Concerns for dwindling numbers. Seminars on how to save their race. In 1940, when their number in India was a sizeable 1.14 lakh, the community probably never imagined that 67 years later, it would be fretting over its strength.
Parsis came to India from Iran 1,100 years ago “for a better way of life”, as Parsiana editor Jehangir Patel puts it, and to escape religious persecution. They settled at first in Gujarat but started streaming into Mumbai in the 17th century to explore opportunities when the British began developing the city as a port and trading hub.
From establishing industrial houses (the Tatas) to building roads (the Jeejeebhoy family), Parsis had a giant hand in the city’s growth.
With prosperity, came education. The flipside, a section of the community believes, is that the career-consciousness engendered by education made Parsi women place marriage low on their list of priorities. Some married late, some stayed away from it completely. As a result, the growth of the Parsi population slowed down.
Today, Mumbai has around 45,000 Parsis living in colonies or baugs. “The 2001 census shows that the all-India number of Parsis is around 69,000,” Patel says. “In fact, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat is now giving incentives for a third child.” The community is also weakened because when Parsi women marry elsewhere, they lose their religion.
To preserve exclusivity, a group of religious scholars recently formed the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis. WAPIZ believes that if a Parsi woman marries outside the community, her spouse and children should not be recognised as Parsis. But children from a Parsi man’s marriage to a non-Parsi are allowed. “I think it’s wrong,” Patel says. “Zoroastrianism preaches equality.”
The community is credited with significant contributions to theatre in the city. Parsi Natak Mandali was set up in 1853 with support from Dadabhai Naoroji, and then others followed. Today, the National Centre for Performing Arts, set up by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust in 1969, continues to fuel dreams on the art scene.
It also has to its credit luminaries like JRD Tata, Rohinton Mistry among others. Some Parsi eateries also remain. Most Irani restaurants have faded away into the sepia past, but you still have Kayani and Bastani to fall back on. And if the delectable flavours of Dhaansaak and Patra ni machchi know no religion, you have only God and Parsis to thank.