Baby, come and save us
“We’d like to have four kids at least,” says Kaiyan. “I promised my mother six and she promised me in turn that she’ll take care of them and I’ll just have to see them on weekends,” he says with a laugh. This conversation takes place on a Sunday morning at Bombay Gymkhana, which is packed to the rafters with the elderly elite of the city who are here for a bridge tournament.
Shireen is a little sceptical, though. “Let’s wait and watch,” she says, “Having children is also an expensive proposition.” He counters, “In the past, Parsis used to have large families and that can be a wonderful thing.” He sees that as a solution to the Parsi problem. While growing up, all they would hear from their elders was the constant lament: ‘We’re dying out, we’re dying out.’
Kaiyan is the son of Khojeste Mistree, an eminent Zoroastrian scholar. “From the very beginning, my parents told me, ‘It is your responsibility to protect your community, and it is you and you alone who can do it, so you have to marry a Parsi’,” he says. Shireen, on the other hand, questioned the edict that was passed on to her by her family at first, that she must marry a Parsi boy. She struggled with it, however; and once she was sure she would not want to give up on the Zoroastrian way of life, she realised that marrying a non-Parsi was not an option. “I love being a Parsi, it’s a privilege. People associate us with being honest, charitable and upright. I’m very proud of that,” she says. Their passion for their community has led them to start a project called Zoroastrian Return to Roots, which combines religion and culture with tourism, for Zoroastrians around the world. The idea, she says, is to make Zoroastrianism cool for young people.
It is the young who are questioning the set-in-stone tenets of Parsi life. What does it mean to find love, to marry and have children, when you’re a young Parsi? Can the community coax its youth towards matrimony, endogamy and reproduction? Can it ask its women to bear two, three, more children? Does self come first or community, or a fine balance between both? These are some of the questions that young Parsis are grappling with.
Jumjoji, which translates into ‘let’s go eat’ in Gujarati, is a popular Parsi diner in Bandra. On its walls are sepia-toned photographs of Parsi gatherings and sombre-faced portraits of icons like JRD Tata and Sam Manekshaw. The menu is an amusing read, dishes named after kin and kith from whom the recipes have apparently been borrowed: ‘Aunty Freni’s Dhansak’, ‘Zenobia Zorabian’s Lagan nu Custard’, ‘Allu Gazder’s Patra ni Machi’. At the bottom of the menu, written in uppercase letters and also put up on the wall is the disclaimer: ‘Stocks available till Parsis last’. True to form, Parsis will never let a chance slip by to make an in-joke, or any joke. It’s odd, but almost appropriate, that a quip on a restaurant menu sums up the feverish anxiety, the apocalypse-now sentiment that grips the community.
‘Suddenly in the last ten years people have woken up that along with the Great Indian Bustard, the tiger, the one-horned rhino, the Parsi is also dwindling,’ Cyrus Broacha, another Parsi with a funny bone, says in Qissa-e-Parsi, a 2014 documentary that explores the history of the community and the current demographic crisis.
Through strands of popular culture, we find echoes of the ever-present Parsi fear of slowly fading away. The Last Parsi, a recent solo act by young stand-up comic Danesh Irani (the poster shows him with a vulture on his head), mines this very threat of extinction for comedy. In the past few weeks, the community seems to have reached a tipping point, highlighted by the ‘Jiyo Parsi’ advertising campaign. But, the fact is, Parsis have long been at this place. In Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry’s 2002 novel, Dr Fritter, a character who is often preoccupied with death, says, “Demographics show we’ll be extinct in fifty years. Maybe it’s the best thing. What’s the use of having spineless weaklings walking around, Parsi in name only.” “If, if, if,” says Dr Fritter, “If we are meant to die out, nothing will save us.” “Yes,” says Inspector Masalavala, “But it will be a loss to the whole world. When a culture vanishes, humanity is the loser.”
The ‘Jiyo Parsi’ scheme is a Parsi breeding programme, under which the Central Government will disburse Rs 10 crore as financial aid for Parsi couples facing infertility. It was designed with certain figures in mind that every Parsi can spout easily: there are about 69,000 Parsis in India (according to the 2001 census), 800 deaths for every 200 births a year, and the community’s Total Fertility Rate is 0.88, which is less than one child per couple. The scheme has been operational for a year, three babies have been born so far, and 20 more are on the way. It is the second part of the scheme, under ‘advocacy and counselling’, advising Parsi youth and their families to marry and procreate early, that has led to all the disquiet in the community. It has brought forth the old feuds that plague Parsis, the most argumentative perhaps of all Indians (‘Where there are two Parsis, there are three anjumans’, is an old saying on the tendency of Parsis to disagree with one another), over the question of intermarriage and that of accepting the children of women who marry non-Parsis as Parsis.
The ‘Jiyo Parsi’ advertising campaign is a study in provocation. Apart from the ads that have been put out, like the one where Dadar Parsi Colony is rechristened Dadar Hindu Colony, there are many that nudge young Parsis to step up for the community, to have not one but two, preferably three, children. Here are some of the advisories: ‘Have a child quickly after marriage. Because a child needs parents, not parents who act like grandparents’, ‘In earlier times some families were cricket teams, surely you can manage a carrom foursome?’ ‘Who will be snooty about being superior, if you don’t have kids?’
Some young Parsi women are not amused. Simin Patel, a PhD student at the University of Oxford and the daughter of Jehangir Patel, editor of the bimonthly Parsiana, has been leading a campaign of outrage against ‘Jiyo Parsi’: “I am opposed to the premise of the programme, I see it as a state-sponsored system of breeding racially pure children. Studies have shown that our demographic decline is terminal, nothing can be done to reverse it, except give up on race purity.” Patel, who is 30 and single, says that such messages put undue pressure on women. “Can we ask women to be baby- making machines? It takes us back by more than a hundred years.”
Shernaz Cama, an academic and the founder of Parzor, a Parsi heritage project, has devised the Jiyo Parsi scheme along with the government. She was among the first to record the ‘deserted village syndrome’ in the early 2000s, where entire Parsi villages in South Gujarat were found empty, with the young migrating and the old dying. She says that the community needs to be brought back from the brink before it is too late, even if it means provoking some people and putting pressure on the young. Cama who has one son, like many middle-aged Parsis, says she would choose differently if she could now.
A reiteration of this idea, of women having multiple children to repopulate the community is found in Mistry’s fiction. Inspector Masalavala has this recommendation: ‘I have two suggestions. First, our youth must be prohibited from going beyond a bachelor’s degree. Give them cash incentives to study less. And those who want to do post-graduate studies, tell them they will get no funding from panchayat unless they sign a contract to have as many children as the number of people over age fifty in their family. Maximum of seven—we don’t want to spoil the health of our young women.’
Dinyar Patel, a researcher of Parsi history at Harvard, says that the demographic crisis is now existential in nature. Over email, he says: ‘Parsis are well aware that their numbers are declining, and I think it has reached a point, now, where it has become a visible fact. However, most Parsis are not aware of the really significant reasons for our population decline— non-marriage and late marriage. As demographer Ketayun Gould notes in her study, ‘The proportionate number of single people in the community might be one of the highest in the world’.’
As the solution to the dwindling numbers seems to lie in matrimony, the Parsi community, led by its elders, perseveres in arranging marriages for the young. Almost 30 per cent of the population is unmarried, a result of education and progress, and in some cases simply because it is so difficult to find a spouse within the community.
Arnavaz Mistry and Zarine Havewala are in charge of the matrimonial bureau of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), which was set up in 2010 to tackle the marriage crisis. They have not been doing very well— only 20 marriages have taken place in four years. “To save ourselves, we need each couple to have four children at least. Maybe we can get them to sign contracts,” says Arnavaz Mistry laughingly. Mistry is a BPP trustee and lives by herself in a spacious old-world flat in Dadar Parsi Colony. With her hair cut short, her manner boisterous, she would strike anyone as a Parsi lady. Havewala, however, is less distinguishable as a Parsi. The two matchmakers are an amended version of the traditional Parsi ‘aunties’, intrepid women who would catch unsuspecting young people at social gatherings and try bringing them together.
In a bid to attract young people, the bureau organises matrimonial meet-ups in the form of cultural events and parties. It’s not easy work, attracting the young. At the last meet-up held in November, which had a workshop on grooming (mostly for boys, says Mistry), only 22 people turned up. When they started, they used to get nearly 100 people. There are always more men than women. “Parsi girls are too embarrassed to turn up for ‘matrimonial’ meet-ups. They always say, ‘What if our friends find out?’” says Havewala. “Those who come to us are serious about marrying Parsis, but if they can’t find anyone after a few years, then it’s natural they will look beyond the community. Everyone cannot think about the social cause, they have to think about their own lives, and we understand that.”
Khushnood Viccaji is a 49-year-old Parsi who works as an infotech consultant, but has made marriage his life’s work. Along with two other friends, he runs Parsimatrimonials.com, a free website for Zoroastrians that started in the 90s, and has recently set up a page on Facebook with about 1,500 active users. Despite a demanding job, Viccaji devotes a lot of his time to the website. “A lot of young people are focused on moving up in life, on materialistic aspirations and marriage takes a backseat, but we are so small in numbers that it has a huge impact. We advise the young, ‘Marry not just for yourself, but for the community, to take the generation forward’.” He brooks no argument when it comes to intermarriage. “People might say ‘move with the times’, but from a religious point of view, it is unacceptable. When you grow up in a Parsi family, you know that it is a sin to marry out.”
Viccaji represents the conservative voice of the community, which is also its dominant voice. On the other side are those who believe that a government fund will not save Parsis, and that the problem lies in the stance of racial purity. Filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala, who has written a book on Zoroastrians (Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India) is among the few notable names advocating a need for reform from within, asking Parsis to move from a race-based to a faith-based identity as Zoroastrians around the world have done. As she once said in an interview: “Young Parsis now complain that the community, especially in Bombay, has cornered itself into a ghetto to guard ‘race purity’. But in my experience, it’s the youngsters themselves who’ve enlisted to do this zealous guarding, brainwashed into believing that the religion and community is threatened from outside—when actually the threat comes from within.” While many young Parsis are open to discussing the need for reform, there is an equally large number that is dead set against the idea. One thought binds them all: they look at the legacy of their forefathers, many of them accomplished industrialists, shipbuilders and philanthropists who helped establish the foundation of modern India, as Mistry has written, and they know that the least they can do is simply survive.
As the old-fashioned way of matchmaking finds few takers among singles, the young, those who see themselves as saviours of the community, have had to step in, adapting the old ways to the new. One such attempt is the Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s youth group, ZYNG (Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation), which uses new-age methods like movie screenings, dance workshops, speed dating and adventure games, in the hope that love will strike.
Kareeshma Wadia and Hoshedar Havewala are a young couple who got married last year after meeting in Dubai at the World Zoroastrian Congress, a community event. They are both from Mumbai: she is a dentist and he is a lawyer. Sitting side by a side at a coffee shop in Juhu, they narrate the story of how they got hitched. Kareeshma had been meeting Parsi boys in Mumbai for some time, but nothing had clicked, so she was sent to attend the Congress by her family with the idea of meeting someone eligible. “I was told that it’s my duty to find a Parsi spouse and I was lucky that I did. But, for those women who can’t, it’s not easy,” says Kareeshma. “Events like the one we met at are mating season for Parsis. Some are there to seriously look for partners and some are there to just meet new people,” says Hoshedar, who belongs to the latter group. They ended up together, although the two do not share the same view on the Parsi demographic crisis. Kareeshma is self- confessedly unconcerned about the cause, while Hoshedar is committed to the idea of safeguarding the Parsi identity and has been a volunteer with ZYNG. He says, “To survive, we have to marry, which is why I’m always fixing up my friends. I think there is akaajwali bai (matchmaker) in every Parsi.”
As things stand, Parsis, the Zoroastrians of India, find themselves stuck between modernity and a hard place.