Sugar in Milk—The Parsi-Zoroastrians of Mumbai and Pune

Diplomas and Distinctions – PhD thESES

Maya Putois—Ph.D thesis in social anthropology defended on 30 November 2012 at the EHESS, Paris, France.

Sugar in Milk—The Parsi-Zoroastrians of Mumbai and Pune, 2012, 377 p.

Members of the jury

Jean-Claude Galey, PhD supervisor, Research Director, EHESS.

Philippe d’Iribarne, Research Director, CNRS.

Eric Godelier, Research Director, EHESS.

Sylvie Chevrier, Research Director, CNRS.

Claude Markovits, Research Director, CNRS.

Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky, Professor, INALCO.

This study explores how far the Parsi community today is integrated in India and yet has retained a separate identity. Paradoxically, it is the way in which Parsis constantly refashion themselves, adapting to the challenges of time, that has allowed them to survive and succeed. This has permitted them to fortify their separate existence as an ethnic and religious community, assimilated in India, but endogamous, and with their own particularities.

Why choose four Parsi businesses (Godrej, Jeena, Gharda and Forbes Mashall) as subjects of investigation? Mainly because the Parsi community still identifies itself more with the ‘integrity’ and success of its best-known businesses than by chosen representatives such as the Bombay Parsi Punchayat or the Delhi Anjuman. When one is aware that Parsis were/are acclaimed for their business acumen and that it is these thriving businesses and professions that are metaphorically holding up an otherwise demographically sinking ship, what better way to investigate than by researching these very businesses?

One of the greatest challenges to studying Parsism today is the demographics of the community. While researching the selected businesses, one is struck by how few there are left.

In the three sections of my thesis I have proceeded from more outward/visible representations of Parsism to deeper strata: Parsi customs, attitudes, religious behaviours, their entrepreneurial side, pioneering tendencies, ethics etc. In Chapters 16 to 18 the core of the Parsi mindset was analyzed. Zoroastrianism, though significantly weakened and sometimes non-existent on a ritualistic and more tangible plane, was shown to have always lingered in the Parsi mindset as a faith in action. Parsis were found to still benefit from a reputation for honesty and integrity, cultural dimensions for which Zoroastrians have been renowned since the times of Herodotus! These conclusions were derived from an exploration of the complexities of Parsi ethics in a country where corruption is rife. We have also elucidated how this very reputation, over the millennia and through some kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, has been transformed into a selling factor, ‘Parsi brand equity’, one of the leading criteria in Parsi business success today.

Finally, the data exposed is often followed up by legendary, historical or religious background. This is due to the need to understand cultural particularities through cognizance of the whole of society.

To conclude, all these cultural characteristics have allowed Parsis to remain Indian and yet stay apart as a distinct community.

Thesis available from EHESS library or contact Maya Putois at

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