Preserving Parsi TRADITIONS
In the highly competitive food and beverage business environment of Delhi–National Capital Region, the restaurant brand SodaBottleOpenerWala is just another name where customers expect a fine dining experience. Yet, there is a uniqueness to the restaurant. In Delhi-NCR, where the knowledge of Parsi cuisine is still very limited, a young chef Anahita Dhondy, who is in charge of the operations of the restaurant brand, wants to make Parsi cuisine popular and she has been partially successful in doing so. Dhondy also plans to write a book on Parsi cuisine. he wants to play a significant role towards contributing to her community through her profession. She is not alone. However, even as young Parsis continue to make their mark through their individual successes, the age-old challenges for the Parsi community remains.
The population of Parsis continues to decline in numbers. Today, with over 60,000 Parsis in the country and over 800 Parsis in Delhi-NCR it has come to a point where it is feared that soon the Parsis may become extinct. Late marriages, Parsi women conceiving lesser children, a large number of geriatric population, greater mortality rate and a large number of Parsis moving abroad are some of the major reasons cited for the decline in the population in the Parsi community.
Over 30 per cent Parsis remain unmarried. While the trend of declining population has been a major challenge for last 60 years, steps are now being taken to stop the community from dwindling.
The Government of India through the Ministry of Minority Affairs formulated a central scheme for containing population decline of Parsis in India in September 2013 and named it Jiyo Parsi. The campaign is being supported by various Parsi organisations. Jiyo Parsi has two components - advocacy and medical assistance.
Under the campaign of advocacy, an emphasis is being laid on personal interaction and encouraging the members of the community to attend personal functions. Under the medical assistance, the Jiyo Parsi scheme pays for the treatment of Parsi couples who need IVF or other forms of artificial reproduction treatment. A total of 100 additional births in the Parsi community has been made possible by this campaign.
By addressing a crucial issue of population decline, the Jiyo Parsi has been able to become a household name among Parsis. Yet, for making the scheme achieve its long-term objective the participation of new generation Parsis is as much important as the old who want to preserve the legacy. For long there have been complaints that individuality and economic prosperity is also contributing to major causes for the dwindling number of Parsis. With special emphasis attached to pride in Parsi culture, a greater responsibility is being placed on the young Parsis towards holding on to the pillars of their tradition. For various young Parsis, who want to come out of their comfort zone and tread through an adventurous path in their lives, a major dilemma lies ahead of them - in adapting to the new, yet preserving the old.
"Though the usual reasons for a decline in numbers of Parsis remain, a major aspect also lies in many of the Parsi women marrying into other communities. I myself am not married into a Parsi community. Mostly in such marriages the children are not included in the official population of Parsis even if a Navjote (initiation ceremony) is being conducted," says Nina Nariman, a practising lawyer
"When we talk about the differences between the old and the new, I think we are too individualistic. Within each generation, there are conservatives and liberals. I personally don't like the idea of the Government getting involved in the birth of a Parsi child. This is an issue that ought to be tackled within the community," Nariman added. Nariman opines that free-mindedness, aspirations and individuality are qualities that the new generation Parsis must carry forward.
Yezad Kapadia, a member of Delhi Parsi Anjuman, however, provides a strong view on young Parsis. "The decline in economic prosperity can also be attributed to declining population of the Parsis. Today, most of the youth are not that economically independent. In the earlier years, Parsis were the pioneers in supporting the education of their community members. Today other communities have picked up. Our girls seem to be educating themselves better than the boys and hence are not finding eligible bachelors to marry within the community," says Yezad Kapadia. "Our youth seems to have lost the zest for achieving prosperity in life. In the past, the community was fortunate for getting favours from the British which led to the prosperity of the community. Although there are many Parsis who have achieved success in their respective professions today, the community at large is lagging behind." adds Kapadia.
Remarking about Parsis in Delhi-NCR, Kapadia says, "The Parsis of NCR are a breed apart in India. They are the foremost amongst the community in accepting non-Zoroastrian spouses as members of the Anjuman and also accepting the offsprings of such marriages whose Navjote are being performed."
An example that can perfectly illustrate Kapadia's statement is Ava Khullar, who was born Parsi but married into a Punjabi family. She is currently the vice president of Delhi Parsi Anjuman.
"At the time I got married, there used to be a lot of resistance of Parsi women marrying outside their communities but my family was supportive of my decision. Back then, I too was a member of Parsi Anjuman and even now I am serving my community," says Ava Khullar.
Keeping the legendary Parsi sense of humour intact, when asked about her adjustment in the Punjabi family Khullar says, "Punjabis may be generalised as loud, aggressive and occasionally over-the-top personalities, but so are the Parsis. In fact, there are Parsis who swear a lot, however, there is a saying that even when Parsis swear, it seems very endearing for those who receive the flak."
"As in most communities, there are some people even in the Parsi community who are more rigid in terms of traditions. I believe we should have pride in our values but also be prepared to accept changes in rituals and practices as and when required," says Rukhsana Shroff who runs Farohar classes along with her partner Kerman Mehta to teach Parsi values to children in Delhi-NCR.
"As a Parsi, I am proud of my core values that lay emphasis on truth, good action and care, and concern for all living beings. Each generation is different and so is this new generation of Parsis. I hope that this generation will carry out basic tenets of Zoroastrian faith - believe in good thoughts, good words and good deeds, value truth and stand up for what they believe is right. I hope they also live life to the fullest with respect for all human beings. In my mind this will help in the progress of the community," added Shroff.
"The Indian plurality has served the world's smallest community well over the years. Yet, for our survival, we need to regain confidence as a community. We need to realise that migration is not going to save our community. We need to get on in the competitive world of India today. We need to learn more academically about our history and religion. Yet, we need to stop thinking that the past is all we have and plan for our future together as a community," says Shernaz Cama, Director PARZOR foundation.
"Even as we are dwindling in numbers, a major reason that contributes to our survival is our faith. We must restore faith. There is not much difference between the old and the new generation of Parsis. It is just that most of the young Parsis don't get Parsi friends and are therefore marrying outside their community especially in Delhi-NCR," adds Cama. The metaphor of sugar dissolving in milk and adding to its sweetness has long been used to describe the contribution of Parsis in the country. The versatility and talent of the community can be gauged from the fact that for community members who started as traders during the British era, today, has also provided us with a famous comedian, chef and a documentary filmmaker.
While there is a surge of leadership among young Parsis in various fields, there is also a feeling in certain quarters that the older generation of Parsis is still stuck in the time warp of glories. There may be a huge goodwill that has been earned by Parsi community in the past, yet most of the members also share a grouse. Squabbles and indifferences by the present leadership of Parsi community are resulting in policy paralysis and leading to a closure of age-old institutions set up by the Parsi visionaries.
Amid many challenges faced by the community, young Parsis are hopeful and doing their bit for the community while maintaining their individuality. These youngsters are therefore living a Parsi way of life described perfectly in the Zoroastrian anthem by Kavi Firoze Batliwala.
Baholi sakhawat haethe, je chhe jagat jaaher,
(Naïve and friendly known all over the world)
Bahu chanchaalaee, saathe, sauv vaat ma maher,
(Victorious, celebrated and famous in many fields)
Gujri jaffao bhaari,to pun na chhodyo dharma
(Suffered and endured many heavy pains, still never left the religion)
Tethi mali rubyyari,aej kharo chhe bharam
(That is why we get the peace and acknowledgement, that is the truth)
(In the picture: Homai and Ardeshir Irani (Parsi couple 1946) (Photo Courtesy: Mahtab Irani)