Giving, time, and a wish


October 5, 2019

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This forum, Gospels of giving, is dedicated to discussing wealth and why it is given. One of my central research questions concerns how wealth is given. What tools or techniques do the wealthy use to dispense their charity and, as such, ultimately, their vision for the future?

Apart from a few tales about Howard Hughes giving a $100 tip, most stories of the wealthy are not of immediate or direct giving. Few “make it rain.” Instead, most of the wealthy use legal and financial instruments, and often teams of professionals, to grow, manage, and dispense their wealth. Or as the “Panama papers” show, people of means often use the mobility of their money to arbitrage favorable tax regimes, hiding their fortunes off shore, and allowing them to grow even further.

Article by Leilah Vevaina | The Immanent Frame

One key instrument the wealthy use to give and maintain their legacy is the trust, wherein an asset is entrusted for a specific purpose for beneficiaries and managed by trustees. As Daromir Rudnyckyj writes that the waqf is a possible instrument for the mobilization of capital, the trust, a parallel instrument, similarly holds the possibility to mobilize, pause, and accumulate capital over a very long period, with charitable giving, in perpetuity. My research in India is an ethnographic study of how Parsis, Indian Zoroastrians, utilize the charitable trust to create very particular property relations in the city of Bombay-Mumbai.1 It relates how this religious minority deploys the trust form in various ways to mark urban space and retain a particular sense of their ethnoreligious identity. In the city today, Parsis are synonymous with charitable giving even as their population is dwindling. Due to their early dealings with colonial powers, Parsis are some of the largest landowners in the city, both privately and communally, through their favorite instrument of giving, the public charitable trust.

Much of Parsi wealth accumulation resulted from the “country trade” between India and China in the eighteenth century. Wealth earned from trade in opium and tea, and then later from cotton, was then targeted to city improvements through charitable institutions such as hospitals, schools, and water tanks, but also lavish private estates. A merchant prince like Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy not only gave to his own religious community, but also worked with colonial authorities to build needed city infrastructure for all of Bombay’s inhabitants. By endowing his opium fortunes, Jeejeebhoy’s name still echoes through the city on the colleges, hospitals, and libraries he endowed, as well as through his descendants, still bearing his name and baronet title, as the trustees. He was able to execute his vision for the future by giving charity through the trust.

These charitable investments paid great dividends in reputational gains as well, bringing Parsis to the fore of elite Indians, and later to the Independence Movement. The British legal form of the trust was readily taken up by Parsis in the late eighteenth century. It resembled an already familiar endowment form, the Zoroastrian endowment, which can be dated back to at least Sassanian times in Iran. Most historians of the community in India turn to the Parsi Prakash, a kind of almanac of community events in Gujarati in ten volumes, initiated by Bahmanji Behramji Patel beginning in the late 1870s and ending in 1970. The Prakash is actually a compilation of benevolent practices and the concomitant successes and failures of this micro-community. Even within historiography, charitable giving therefore comes to stand in as a marker of community history.

One of the key techniques of the charitable trust, a legal instrument given perpetual status in India, is to hinge together capital, time, and a wish. For example, the Tata and Godrej families, among other prominent industry players, have bound charitable giving to their enormous corporate profits for the benefit of the Indian public since the founding of their companies in the late nineteenth century. For many Parsi donors, however, their express wish was to house and spiritually nurture their tiny community.

While charitable giving is an integral pillar of the Zoroastrian religion, the status of Parsis as an ethnoreligious minority in India has turned and targeted much of their giving goals particularly to build, maintain, and defend their community. Reflecting the shifting challenges over time, Parsi trusts over the last centuries support temple building, housing, and welfare programs, which now include an IVF clinic to aid infertile Parsi couples. Therefore, while giving is utilized to address education, medical care, and housing needs, it is also practiced as a particular mode of ethnoreligious survival.

This perpetual instrument, whether put toward public or communal benefit, is still intensely about how and whether one generation transfers its wealth to their kin. As Katharyne Mitchell writes in this series, giving creates interdependence and obligations. One prominent example in my work is the story of Jerbai Wadia (1852-1956), a widow of a hugely wealthy Parsi industrialist, who, instead of bequeathing her fortune to her living sons, chose to endow most of her wealth into several trust housing colonies. Wadia’s giving transformed the settlement of the Parsi community as she endowed enormous plots of land and built housing colonies with about 1500 charity flats. This subsidized housing remains very comfortable enclave living for thousands of Parsis, who were enticed to settle in the city from rural towns. It is rumored that Wadia disinherited her sons as they had converted to Christianity. Nevertheless, while divesting them of full ownership she did bind them to the trust properties as trustees. To this day, Wadia’s family continues to manage the properties that she left to the Parsi community. One of the key aims of my research is to analyze this configuration of endowment as it dissolves individual ownership into intergenerational obligation. Her descendants must disperse her capital according to her wishes. With her endowment, Wadia is able to retain her charitable wish through time and in perpetuity.

While endowing wealth has consequences to immediate kin, done on a larger scale, like we see with the Parsis, such endowments have critical consequences for fostering communal assets, but also for maintaining or even exacerbating long term inequalities within and between communities and within urban space. For instance, while there are many poor Parsis, most are fully supported by charity welfare programs run by Parsi trusts, offering highly subsidized housing, free education, and medical care. This has become possible only because the trust structures charitable obligations as a temporal hinge: connecting past and present, the beneficence of the settlor to all beneficiaries through time. Contemporary Parsis therefore continue to benefit from the ways that people like Jeejeebhoy and Wadia have bound their capital through time together with their wishes.

Relative to the average Mumbaiker, half of whom live in informal housing, this supportive web of charitable giving has kept Parsis, over the long term, within the middle class: housed, educated, and upwardly mobile. On the other hand, it has entrenched very specific notions of communal and gender propriety. Spatially, too, perpetual trust properties along with old rent control laws have further intensified housing inequalities in this megacity, removing properties from public circulation and reserving them only for specified beneficiaries. While the instrument allows for perpetual giving, the trust’s persistence in time, connecting capital with a wish, may constrain benefit, making some trustworthy and others not.

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Leilah Vevaina

Leilah Vevaina will be joining the faculty of Anthropology at Chinese University Hong Kong in December 2019 and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Gottingen, Germany. She received her MA and PhD in Social Anthropology from the New School for Social Research. She also has an MA in Social Thought from New York University. Her book manuscript, Trust Matters: Religious Endowments, Parsis, and Property in Mumbai, lies at the intersection of urban property and religious life within the legal regimes of contemporary India.