Why we need more books on Parsi businesses, culture and memories
Parsis in India: Why we need more books on Parsi businesses, culture and memories
Given their dwindling population, it is important that as many of the memories that are still available with the older generation, are captured and retained for the future.
From the time the followers of Zoroastrianism came to India 1,300 years ago, the lives of the Parsis have been inextricably intertwined with the evolution of the country. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)
There has been a spate of new books on the Tata Group in particular and the Parsi community in general over the last few years. In 2019, Berjis Desai’s Oh Those Parsis came out, while in 2021, Anastasia Damani’s illustrated picture book under Puffin’s Have You Met series Have You Met the Parsis? and Coomi Kapoor’s intimate history of the community, The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas were published.
The Tata Group has, of course, been the focus of this writing. In 2020, Arun Maira’s The Learning Factory: How The Leaders of Tata Became National Leaders, was followed by Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism by Mircea Raianu and Peter Casey’s The Story of Tata: 1868 to 2021 which were released in 2021. By the end of this year, Ratan Tata’s authorized biography, being authored by bureaucrat and retired IAS officer Dr Thomas Mathew, is also expected to hit the stands.
More the pity, for the Parsis have for years been the pride of India. The Godrej group set up 125 years ago by Ardeshir Godrej, the Wadia family that started out way back in 1736, and of course the 154-year-old Tata Group are three of the largest conglomerates in the country. Outside of these, there have been so many other Parsi businesses along with their enormous contributions to every other field of endeavour in the country.
From the time the followers of Zoroastrianism came to India to escape from Muslim persecution in Persia 1,300 years ago, the lives of the Parsis have been inextricably intertwined with the evolution of the country. Records show that by the 1600s, Parsi traders were doing business with merchants in Persia, Arabia and South-East Asia. The arrival of the Europeans on Indian shores gave wings to the community’s creativity and spirit of adventure, driven by their love for learning. Coomi Kapoor’s book points to their early embrace of British schooling. In 1860, there were 615 Parsi students in high school in Bombay compared to 441 Christians, 239 Hindus, just 15 Muslims and 22 others. Again in the early 1920s, Parsis earned 7 percent of the engineering degrees, 5 percent of medical degrees and 2 percent of science degrees. Given their minuscule share of the population – 0.03 percent – those are telling figures.
By 1941, the Parsi population in the country had risen to 114,000, and in 1951, the percentage of the population which identified Zoroastrian as its religion was about 0.13 percent. Yet, since then the number has been dropping precipitously, with some estimates placing it at under 50,000 now.
Even that number is seriously threatened with birth rates in the community dropping and marriages becoming rare. While earlier, as an immigrant community, the tendency was to have many children, for the last few decades that’s hardly been the case. A government program to help grow the population hasn’t really succeeded nine years after it was launched. A bigger reason for the decline is also the refusal to recognize those that marry outside the community, a number that has been growing with a third of all marriages now involving another community.
Given their reclusive and self-effacing nature and a rapidly ageing population, it is important that as many of the memories that are still available with the older generation, are captured and retained for the future. While the Parsi museum in Udvada, and the revamped FD Alpaiwalla Museum in Mumbai are efforts to preserve fragments of their 1,300-year-old history in the country, the spate of books is another facet of the same objective.
Memories are the perpetual zeitgeist of mankind. Towards the end of the 2019 film The Song of Names, the mystery of the lead character’s 35-year disappearance is resolved to a recitation of the names of all those who died in the Treblinka concentration camp. The song is haunting but what it conveys, how a community tried to keep its memories alive for posterity, is universal.