The Parsi ward at Mumbai’s JJ Hospital seems a particularly sunny convalescent home. Its full-length gothic windows and yellow-beige walls light 45 beds, which most patients cannot leave. The tiny piles of possessions beside beds hold journals, faded photographs and knitting needles.
Nergis Sidhwa, like most patients, came to this ward because she had no alternatives. Now 84, she was born into a wealthy Parsi family in colonial Mumbai. She took a job as an assistant at a shipping company at a time when few women worked in business. She inherited a spacious apartment in the bustling Fort district, but never married, and lived alone after her three sisters died. When she spent a month in the hospital after a fall, her new landlord evicted her.
“Once, my brother asked me to go to London with him,” Sidhwa recalled. She considered it, asking for his help finding a job, but ultimately, “I refused because I was afraid of being alone there. The more I was afraid of being alone, the more alone I became.”
Today, Mumbai’s Parsi community is aging and shrinking. Its median age hovers around 60. Just 60,000 Parsis remain nationwide, and demographers predict the population will fall to 20,000 by 2050. The community that dominated India’s colonial industry and post-independence economy has aged, leaving several hundred lonely and ill in wards like this one.
“Some people don’t have anyone anymore. They’re taken advantage of,” said Arnavaz Mistry, who runs the ward for aging Parsis. “If they’re immobile, it’s very hard for them to manage.”
The Parsis’ ancestors came to India from Iran, then known as Persia, around 700 A.D. They lived in relative isolation for a millennium. Then, favored by British colonizers, they took government positions and started companies like Tata and Godrej, which remain some of India’s largest. Many of Mistry’s patients were among modern India’s first bankers, managers and store owners.
Mistry, who is in her 60s with two daughters abroad, took over management of the Parsi ward more than 25 years ago. After caring for her aging parents and then losing her husband, she refurbished the ward, established a trust, and tripled its number of residents.
“Many children don’t want to bring their parents into their homes,” Mistry said. She added, “Love is the main thing. Food is one thing, but they really need love.”
The ward now houses 45 people, fewer than 10 of whom can walk without help. The government-owned hospital provides electricity, water, some food and eight staffers. The Jal Minocher Mistry Memorial Fund provides the rest: catered food, diapers, additional staff and a physiotherapist who visits twice a week.
Mistry’s waiting list has 23 names now, and she adds several every month. The majority will wait for at least a year.
Most of Mumbai’s elderly Parsis live alone in their apartments. Many never married; others’ children have moved abroad. Some have pensions. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet—another Parsi trust, with a board that includes Mistry—offers 1,000 rupees a month to all Parsis over 60. India’s average monthly income is about 5,100 rupees.
Yet another trust delivers two meals a day to about 60 elderly Parsis in Mumbai. Around 30 more receive monthly provisions for food. Tina Patel, who manages the service, started catering daily hot meals for seven elderly friends almost 20 years ago. Now, around five new people join every year.
“There is a lot of demand for these sorts of services. I’m sure we are not covering all of them,” said Patel, who runs the program for the Mancherji Edalji Joshi Memorial Trust.
Though blended families and roommates are rare, the Parsi community is tight-knit; everyone seems to know a cousin of someone. An online service called “The Parsi Family” allows people to list details about themselves online in hopes of locating old friends.
But the community is aging so quickly that The Parsi Family provides a daily SMS service, listing the names of Parsis who’ve recently died and detailing their funeral arrangements.
“When you see [the number of] deaths compared to our births, and the ages—all over 80, 90, 95, what to do?” Patel lamented.
While caring for the community’s elders, Mistry also organizes meet-ups for young adults seeking spouses. As she comforts Parsis left alone in old age, she feels obliged to encourage others to find companions and have kids.
“The community is growing old, and babies are so few,” Mistry added. “We are very much worried.”
Published January 20, 2015