Pranab Babu’s pioneering budgetary allocation for threatened communities wasn’t met with the raising of a Parsi peg or gongs resounding from Mumbai’s fire temples. A community that controls enough trust funds to keep the country out of fuel price hikes doesn’t need the FM’s Rs 1 crore.
A proud community that famously turned its back on reserved representation at the founding of the Republic can’t be expected to take kindly to being shoved into a metaphoric tribal ‘reservation’. A people being driven to extinction from too much of its own civilization can’t be equated with some Onge aboriginal. The very suggestion is enough to fray the Belgian lace doily, untune the Steinway, and stop Daisy and Dinsu in mid-dance.
But, seriously, the Parsi dilemma no longer sounds like one of our corny comedies. A section of the community might be in denial, but the precipitous decline of 10% in every census is catastrophic. More so when the current base of absolute numbers is just over 60,000 in India.
We are in a Catch-22 situation. Keep our fiercely protected racial purity, and we lose the numbers essential to viability. Pump up the numbers with conversion or intermarriage, and we must dump our distinctive identity. The increasing diaspora is perforce coming to terms with one verity: the Parsis as a race may have to be sacrificed on altered reality, but their religion, Zoroastrianism, will undoubtedly survive.
Because mixed marriages are almost inevitable there, many individuals or even groupings abroad have jettisoned the ‘Parsi’ label, and simply refer to themselves as free-floating ‘Zoroastrians’. Again to circumvent fissiparous controversy, they have chosen not to establish a single sanctified fire temple. They make do with prayer halls housing an electronic flame where everyone is free to worship instead of getting consumed by the impossible task of segregating the ‘pure’ from those in differing strengths of dilution. In Iran where Zoroastrianism began, fire temples have traditionally been open to all. But those in its 1,000-year-old Indian base, remain zealously exclusive, a practice understandable in a ‘minuscularity’ which had fled religious persecution and remained vulnerable for centuries even in India.
The epic tragedy of India’s Parsis is that, a millennium later, we find ourselves in the same paranoia trap — despite our immense communal wealth and an even greater fund of secular good earned by our contribution to the country’s intellectual, economic, social and cultural reserves. We have not been able to arrest either our dwindling demography or our cultural isolation. Unlike our founding fathers, this time round, we have largely ourselves to blame.
Paranoia is notoriously cannibalistic. It has fed on its own fears and emaciated an exemplary people. The locks it has put on its membership and its places of worship are but symptoms of a deeper malaise — the shutting down of a once-inspiring mind. Indeed, if Parsis are so dangerously on the brink, not just in numbers but on all indices of viability, it is because we have become the exact opposite of everything that once made them iconic.
Physically and mentally, we were once globally adventurous; today we have barricaded ourselves in our colonies where the ghettos of the mind so easily flourish and fester. Our sense of humour was legendary, and a major factor of our lovability quotient; today our grim inability to laugh at ourselves is as much the cause as the effect of a loss of self-confidence.
Worst of all, the community’s crimes against its women have brought the vultures home to roost. Educated, empowered, equal in letter and spirit, our women were our most distinctive strength. Today they are painted as Villain No 1 — for marrying outside the community and therefore precipitating the decline. The orthodoxy — and too often their own parents — treat them as outcasts, their kids as bastards. The obvious and immediate solution to the depleting numbers would be to welcome their progeny into the fold in the same way that children of intermarried men routinely are. But to suggest this is both heresy and high treason.
It could end up as being counter-productive as well. The absurd response to this rational suggestion has been: “You want us to be evenhanded? Fine. We will ostracize the children of the men as well.” Women’s Day tomorrow is slated to mark a historic milestone for Indian women. The millstone for their Parsi contingent will remain unchanged.
It may sound simplistic or forcibly feminist to think that this one simple change will halt the Parsis’ hurtle down the precipice. But, truly, intermarriage has become an obsessive compulsive disorder, blinding out the real problems. Youth congresses and camps have become covert matrimonial markets instead of addressing the big issues of career counselling and venture capital. The World Zarathushti Chamber of Commerce is a notable exception. Marriage has turned into a weapon of emotional blackmail, forcing women into hydra-headed frustrations and depleting this rich gender resource. And no one wants to talk about the physical and mental health problems attendant on inbreeding.
The coveted community housing too has been subpoenaed for the same agenda. And, in turn, every progressive move becomes a sinister instrument of subversion: portrayed as land grab or fund grab, and deepening the paranoia.
The inquiring mind is what took the Parsis to their pinnacle. Today, to question is branded an act of blasphemy and sedition. But the sparks of hope could come from outside the swaggering power base. In Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, smaller Parsi-Zoroastrian communities are quietly making adjustments to changed realities, with no loss of identity, only greater unity and happiness. Maybe they need to secede even further, and show the Bombay Brahmins what’s possible and desirable. Opening windows is the best known cure for the claustrophobia of closed minds.
Parsi: An ethnic label given in British colonial times to the descendants of the original refugees who arrived from Persia circa 1000 AD. They were given refuge by Jadi Rana of Sanjan in Gujarat. However, the seductive and self-fulfilling sugar-in-milk story could be apocryphal since it finds no mention in the definitive record of that historic event, the Kissah-e-Sanjan
Zoroastrianism: Almost exclusively the Parsis’ religious identity. They fled their Persian homeland to safeguard it from a rising Islam. Preached by Zarathushtra some 4,000 years ago, it is perhaps the world’s first monotheistic religion; it believes in the dual existence of good and evil, and leaves the choice to its followers, hoping that its triple tenets of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds will influence their decision