There’s something about Parsis!

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Flames of faith Religious rituals are an occasion for the Parsis to bond and keep alive community bonds . Photo: AFP
Flames of faith Religious rituals are an occasion for the Parsis to bond and keep alive community bonds . Photo: AFP

Hindi films that churn the box-office mill have never been known to be kind to the diversity of the country’s culture. Without losing much sweat you will find the money-minting Gujarati, the loud-mouthed Punjabi, the bookish Bengali, the drunken Christian, the nasal accented ‘south Indian’, the Nepalese ‘bahadur’.

And then you have the Parsis. Clad in black caps and white vests, the Parsis are there to provide comic relief in the most heavy-duty melodramas. So much so, that efforts to do something different with the Parsis also end up wallowing in all the stereotypes associated with the community, as one can find in the poorly conceived 2012 film Shirin Farhad ki toh Nikal Padi. It had a pair of middle-aged Parsis getting hitched as its premise. Ironically, the characterisation in the film may have fallen flat but late marriages are a reality in the Parsi community.

Just as global warming cannot be shooed away as a myth any more, neither can the alarmingly low birth rate of the Parsis. The facts are out there. Going by demographic estimates, the Parsi population that stood at 69,601 after the 2001 census will trickle down to 23,000 by 2020. The ‘community’ will then be relegated to the status of a ‘tribe’.

The Indian government pitched in last year with the ‘Jiyo Parsi’, a Rs 10 crore worth scheme that promises medical and legal assistance to married Parsi couples wanting to have children.

The issue has also got due attention in the visual media. But while Qissa-e- Parsi ( A Parsi Tale), a documentary by  the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) won the National Award for being the ‘Best anthropological/Ethnographic’ film in 2014, a more recent fiction film like The Path of Zarathustra has been condemned by many in the Parsi community. Director Oorvazi Irani has been censured for being ‘anti-religion’ for including certain deviant doctrines of the Zoroastrian faith in her film. Conversely, the film has also received an enthusiastic response, as is evident in the fact that its screening has been extended by a week in cities like Mumbai and Pune, which have a sizeable Parsi milieu.

The Parsi problem might have gained visibility in the public discourse over the last couple of years but the riddle remains: Why has a once thriving community been teetering on such a dire existential precipice? As the legend goes, the Zoroastrians fled Iran (which was then Persia) as the Arab invasion began sometime in the sixth century ad. Those who crossed over to Gujarat and were granted asylum became known as the Parsis.

Ervad Khusroo Madon, a progressive Parsi priest in Mumbai, explains, “Four thousand years back, the prophet Zarathustra was the first to preach the presence of a single God, in that it can be taken as a principal religion that has been the forefather of several world religions like Judaism and Christianity.”

Despite being followers of the earliest monotheistic religion in the world, the Zoroastrians are one of the most scattered communities in the world. On looking back, the ease with which these people have adapted to foreign environments has been exemplary. Madon states, “The Parsis have always been a philanthropic and peace-loving lot who had no trouble in mingling with the other Indian communities they came in contact with.” But now this very ability to walk with the times appears to be the reason why the Parsis are facing a steady decrease in numbers.

Dinshaw Tamboly, a well-known figure in the Parsi community in Mumbai elaborates, “Parsis are a 100 percent literate community. Whenever any community shows that high a degree of education, they might register a gradual decline, which in our case is happening through our dwindling numbers.”

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