Hindi films that churn the box-office mill have never been known to be kind to the diversity of the country’s culture. Without losing much sweat you will find the money-minting Gujarati, the loud-mouthed Punjabi, the bookish Bengali, the drunken Christian, the nasal accented ‘south Indian’, the Nepalese ‘bahadur’.
And then you have the Parsis. Clad in black caps and white vests, the Parsis are there to provide comic relief in the most heavy-duty melodramas. So much so, that efforts to do something different with the Parsis also end up wallowing in all the stereotypes associated with the community, as one can find in the poorly conceived 2012 film Shirin Farhad ki toh Nikal Padi. It had a pair of middle-aged Parsis getting hitched as its premise. Ironically, the characterisation in the film may have fallen flat but late marriages are a reality in the Parsi community.
Just as global warming cannot be shooed away as a myth any more, neither can the alarmingly low birth rate of the Parsis. The facts are out there. Going by demographic estimates, the Parsi population that stood at 69,601 after the 2001 census will trickle down to 23,000 by 2020. The ‘community’ will then be relegated to the status of a ‘tribe’.
The Indian government pitched in last year with the ‘Jiyo Parsi’, a Rs 10 crore worth scheme that promises medical and legal assistance to married Parsi couples wanting to have children.
The issue has also got due attention in the visual media. But while Qissa-e- Parsi ( A Parsi Tale), a documentary by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) won the National Award for being the ‘Best anthropological/Ethnographic’ film in 2014, a more recent fiction film like The Path of Zarathustra has been condemned by many in the Parsi community. Director Oorvazi Irani has been censured for being ‘anti-religion’ for including certain deviant doctrines of the Zoroastrian faith in her film. Conversely, the film has also received an enthusiastic response, as is evident in the fact that its screening has been extended by a week in cities like Mumbai and Pune, which have a sizeable Parsi milieu.
The Parsi problem might have gained visibility in the public discourse over the last couple of years but the riddle remains: Why has a once thriving community been teetering on such a dire existential precipice? As the legend goes, the Zoroastrians fled Iran (which was then Persia) as the Arab invasion began sometime in the sixth century ad. Those who crossed over to Gujarat and were granted asylum became known as the Parsis.
Ervad Khusroo Madon, a progressive Parsi priest in Mumbai, explains, “Four thousand years back, the prophet Zarathustra was the first to preach the presence of a single God, in that it can be taken as a principal religion that has been the forefather of several world religions like Judaism and Christianity.”
Despite being followers of the earliest monotheistic religion in the world, the Zoroastrians are one of the most scattered communities in the world. On looking back, the ease with which these people have adapted to foreign environments has been exemplary. Madon states, “The Parsis have always been a philanthropic and peace-loving lot who had no trouble in mingling with the other Indian communities they came in contact with.” But now this very ability to walk with the times appears to be the reason why the Parsis are facing a steady decrease in numbers.
Dinshaw Tamboly, a well-known figure in the Parsi community in Mumbai elaborates, “Parsis are a 100 percent literate community. Whenever any community shows that high a degree of education, they might register a gradual decline, which in our case is happening through our dwindling numbers.”
Tamboly continues, “Women have always enjoyed equal status with men in our community. This gives them the freedom of choice when it comes to marriage. Some choose to pursue careers and not marry at all. Besides, there has also been a rise in trends like young individuals opting to migrate abroad for education, interfaith marriages and newlyweds planning small families.”
Shilpi Gulati, who made Qissa-e-Parsi along with Divya Cowasji (a Parsi herself ) remarks, “My understanding of the community has largely been informed by a close personal and professional relationship with Divya Cowasji fir the last seven years as I learnt to identify and reject the various stereotypes projected by mainstream cinema about the Parsis. Working on Qissa-e Parsi, in particular, was a great learning experience as it made me aware of the problems associated with representing a community which is almost romanticized in India.” The documentary tries to see Parsis as one of the earliest communities which had mercenary ties with the British and went into the post independence industrialisation of India with equal zest. Gulati adds, “It (making the documentary) pushed me to re-look at the Parsis through a more critical historical lens where it became important to understand why the community enjoys its current privileged status in Indian society while so many other ethnic minorities don’t.”
One of the ‘Jiyo Parsi’ ad campaigns reads, “Panni ja isn’t a spell from Harry Potter. It means ‘Please get married’.” While the country is struggling with issues of over-population, the Parsis indeed seem to be a different paradigm altogether. Tamboly observes, “Parsis have always been involved in the building of the nation and in return have never asked for any concessions from the government.” He further maintains, “The Jiyo Parsi scheme shows an acknowledgement of the Parsi people by the Indian Government. That said, it is a modest effort at best. Though the plan is bearing positive results, when you put things in perspective, in Mumbai we still have a much higher mortality rate of 750-800 deaths to 150 births a year.”
Running parallel to the issue of declining birthrates is the question of who in the contemporary times is a true Parsi. The rise in inter-faith marriages has been a point of contention in some parts of the community. While Parsi men are entitled to induct their children from such marriages into Zoroastrianism, Parsi women are not given the same rights. Madon, who has been performing initiation ceremonies for children of Parsi women from inter-faith marriages notes, “One of the big issues the orthodox Parsis raise is that only those who are born Parsi can follow the religion. But if you delve into the holy texts of Zarasthustra then you will find that the prophet always maintained that Zoroastrianism is a universal religion.”
But for every Parsi wishing to guard their ethnicity in an iron grip, there are also people like Tamboly. He has recently been involved in the construction of a prayer hall in Mumbai for those who wish to be cremated instead of being taken to the ‘tower of silence’ after their demise. On being asked about the strict customs that are purblind to the winds of change among the young in the community, he warns, “If the religious limitations by the clergy are not modified then the community will practically face the possibility of gradually fading out.”
Even while the country’s government tries to jump start the community’s growth, the internal differences of opinion about the basic principles of how the Parsis should adapt to the changes in front of them will decide the fate of this unique and influential community. Qissa-e-Parsi ends with a list of Parsis— the likes of Dadabhai Naoroji, JRD Tata, Homi J Bhaba, Sam Manekshaw, Freddie Mercury—who have been on the cutting edge of their respective fields. Here’s hoping that a pioneering Parsi does not become a relic of the past.