Parsis Through the Ages
NATASHA V. DEBOO
The art of progress is to preserve order amid change.
— Alfred North Whitehead.
The only constant in life is change. It is a continuous, never-ending process. The Parsis too, have changed over the ages. From the small group that landed on the western shores of India, we have blossomed and carved a niche for ourselves in almost every field of human endeavour. Down the ages, and in keeping with the times, Parsis have adapted themselves and adjusted their lives in sync with the winds of social and cultural change, without losing their ethnicity.
Let’s start with the names. Earlier, one could distinguish Parsi ladies from their names like Heera, Bhikha, Banu and Rata (always with the suffix ‘mai’ attached to it). Today, however, we have ‘trendy’ names like Kyra, Friana, Ayesha and Nasha. In the case of men, names like Pahlan, Tehmul, Ardeshir and Edul have given way to Zeus, Rushaad, Aryaan and Eric.
Along with the names, modes of dress have also changed. Tank tops, short sleeved (or sleeveless) blouses, jeans and skirts have replaced the traditional jhablas, ijaars and badyans. Our ancestors would always keep their heads covered, even in public places, and dress very demurely.
Today however, only on an odd occasion would you get to see Parsi ladies dressed in sarees at an Atash Behram or Agiyari. Most of them pay their homage to the Holy Fire dressed in trousers, skirts or salwar – kameez. The typical Parsi gaara is virtually extinct; all you see at weddings and Navjotes today are silk, lace and Indian silk sarees.
Speaking of weddings and Navjotes, what earlier used to take place as a solemn ceremony in Agiyaris, Atash Behrams and individual homes, amongst close family and friends, now takes place with pomp and fanfare in baugs, posh hotels and restaurants, sometimes with ostentatious display of wealth.
The bapaijis and mamaijis were storehouses of wisdom, and would sit with their brood of grandchildren after the day’s work was done, and tell them stories of the valour of Rustom and Sohrab, the succor of Behram Yazad and the might and prowess of the great Iranian kings, always adding the moral, “Tamare bhi em Rustom ni kaani bahadur thavanu”. Fragmentation of the joint family system has eroded a whole generation of Parsis’ gherni kelavni!
Parsis were one of the first communities to embrace westernization, way back in the British era – a tradition we have not forgotten even today. Excessive urbanization has seen our quaint villages of Udvada and Navsari wearing an almost deserted look today. The new hubs of the Zoroastrian community are Mumbai, Pune – the former with the largest concentration of Parsis in the world, and the latter now following close on its heels.
Another effect of the colonization by ‘aapri raani Queen Victoria’ is the loss of Gujarati. Today, English is the lingua franca at most Parsi homes, and the number of youngsters who can read and write in Gujarati is fast depleting.
A typical picture of a Parsi household in the evening used to unfold like this:
Darabshah would come home from work to find his wife Gulbanu doing the household chores, and his sons Jal and Khodabax fighting with each other. He would swear at his two ‘nalayak bacchha’, then settle down in a cozy armchair, stretching his legs on the same, and regale the household with his day at work, often showering the choicest of cuss words at any customer who had disrupted his work during an otherwise peaceful day.
Then everyone would sit down to a dinner of masoor or chora (and woe betide if the botas in it ran scarce!!) after which old bapaiji Najamai would gather the family, and everyone would pray a few monajats before bed.
Today, however, the scenario is very different. Banafshe works till 6 P.M. and her husband Jamshed till 8 P.M. Their children, Tanya and Zara, come home from tuitions at 9 P.M. After a hurried dinner, everyone is busy with their separate activities, and the interaction among the family members is negligible. Computers, cell phones and televisions have replaced bed-time stories and reading.
Observing these changes, my great grandmother would have commented, “Baap re! Jamano etlo badlai gayoch! Hamara jamana ma, diva-batti thai, teni agao baccha-porya ghere avi jata hata.”
Along with our lifestyle, so have our various occupations changed. The Parsis that landed on the shores of Sanjan were traders, artisans, merchants and farmers, who lived a simple and almost frugal life. Today, Parsis have entered all walks of professional life, and are doing splendidly for themselves. In fact, the most famous doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers, businessmen and builders are Parsis. There is now a whole new and emerging breed of choreographers, fashion designers and those pursuing various other forms of creative art as well.
A birthday, anniversary or Jamshedi Navroze would traditionally see sweetmeats like dar-ni-pori and bhakhra being made at home. But nowadays, people neither have the time nor the energy nor the inclination to make such elaborate sweetmeats, and prefer to order chocolates and mithais from outside.
Leave aside eating them, we youngsters haven’t even heard the names of delicious tea-time snacks like chaapat, popatji, ghari and kumas. Some of these delicacies have virtually faded away into oblivion.
The customary ghambhars or community feasts would see a host of Parsis – both young and old gather, and eat with their community members. The Parsi women would cook and the men served. Everyone covered their heads with scarves or topis and a humbandagi would be prayed before eating.
Today, the atmosphere is very lively and gay, and a lot of youngsters also attend. It is more of a social rather than a religious gathering. Covering of heads is no longer seen as mandatory, except while praying, and one does not often witnesses the humbandagi.
The Mukthad ceremonies which have now been moved to our Agiyaris and Atash Behrams were in the past observed at home. The Parsi artisans, merchants and farmers used to take eighteen days leave from their work (for that was the duration at that time) so that they could spend that quality time praying for the peace of their loved ones’ souls. It was also a time of spiritual upliftment of the self, and houses would be filled with flowers of every hue, with the perfume of sukhar and lobaan wafting through the air.
Another unique feature lost over time is the daana-ni-torans that adorned the door of every Parsi household. It was a typical trademark of Parsi homes, and scores of women would spend their free time exchanging designs. The custom of having a traditional wood-fueled chulavati in the kitchen has also gone out of most Parsi house-holds.
But, as Alphonse Karr says – “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Indeed. There are some things that have not changed, nor hopefully ever will. Such as the gregarious nature and sense of humour of Parsi bawajis – that uncanny ability that makes us laugh at ourselves! Merry – making and Parsis go hand in hand, and they are the life of any party.
Nor has the Parsi appetite undergone a change. Parsis loved food then, and they love their food now. The customary Sunday Dhansak and kebabs, followed by the afternoon siesta still remains, as does their love for their daily chaato-paani.
Another thing the Parsis have retained is their honesty and integrity. Even today, most Indians prefer to do business with Parsis, knowing that they are dependable, sincere and trustworthy.
And though we may have compromised our social and cultural customs, there has been no compromise on religion. Most Parsis are still very orthodox, and want to stick to the customs, rites and rituals that we have been following from time immemorial. We still pray in the ancient Avestan language – the Divine language of revelation.
So as you can see, some things will always remain the same. We have, and will, continue to change socially and culturally, but we will never lose our distinct identity – our ability to be spotted in a crowd! And in spite of having integrated ourselves into the melting pot of Indian secularism, we are still set apart by our intrinsic nature and behaviour, our honesty and our fun-loving ways!