Twelve hundred years ago, we fled to India for our survival in the face of external threat on our identity and culture. Today, again, we are fighting for our existence, as we face extinction,” lamented Parvez Bajan, a priest of the Parsi Zoroastrian community, which is at an increasing risk of disappearance with only 195 childbirths for every 850 deaths at present, despite the Union government’s all out effort to sustain the community with its flagship “Jiyo Parsi” programme.
“Our younger generation is choosing to marry late or migrate, adding to our concerns. We need to draw them back to our roots,” added the 65-year-old Bajan, a lecturer who was recently awarded a doctorate by the Mumbai University for his research on Avesta language. He lives at Hormuz Building in South Mumbai’s Byculla area. The aesthetically built old building is one of the many clusters of the 40,000-odd Parsis who live in Mumbai. The Parsis live mainly in baghs or colonies owned or managed by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, Mumbai’s largest private landlord, which controls over 4,500 flats.
The disproportionate birth-death ratio means the number of old persons within the community is very high. There are rising concerns for their safety after the murder of an old Parsi man by a former help came to light recently.
Jiyo Parsi, a Union government scheme launched with an aggressive advertisement a while ago, aims at providing medical assistance — in-vitro fertilization — to Parsi couples for reproduction. From within the community also, many individuals have formed groups to keep the Parsis well-connected. XYZ (Extremely Young Zoroastrians) and ZYNG (Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation) are two such well-known groups.
“The Jiyo Parsi campaign is doing very well. So far we have helped many couples and 30 babies are born with our medical assistance. Eleven more babies are expected shortly, while 48 couples are undergoing treatment for procreation,” Shernaz Cama, Director, UNESCO Parzor Project, told The Sunday Guardian over phone from New Delhi.
A new cashless scheme is being launched in Gujarat, targeting BPL (Below Poverty Line) Parsis, who want to opt for medical assistance for procreation. “In interior Gujarat, we found that some Zoroastrians were so poor that they could not afford to enrol themselves on the Jiyo Parsi scheme, under which medical expenses are reimbursed. So, a tripartite MOU has been signed for cashless treatment in villages around Navsari,” Cama said.
But young Zoroastrians feel the initiatives are cosmetic. “The issues run deeper. If women marry non-Parsi men, our community is not ready to include their children into the Parsi fold. Imagine the number of young children it would have added to our population,” said Hoshaang Gothla, a 27-year-old entrepreneur.
Many Parsis feel that the infighting in the Bombay Parsi Punchayet is also stalling the development of the community. “The seven trustees of the BPP do not see eye to eye. Property decisions taken by some members are being challenged before the Charity Commission by other members, leading to delays,” a Parsi activist told The Sunday Guardian, requesting anonymity. “Over a 100 flats have not been allotted due to the infighting. The flats are generally given at subsidised rates to poor Parsis,” the activist added.
Recently, the members of the Mumbai Mazdoor Union, the workmen registered with the BPP, had called for a strike for better wages and better working conditions. The 220 workmen include sweepers, khandias (pall-bearers who carry the dead to the Tower of Silence), gardeners and other service providers.
The issue was settled amicably after the BPP made an interim agreement for wage revision for the Mumbai Mazdoor Union. The BPP agreed to pay Rs 2,900 extra to each workman.
The term of six of the seven members of the controversy-ridden BPP is nearing an end. “In our next week’s board meeting, we will announce the elections. The candidates can file their applications thereafter,” said Jimmy Mistry, a BPP trustee.
But many members of the community said they were reluctant to stand for election in such a controversial organisation. “Nobody wants to get his name tainted by associating with BPP,” said an elderly Parsi man who did not wish to be named.
There are important religious decisions that need to be made to keep pace with the changing times. There is a controversy over the final rites of the Parsis. Whereas the orthodox section of the community is of the opinion that the dead should be left in the Tower of Silence as has been traditionally done, the new generation bats for cremation.
“We do not want to pollute nature. It does not make sense to leave corpses at the Tower of Silence to be eaten by scavenging birds and animals. The ecological imbalance has led to the loss of scavenging birds. A more hygienic way for doing the last rites is cremation. A decision needs to be taken on this,” said Hoshaang.
Another religious question demanding intervention is whether children born to Parsi women, who are married to non-Parsi spouses, should be allowed into the fold. “If the community accepts the children of a Parsi man who has married outside the community, why not accept the children of a woman who has a non-Parsi husband? Our religion has always preached equality after all,” pointed out 40-year-old Rizina Chaterji, a school teacher.
“Our ancient scriptures give us the idea that there have been many converts who embraced Zoroastrianism. Today, we can grow in numbers if we become more inclusive,” she added.
Hoshang shares the opinion. He said that love is a matter of the heart and if a woman decides to go for a love-marriage outside the community, her children should not be discriminated against.
But Bajan contradicted the notion. “We have been working very hard all these years to preserve our identity. What will remain of it, if people marry outside the community? According to me, the children of both men and women who marry non-Parsis should not be accepted within the fold,” he said.
These religious decisions are to be taken by the high priests. There are six high priests in India. According to experts, the high priests’ decision is binding on the Parsi community. But the proposal to form a council of high priests to address these important religious issues has not seen the light of the day.
Many youngsters said that there was a growing sense of entitlement among the Parsis. “Our community has been abusing charity,” said Hoshaang. “They think they should get things for free because they are Parsis. But they have forgotten that Parsis were once the community of givers. We should not let ourselves turn into a community of takers,” said Mehernaaz Shovir Irani, a 35-year-old lawyer who runs the portal parsikhabar.net along with her brother and sister-in-law.
She said high education among women was the reason why they were choosing to marry non-Parsis. Apparently, these well-educated women do not find a suitable match within the Parsi fold. “We have always been a progressive society where everyone is encouraged to have a career. The change in scenario about marriage is not because women are doing better, but because men have turned complacent. Women, who are highly educated and have good jobs, do not find intellectual compatibility with most Parsi men. That is a serious concern,” Mehernaaz said.
To help young Parsis intermingle and socialise, ZYNG was launched a few years ago. During a speed dating event of ZYNG three years ago, Dilkhush Reporter met Adil Ravtewala. Today, they are happily married. “ZYNG has been growing strength to strength,” said Dilkhush.
Similarly, Hoshaang has launched XYZ to introduce young children to the Parsi culture. The programme sees children aged between five and 14 engaged in various community related activities. “The children should have a sense of belonging to their culture and they should take pride in their cultural ethos. We started with 200 children in December 2014. Today, we have 520 children enrolled in seven centres. Our volunteers are aged between 18 and 82 years who spend time with the children and involve them in cultural activities,” he said.
Ask the youngsters about the fear of dwindling number of Parsis, and they have a completely different opinion. “This is an unnecessary hype. Though we are fewer in numbers, we are relevant in society as we have made our share of social contribution,” argued Hoshaang.
“Parsis have never bothered about quantity. They are concerned for quality. So long we can retain the quality and our cultural ethos, why worry about the dwindling population?” asks 33-year-old actor Dilkhush Ravtewala. She said it was “completely okay” to marry outside the community.
Mehernaaz contended that the Jiyo Parsi campaign is good, but there should also be provisions for taking care of the children who are born. “With such high costs of living today, both the parents have to earn to ensure good education of their children. When elders tell us to procreate without delay, they should also think of good day-care facilities for our children. Why are women expected to give up their career in order to nurture kids?” she asked.
‘We are hatke’
The teenagers of the community feel they are unique, and that they draw respect in society because the goodness of their ancestors has not been forgotten. “As Parsis, we are a little hatke (unique). I feel that wherever I go, I am automatically given respect due to what my ancestors have done. We are a peaceful and fun-loving community. I would prefer to marry within the community as our upbringing is very different. After all, a marriage is not just between two individuals but two families,” said 18-year-old mass media student Jazerine Deboo. She added those who marry outside the community should not be ostracised.