Zoroastrians are dwindling, but Russian academic Anton Zykov is making sure their distinctive tongue is not forgotten.
Growing up in Moscow, Anton Zykov was surrounded by “all things Indian.” Jawaharlal Nehru Square, where the statue of India’s first prime minister stands, was just around the corner from his home. His bookshelf was lined with children’s biographies of Indian rulers like Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali. He learned to speak Hindi in school. With both his parents being doctors, he was quite sure one day he would grow up to be one too — a typically Indian thing, he admits.
While his calling in medicine never arrived, the Indian connection persisted. Today a scholar at the Oriental Studies School of Sorbonne University, Zykov, 31, is documenting the dynamism of Parsi-Gujarati — a language (some consider it a dialect) spoken by Parsis, a Zoroastrian community in India.
One of the world’s oldest religions, the monotheistic Zoroastrianism (named for the Persian prophet Zoroaster) probably influenced the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrians migrated to India between the eighth and 10th centuries A.D., fleeing persecution by the Arabs in Iran (then Persia). They found refuge off the coast of Gujarat, a northeastern state in India. While assimilating certain aspects of local culture, including their language with regionally spoken Gujarati, they retained their religious identity.
They flourished into one of the world’s most successful minority groups, with an intense focus on education that helped produce an incredible collection of billionaires and business titans in the Tata, Godrej, Poonawalla, Mistry and Wadia families. The late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and classical music conductor Zubin Mehta also come from the group. “Parsis can’t become complacent because they don’t have a country of their own,” Houtoxi Contractor, head of the Zoroastrian Association of Pennsylvania, told United Press International.
KARACHI: The Bai Virbaijee Soparivala (BVS) Parsi High School celebrated its 160 years with prayers and a grand Milad on Thursday.
The BVS Parsi High School was founded in 1859 by Seth Shapurji Hormusji Soparivala and his family in a small Parsi Balakshala housed in the residence of Dadabhoy Palonji Paymaster. But as the school-going community increased, it outgrew the building. In 1869, Seth Shapurji lost his beloved wife, Bai Virbaiji. In May 1870 Seth Shapurji, who had been so far the greatest benefactor of the school, donated Rs10,000 on the condition that the school be named the Parsi Virbaiji School.
This school for Parsi children, shifted to the present school building on Abdullah Haroon Road in 1905. After the subcontinent’s partition in 1947, the school’s then principal Behram Rustomji opened its doors for the very first time to non-Parsis on the request of the Quaid-i-Azam. Today, Muslim students are in a majority here.
Now Muslim students outnumber the others in the institution set up for Parsi children
There were separate special morning prayers held for the students and teachers who followed the Zoroastrian religion and the Muslim, Christian and Hindu religions. In the school’s assembly area there were the boys attending the Milad in their crisp white shalwar kameez and matching prayer caps.ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD
Meanwhile the boys on stage started with a recitation from the Holy Quran followed by Hamd, Naat and several speeches throwing light on the various aspects of Prophet Mohammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) character and way of life such as ‘The Prophet as a Teacher’, ‘The Prophet as a Father’ and lectures about the bad habit of talking behind people’s backs and the importance of honesty.
Uzair Ahmed, an old Virbaijeeite, who happened to have the most beautiful of voices, and who passed out of the school a few years ago returned to present a few Hamd and Naat before two teachers — Shabana and Sania Saleem — took over.
The master of ceremonies, young Zaigham Abbas of class five, really impressed here with his confidence. Later, at the conclusion on the milad, he led the prayers as well.
Finally, Kermin Parakh, principal of BVS Parsi High School, joked that it was amazing that even though the school had turned 160 years old no one here looked that old. She also spoke about the old Virbaijeeite Uzair and teased him for having grown a little beard and mustache now. “I still remember how you mesmerised us with your angelic voice in class one,” she said before asking everyone to join her in prayer for the school’s, the city’s and country’s prosperity.
“We have children here following separate religions but we are all united for the same cause. May we always stay united,” she said before asking the school band to play the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Congratulations’ followed by the school song for which everyone stood up in respect of the noble organisation.
A sea-loving Parsi family moved to Port Blair 35 years ago, to a house that had no electricity, no toilets, and on one occasion, no roof. Today, they run a thriving homestay, a spice farm and a kayaking tour company
Tanaz, Shiraz and Dinaz on his wedding day
In 1985, after a lifetime spent at sea, Captain Kersi Phiroze Noble set foot on Port Blair, and decided to spend his remaining life at sea. “He loved the ocean and hated land,” says his daughter, Tanaz. “For him, sailing was like detox.” Captain Noble earned his stripes in the Merchant Navy. In 1978, he married a Xavierite, Dinaz Dastur, and had two children back-to-back: son Shiraz in 1983 and Tanaz in 1984. “We had a lovely place in Pune, but my husband wanted to lead the sea life,” says Dinaz. “The only option was to settle in Mumbai, but we were not happy living in a cage.” Tanaz says, “[Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi was in power and he had indicated that the Andamans will be used for international trade. So, dad looked at it as a great economic opportunity. He bought a few properties, [including] an entire island that belonged to a local Sardarji, and we moved here bag and baggage.”
Plank by plank, Captain Noble and Dinaz built Khushnaz House, a two-storeyed yellow bungalow, overlooking the aqua-blue sea. Of their early days, Dinaz says, “It’s hard to explain what we had walked into. Although we came for a better quality of life, the challenge was to build it. There was no proper sanitation, electricity, or gas to cook on. My husband would take contracts from shipping corporations and cross over to Chennai and Kolkata, and literally bring everything, including the tiles in my bathroom.” Tanaz adds, “There were so many creepy-crawlies falling over us that we had to stay inside mosquito meshes. For dad, it was the perfect world, but mum came in her high heels and pencil skirts from Mumbai. For her to adjust to this life was phenomenal.” What made things easier for Dinaz was “the fact that the islands were painfully beautiful. My husband and I were both Aquarians and nature lovers. We would walk the jungles for hours on end and feel exhilarated. The kids were brought up in the same environment: sailing, walking in the jungles, fishing in the early morning.”
The Nobles in their early years in the Andamans. Tanaz says, “The most common childhood memory I have is of sandcastles. Even bunking school was about going to the beach.”
If not for the dismal quality of higher education in Port Blair, they would have stayed put. “I had a full-grown Mallu accent,” says Tanaz. “In boarding school in Ooty [in Lawrence School, Lovedale], they used to make fun of my English, it was so bad.” It eventually became so good that Tanaz went on to study journalism at KC College; Shiraz studied hotel management at IHM and worked at The Taj Mahal Palace for 10 years; and from 2000-2010, Dinaz was general manager at Burlington’s. They lived in Dadar Parsi Colony in this phase, and felt a bit like fish out of water. “I don’t speak Gujarati,” says Tanaz. “So, there’s a disconnect even in Mumbai. We are a very small community and we tend to be a little clannish. I’ve been cut off for so long that I only identify with them genetically now.” Dinaz says, “If the kids hadn’t gone to boarding, I would have never crossed over to mainland India or Mumbai again. There’s nothing in Mumbai that attracts me.”
In 2007, on a “jinxed voyage” from Kolkata, Captain Noble had a massive heart attack. “He died with his captain’s cap on,” says Dinaz. Tanaz decided to return home. “Locals wanted to take our properties and somebody had to stand the ground. We would receive death threats from moneylenders. My mum was scared and wanted to leave. She said, ‘We don’t need any of this. Let’s just go, live our lives and be happy.’ I refused. I said, ‘I’m never going back.'”
Bakhtawar, who married into the Noble family, admits that her first year in Port Blair “was difficult”. Pic/Shadab Khan
Since then, time and tide have been kinder to the Nobles. Tanaz learned kayaking and runs a tour company with 15 kayaks on Havelock Island. She conducts day tours to the mangroves and night tours to see the bioluminescence in the water and stars in the sky, a passion she inherited from her father. “He refused to put a roof on the house, so he could watch the stars.” She’s also the first Indian to complete 70 nautical miles kayaking in high sea in 36 hours. “I have a Genghis Khan keeda. I have to conquer and keep going distances.” Dinaz, who returned in 2010, runs a homestay out of her home, and a spice farm out of the four-acre island, on which she grows nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper. And Shiraz, who returned in 2014 with his wife Bakhtawar and son Jehan, does sailing trips and runs the kayaking company with Tanaz. “One by one, we dropped everything we were doing and came back,” says Dinaz.
Bakhtawar, a Mumbai kid who studied law at KC College, went from sharing her city with 1.5 crore people to sharing it with 1.5 lakh. Back home for her annual two-month holiday, she meets us at the Parsi Gymkhana in Marine Lines and admits, “The transition was not easy. You need a lot of mental adjustment to get used to the place. It was a 180-degree change, from the hustle-bustle of Mumbai to the quiet life of the Andamans.” But, she’s warmed up to it now, as has her five-year-old. “Jehan has the best of both worlds.” In August 2018, Dinaz also invited her mother, Ratty Dastur, who was the queen of a chikoowadi in Dahanu, to live with them. “She had no choice: she fell and broke her leg,” says Dinaz. “She misses her farm like mad, but she’s 85 years old and needs somebody.”
As for their Parsi connections in their veins, seawater runs thicker than blood. “I don’t need to speak in Gujarati to survive,” says Dinaz. “I don’t need to do Parsi-panu to survive. All humans are the same. That’s my basic idea.” Tanaz says, “If I hold on to the sign of Faravahar, I’m still Parsi. My sister-in-law is shocked at how un-celebratory we are, but we celebrate quietly. We have an active volcano called Barren Island, and I sometimes joke and say, ‘That’s our fire temple.’ Because that’s the purest form of fire and the real Atash Behram.”
Captain Of Her Soul
On why she prefers the islands, Tanaz says, “If I visit the mainland for more than a month, I turn into that same evil — not evil — but aggressive, angsty, shouting person, who is always getting into fights. But, when I’m here, I’m relaxed, lazy, I laugh much more. We have no access to internet, so it’s not about fake socialising. When you want to say hi to somebody, you don’t Facebook them, you ring the doorbell.”
Dhobi Talao resident Meher Bhandara on launching a pioneering technology that makes water out of air
Meher Bhandara with the home unit. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Twenty-five years ago, when Meher Bhandara was told by an astrologer that she’s likely to enter a profession that would involve water, she didn’t think much of it. “Since I was part of the travel and tourism industry, I assumed it might be about beach resorts or cruises,” says Bhandara, whose grandfather founded Jeena Tours and Travels, the country’s first Indian-owned travel agency. Little did the 67-year-old know, that she would eventually helm a pioneering project that involves making water from thin air.
Why Humidity Matters
Bhandara is one of the founders of WaterMaker (India) Pvt Ltd, a company that manufactures atmospheric water generators (AWG). The technology uses optimised dehumidification techniques to extract and condense moisture in the air to produce purified drinking water. While the concept may sound esoteric, the usage is fairly simple. They essentially plug and play machines that provide safe drinking water. “All it requires is electricity to condense, collect, filter and dispense water,” she explains. Given its reliance on moisture, the machine functions best in coastal areas that are hot and humid. The greater the humidity, the better the output. “When we first participated at the Water Asia Expo in 2005 with a 500 litre AWG, visitors were amazed to see water being created out of air. They checked all nooks to find hidden pipe connections,” she laughs.
WaterMaker machine installed at a public study at Cooperage
In 2009, Bhandara set up a 1,000-litre machine in Jalimudi village in Andhra Pradesh for its 500 inhabitants. It became the world’s first rural atmospheric water installation. In Mumbai, it has been installed as a CSR project for an insurance company at a public study centre at Cooperage. “A lot of students throng the space because it’s quiet corner to study and they felt it would help to have free, drinking water handy,” she says. Considering students can be a tad too curious and tinker with buttons, the machine remains locked with only the tap accessible. Over the years, many companies have used the machines for their CSR projects in urban and rural India.
Inventor Who Made It Possible
It was in 2004 that Bhandara and her family first came across the technology. “My brother got talking to Dan Zimmerman, a co-passenger at JFK airport in New York, who mentioned that he was an inventor and had developed these machines that could make water from air, but didn’t know what to do next. Naturally, he was intrigued and felt India could truly do with machines such as these,” she says. The family then decided to collaborate with him and manufacture and sell AWGs in India. For a person who gawked at geeks, Bhandara had to learnt the technology from scratch. “I’m an arts and humanities person. So it was a challenge to acquaint myself with how this works,” she says.
Today, she is so well versed with the technology, that she has helped create smaller, soon-to-be launched home models. These can produce 25 litres in 24 hours. While all water filters need to be replaced every six months, the UV lamps can be replaced once a year. “Cleaning the air filter depends on the ambient air quality. You should check it twice a month.” The home units currently cost R45,000. “It is steep. Once we increase volumes, prices will decrease.” Funding for the projects come from companies, NGOs, and philanthropists. “We take water for granted. But there are so many who are deprived of it. The initiative is our way of contributing to society.”
Very few people today have heard of the Parsi community in Sri Lanka, because there are only about 60 in all including men, women and children. Although small in number, the contributions to our nation by this intriguing community throughout the years, have left an indelible mark in the history of Sri Lanka. They have produced eminent citizens, including a Government Minister, a Judge of the Supreme Court, barons of business and industry, high ranking military officials, media and educational personalities and philanthropists, among others.
Prominent Parsi families in Sri Lanka today are the Captain’s, Choksys, Khans, Billimorias, Pestonjees and Jillas. Their ancestors were originally from Persia, who later migrated to Gujarat in India. The Parsis are a very religious community who follow the Zoroastrian faith which is basically a monotheistic one, centred on the belief in the One True God whom they call Ahura Mazda or ‘Wise Lord’ in the Gathas of Prophet Zarathustra and his Great Maga Brotherhood.
The Parsis have made invaluable contributions to the economy and development of Sri Lanka. The Captains are a Parsi family who have long settled in this country. Sohli Captain owned Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills and his son Rusi went into corporate investments. The Captains are well-known for their services to humanity. Sohli Captain developed Sri Lanka’s first Cancer Hospital, and his sister Perin Captain has contributed immensely to the Child’s Protection Society.
Another long established Parsi family in Sri Lanka were the Billimorias who established the Britannia Bakery in 1900. Homi Billimoria, a renowned architect who designed Mumtaz Mahal, the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament and Tintagel, which became the family home of the Bandaranaike family. The Khan family owned the Oil Mills in Colombo and built the famous Khan Clock Tower, a landmark in Pettah. The Jillas, another well-known Parsi family, established Colombo Dye Works. Homi Jilla became an army Physician, Kairshasp Jilla became a Naval officer, and Freddy Jilla served as a civil aviation officer.
The Pestonjee family arrived in Sri Lanka much later. Kaikobad Gandy was the father of Aban Pestonjee, the founder of the prestigious Abans Group. He was a marine engineer who sailed around the world and finally made Sri Lanka his home, which he called ‘the best place in the world’. In 1930 he was awarded a Distinguished Citizenship by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in recognition of his services to the country’s ports as Chief Engineer. His daughter Aban founded Abans Group, a business conglomerate that handles everything from hospitality and electronic goods, janitorial services to garbage disposal and keeping our streets clean.
“Sri Lanka is our home, we love this country, and our small community lives in peace and harmony with the people of this country, always looking for ways and means to contribute towards its development and prosperity,” said Aban Pestonjee.
* On Murree Road, in the heart of the city, a lane leads towards a heavy iron gate that opens out on an era of Parsi history
It is a sweltering morning of June 1947. Weeks after vicious communal riots in Rawalpindi, Parsis are proffering teary-eyed goodbye to their home, Rawalpindi – standing amid Parsi cemetery on the narrow patches that part each grave, by laying out rose petals with tears rolling down from their faces and saying holy prayers to those who became eternal residents of the city expecting they would never see them again.
Much broken but still strengthened, many left and a few plumped for to stay in the city where they lived and expanded their businesses – Rawalpindi – a city of their dreams.
Today, that place of Parsi heritage is not easily visible in commercial congested areas.
Right in the heart of Rawalpindi, on Murree Road, a hubbub of the city life and noise of traffic, a lane leads to somewhat different place to its surroundings, where a heavy iron gate opens up to an era of Parsi arrival in Rawalpindi – the Parsi burial ground or Parsi cemetery.
Here, some neighbourhood children play cricket inside the premises and adjoining houses let drainage water on concrete floor of the cemetery making a burbling sound that disturbs tranquility. For new visitors to the cemetery, a marble plaque with bilingual, English and Gujarati inscription, welcomes new visitors, giving answers of basics and sometimes mysteries when people say, “Oh really? We don’t know Parsis bury their dead.”
Apart from random travel photographers and some local cricket players, Rawalpindi Parsi Anjuman President and former Member of National Assembly Isphanyar Minocher Bhandara is a regular visitor.
He comes to the cemetery weekly and sometimes twice a week, bringing rose petals, offering prayers on the graves of his beloveds, taking care and fighting illegal encroachments of this religious heritage site.
Here, some neighbourhood children play cricket inside the premises and drainage water spills out on the concrete floor of the cemetery, disturbing the tranquility. For new visitors to the cemetery, a marble plaque with a bilingual inscription welcomes new visitors, giving answers to basic questions and surprising visitors: ‘Oh really? We don’t know Parsis bury their dead’
He’s not only concerned about this site because it’s associated to his own religion but equally concerned about shrinking spaces for Hindus, Kailash, Christians and Buddhists in Pakistan.
He’s a vocal Parsi who stands up for the rights of religious minorities. He goes to Hindu temples, gurdwaras and churches as well. No matter what festival it is, he celebrates Holi, Christmas and Gurpurab with the same enthusiasm.
The Parsi heritage of the city was burgeoned soon after they made Rawalpindi their home that could have been alive however today fuzzy in the mists of time. Talking about the Parsis of Rawalpindi, the most renowned name of them all is that of MP Bhandara, a prolific writer, a columnist and art lover. His real name is Minocher Peshotan Bhandara also known as Minoo.
After a decade past his death, he’s alive in his writings. In the words of Khushwant Singh on the sudden death of Minoo Bhandara, “he was a grievous blow to those who strove to build bridges between Pakistan and India”.
Today, there are around 130 graves in the cemetery, the oldest one dates back to 1860.
The first wave of Parsis came from Gujarat. The inscriptions on tombstones is filled with surnames like Jussawalla and Minwalla. The Walla surname is quite common among Parsis.
Cyrus Broacha, whose family moved from Rawalpindi after Partition, is a well-known anchor and theatre personality based in Mumbai.
Most surnames in the subcontinent reflect caste, lineage and religious beliefs. The Parsis had a delightfully modern streak – having landed without caste, history and context. They created identities through professions and urban streets.
“Our family moved to Bombay from Rawalpindi in 1947. We came as refugees but the family soon settled and by 1953, my father had re-started playing golf at the Willingdon Club. I was eight years old and would walk 18 holes with him every Saturday and Sunday. The three Parsi gentlemen who made up his regular four-ball were uncles Poonawala, Coorlawala and Colabawala. Very soon they had re-christened my father Pindiwala. I used to spend hours searching the telephone directory to find Parsi surnames and stories around their families. There was prohibition in Bombay in those days. So to get liquor, you had to find Dalal, who would introduce you to Daruwala, who in turn would get bottles delivered to your home by Batliwala who would be accompanied by Soda-Water-Bottle-Opener-walla. Other surnames whose ancestors were in the beverages trade were Fountainwala, Ginwala, Rumwala, Sodawala and Jaamwala. Our neighbour and family physician was Dr Adi Doctor – he was only half a doctor. I remember going to Dr Doctor’s sister’s wedding. She married one Mr Screwala. What he did for a living, I don’t know to this day,” Cyrus Broacha says.
In 1898, the grandsons of Jehangirji Framji Jussawalla and Jamasji Hormasji Bogha named Dorabji Cowasji Jussawalla and Nasarwanji Jehangirji Bogha respectively, erected a wall around the burial ground. Jamasji Hormusji Boga aged 72, died on March 21, 1884.
He was at first a priest in Surat and used to convey invitations. Thereafter in 1843, he went to Karachi and spread his business at many places in the name of Jamasji & Sons and settled in Rawalpindi. He left behind a good estate at the time of his death. Dorabji Cowasji Jussawalla donated Rs 500 in 1881 to Bazam for Jashans in memory of his grandfather, late Seth Jehangirji Faramji Jussawalla. Cowasji Jehangirji Jussawalla aged 82 died on December 5, 1900. He joined his family’s well known firm M/s Jehangir Nusserwanji Jussawalla. The branches of this firm were opened in various parts of India. He moved to various branches of the family firm’s shops at Nilgiris, Karachi, Peshawar, Firozpur, and Hyderabad. In 1839, when the British army went to Kabul, at the recommendation of Sir Alexander Burns, his firm opened a shop in Kabul. As the British rule extended in Afghanistan and Peshawar, he took the risk and opened his firm’s shops in Sukkur, Jacobabad, Jalalabad and Kabul. Later, he separated from his family firm and joined as a guarantee broker of Volkart Brothers and Nupni Co. He spent a long time in quietude. He was the father of Seth Cooverji, Nusserwanji, Hormusji, Dorabji, Dadabhai and Jamshedji Cawasji Jussawalla.
There’s a large hall with Roman arched veranda outside the cemetery which accommodates around 200 people, that was built to offer prayers for the deceased.
The hall was built by Commodore Fakirji Dhanji Bhouy in the memory of his mother.
This cemetery also serves as a philanthropic work as the well of cemetery is source of drinking water when it becomes scarce in summer, locals throng to get water.
The writer is a freelance journalist, writer and an independent researcher. He is currently documenting Parsi Zoroastrian heritage of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Tweets at @OldRwp
Just before sunset, five elderly men leave their homes in the Cyrus Minwalla Colony, the oldest settlement of Karachi’s Parsis, and sit themselves down on cement benches placed alongside a pavement.
None of them get into a conversation: two of them read the day’s newspapers, two others seem lost in thought, and the fifth stares at the structure on the opposite side of the boulevard, at the Tower of Silence, where Zoroastrians keep their dead for decomposition.
The group’s silence reflects the state of their colony, located in the East, between the Defence Housing Authority Phase 1 and Mehmoodabad. Built by Cyrus F Minwalla, then vice-president of the Karachi Cantonment Board, the colony used to be a bustling neighbourhood, but now it resembles an abandoned town.
It doesn’t look or sound like other localities of multi-generational communities where everyone knows everyone, and where they all share their joys, sorrows and burdens with one another.
The pervasive silence in the Cyrus Minwalla Colony is due to a majority of its residents migrating abroad. Those who have chosen to stay behind are mostly in their 60’s or 70’s.
A steady decline
In his 2005 book, titled ‘The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration’, John R Hinnells notes that in the decades leading up to Partition, there had been a steady increase in Sindh’s Parsi population, giving Karachi the fourth largest Parsi population in western India after Bombay, Surat and Navsari.
“After Partition the numbers initially increased further — in 1951 there were 5,018; but they began to decline in 1961 (4,685) until 1995, when there were 2,824 Parsis in Pakistan, 2,647 in Karachi.”
The Karachi Zarthosti Banu Mandal (KZBM), a community welfare organisation, states in its 2015 report that they had conducted the first complete survey of Pakistan’s Zoroastrians in 1995.
Supervised by Toxy Cowasjee, sister-in-law of columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee, they found that 2,831 Parsis lived across the country: 2,647 in Karachi, 94 in Lahore, 45 in Quetta, 30 in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, eight in Multan, and seven in Peshawar and other cities.
In its 2012 paper titled ‘The Zarathushti World — a Demographic Picture’, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (Fezana) notes that Pakistan’s Zoroastrian population was 2,121 in 2004 and it declined by 21 per cent to 1,675 in 2012. Fezana also states that the percentage of non-Zoroastrian spouses increased from 2.4 per cent in 2004 to 2.6 per cent in 2012.
The 2015 edition of the A & T Directory, which carries details of all Pakistani Parsis, notes that the community’s population had reduced to 1,416 in the country: 1,359 in Karachi, 32 in Lahore, 16 in Rawalpindi, seven in Quetta and two in Multan.
Regarding the latest count of Pakistan’s Parsis, academic Dr Framji Minwalla told The News that the community has been reduced to 1,092, living in only Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi.
“Just like the youth in every other community, people have left for higher education and better job opportunities and an overall higher standard of living,” Dilaira Dubash, a Parsi community member and former journalist who has also settled abroad, wrote in an email exchange with The News.
“Most progressive communities reach a stage when population control becomes their worst enemy. For Zoroastrians, it may ultimately lead to extinction. India launched the Jiyo Parsi campaign to curb the population decline and whether that’s a good move or a bad one, the point is they have taken note and they are doing something about it. In Pakistan, we wake up once a year to highlight the issue and then sleep over it.”
She said Zoroastrians can’t be confined to any state. “We have been wandering ever since we were forced to flee Persia. For Pakistan, saving its Zoroastrian population is a lost cause now. If an awareness program would have been initiated two decades ago, maybe there would have been some hope.”
Dr Minwalla said that in the next two decades there will be no Parsi anywhere in Pakistan, as almost the entire younger generation of the community has gone abroad with no plans to return.
“One can hardly find a young Parsi, particularly between the ages of 18 and 27, in Karachi. Moreover, the Karachi Parsi Anjuman Trust Fund helps couples under the age of 40 to emigrate from the country.”
He pointed out that the purist marriage law of Parsis is also one of the reasons behind the community’s declining population. He said that if a Parsi woman marries a non-Zoroastrian, she’ll be forced to leave the community and face other restrictions.
“For example, she won’t be permitted to participate in worship or social ceremonies. But if a Parsi man marries out of the community, his children will be accepted as Parsis but his wife won’t be allowed to participate in any religious or social activity.”
Writer Akhtar Balouch said that no one can become a Parsi, because it’s an ethnic identity. “A person can accept Zoroastrianism, but they will never be a bona fide Parsi.”
In the media
Despite being one of the smallest ethnic and religious communities in the country, Parsis organise many social gatherings and religious festivals, of which the most significant is Nowruz, the start of the Persian New Year.
Most of these events don’t get covered by the mainstream media. But for the past many years the KZBM has been publishing a monthly newsletter, titled ‘What’s On’, which covers these occasions as well as publishes profiles of notable Parsis from across the globe to highlight their achievements.
“Most of our events are community focused and small-scale and slip under the media radar which is running after bigger stories to cover,” said Dilaira. “Apart from that, the only time the media thinks about Zoroastrians is when it’s Navroze and you have to do a mandatory story to fill the pages.”
Balouch said that the first elected mayor of Karachi, namely Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, was a Parsi and is known as the founder of modern Karachi. “The community has established a number of hospitals, educational institutes, hotels and architectural relics that still add exclusiveness to Karachi’s historical landscape.”
They include the Mama Parsi schools, the NED (Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw) Engineering College, the DJ (Dayaram Jethmal) Science College, the BVS (Bai Virbaiji Soparivala) Parsi High School, the Dow Medical College, the Karachi Parsi Institute, the Goolbanoo & Dr Burjor Anklesaria Nursing Home, and the Metropole, Beach Luxury and Avari hotels.
Had the members of Pakistan’s Parsi community started leaving the country earlier, Karachi would have been deprived of its premier medical college, its most important engineering university, some of its remarkable schools and many of its major hotels and other landmarks.
One can’t help but wonder if we as a nation have failed our fellow Pakistanis, if we have played a role in their gradual departure, if we have been ungrateful for their myriad contributions to this country. Whatever the case may be, the Parsi community’s continued exit is a great loss for all of us.
We are delighted to share the good news, that one of very our own became a centenarian today – Saturday 13thApril 2019 and received a congratulatory message from Her Majesty The Queen.
Soonnie Godrej Talati was born in Mumbai on the 13th April 1919, Shahenshai Mah Ava Roj Aspandarmad 1288YZ, to Dadiba and Bacha Mehta. Like many of us Soonnie aunty also follows the Shahenshai Zoroastrian calendar, hence Soonnie aunty already became a centenarian on Tuesday 19th March 2019!
Soonnie aunty went to Parsee Tutorial High School and later completed Pitman’s secretarial course. Her mum’s family (Gorwalla) lived in Karachi which was then part of India. She has happy memories of her childhood holidays there with her Karachi cousins.
After her marriage in1947 to Godrej Talati, Soonnie aunty moved to Nairobi in Kenya to begin a new life in a foreign country where she brought up her 4 children; Pheroze, Sarosh / Shahrukh (twins) & daughter Meher. From Nairobi the family moved to Kisumu on Lake Victoria and then to the coast of Mombasa.
In 1968 Soonnie aunty moved to England and settled in Perivale, Middlesex, and as with the move from India to Kenya she took to her new life in the UK in her stride. She enjoyed activities in the local community participating in swimming, sewing, knitting, keep fit, French & music classes and late in life even started a computer course in the local library which she visited frequently. Due to failing eyesight and mobility she reluctantly had to get used to a more relaxed life in her mid nineties!
Soonnie aunty is happiest when all her family get together in Perivale. She enjoys the company of her 5 grandchildren Rashna, Zenobia, Cyrus, Farokh & Yazdi and is very proud of her 4 great grandchildren Ria, Roxana, Shaya & Darius.
Darius was born in February 2019 – almost 100 Years after his great grandmother Soonnie.
ZTFE congratulates Soonnie aunty on this amazing milestone. We wish you a very Happy 100th Birthday. May every minute of your 100th Birthday be filled with everlasting joy and pleasure, surrounded by your loving family together with your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
We in the ZTFE will be celebrating Soonnie aunty’s 100th birthday at the Zoroastrian Centre, during the Z Club on Thursday 18th April 2019.
We are happy to announce that Z-Camp 2019 will be held at San Jose Dar-e-Mehr from July 25th to July 28th. We accept campers between the ages 13 thru 17 years old. They will need to apply on the website to be considered as campers. All information and forms are on www. Zcamp.info Individuals 18 years or older who have been a Z-Camp camper previously can apply on the web site by June 1, 2019 to be considered as a camp counselor for this year. We also have a limited number of scholarships available for campers. If interested send us a brief email to email@example.com explaining why you should be considered. This information will be kept confidential. Once again we would like to thank our community members for supporting Z-Camp. Looking forward to a great Z-Camp!