A community at the crossroads
‘Oh dear Mumbai, my dear Mumbai.
Tu Fort Market hathi
Have tu black market thai gai.
Vakhat avo hatho, ke bagal ma bairi lai,
Vakhat avo aiyo, ke bairi pun gul thai gai.’
(Oh dear Mumbai – my dear Mumbai, once upon a time you were identified by the Fort Market. Unfortunately, now you are well known as a city of the black market, it has become your identity in the world today. There was a time when it was safe to walk around the streets holding the wife’s hand, but today, the situation is such that you could loose your wife while walking down the streets.)
THUS, Fali Master, a popular dramatist who performed to packed audiences in the Lalbaug, Parel, and Byculla localities of Bombay in the 1950s, expressed the despair and the insecurity felt by the middle class Parsis of Bombay. India had just ‘stepped out of the old into the new’ as Nehru so eloquently put it and the task of national reconstruction had not yet fully begun. It is not possible to elaborate why Fali Master’s Parsis were a worried lot, but a closer look at the broader social history of Bombay may yield a few answers. What is noteworthy is that a tone of uncertainty slowly crept into the earlier expression of Parsi power and glory.
A certain uniformness appeared in the great melting pot of globalization and, in Mumbai, one could not at a glance distinguish persons of any particular community. However, if we went back in time, say even ten years, the word ‘bawa’ or ‘bawi’ conjured up an image of a man, the quintessential Parsi male, attired in a white trouser wearing a white long coat known as the ‘dagla’, under which he wore, close to his skin, the sacred vest – the ‘sadra’ – over which he tied around his waist the ‘kasti’, followed by a buttoned-up white shirt and a traditional head gear – he had a choice of three – the padgi, the pheta or a simple velvet topi resembling a skull cap.
Bombay is a city which has transformed or more appropriately reinvented itself in the last half century. Among the various communities that have made Bombay their home, the Parsis were at the forefront. From almost two centuries ago when they were invited by the British to come and ply their trade in this fledgling seaport, they have been leaders in many activities and professions.
The key to Parsi survival, wherever this community has laid down their roots has been adaptability. Tolerance of others is an intrinsic part of their identity. While religion and cultural elements should be part of the Parsi identity, it must be Indianess at the centre. The buildings that one sees as one drives through Bombay – Elphinstone College, Capital Cinema, J.J. School of Art and Architecture, J.J. Hospital, The Bai Sakarbai Dinshaw Petit Hospital for Animals, the Institute for Science, the Cowasji Jehangir Hall, as well as the Mahim Causeway – were among the many established by Parsis for the cosmopolitan needs of the city.
Today, with an increase of educated in all communities and the strong spirit of competitiveness in the work force placed by world demands, the Parsi youth, by and large, have not shown the entrepreneurial skills of their forefathers. What does the statement ‘I am a Parsi’ mean in the commercial world? Of course it immediately represents trust and you will find many a Parsi working as a teller in a bank or as an auditor in a multi-national accounts firm – these are traditional proofs.
More than fifty years later, uncertainties of a different sort prevail. But, the distorted representation of Parsis, time and again, as buffoons, wimps and cranks in films and advertising commercials raises disturbing questions. Does this image reflect an under-lying larger crisis confronting the community? In what follows, I shall reflect on some of these issues.
The Parsis, whose journey out of the villages of Gujarat began over 150 years ago had by the late 19th century firmly set their imprint on the making of Bombay. They had, of course, been around much longer as itinerant traders from the early 18th century. In the mid 19th century they played a big role not only in India’s effort at industrialization, but most importantly in the setting up of infrastructure in Bombay.
By the early 20th century, the Parsis of Bombay were residing in community financed housing. The mill owning family of Wadia promoted the Baugs (Parsi colonies) in a big way. These acts of philanthropy are visible all over the island city stretching from Cusrow Baug in Colaba, Jer Baug, Rustom Baug and Ness Baug in Central Bombay, right up to Malcom Baug in Jogeshwari.
The first two Baugs developed in the 1920s are singular examples of apartment buildings in the art deco style. The last one comprises spacious bungalows, some two stories high. The grounds are laid out not only with large avenues lined with shade giving trees and adequate car parking (a space whose value has skyrocketed in Bombay), gardens for recreation, volleyball and football facilities, pavilions for indoor sports and social events, some Baugs even have Fire Temples within their precincts.
Although this community housing is a boon, it tends to generate a ‘ghetto’ mentality. In contrast to the low housing provided by other communities in what is referred to as ‘chawls’, the Parsis lived very differently and this led to a certain feeling of distinctiveness. The ‘bawa baugs’ and the ‘ghati chawls’ (those who resided in the western ghats) or the ‘miya mohallahs’ were all the same. Yet, five decades ago, immediately after independence, the tension of partition resounded in these pockets of community dwellings. In 1992-1993, when the fabric of Bombay’s physical and emotional life was devastated by communal riots, the Parsis living in the baugs were almost paralyzed. Their gates, which normally had their ornate wrought iron grills open 24 hours a day, suddenly acquired the image of fortresses with 24 hour security being maintained.
By the late 19th century, Parsis and other communities in Bombay had specific localities marked out for them as residential sites. The process of dismantling earlier more cosmopolitan space in the city had been going on for quite some time. These developments of the second half of the 19th century were to have far reaching consequences in the social life of the different communities of Bombay.
While the advantages of community subsidized housing are self evident, the insularity this can promote has not been focused upon. Rohinton Mistry provides a window to this problem in his celebrated Tales from Ferozeshah Baug. He shows how living within community enclaves with a restricted interaction with other communities in the neighbourhood is potentially alienating. Such alienation can get exacerbated at times of communal tensions and especially during riots. That greater efforts must be made to enhance integration between communities needs open discussion and is a well-established sociological recommendation. As far as I can perceive there is absolutely no reason why Parsis must keep away from this vital social necessity.
Health care has played an important role. Indeed the roster and reputation of Parsi doctors is legendary. Again, charity plays an important role and the geriatric ward at the Parsi General Hospital is never empty. With the middle class, the backbone of any community, in which all members of the family work, there is no one to take care of the old and sick. This hospital is a boon to the aged of this community.
In the years gone by, the Parsi medical fraternity would have an annual play in which they whole heartedly participated, acting, to raise funds for the free wards at the hospital. The plays were hilarious, poking fun at ourselves. This is a healthy trend for any community as it keeps one aware of ones many foibles. In the hospital, the death rate is higher than the birth rate, causing grave concern in the community. Arithmetic says we will die out if we don’t first address, second debate, and third preserve our community without losing our identity. This is one of the more serious problems facing our community, not only in Bombay but all over the world.
Apart from community financed housing and health care, education was another important component of the social project of the Parsi community. Looking back nearly two centuries, development of education, at the outset only for males, was central to the community building project. In the mid 19th century, efforts to educate women also began. Dosebai Jessawalla’s classic The Story of My Life documents in detail the struggle for womens’ education in this period. Education across this whole century was accompanied by a vigorous movement for social reform not just within the Parsi community, but in the larger Indian context also.
One can hardly forget Nowroji Chandaru’s Chabook (Whip) which had a reputation for not pulling its punches when it came to exposing corruption in the Parsi Punchayet in 1830. Equally distinguished was the mid 19th century publication, the Rast Goftar, a vehicle of enlightened opinion and which, while contesting conservative opinion, regularly bared the sores of Parsi society. In this task it had the satirical writings of the Parsee Punch (1854) as an ally. In 1958, the Parsee Punch widened its influence when it became the Hindi Punch.
No less influential in its critical impact was Parsi theatre. The English and vernacular Gujarati theatre patronized took a close by the Parsis look at the seamy underside of Parsi and Indian society. The Magicians performed by the Parsi Theatrical Company (founded in 1853) remains an important cultural event for examining the guile and deceit of Brahmins towards Indian women.
A hundred and fifty years later, the cultural world of the Parsi is hardly as illuminating and vigorous as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Economic backwardness continues to plague the small minority: the condition of widows, aged and infirm among them being especially deplorable.
Asignificant number of Parsis continue to patronize occult and pseudo-religious practices. The enormous popularity of the Gururani Naagmata cult, with a following among Parsis and non-Parsis, situated in a prominent Parsi colony of Bombay, has even led to a road being named after it. Similarly, Parsis flock to Mount Mary, a Roman Catholic domain; the Darga at Haji Ali, a Muslim stronghold; the Sai Baba complex at Shridi, a Hindu pilgrimage site. I question, why? What is it that is lacking in our own faith that we need to look elsewhere? I truly believe that for the majority it is a lack of knowledge of our own faith. Who is to be blamed for this? Even if the clergy has not helped in bringing the community closer into the fold, surely as individuals we could educate ourselves a little bit more on the legacy that we have been born into.
But it is the endless tension within the community over the issues of intermarriage and disposal of the dead which is urgently crying out for attention. We need to openly discuss changes in our attitudes towards marriage outside the fold. It raises the complex issue of genetics. What we need to preserve for the development of the community is our cultural identity so admired by the world. That is what is important. The supremacy of reason and humanism promotes a culture of continual inquiry about the physical and social world we inhabit.
The physical world we must use with care; equally preserve the social world. We must seek to understand and organize rationally so as to build societies that are free of want and which will promote the intellectual and cultural development of its members.
Hitherto, a great deal of rancour has accompanied the interminable discussions and altercations discussed in the Parsi press, official bodies and public meetings. No consensus on any issue has emerged so far. That this should happen in a community as small as the Parsis, is surprising and painful.
The community is so divided that it is never able to discuss other equally pertinent issues. At this stage one must point out to people unfamiliar with the community that even though the core which binds them is the religion, there is a cultural difference between Zoroastrians of Iran and the Zoroastrians of India. In India, this small community has fully integrated itself into the national fabric. You will find a Parsi in practically every walk of life. In Iran, during the regime of the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the above mentioned statement was also true.
Today, although Iranian Zoroastrians live in peace, they are segregated by the fact that they live in a predominantly agrarian society. They continue to till land and are engaged in simple trades such as carpentry and weaving as practiced by their forefathers. It is therefore important that Parsis within India and without should amicably resolve these matters through debate and discussion.
When striving to do so, if one looks for suggestions from history, an important lesson emerges. The careers of all those distinguished 19th century Parsis like Dadabhai Naoroji, Sorabji Bengallee, Dinshaw Vatcha, and others teaches us that those who succeeded in offering creative solutions to the community’s problems were also striving for solutions to the problems of the larger Indian nation. The enormous importance of such a wider perspective should not be lost sight of by those who wish to take the Parsi community ahead.
For the last 100 years and specifically after independence, the Zoroastrian community in India has wrestled with many issues threatening its existence. In this fast changing world, where does this minuscule people numbering a hundred-thousand stand? In times gone by the strength of the community lay focused in parts of western India and north eastern Iran. Today, several factors are promoting their migration from these strongholds.
The diaspora is virtually on every continent, with well established communities in North America, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the fledgling but growing one between Australia and New Zealand. Other than coming together from time to time to celebrate events such as Federation meetings and World Congresses, the community rarely meets. However, thanks to the internet, communication has increased. This is a wonderful tool and ought to be used in a positive fashion.
Contemplating the future of the community, I feel we have got into a rut. No people can hope to grow unless there is a vision. We seem to have got embroiled in issues which should have been settled long back.
The Parsis are at a critical juncture. After having survived 3500 years, we must look forward to flourishing in the next millennium with righteousness and hard work by following the simple three tenets of the Zoroastrian faith: ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.’ These values, like the perpetual fire, must be kept burning in our hearts and minds.
*I would like to gratefully acknowledge the many hours of conversation with Rusheed R. Wadia, a city-based economic historian and Cyrus Phiroze Shroff, a city-based software engineer.