There’s something about Parsis!

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Tamboly continues, “Women have always enjoyed equal status with men in our community. This gives them the freedom of choice when it comes to marriage. Some choose to pursue careers and not marry at all. Besides, there has also been a rise in trends like young individuals opting to migrate abroad for education, interfaith marriages and newlyweds planning small families.”

Shilpi Gulati, who made Qissa-e-Parsi along with Divya Cowasji (a Parsi herself ) remarks, “My understanding of the community has largely been informed by a close personal and professional relationship with Divya Cowasji fir the last seven years as I learnt to identify and reject the various stereotypes projected by mainstream cinema about the Parsis. Working on Qissa-e Parsi, in particular, was a great learning experience as it made me aware of the problems associated with representing a community which is almost romanticized in India.” The documentary tries to see Parsis as one of the earliest communities which had mercenary ties with the British and went into the post independence industrialisation of India with equal zest. Gulati adds, “It (making the documentary) pushed me to re-look at the Parsis through a more critical historical lens where it became important to understand why the community enjoys its current privileged status in Indian society while so many other ethnic minorities don’t.”

One of the ‘Jiyo Parsi’ ad campaigns reads, “Panni ja isn’t a spell from Harry Potter. It means ‘Please get married’.” While the country is struggling with issues of over-population, the Parsis indeed seem to be a different paradigm altogether. Tamboly observes, “Parsis have always been involved in the building of the nation and in return have never asked for any concessions from the government.” He further maintains, “The Jiyo Parsi scheme shows an acknowledgement of the Parsi people by the Indian Government. That said, it is a modest effort at best. Though the plan is bearing positive results, when you put things in perspective, in Mumbai we still have a much higher mortality rate of 750-800 deaths to 150 births a year.”

Running parallel to the issue of declining birthrates is the question of who in the contemporary times is a true Parsi. The rise in inter-faith marriages has been a point of contention in some parts of the community. While Parsi men are entitled to induct their children from such marriages into Zoroastrianism, Parsi women are not given the same rights. Madon, who has been performing initiation ceremonies for children of Parsi women from inter-faith marriages notes, “One of the big issues the orthodox Parsis raise is that only those who are born Parsi can follow the religion. But if you delve into the holy texts of Zarasthustra then you will find that the prophet always maintained that Zoroastrianism is a universal religion.”

But for every Parsi wishing to guard their ethnicity in an iron grip, there are also people like Tamboly. He has recently been involved in the construction of a prayer hall in Mumbai for those who wish to be cremated instead of being taken to the ‘tower of silence’ after their demise. On being asked about the strict customs that are purblind to the winds of change among the young in the community, he warns, “If the religious limitations by the clergy are not modified then the community will practically face the possibility of gradually fading out.”

Even while the country’s government tries to jump start the community’s growth, the internal differences of opinion about the basic principles of how the Parsis should adapt to the changes in front of them will decide the fate of this unique and influential community. Qissa-e-Parsi ends with a list of Parsis— the likes of Dadabhai Naoroji, JRD Tata, Homi J Bhaba, Sam Manekshaw, Freddie Mercury—who have been on the cutting edge of their respective fields. Here’s hoping that a pioneering Parsi does not become a relic of the past.

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