IN a country where 70,000 babies are born every day, young Zahan Daruwala’s birth three months ago was a relatively rare event.
As the child of two Indian Parsi parents, Zahan is one of fewer than 200 likely to be born into his dwindling community this year.
By Amanda Hodge | The Australian
Births within the Parsi community — a group of Indians descended from Persian Zoroastrian migrants who fled forced Islamic conversions some 1300 years ago — are now such a rarity that the country’s planning commission last month announced a 20 million rupee ($350,000) fund to boost fertility levels.
India’s Parsi population, which has counted rock star Freddie Mercury, industrialist Ratan Tata and writer Rohinton Mistry among its members, has almost halved from just over 114,000 in 1941 to fewer than 61,000 in the imminent 2011 census results.
Mumbai’s community — still the largest in the world — has dropped to about 41,000. With the Parsi annual birth rate now 15 per cent of the death rate, the community is critically endangered.
But how — and
indeed whether — the Parsi race should be preserved is an argument that is raising uncomfortable notions of ethnic purity, arcane sexism and cultural exclusivity.
At the centre of the debate is the conservative Bombay Parsi Panchayet, a council of seven trustees that administers the community’s considerable wealth and doles out subsidies for housing, fertility and families with more than one child.
Since Mumbai’s first democratic Panchayet elections in 2008, the trustees have pushed back hard against reformists who seek to open up the community in order to preserve it.
Controversial trustee and Zoroastrian scholar Khojeste Mistree says such reformers miss the point.
"If the Parsi identity dissolves then by implication the Zoroastrian identity will dissolve for the simple reason that, historically for 3500 years, Zoroastriansim has been upheld and followed by Parsis," he told The Weekend Australian. "It’s an ethnically focused religion."
Zahan’s parents Anahita and Kaizad, both born into Parsi families, admit they too worry about the future of their community but not so much that they intend on having more than one or two children.
"It’s not just about populating the Parsi community," says Kaizad. "We need to give him a good education."
For generations the Bombay Panchayet has prohibited non-Parsis, including converts through marriage and the children of Parsi women who marry outside, from entering Mumbai fire temples and the Tower of Silence — a forested parkland where Parsis are lain after death to be consumed by vultures.
Parsi communities in other parts of India and the world place far fewer restrictions on converts and children from inter-marriages.
But Mistree insists allowing in converts "would be nailing the coffin of the community four generations downstream".
"By the fourth generation the Parsi identity dissolves so if you want to increase the Parsi community, the Parsi ethnicity, clearly intermarriage can’t be the answer.
"There’s a lot of pressure from our educated girls wanting acceptance for their children. If people choose to marry outside the tradition I don’t stop them but there are consequences."
Those consequences have included the ostracisation of two "renegade" priests in Mumbai who conducted religious initiations for children of intermarriages and prayers for Parsis who opted for cremation rather than having their bodies decay over weeks at the Tower of Silence — the vultures are long gone.
One of those priests took his case to the Mumbai High Court, which found in his favour on appeal. The Panchayet has now taken it to the higher Supreme Court.
Jehangir Patel, a secular Parsi and editor of Parsiana newspaper, has since the 1970s charted a community so admired for its business acumen and honesty that the advertisement of a second-hand car as "Parsi-owned" is considered warranty enough.
He says current Parsi exclusivity has been entirely influenced by the Indian caste system and has no basis in the Zoroastrian religion
Parsi Zoroastrians, like all Zoroastrians worldwide, follow the prophet Zarathustra and believe in the god Ahura Mazda. They worship in front of symbols of the sun or fire and believe that by doing good deeds they keep chaos at bay.
"(Mistree) is not willing to look at the issues from today’s perspective of equality for women and the fact we’re letting race dominate religious issues," says Patel.
"It’s sad because it’s one of the world’s oldest religions and I wonder if it will survive the Parsis."
Chief among Mumbai’s Parsi reformers is Kerssie Wadia who, with his brother Vispy, established the Association for the Revival of Zoroastrianism in 2004 in the hope of fostering a more inclusive community.
Wadia, a congenial chartered accountant, argues Khojeste’s ultra-orthodoxy comes from a misinterpretation of Zoroastrian texts and that the prophet intended it to be a "religion for all mankind".
"If Mistree was in the US, the UK or Australia (where there are some 2570 Parsis) he would be accused of racism.
"Parsis came to India 1400 years ago to preserve the religion because they were being forcibly converted (by Muslim invaders). They didn’t come to preserve the race."
Wadia hopes to set up a parallel infrastructure of Fire Temples and Towers of Silence that will welcome all converts to the religion and all children of intermarriages.
"I’m worried about this community because the age profile is totally against us. Last year there were 1000 registered deaths in Mumbai but only 143 births.
"We’re absolutely endangered," he says, firing off a further set of grim statistics.
Forty per cent marry outside the community; the average Parsi couple marries late, has 1.2 kids and an 11 per cent divorce rate. More than 45 per cent of Parsis are over 65.
Wadia accuses the Trustees of trying to buy ordinary Parsis’ votes with promises of better housing, child subsidies and the grandest of all schemes — a proposed 300 million rupee project to preserve Bombay’s historic Tower of Silence by building a giant vulture aviary over it.
While the ARZ has growing international support — especially among north American Zoroastrians who refuse to even use the word Parsi — Wadia fears that a Supreme Court ruling upholding the Panchayet’s appeal will empower it to excommunicate all dissenters.
Mistree too is worried for the future but says as a scholar and trustee he has a responsibility to ensure the community does not spiral into "religious anarchy".
"We have to do our best to preserve our ethnic identity and leave it in God’s hands. I’m not being fatalistic. My position is we have to be proactive and make our youngsters realise that it’s beautiful to marry within the fold.
"How can that be racist?"