House of Fire: Can India’s Parsis survive their own success?

Fali Madon was looking for a bride. A boyish twenty-seven-year-old with twin passions for physical fitness and expensive cars, Fali was the chief priest of a Parsi fire temple in the Colaba district of Mumbai. For six years he’d been searching for a wife from within his tiny, tight-knit community — the Parsis, Indian practitioners of the ancient Zoroastrian faith, number some 60,000 in a country of 1.2 billion — but so far he’d had no luck.

Article by Nell Freudenberger | Harpers

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To help his chances, Fali visited a bar on a Sunday evening last summer for a karaoke night organized by a Parsi youth group. He showed up in stylish rectangular glasses and a tight-fitting Michael Jackson T-shirt. The lights were low and the bartenders did a brisk business as pop songs reverberated off the stone walls and beamed ceiling. While Fali chatted with friends, the crowd sang the chorus of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” He mentioned that he was planning to attend a rain dance in August, at the height of the monsoon season, where — if it wasn’t raining already — participants would dance under jets of water. When the first chords of Jackson’s “Black or White” came over the sound system, the crowd whistled and the emcee called Fali’s name; it was his turn to sing.

I first met Fali on a rainy day in July of last year. The fire temple, or agiary, where he lives and works is surrounded by a large courtyard with palm trees and bougainvillea growing in pots. Two leonine fravahars, winged guardians with human faces, flank a pair of ornate bronze doors that lead to the inner sanctum, where a sacred fire, the tending of which is Fali’s primary responsibility as priest, has burned continuously for 180 years. Colaba was still an island when the fire temple was built, in 1836; now it stands in a quiet corner of fashionable South Mumbai, near the navy cantonment as well as the shops and offices of the World Trade Centre.

When I arrived at the agiary complex, Fali’s father, Khushroo, who is also a priest, led me under an umbrella to their accommodations; as an outsider, I wasn’t allowed in the temple itself. Fali and Khushroo were wearing the garments of their office: a white cotton jacket that ties at the throat and chest, called a dugli, and a white tapered cap, or pagri. Fali told me that as a member of the hereditary Parsi priesthood, he had always expected to officiate at least part-time. He was ordained by his father at thirteen, following a twenty-four-day period of ritual seclusion inside the fire temple. After graduating from college with a degree in sociology, he took a job with the Godrej Group, a Parsi family business that is one of India’s largest conglomerates. Later he managed a Swarovski store, worked as a trainer at a Gold’s Gym, and even performed magic — a common sideline for Zoroastrian priests — with his father, who was known for his ability to make BMWs disappear.

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According to the Madons, it was Khushroo, not Fali, who should have been appointed chief priest of the Colaba agiary. By 2013, however, when the position opened up, Khushroo had become the focus of the two most vitriolic disputes within Mumbai’s small but influential Zoroastrian community. Interfaith marriages have long been permitted for Parsi men, but Khushroo is one of the few priests in the city who is willing to perform them for Parsi women as well; he also welcomes the children of those marriages into the faith with a navjote, an initiation ceremony similar to a bar or bat mitzvah. Many Parsis argue that accepting the children of intermarried women is essential if the community is going to survive, but Khushroo says that he is not motivated by demographic concerns. Citing the Gathas, hymns composed by the Prophet Zoroaster, he insisted that anyone can follow the religion. “I don’t know why they are restricting it only to Parsis,” he said.

Even more controversial is Khushroo’s willingness to say funeral prayers for Parsis who choose cremation over the traditional Zoroastrian practice of sky burial, in which corpses are placed on open-air towers to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey. In 2009 the trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (B.P.P.), an elected group of seven men and women who administer the enormously valuable real-estate holdings of Mumbai’s Parsi community, prohibited Khushroo from performing funeral ceremonies at Doongerwadi, the fifty-five-acre forested estate that surrounds the so-called Towers of Silence. In 2011, the Bombay High Court lifted the ban, but the B.P.P. appealed the case to the Indian Supreme Court, where it languished for three years. Khushroo knew that the litigation would make it difficult for him to secure a permanent position as a priest, so he told the main patron of the Colaba agiary, “If you appoint me as a chief priest in your fire temple, you will have a lot of political flak. I have an idea — just consider it for one minute. You appoint my son. I will be behind him.”

While Fali’s eighty-six-year-old great-aunt served me sweet, milky tea, the young chief priest went into the sanctuary to perform the Uziren Geh, a ritual prayer that marks one of the five periods of the Zoroastrian day. Like nearly a third of Parsis, Fali’s aunt had never married; she often stayed at the fire temple with the Madons and liked to spoil her great-nephew by cooking him dhansak, a Parsi dish made from mutton and lentils. (Fali, in turn, had taught her to play solitaire on his computer.) When Fali returned after the ritual, he applauded the patrons, who had appointed him chief priest in July 2013: “They said, ‘Let controversies come, but we will take a bold stand.’ ”

Fali was used to receiving unwanted attention because of his father’s opinions. In high school, his religion teacher, who was also a B.P.P. trustee, mocked Khushroo’s unorthodoxy and suggested in front of the class that Fali and his family were performing the irregular ceremonies for financial reward. And since the B.P.P. brought its case to the Supreme Court, Fali has sometimes been mentioned along with his father in the local and national press. Still, he counted his appointment as a major honor.

Fali’s position at the agiary gave him a central role in the controversies surrounding his father, but it also complicated his marriage prospects. The income of a Zoroastrian priest is no match for what an educated young man might earn in India’s booming technology and finance industries, which is why Fali’s younger brother, Jimmy, went abroad, to London, for college. Jimmy, who now works as a software engineer, performs ceremonies for British Parsis in his spare time, but he acknowledged that being a full-time priest in India is much harder. Among some young people in Mumbai, he told me, the stereotype is that you became a priest if you didn’t graduate or get a job. And while Fali is allowed, and expected, to live at the fire temple, he receives no health insurance or pension. When I first met him he said that marrying a non-Parsi was out of the question; finding a Parsi wife meant wooing someone who could accept a life tied to the rhythms of the fire temple and whose family would be willing to embrace one of the faith’s most notoriously liberal practitioners.

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Fali complained that the current set of B.P.P. trustees had “spoiled the name of the community,” but his disdain for his father’s antagonists did not extend to Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation, the youth wing of the B.P.P., which had organized the karaoke night. At the bar, the crowd had shouted for him with special fervor — almost as a mascot might be hailed by fans whose pride stopped short of inspiring them to put on the costume themselves. Even Khushroo was enthusiastic about ZYNG events, though several of the group’s organizers were children of the trustees who had brought the case against him. In such a small community, there were only so many places where a young man might meet his future wife.

Zoroastrianism is a 3,500-year-old faith based on the appealingly concrete practice of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” In the tenth century, the ancestors of today’s Parsis fled persecution under Iran’s Muslim Arab conquerors and traveled to India — by open boat, according to legend — seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. By most accounts, they found it: Parsis were among the first Indians to take advantage of Western education, and during the nineteenth century a number of them made fortunes as bankers, moneylenders, and maritime traders. Shipping opium to China was especially lucrative, and many Parsi families reinvested their profits from that enterprise in the textile industry. The dazzlingly successful Tata family, who got their start operating cotton mills in Bombay, went on to found a multinational corporation that now accounts for more than 2 percent of India’s GDP. Parsis started the first Indian cricket club, in 1848, and they embraced Western art forms, music in particular. Some of the most internationally recognized Indian artists have been Parsi: Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), the conductor Zubin Mehta, and Rohinton Mistry, whose novels encouraged America’s love affair with Anglophone Indian literature. Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet follows a Parsi musician who can hear Western music before it is composed, told me that the Parsis of Bombay “were among the city’s greatest benefactors. The cosmopolitan, wide-ranging, tolerant, artistic character of Bombay in the post-independence years had much to do with the disproportionately large influence of the small Parsi community.”

The light complexions some Parsis inherited from their Persian ancestors almost certainly improved their relations with the British; during the Raj, they often served as liaisons between the colonial authorities and other Indians. This position didn’t always endear them to their compatriots. In 1874 a reference to the Prophet Mohammed in a book by a Parsi author sparked a brutal riot, and in 1921 Parsis were involved in a street fight occasioned by the Prince of Wales’s visit to Bombay. According to Naresh Fernandes, in his book City Adrift, the confrontation involved a group of Parsis who had watched the royal procession and a crowd of Gandhi’s followers who were returning from a bonfire in Bombay’s mill district. The nationalists had set alight foreign-made clothes — thousands of rupees’ worth — to illustrate their commitment to swadeshi, or self-reliance, and the sight of their countrymen cheering the prince infuriated them. Yet Parsis such as Bhikaiji Cama, who designed an early version of the Indian flag, and Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian elected to the House of Commons, were instrumental in the struggle for independence. Life has been mostly peaceful for the Parsis since 1947: “By then they’d become too prosperous to be scrapping in the street, I think,” Fernandes told me.

Charity is encouraged by Zoroastrianism, but philanthropy was also a useful way to purge the taint of the opium trade and of colonial favoritism. Today, so many schools, hospitals, and research institutions bear the names of Parsis that the civic life of India, and especially Mumbai, is almost unimaginable without them. Parsis maintain a reputation for moral rectitude in a city that isn’t known for it. (“If you’re looking for a used car,” a Hindu friend told me, “you want the Parsi-owned Fiat.”) The stereotypical Parsi has a sense of humor, likes a drink (the “Parsi peg”), and is forgiven for being a little eccentric because of his charm. Their small numbers make them insignificant as a vote bank — the only Zoroastrian name in the cabinet of prime minister Narendra Modi belongs to a Hindu former beauty queen who married into the faith — and the behind-the-scenes nature of their political influence might be the reason they’re admired more often than resented for their wealth, education, and cosmopolitanism. Known by the nickname bawas — from a Gujarati word for “father” — they are Indians who represent an escape from the most difficult things about India, and for that they are beloved.

The Parsi population peaked at 115,000 in 1941, just before independence, and since then the decline in their numbers has been so steep that extinction is an imminent threat. Today, the entire community could fit comfortably in the stands of Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, the preferred stadium of India’s national cricket team. Parsis have one of the lowest fertility rates on earth, which most studies attribute to a culture that encourages late marriage and singlehood. Dinyar Patel, a historian of South Asia at the University of South Carolina who has written about the demographic crisis, explained that “in India everyone is pressured by a certain age, especially women, to get married.” In the Parsi community, he said, that pressure is “noticeably absent.” The trends persist across socioeconomic lines: the bleak demographic picture is similar in rural Gujarat and affluent, cosmopolitan Mumbai.

Most of the family-planning initiatives undertaken by the Indian government are working to keep the country’s population, which is growing by more than 40,000 people per day, in check. It’s a testament to the Parsis’ outsize influence, then, that in September 2013, the government launched Jiyo Parsi, an advocacy and fertility-treatment program designed to stop the community’s population decline.

Parveen Pavri — not her real name — was one of the first women to successfully conceive with the help of Jiyo Parsi’s subsidized in vitro fertilization. Pavri is a striking woman in her late thirties with strong features and an intellectual intensity that magnifies her physical presence. She earned a doctorate in psychology with a dissertation on the effects of sexual abuse on South Asian women, and, in the years before she had children, spent much of her time doing pro bono counseling, especially for single Parsi women hoping to get married.

Pavri lives in one of Mumbai’s northern suburbs; her apartment is part of a network of community-owned housing open only to Parsis. When I visited her last summer, five months into her pregnancy, the landing on her floor was clouded with a noxious, sweet smoke that might have alarmed another expectant mother. Pavri waved a hand impatiently in front of her face. “Fumigation,” she said, before ushering me into a living room with a hilltop view.

Pavri grew up in the midst of an extended family, and describes herself as less a devout Zoroastrian than someone whose identity is closely bound up with being Parsi. She told me that it took ten years of searching before she met her husband. Most of her relatives had found their spouses using detailed horoscopes called kundli, but Pavri, who considered the method unnecessarily restrictive — not to mention superstitious — arranged her marriage in the contemporary manner: on the Internet. She and her husband had a brief courtship after finding each other on a Parsi matrimonial website, and they started trying to have a baby as soon as they were married. When she still wasn’t pregnant four years later, they approached Jiyo Parsi for help.

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“You are respected whether you are married or have children or don’t,” Pavri told me. “Which is, I think, a very progressive outlook, because it took the pressure off me. But at the same time it meant that in some way the risk-taking was my own.” Like many Indians, she’d been wary of advanced fertility treatments, and hadn’t known much about how they worked. “A lot of the elderly people don’t really know what I.V.F. is,” she said. “In the community, they are the ones you look up to.” When I asked Anahita Pandole, Pavri’s doctor and the obstetrician in charge of Jiyo Parsi’s medical program, about the stigma surrounding I.V.F. in India, she first maintained that there was none. But later she admitted that many of her patients switched hospitals just before delivering their babies. “Very often they won’t deliver at this hospital because it’s connected to the I.V.F. department.”

When Pavri learned that I.V.F. had helped her conceive twins, she and her husband were startled and anxious. At the time of my visit, they hadn’t yet made preparations for the babies in the apartment, but two calendars were pinned to the front door. The 600-square-foot apartment was especially quiet by Mumbai standards. The only sounds were the faraway traffic and a single, wet crow calling from a wire against a lead-colored sky. A family shrine, common in Parsi homes, held pictures of Zoroaster and of Pavri’s late parents, along with a fresh marigold and a candle enclosed in a silver latticework shade. Her father was fifty years old when she was born, and her mother died of cancer, which is unusually prevalent in the community’s tiny gene pool, when she was only ten. Waiting for the babies, Pavri found that she missed her parents more than ever. She put her hands under her belly to support the unaccustomed weight, and described a “huge malaise” among Parsis that she admits would seem a luxury in many other Indian communities: “Everyone’s living on their own island.”

I have a problem,” Najma Heptulla told me last summer at her office in New Delhi. “I have to get Parsis to have more babies. I have to get everyone else to have less.” As India’s minister of minority affairs, Heptulla shares responsibility for Jiyo Parsi with the B.P.P. She has spent much of her thirty years in government working on women’s issues, and she tends to speak her mind even when it gets her in trouble. Referring to the children of Parsi women who have married outside the faith, she said, “They should accept the children. They should change their attitude if they really want the community to survive.”

What Heptulla sees as her double challenge was tragically illustrated a few months after we met. In November, thirteen women died at sterilization camps in the state of Chhattisgarh, in central India. The women came from poor farming families, and had received monetary inducements from the state government — the equivalent of less than ten dollars each — to undergo tubal-ligation surgery. That same month, Jiyo Parsi released a print advocacy campaign that was designed by a Parsi-owned advertising agency. The ads featured recognizable Parsi types, with dire warnings about the community’s demographic fate. In one ad, a ballerina in a tiara and tutu looks down at the camera, above the tagline, “Who will be snooty about being superior, if you don’t have kids?” In another, a sign outside Mumbai’s largest Parsi colony has been changed to read hindu colony: “If you don’t get married and have kids, this area will have a new name in your lifetime.” The ads incited fury among many Parsis, who argued that the campaign infringed on women’s reproductive freedom and sowed intercommunal friction. The press pointed out the hypocrisy of a government that subsidized expensive fertility treatments for a wealthy community while bribing the poor to be sterilized.

In 2002, when I was in India trying to write a book, I tagged along with a friend to a navjote in Juhu, a suburb of Mumbai. Zoroastrians believe that children are incapable of sinning until they choose to join the religion, and a navjote marks that occasion. The ceremony took place inside a modern, glass-fronted beach house, where the children had a ritual bath and sipped consecrated urine from a white bull to purify themselves. The practice has its roots in ancient Iran, where animal urine was a common antiseptic. (“That’s the only part you dread,” the young man who was initiated told me later.) During the ceremony, girls and boys alike are invested with symbols of their new responsibility: a sacred shirt and cord that they are supposed to wear under their clothes for the rest of their lives. A pocket on the front of the thin muslin shirt is meant as a repository for the good thoughts, words, and deeds to come. Siblings close in age normally share a navjote, which can be as expensive as a wedding; at the ceremony I attended, the brother and sister, twelve and seven, took turns shouting the prayers, each trying to overpower the other. The priests, who wore white cloths over their mouths to prevent ritual contamination, covered the ground with rice, pomegranate seeds, and rose petals to symbolize immortality and prosperity.

After the ceremony, the party moved outside, to an expansive lawn that sloped down to the beach, where fourteenth-century Vijayanagar temple statues complemented modern Japanese sculptures in black stone. Adults sipped bright cocktails in the shade of coconut palms while a magician performed for the children. A keyboard player accompanied guests who wanted to sing, of whom there were many: the great-grandmother of the newly initiated siblings belted a nostalgic rendition of “The Ballad of Grace Darling,” an English folk song about a Victorian lighthouse keeper’s daughter. The boys at the party slipped down to the beach to play cricket as soon as they could.

A few weeks later, I had lunch with Pheroza Vakil, a great-aunt of the children whose navjote I’d witnessed; she had volunteered to hire the priest and to help the children prepare their prayers during the months leading up to the event. We sat in the courtyard of her home at Khareghat Colony, a Parsi enclave at the foot of Malabar Hill. Pheroza had lived in the large apartment on the ground floor of Wadia House — a pale-yellow mansion with white columns — since 1917, when she was four years old. When she was eighteen, her father died suddenly of a heart attack, and Pheroza had worked hard to contribute to the family’s income. After graduating from the elite Queen Mary School, she studied with Maria Montessori in Madras, and later opened a nursery school in her home. In the evenings she taught swimming lessons at a local pool. Pheroza, who never married, was known for her daring fashion choices and late nights on the town. In the 1940s, when Indian women were almost never seen exercising in public, she used to jog along the Hughes Road flyover, and during World War II, on the brink of India’s independence, she drove an ambulance in Bombay.

Pheroza’s mother was a Wadia, a member of one of India’s most illustrious Parsi families. Lowjee Wadia, an eighteenth-century carpenter from Surat, built Bombay’s first dry dock and helped turn the city into a powerhouse of trade. (Like many Parsi family names — Doctor, Engineer, and Batliwala, “bottle seller,” are common — Wadia is an occupational name; it designates a master shipbuilder.) The British forced the Chinese to sign the humiliating Treaty of Nanking, which ended the First Opium War, on the deck of a Wadia-built ship, the H.M.S. Cornwallis. Belowdecks a Wadia craftsman impatient with colonial hypocrisy had carved an inscription: “This ship was built by a damned Black Fellow, a.d. 1800.”

When I met Pheroza I was lonely and at loose ends in Mumbai, and looking for a place to stay. At the end of our second lunch, she offered me a room in her apartment. I accepted on the spot, and returned from the YWCA that evening with my bags. Pheroza refused payment for the room, and would accept only small house presents like shampoo and chocolate. Mallomars were her favorite. No matter what size the gift, she would hold it up appraisingly and exclaim, “Such a lot!”

At ninety Pheroza still took a walk every day along a route that passed by Doongerwadi, the verdant reserve where the corpses of deceased Parsis are left to excarnate on secluded cylindrical towers called dokhma. When I accompanied her, we could only walk around the outskirts; posted signs forbade non-Parsis from entering. Once a quick and ecologically friendly way to dispose of the dead, the practice of dokhmenashini has been threatened by a decline in India’s vulture population. (The vultures’ demise also put an end to a peculiar form of gentrification: bits of toes or fingers were rumored to appear on the terraces of luxury flats built near the site in the 1970s.) Publicity about the glut of corpses in the dokhma has swayed even devout Zoroastrians; Pheroza told me that she was no longer sure she would opt for a traditional funeral.

It was in response to the wishes of people like Pheroza that Khushroo Madon began, in 2009, to officiate for Parsis who chose to be cremated. Because the practice is unconventional, he and Fali are required to perform the first four days of prayers at the home of the deceased, rather than at Doongerwadi or an agiary. After that initial period, the prayers can continue at a fire temple, as they would for the soul of a person who had opted for dokhmenashini. “That means four days they punish the soul for getting the body cremated, and from fifth day they pardon the soul,” Khushroo told me in Colaba. “Isn’t it ridiculous?”

Not without a hint of boastfulness, Parsis often blame their population decline on the professional ambition and worldliness of their young people. Today, about 40 percent of Parsis in Mumbai marry outside the faith. In the United States and Canada, home to the Parsis’ two largest diaspora populations — 10,000 and 5,000, respectively — the figures are closer to 60 percent. In 1991, a Parsi woman named Goolrokh Contractor married a Hindu, Mahipal Gupta, and took his last name. The Guptas lived in Valsad, a coastal city north of Mumbai, where the local Parsi council had barred intermarried women from attending certain funeral ceremonies. In 2010, Gupta filed a petition with the high court in Gujarat to overturn the restrictions. To the surprise of many, however, the court ruled against her, declaring that Gupta “would be deemed and presumed to have acquired the religious status of her husband.”

The Parsi community in Mumbai is divided about Gupta’s case, which she has appealed to the Indian Supreme Court. Liberal Parsis often told me that accepting the children of marriages like Gupta’s is the only way to stop the population decline. But a 2011 demographic study concluded that adding the children of intermarried Parsi women would not significantly change the community’s population in Mumbai unless the fertility rate were to treble. Conservatives, meanwhile, fear that loosening the rules would open the floodgates to converts, who might like a share of the community’s enormous assets. (One B.P.P. trustee estimated the value of the real estate under their stewardship at 50 billion rupees, or $780 million.) This worry persists even though a 1908 inheritance case involving the Tata family set a legal precedent that protects the community’s assets from outsiders. The dispute, then, has more to do with the definition of what it means to be a Parsi — an emotional question for conservatives and liberals alike.

Though Gupta didn’t request any privileges for her child, her challenge enrages traditionalists like Khojeste Mistree, the B.P.P. trustee who has most adamantly opposed efforts to expand the traditional criteria of Parsi identity. Mistree and his wife are independent scholars; his comfortable paunch and trimmed white beard give him a professorial look. He speaks in British-inflected English, with the weary patience of someone who feels perpetually misunderstood. Mistree was the teacher who provoked Fali in his high-school religion class, and when I met him in his elegant apartment, on the opposite end of Khareghat Colony from Wadia House, he told me that he had little sympathy for Gupta’s predicament. “In any other community she would’ve been beaten up by now — truly. Would she have the guts to do this if she were a Muslim?” Mistree laughed. “She wouldn’t live to tell the tale, I’m sure.”

Mistree studied Zoroastrianism at Oxford, and he took classes with Mary Boyce, a British scholar of the religion, at the University of London. He told me that without his academic training he might have strayed from the fold, and might even have married outside the faith. He now believes, however, that Parsis have a special responsibility as one of the only communities in the world being asked by their government to increase their numbers. For most of India, he told me, “it’s hum do, hamare do.” He was quoting a Hindi family-planning slogan — “We two, our two” — meant to discourage couples from having three or more children. “I think it says a lot about the brand image of the Parsis that they actually want the community to increase. It’s not that they want the religion to increase, but they want the bearers of the religion — namely the Parsis and Iranis — to increase.” (Iranis are Zoroastrians descended from a wave of Iranian immigrants that started in the late nineteenth century, and are generally considered part of the Parsi community.)

Mistree’s definition of a Parsi is narrow and ethnic. He told me that what disturbs him most about priests like Khushroo is the way they’re diluting the population. “Iranian society, for that matter Aryan society, has always been patrilineal rather than matrilineal. So in Zoroastrianism, therefore, if we want to increase our community numbers, obviously Parsis should marry Parsis and Iranis and it shouldn’t be anything else.” He recognizes that there is an “agitation” among Parsi women who have married men from other religions: “ ‘Why are we treated as outcastes? Why are our children not accepted into the fold as being Parsis?’ ” But Mistree believes that Parsis cannot afford that luxury. “We do not believe in gender equality. This is a Western idea that Western-educated Parsis have picked up.”

Mistree isn’t wrong about the government’s enthusiasm for the Parsi community. “The Parsis have always been the ‘good minority’ for India’s rulers,” the historian Sunil Khilnani told me, “for the Mughals, the British, and now for India’s Hindu nationalists.” Narendra Modi, who, along with his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, swept last year’s elections, has embraced the Parsis — or at least their affluence — as a model for the rest of the country. In 2011, during his term as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi addressed a crowd at Udvada, where the sacred fire in the Parsis’ holiest temple is said to have burned continuously since the first Zoroastrians arrived in India. “This is the community that doesn’t want anything from government,” Modi said, speaking in Gujarati, the language he shares with the Parsis. “They don’t even want an election ticket. This shows that their love is without condition, without any expectation.” He praised the contributions Parsis have made in India, and said that the measure of any government’s success is the approval of its minority communities. Ratan Tata, the chairman emeritus of the Tata Group, returned the compliment by endorsing Modi’s government this April. He asked business leaders not to get “disillusioned and dissatisfied” as they waited for the reforms they were promised.

Many Parsis are pleased by the government’s attention, even as they recognize that for Modi and his administration, talking about Parsis can be a way to avoid talking about Muslims. Modi has often seemed to set variable standards for his government’s treatment of minorities. A few days before he met with Obama at the White House last fall, the prime minister was summoned by a federal court in New York to answer allegations that he shares responsibility for the religious riots in Gujarat that killed more than 1,200 people, mostly Muslim, in 2002, while he was chief minister. (An investigation commissioned by the Indian Supreme Court absolved Modi of blame in 2013, though his role in the riots remains in dispute.) And what many have seen as a lack of sympathy for Muslim concerns seemed especially clear in his prescriptions for the estimated 20 million undocumented migrants who had come to India from Bangladesh before he took office in New Delhi. Those who were Hindu should be welcomed, he declared in February of last year — “Where will they go? India is the only place for them” — but their Muslim counterparts got a different promise. If he was elected, he said, “these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.”

When Modi appointed Najma Heptulla that May, making her the only Muslim in his cabinet, he seemed to be sending a conciliatory signal. But Heptulla made an explosive claim on the day she was sworn in: “Muslims are not minorities, Parsis are.” She said that India’s Zoroastrians are “a minuscule minority that is so precariously placed that one needs to take care of their survival.” By prioritizing the needs of the relatively wealthy and educated Parsis over those of India’s large Muslim underclass, Heptulla infuriated members of her own community. In the streets of New Delhi and Malegaon, a town northeast of Mumbai, Muslims burned their new minister in effigy.

At her office last summer, Heptulla told me that she had been misunderstood, and had meant only to say that Muslims were too numerous to be considered a minority in the technical sense. She admitted that “there are not many Muslims in the party” — the B.J.P. takes many of its ideological cues from its far-right parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which Modi is a lifelong member — but she pointed to the number of her coreligionists who had voted for the prime minister. (Eight percent of India’s Muslims voted for the B.J.P., presumably as a protest against corruption in the incumbent Congress party.) “The country cannot fully develop if all the communities don’t develop equally,” Heptulla said. “We believe in transparency.”

When I stayed with Pheroza Vakil in 2002, she told me an old story about the Parsis. According to legend, when the first Zoroastrians arrived at Sanjan, in Gujarat, the Hindu king told them that the village was already full and couldn’t absorb any more citizens. In Pheroza’s telling, the king sent a pot brimming with milk to illustrate his point. The Zoroastrian priests replied by stirring a spoonful of sugar into the pot and sending it back, along with a message: “We shall melt into your people without disturbing them at all, just as this sugar has melted into the milk.”

Before I returned to Mumbai last year, I wrote to Pheroza’s family to say that I often thought of her. I was amazed, a few days later, to get a reply saying that she was still alive at 102: “Of course her mind & body are v. frail but her vital organs seem to be ticking!”

Pheroza’s family had attempted to persuade her to move in with them, to no avail. Wadia House looked the same as it had when I’d stayed there. I found her in her bedroom, in the house where she’d lived for ninety-eight years. The room’s French doors opened to the garden, and a portrait of her mother hung from the side of a mahogany armoire. A boom box sat on a shelf next to a stack of classical CDs, with a recording of Tosca on top.

A maid and a nurse helped care for Pheroza in her home, and her nephew and his wife came to see her every day. When visitors arrived, neighbors called down from their windows around the courtyard to ask how Pheroza was doing. Occasionally her family took her to the Willingdon Club, a colonial-era watering hole where she could sit in the garden. She’d been to Willingdon the day I visited, and her caretakers were surprised that she was still awake. I explained who I was, and how much it had meant that she’d once offered a stranger a place to stay. Pheroza looked at me with confused, milky eyes, and I sat there awkwardly until her sister-in-law broke the silence. “She’s brought you chocolate.”

As soon as I opened the fashionably unfancy box of artisanal chocolate, I decided that I should have gone with Mallomars. Pheroza looked at the small box of confections. “Such a lot,” she said.

For a community that sees four deaths for every birth, the appearance of Parveen Pavri’s twins in September was a big deal. Pavri didn’t have much time to read the news stories, however, since her children were born prematurely and spent several weeks in the NICU. Pavri, who was committed to breastfeeding, kept detailed notes about their nursing and sleeping. “We have two rooms — a bedroom and a hall,” she told me in January, laughing. She described her nights as a kind of dance that she performed with her husband as they moved between the bed and several mattresses, trying to keep the babies from waking each other up.

Pavri was exhausted but ebullient about her twins’ arrival. At the same time, she thought that the 100 million rupees ($1.5 million) the government had allocated for Jiyo Parsi should be spent on counseling young people about marriage and family rather than on expensive fertility treatments. “There is no faith that we can do this if we want to,” she said. “In a community that does well professionally, confidence is sorely lacking in the personal sense. That is why we have so many single people. And that, I feel, is the real problem.”

In the antiquity of its rituals, Zoroastrianism is comparable among monotheistic religions only to Judaism, but the community is so small that its reform and orthodox contingents sit in uneasy proximity. In February of this year, the B.P.P. finally concluded its long-running court case against Khushroo Madon, after a settlement that was negotiated without his direct involvement. According to the settlement, which was ratified by the Supreme Court in April, he will be allowed to perform ceremonies at Doongerwadi but only for members of his immediate family. Khushroo is planning an appeal. When I spoke to him recently, he said, “I will never be able to pray at Doongerwadi as I have no old immediate family members.” Even the chairman of the B.P.P., Dinshaw Mehta, criticized the decision, admitting that it discriminated against Khushroo. “To my mind it was a useless litigation not worth the amount of funds spent on it,” he told me. “We should be putting our hands in our own pockets if we want to fight this kind of thing.” Khojeste Mistree and his conservative allies, however, see the settlement as a vindication of the fundamental tenets of their religion. The court order also gives the trustees some license to ban particular priests from performing rites in the properties they oversee, ensuring that the debate isn’t finished. As the Parsi filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala has written, “When there are only two Parsis left in the world, they’ll still be sitting there and arguing about whether or not to allow conversions.”

There were times when even Fali Madon could switch from one extreme to the other as easily as he toggled between screens on his smartphone. Once, after I’d texted him to ask how important it was to his parents that he marry a Parsi woman, he wrote back: “Actually my own decision to marry a Full Parsi girl only. Or else will remain unmarried for my whole life.” He told me that “Zoroastrians are Aryans” and “A priest can’t marry an outcaste,” formulations that Mistree, his old religion teacher, might have approved. Another day, however, not long after he’d gone white-water rafting with ZYNG on the Kundalika River, south of Mumbai, Fali wrote to me to say that his parents were “fed up” with how long his search was taking, and that they didn’t mind him marrying a “decent” and “value based non-Parsi chick.” In that moment, at least, Fali seemed open to the idea.

Khushroo confirmed that he and his wife no longer felt they could insist on a Parsi bride. “In my time it was not so difficult,” he said. He had been set up with Fali’s mother by mutual acquaintances, who guessed they would get along because they were, in Khushroo’s words, “not modern. Not so aristocratic and all.” Khushroo laughed when he said this, while his wife teased him in Gujarati. “The last twenty-eight years, we are happy.”

One night last August, when I was exchanging messages with Fali, I asked him if being a priest made it more or less difficult to find a wife. “Most difficult, Madam,” he texted. It was evening in India, and Fali was alone in the agiary. He was waiting to perform the ritual that would signal the fifth geh, which takes place not long after midnight. To pass the time he’d been reading a catalogue that he’d picked up at the Mercedes-Benz showroom on Hughes Road, down the street from the colony where Khojeste Mistree and Pheroza Vakil both lived. Fali had read the catalogue so often between prayers that he had memorized the features of most of the models, and his Facebook page was full of pictures of himself posing with some of his favorites. Now his parents and the watchman had gone out, and he was uneasy; he had locked the doors and windows as a precaution. “Makes me restless, angry. Lonely,” he wrote. “It’s damn quiet here.”