In her spartan office, Dhun Daraius Bagli is answering the third call in half an hour. The query is the same. So is her answer. “Sorry, we are full for December," says Bagli, putting down the receiver. Bagli manages the Parsi Dharamshala at Parsi Anjuman near Delhi Gate -- the hub of the community’s activities, festivals and events in the Capital for the past 60 years.
While Bagli is happy that the dharamshala -- a transit point for Parsis travelling in North India from all over India -- is always full, she laments that the community in the Capital is shrinking fast. Today, Delhi has only about 250 Parsi Zoroastrians.
In fact, very few can talk about the community’s decline in Delhi with the authority of Bagli, who has been living at the dharamshala since 1958. “I was 22 when I first visited the place with a few friends from Bombay, met the priest of the fire temple and fell in love with him. We got married and I shifted here. The place has been my universe ever since,” says Bagli, 82. The city’s Parsis call her the backbone of the community.
The dharamshala in Delhi is the only Parsi guest house that allows non-Parsi spouses to stay, though the temple is not open to them.
Bagli gets nostalgic as she talks about the 1960s and 70s. “There were a few thousand Parsis in Delhi then; today there are a few hundreds. We used to have gala functions; we still hold them but the number of people attending has been dwindling fast,” says Bagli, dressed in a light-blue sari with a high-neck blouse, her grey hair cut short. An Asho Farohar (the winged angel) adorns her sari. Her office has a cabinet with framed family pictures, novels, books on Zoroastrianism and myriad souvenirs.
Formed in 1925, the Delhi Parsi Anjuman (DPA) today has about 750 members, but a lot of them are non-Parsi spouses and children. They gather at Parsi Anjuman during functions and festivals such as Jamshedi Navroz, Gahambar, Parsi New Year and the anniversary of the fire temple – one-of-its-kind in north India.
A few years back, Bagli started a kitchen on Thursdays and Sundays to introduce Parsi food to non-Parsis. "A lot of non-Parsis call and book in advance. This is a small attempt to keep Parsi culture alive,” she says.
Bagli’s husband died in 1979, and now her son, Ervad Cawas Bagli, is the priest of the fire temple. He keeps the holy fire, which has been burning for the past five decades, alive -- tending to it four times a day.
But Dr Shernaz Cama perhaps has a tougher job in hands -- stabilising the declining numbers of the community. Cama is part of the four-member team driving the much-talked about ‘Jio Parsi’ campaign launched by the ministry of minority affairs to stem the declining numbers of the community in collaboration with the Parzor Foundation, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat and local Anjumans.
An aggressive advertisement campaign was launched on November 10, exhorting Parsis to marry within the community and procreate has gone viral on the internet. “Have a child quickly after marriage, because the child needs parents, not parents who act like grandparents”; “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight”; ‘Isn’t it time you broke up with your mom?” are some of the catchphrases of the campaign.
"The idea behind this satirical campaign is to provoke the community out of its complacency, to help it break free from the stereotypes associated with it. The campaign is beginning to have its effect; it has made many within the community angry at the prevailing state of affairs," says Cama, who teaches at Lady Shri Ram College and is a member of the executive council of the Parzor Foundation, which works for the preservation of the Zoroastrian heritage.
Cama says the country today has about 50,000 Parsis. Of them, 30% are unmarried, 30% are 75 years of age and 30% do not have children. The stereotypes associated with the community, she says, are by and large, true. "If you are 45 and unmarried, you are considered young in the Parsi community; and it is not unusual to see 70-year-old siblings living together, unmarried without any family support. It is a myth that all Parsis are rich and Oxford-educated," says Cama. "We have a very few joint families. The problem is we were westernized too fast. Bringing back family values is also part of the Jio Parsi campaign".
No wonder then, the Parsi Anjuman Hall in Delhi serves as a venue of workshops for children, parents and grandparents. The children are given lessons in Parsi religion, history, and culture. “We even organise workshop for grandparents who tend to feel that grandchildren are not their responsibility,” says Cama.
Many like Yasmin Jalnawala, 75, a guest at the Parsi Dharamshala who is in Delhi to attend an inter-community wedding, blame the dwindling numbers of Zoroastrians on young Parsis increasingly marrying outside the community. “In our time, no one did so. If parents did not agree, you had no choice but to fall in line. Tension appears whenever a Parsi girls marries a non-Parsi; in a mixed marriage, the non-Parsi parent does not often agree to Navjot, the initiation ceremony of the child,” says Jalnawala.
Compounding the problem in Delhi is the fact that the city’s Parsis have always been a floating population and so their numbers have never been stable, says Ava Khullar, vice-president, Delhi Parsi Anjuman. “But Delhi's Parsis are small but a well-connected community; they are more prosperous than those in Mumbai. We are hopeful that the Jio Parsi campaign will make a difference," says Khullar.
“If we could convince the young married Parsi couples to have two children, we can stabilise our dwindling population,” says Cama.