The Future of the Parsi Community
On this Navroze, I want to share a few of my thoughts about future of our community. To be frank, we are in trouble. There is a noticeable and deeply regrettable lack of unity amongst community leadership. In spite of our great wealth and supposed enlightenment, much of our culture and heritage is at risk of being lost. Finally, our population in India is diminishing rapidly, a fact that should alarm every member of our community.
The feeling that “the Parsi community is in decline” (and I am not just talking about numbers) is not a new one—in my research, I have seen references to such sentiments from as far back as the 1860s and 1880s, when the Parsis were at their supposed apex. We are still a very prominent and highly educated community and contribute well beyond our weight in India and abroad. Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about the atmosphere of negativity that has been all-pervading for the past few decades. We who are members of the youth have a heavy responsibility on our shoulders to try to pick up the pieces and turn this community around. We must start by identifying the major problems.
1. Lack of unity
Parsis have always loved to fight; we have always relished controversy. Recent scholarship on Parsi history has elaborated on how the community was torn asunder, between the 1700s and late 1800s, over the rather prosaic issue (by our modern standards) of which calendar the community should follow—shenshai, kadmi, and—much later—fasli. Before that, turf wars between the Sanjana and Bhagaria panths (the priestly clans now based in Udvada and Navsari, respectively) cleaved apart the Zoroastrians of India. The current-day orthodox-liberal rift dates from the mid-1800s and has caused its own significant amount of ferment and discord, especially in its most recent garb, the intermarriage ‘debate’. It is difficult for two Parsis to hold normal conversation without eventually inquiring as to whether one is liberal or conservative, whether one supports or does not support Parsis marrying out of the fold.
The current generation of youth has seemed to tire of the constant bickering, controversy-mongering, factionalism, back-biting, and the putting-down of people that has accompanied this ‘debate’. ‘Debate’ implies reasoned argumentation and a willingness to listen to and consider the other side. By those standards, we—liberal, conservative, or however we identify—have been failing egregiously for quite some time. Our garrulousness and pettiness have contributed to something quite unique: great numbers of my generation simply tuning out of Parsi affairs and dissociating themselves with the community. I do not entirely blame them. When our differences descend into physical fist fights or get aired in the media like dirty laundry, who can blame people for not wanting anything to do with a community whose members and leaders seem bent on perpetuating petty rivalries, waging endless legal battles, or denigrating particular individuals instead of uniting to actively combat some real and serious problems?
I recall being at an academic conference in Istanbul in August 2012 when discussion of recent community antics—such as the assault of a Russian, Mikhail Chistyakov in Sanjan (condemnable regardless of what one thinks of conversion)—elicited laughter, derision, and ridicule from an audience composed of eminent professors and researchers who have spent their working lives studying our religion and culture. As a Parsi, I felt deeply embarrassed by the proceedings. But I do not blame academics for their response. In many cases we rightly deserve such mockery.
2. Culture and heritage at risk
Many aspects of Parsi heritage are disappearing fast. Villages in Gujarat—the repositories of so many distinct aspects of Parsi culture—are quickly emptying out while many community institutions in Bombay are in a less than healthy state. True, much commendable work has been done recently, such as the restorations of agiaries and baugs, cultural exhibitions, and publications. The Alpaiwalla Museum is finally getting the restoration it has long deserved.
A community as wealthy and educated as ours deserves to be slightly less cavalier with protecting heritage. It is utterly shameful that many of our holiest sites—such as the atash behrams in Udvada and Navsari—are fronted by abandoned houses stuck in litigation. I doubt that any other religious community treats its principal holy town with such neglect and indifference—we should be eternally grateful to a small band of Parsis who have been making sure that a controversial land deal doesn’t further desecrate Udvada. Many of our principal libraries—the homes of our religious manuscripts—urgently need financial support in order to carry out preservation and modernization schemes. Sadly, the archival and library collections of many other institutions have been lost over the past few decades.
3. Falling population
This is an existential problem: our numbers are dropping so dramatically in India that the very long-term future of the community is at risk. Professional demographers have culled together a strong body of data and evidence to show that the Parsi population in India is declining due to extremely low fertility. This is not because of any biological or medical problems; rather, it is because so many Parsis choose to not marry, or marry late, or have few or no children. As a result, the Parsi community’s total fertility rate may now be as low as 0.88, whereas a total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed for replacement. Interestingly, data has also shown that, relatively speaking, neither emigration nor intermarriage are strong factors in this demographic debacle. Put simply, the proportion of Parsis who do not marry, do not have children, or have extremely few children is so high that it entirely dwarfs the influence of these other two factors.
The long-term results of this crisis will be grim. In 2001, one in every eight Parsis was a child under the age of 14, whereas one in every four Parsis was aged 65 and above. We are already a very aged community, and this is a trend that will get worse with time as there are fewer youth and a larger proportion of seniors. By 2051, according to one demographer, there might only be 32,000 Parsis left in India. That is a little over a fourth of the total Parsi population at independence. With a smaller community, furthermore, it will become more difficult to look after seniors, and it will be far more difficult for young Parsis to find spouses in the community. Our falling numbers, in short, will produce many new and complex problems that we have yet to grasp or consider.
4. Toward some solutions
Enough about the problems. It is incumbent upon all of us in the younger generations to be proactive in tackling the major issues that will define our community’s future. Ignorance, indifference, and apathy should not be options. We need to generate some positive news.
First, we need to break this vicious cycle of community infighting and petty quarreling. It is akin to fighting over floor space in a house instead of patching up the roof that is about to cave in. And we must actively demand better leadership from our community leaders. While there continue to be many Parsis doing commendable work on behalf of their coreligionists, egos and unnecessary faction-mongering has jeopardized other developments, such as heritage status for Udvada and an earlier central government effort to recognize our demographic issues. The intermarriage row will continue to be a source of contention as the number of Parsis who marry out of the fold continues to increase. But we do ourselves no favor by perpetuating a pattern of mutual recrimination, lawsuits, and insult-slanging instead of sitting down and calmly considering how to tackle a phenomenon that will unquestionably change the shape and makeup of the community in the future.
Secondly, we need to develop a greater sense of ownership and responsibility about our heritage. If we do not act as caretakers, no one else will. I think a good way to start is by pledging financial contributions, no matter how small, to various trusts and organizations that are doing good work to preserve our culture and history. As a community, we all too often rely on wealthy coreligionists to step in and singularly contribute toward a cause. But smaller, individual contributions, spread across a large percentage of the population, often do more good. Parzor (http://www.unescoparzor.com/), an organization with which I have worked for the past decade, is one such group that needs better community support. Exciting changes are happening at the Meherjirana Library in Navsari (http://www.meherjiranalibrary.com/), but Parsis can volunteer their time and funds to achieve even more good work for protecting our religious texts and manuscripts.
Lastly, I must assume the role of a nosy Parsi aunty: marry and have children! Marriage and having children are both strongly enjoined in the Zoroastrian religion; spinsters and bachelors have, historically, not been looked upon kindly in the religious tradition. I know far too many Parsis in their late 30s—male and female—desperately trying to find someone. It is, quite simply, not wise to wait so long; it is also far more difficult to have children later in life. And I would strongly support looking within the community for a spouse: it is, I believe, the most effective way to ensure that your children and grandchildren will be brought up in our religion. I am well aware of the difficulties of finding someone in our tiny community, yet I do believe it is also a question of effort and commitment. I grew up in a small town in California where there were only two other Zoroastrian families, yet I have still been lucky enough to find a wonderful Parsi girl who is now my fiancée.
There are many ways to start searching. In Bombay, the BPP has been organizing matrimonial meets for the past few years. Last year, these resulted in eight marriages. In the diaspora, Roshan Rivetna has had success in pairing Zoroastrians. ZYNG has been organizing a series of social and community service events that provide great opportunities to meet new people. Finally, the internet has opened some new opportunities. The BPP and ZYNG run a matrimonial website and there are several others, such aschaalokaajkariye.com. Services such as Skype have made long-distance relationships much easier—this has certainly been the case for my fiancée and me.
The three main issues I have outlined above are by no means exhaustive. Tackling these and other problems will require each of us to make a commitment to work together and contribute productively—due to our tiny numbers, each of us has a great responsibility and a great ability to influence courses of events. It is heartening to see that Parsi youth have, in recent years, been so active in community service, taken charge in organizing community events like humbundagis, and have proven less keen to engage in the divisions and controversies that have riled our seniors. We must build on these successes. The future of the Parsi community and Zoroastrianism is in your hands: please do make sure that you are actively a part of that future. Let us abide by this resolution in the new year.
Ph.D. Candidate, Modern South Asia
Department of History
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