly disappeared from the Punchayat office.

Whatever the merits of this case, or lack of them, housing is the community’s most precious commodity and its most controversial. Many of the 4,500 flats in the so-called charitable baugs are regularly ‘transferred’ from the original d e s e r v i n g tenants to richer Parsis , who can pay the ‘security deposit’ , which crosses Rs 1 crore for the airy expanses in prime locations .

The spoils are shared between the tenant and the landlord, that is the BPP. There are whispers of private sub-deals to lubricate the transfer. All this has stirred up so much litigation that the bill of just one solicitor arguing just one case on behalf of the Bombay Parsi Punchayat before just the charity commissioner has already run into Rs 4.5 lakh. There are hundreds of these.

Housing has become an instrument of emotional blackmail, with a large chunk of the community’s demographic downslide being nailed at its door. Parsis delay marriage till they get a flat of their own, and this community has been spoilt by the munificence and foresight – of its forebears. The security-deposit syndrome has skewed the math.

The cauldron has boiled over further with the addition of the even more emotive factor of religion. The whole ‘sacred’ issue of who can be admitted into the faith is vitiated by the secular fear of all the valuable property falling into the hands of ‘outsiders’ , who, like sleazy citizenship-seekers , could ‘exploit’ innocent Parsi girls merely to lay their hands on prime property.

Even the genuine concern over the disappeared vultures of the Towers of Silence is being projected in some quarters as a sinister , and very lucrative, land-grab opportunity.

The recent controversy is one more example of fiddling while a once-awesome community divides itself into irrelevance. The leadership vacuum created by successive Trustees has led to all manner of people stepping into the breach to play on the emotions of an aging and vulnerable community, resulting in greater paranoia, and increasing ghettoisation.

But the nomenclature gets grander. The World Association of Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians was formed to bring back the ‘purity’ compromised by such intermarriage condoning bodies as the World Zoroastrian Organisation .

More recently a flashy builder launched the Parsee Resource Group with all the hoopla of corporatised evangelism. Fundamentalism is the accepted currency of the priesthood, but the greater tragedy is that they are manipulated by secular puppeteers.

Or there is the charismatic and scholastic Khojastee Mistree, who single-handed sparked religious interest in the young in the 1970s, but who has now taken an extremist stand in his mission to save the religion from ‘reformist ‘ sinners. The liberals play smug martyrs.

It is the saddest irony, hazardous myopia destroying a community that was once celebrated for its vision.

Original article in TOI