Make Good News
Make Good News – By Dinyar Patel
Sometimes, it can be all too easy to be a pessimist about our community. The deep conservative-liberal divide permeates discussion of nearly every social issue, spawns some very vicious name-calling and mudslinging, and has in many cases completely split local anjumans, families, and friends. There is the familiar rhetoric that Parsis are “not what we once were;” that the youth, especially the boys, “are not ambitious;” and that the community has largely retreated from its once-prominent position on the social, political,
and economic stage of India. Finally, there are fears that our population is rapidly diminishing and that, some decades hence, there will not be many Zoroastrians left in India or the world.
Yes, the problems are real. But are matters today unusually bad? As someone engaged in extensive academic study of our community’s history, I would argue that this is not entirely the case. History shows us, for example, that the Parsis have always been an argumentative, garrulous lot. Our argumentativeness has both helped and hurt us.
The conservative-liberal divide, at least in its present garb, is relatively new and relatively tame. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the community was bitterly divided due to rivalries between priests of the two principle panthaks, the Bhagarias and the Sanjanas, as well as competition for authority between the priests and increasingly assertive merchant laymen in places such as Surat. In the 1680s, this conflict degenerated into actual physical violence where eight people were killed (you can read more about this incident in chapter 3 of Susan Stiles Maneck’s interesting book, The Death of Ahriman: Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the
Parsis of India, on sale at the K.R. Cama Institute).
Dan Sheffield, one of my colleagues at Harvard, has recently researched and written on the kabisa or intercalation controversy which pitted Shenshais and Kadmis against one another in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While today’s Parsis occasionally dabble in the relative merits of the Shenshai, Kadmi, and Fasli calendars, in its time the kabisa controversy spawned incredible rifts and, once again, bloodshed. In time, like the Bhagaria-Sanjana dispute, the issue lost its potency and the community moved onto other matters. Starting in the 1830s, the most pressing matter was the threat posed by Christian missionaries bent on converting Parsis. The conversion crisis of the 1830s was, incidentally, a major factor in spawning the Parsi reform movement which soon led to the community splitting into liberal and conservative camps.
What about the supposed “decline” of our community? “From commerce and enterprise the Parsee community has been drifting to dependence and service, from reliance on self to reliance on family and friends… The present depressed and discontented state of the community forbodes no good.” Does such rhetoric sound familiar? These words were penned by a Jamsetji Dorabji Khandalewala in 1880, well before individuals such as Jamsetji Tata, Pirojsha Godrej, Dadabhai Naoroji, or Pherozeshah Mehta had made their lasting mark on Indian society.
Our community has, historically, had a very strange tendency to constantly and severely berate itself, placing current generations in an unkind light in comparison to our forefathers. In fact, an entire book has been written on this subject: The Good Parsi, by Tanya Luhrmann, now a professor of anthropology at Stanford University.
Surely, the Parsis are nowhere near as nationally or regionally prominent as we were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when we enjoyed an overwhelming advantage over other Indians in terms of access to education and positions of economic and political importance. Nevertheless, I think that we are still doing pretty well. In an India of increasing socioeconomic opportunity—where access to education and good jobs is finally spreading beyond a few elite circles—I think it nothing short of remarkable that our
microscopic community of 60,000 is still producing nationally and internationally-renowned individuals in business, various professions, the arts, academia, and elsewhere. This is no small feat. There is one issue, however, which should seriously concern us all: our rapidly dwindling population. Between 1951 and 2001, the number of Parsis in India declined by a simply stunning 40,000 people. There is a great deal of popular confusion over why this decline has happened. Largely unbeknownst to the community, Parsi population decline has been thoroughly researched by professors of demography in India and the United States. Every single authoritative, scholarly demographic study has concluded that our population crisis is due to our abysmally low birthrate. We have hardly enough children to replenish our population.
This is not because of a biological propensity for Parsis to be infertile, but rather because so many Parsis marry late, do not marry at all, or have few if any children. Migration and intermarriage do play a role as well, but their role is hardly significant in comparison to the above-mentioned factors. I have written an extensive paper on this subject, summarizing the large scholarly literature and offering some suggestions (available online at: http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/pdf/patelDemographics.pdf).
Parts of this paper will be serialized in Jame; I also invite you to learn more about this pressing matter at a talk I will deliver on 7 May at the Nehru Centre in Worli.
In summary, and with the obvious exception of our demographic crisis, the current-day state of our community is not as bad as we commonly believe. We have certainly faced more potent divisions in the past. This fact, however, does not excuse the vitriolic and unnecessary rhetoric that characterizes today’s liberal-conservative divide. I
have seen both liberals and conservatives condemn each other as Ahriman incarnate. Neither claim, of course, is true, but the fractiousness, vindictiveness, and ill-will that the divide has sown amongst followers of the Good Religion has a definite Ahrimanic whiff about it. I take solace in the fact that many of my fellow youth recognize the counterproductiveness of such behavior and are resolved not to continue it.
And, while it is wrong to believe that the current generation of Parsi youth is simply devoid of ambition, it does not excuse the fact that a large number of youth would benefit from more studiousness and hard work instead of maintaining extravagant lifestyles sustained by parental doles. It simply, wrenchingly hurts to hear so many young
Bombayites describe their Parsi classmates as having a penchant for wild parties, drugs, and the like. It utterly shames the majority of us who have no part in this.
Undoubtedly, we Parsis can benefit from some good news. So, as Navroze approaches, let me suggest that we all do our part to make good news. Below are just a few suggestions:
Donate and perform some public service: There are few things in Zoroastrianism more esteemed than philanthropy and charity. We have much evidence of “pious endowments” from the ancient Persian Empire. Charity, however, does not have to be the province of the rich, and there are multiple ways we can donate to worthy causes or volunteer at important institutions. I would also stress that we need not confine our charity and public service to our community. Men such as Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Jamsetjee Tata were great because they donated their wealth across society, irrespective of community or class. Experts now estimate that around 60 percent of Bombayites live in slums. There is a critical need for help outside our relatively comfortable confines.
Visit and help the elderly and the poor: That does not mean that there is no poverty in the Parsi community. A Parsi filmmaker, Kaevan Umrigar, has made an excellent short film on the inexcusable number of indigent Parsis, available to view online at http://fiveparsifilms.blogspot.com/. Many of them are elderly and live by themselves (again, I would recommend seeing one of Kaevan’s films, “Dadar Ormaj, maney jaldi bolaavo”). They are, consequently, desperately lonely. Recently, my girlfriend took me to visit the
elderly tenants at the Parekh Dharamshala in Kharegat Colony. It was a heartbreaking experience: several individuals welled up with tears that someone from outside had finally come to visit and talk to them. Places like the Parekh Dharamshala provide excellent accommodations and medical care for our numerous elderly community members. But there is nothing quite like the human touch.
Don’t put off marriage or having children: Marriage and birth statistics for the Parsis are truly scary and have been steadily decreasing in numbers over the years. If you care about your community and want to make sure that it survives, then it is imperative to get married and have children. The lifelong Parsi bachelor and spinster might make for good comic effect in nataks and movies but the phenomenon is killing the community. Within the Zoroastrian religion, marriage and having children are extremely
meritorious deeds. Rather than complain about the supposed lack of eligible prospects, take advantage of several new forums now available to help you. ZYNG has set up an online matrimonial portal, something which our community has long needed. BPP trustee Arnavaz Mistry organizes socials for young Parsis in Bombay. Above all, don’t give
Put in extra effort to your studies or work: Our author friend from 1880 shows us how Parsis have long (and incorrectly) believed that they are in the throes of decline. If you are tired of today’s manifestation of the idea that Parsi youth are no longer ambitious, then do your best to disprove it. Nothing will prove better in changing common beliefs.
Gain and promote knowledge of your heritage and history: As someone who has dedicated the past few years toward studying our community, I can say with full confidence that our heritage and history are completely fascinating and deserve your attention. Any religious and cultural tradition spanning three millennia would provide for exceptionally interesting material! You do not have to do a Ph.D. in order to study it—there are several excellent books and articles on our religion and history and I would be happy to recommend some. In particular, I would recommend my fellow youth to make a serious attempt to polish or gain Gujarati reading skills. Through knowledge
of written Gujarati, you will unlock a literary treasure trove on our community’s past. Libraries at the K.R. Cama, BPP, Dadar Athornan Madressa, the Meherjirana Library in Navsari, and elsewhere are brimming with Parsi Gujarati material. Take it from someone who grew up in the United States and did not speak or read any Gujarati until
two years ago: it is an extremely easy script to learn, especially if you already know Devanagari.
We are a tiny community and, consequently, all of us make a very big impact. This Navroze and beyond, let us all strive to make the good news that we want to hear.
Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in Indian history at Harvard University. He has researched elements of Parsi history including Mahatma Gandhi’s relations with the community and Parsi involvement in Iran in the early 20th century. He is based in Delhi this year in order to conduct archival research for his dissertation on Dadabhai
Naoroji. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ph.D. Candidate, Modern South Asia
Department of History
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