THE PARSIS OF INDIA: PRESERVATION OF IDENTITY IN BOMBAY CITY
“The Parsis of India” examines a much-neglected area of Asian Studies. In tracing keypoints in the development of the Parsi community, it depicts the Parsis’ history, and accounts for their ability to preserve, maintain and construct a distinct identity. For a great part the story is told in the colonial setting of Bombay city. Ample attention is given to the Parsis’ evolution from an insular minority group to a modern community of pluralistic outlook. Filling the obvious lacunae in the literature on British “colonialism,” Indian society and history, and, last but not least, “Zoroastrianism,” this book broadens our knowledge of the interaction of colonialism and colonial groups, and elucidates the significant role of the Parsis in the commercial, educational, and civic milieu of Bombay colonial society.
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Some excerpts and contents :
In appreciation of their efforts on behalf of the freedom struggle in South Africa, and in appeal for their continued support, M. K. Gan-dhi noted the legacy of the Parsis of India: “It is one of the supreme wonders of God that, though the Parsee community does not number more than a hundred thousand in the whole world, it has made a name for itself everywhere by virtue of its many illustrious qualities. It can be said that it is this community, which holds power in India. Bombay is the real capital of India, [and] it owes its prosperity mainly to the Parsees.”‘ Gandhi’s assessment is but one of many that have sought to understand the ability of the Parsis of India to survive and prosper as a community and people over the centuries since their arrival in India.
Chapter One focuses on the rise of the Parsi community in Bom-bay, and the moral and economic supports to community and identity that take shape in the urban setting. An examination of the role and place of charity within the Parsi community, and the Parsis’ pre-eminence in trade and commerce provide insight into the Parsis’ ad-aptation in the new setting, and the building of the foundation and base for the subsequent growth of the community under colonialism.
Chapter Two examines the factors that made for leadership of the Parsi community among the wealthy and influential Parsi merchant-princes of early Bombay, and the rise of the institution of the Parsi Punchayet of Bombay as the internal government of the Parsis. The chapter examines the ability of the Parsis to exploit the new opportunity made available in Bombay to safeguard, preserve, and redefine identity with the establishment of the Punchayet, and prior to the great influence of Western ideas on the community. The chapter takes account of the community norms and the social ideology that emerges among the Parsis in the urban setting and which, for a time, unite the Parsis in support of the Punchayet. The chapter then focuses on the decline of the Punchayet and the processes that make for the rise of alternative models for safeguarding identity.
Chapter Three examines the challenge posed to Parsi religious identity by the conversions of Parsi boys in Bombay, by the Rever-end Doctor John Wilson. The chapter provides a unique picture of the challenge faced by the Parsis from the Christian missionaries, and how the most accommodating of communities under colonialism reacts in antagonism to a perceived threat from the colonial envi-ronment. It reflects that amidst the Parsis’ continuing progress and socialization under colonialism, their religious identity remained in-violable. Of central focus is the ability of the Parsis as a community to withstand the challenge posed by the Christian missionaries, while in general affected by the impact of the colonial environment.
Chapter Four examines the Parsis’ response to the changing social milieu of mid-nineteenth century Bombay. The influence of Western education and British values on the Parsis, and the attempts by the Parsis to direct social progress to their advantage amidst social and cultural change, are examined. The chapter in particular focuses on the rise of the Parsi reformers, as a new centre of authority among the Parsis, and the consequences of the reformers’ reform movement.
Chapter Five concentrates on the attempts by the Parsis to shape their identity through legislative and legal channels. The chapter first examines the Parsis’ attempts, at mid-nineteenth century, to fashion and have enacted a Parsi law code that deals with the issues of (intestate) inheritance and succession, and marriage and divorce. The section notes the pressures of the colonial environment and, in particular, the effect of British legal norms on the Parsis, which shape the Parsis’ responses. The chapter then deals with an important legal case in the history of the Parsi community, known as the Parsi Punchayet Case of 1906-08. The Parsi Punchayet Case involved the Parsis turning to the law courts to settle issues relative to their identity, specifically the issue of conversion and membership in the community, and the consequences of their actions. Finally, the chapter examines the evolution of Parsi thought by the early twentieth century and a second important legal case, known as the Rangoon Navjote Case of 1915-18. This section seeks to provide historical context to the changes the Parsis had undergone since the middle of the nineteenth century, and that shaped their arguments over identity and modernity.
Chapter Six examines the diversification of Parsi opinion over politics, specifically the rise of political nationalism among some Parsis, and the tension this creates within the Parsi community as to political allegiances and identity. The chapter traces the public career of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), his ties to the Parsis, and the influences that shaped his identification with the Indian nationalist movement. The chapter also examines the efforts and difficulties of the Parsis Sir Pherozeshah M. Mehta (1845-1915) and Sir Dinsha E. Wacha (1844-1936) to associate the Parsis with Indian nationalism. The rise of the Parsis in the Indian nationalist movement provides insight into the evolution and maturation of a segment of Parsi opinion towards a broader sense of identity, as well as the problematic nature of the transition for the Parsis.
Finally, the Epilogue presents an overview of the present-day Par-sis and is included to both update the historical narrative, and demonstrate the relevance of the historical narrative to the issues that continue to preoccupy the Parsis of India.