By Harshmeet Singh
For most Indians, the phrase ‘maro dhikra’ is all they known about the Parsi community. Our knowledge and perceptions about the Parsis, like many other things in India, is majorly based on the Bollywood movies which show an elderly Parsi as an ideal next door neighbour. Guess what – there’s much more to the lively Parsi community than what our filmmakers choose to show us on screen.
The history & culture of Parsis
Parsis are the followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Believed to be the original natives of Iran (formerly known as Persia), Parsis began moving towards South Asia, including India, fearing a Muslim invasion in Iran in the 7th century. After the Arab invasion in Iran, their language started to be called Farsi instead of Parsi, since the letter ‘P’ is not present in the Arabic language.
For the Parsis, fire, water, earth and air are the purest elements and need to be preserved. Due to this reason, they do not follow the practice of cremation. The dead bodies are left on high towers, called the ‘tower of silence’ to be eaten by vultures, crows and hawks.
Parsis and India
In yesteryears in Mumbai, a number of old cars meant for sale used to carry the tag ‘owned by a Parsi’. The community has long been synonymous with good education, humbleness and gentle behaviour. A witty sense of humour makes the Parsis an irresistible company. The westernized background of the community meant that they were the first ones to take advantage of the opportunities that came up with the introduction of western education. Thus the first crop of surgeons, pilot and MPs from India in the British Parliament were mostly Parsis. This explains the rise of influential Parsi families such as the Tatas and the Wadias.
When was the last time (if ever) you heard a Parsi guy involved in vandalism or coming out on the streets to protest? If you thought their population is too small to make any impact in the country anyway, you would be surprised! For a community which accounts for only 69,601 people (2001 census) out of the entire population of over 120 crore, the contribution of Parsis to the Indian history is stupendous to say the least.
Some of the famous Parsis in India include the country’s best known and most respected industrialist, Ratan Tata; the extremely famous Army Chief who led India in the Bangladesh War, Late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw; the grand old man of India, Dadabhai Naoroji; the pioneer of India’s atomic energy program, Dr Homi Bhabha; Ace musician, Zubin Mehta and the current Chairman of Tata Sons, Cyrus Mistry. The Parsis have given back to India much more than what the country has offered them. A number of trusts established by the ‘Tatas’ for different purposes are a testimony of Parsis’ love towards India. Astonishingly, Ratan Tata’s share in Tata Sons is less than 1 per cent! Majority of the Tata Sons’ stocks are held by different trusts including the Sir Ratan Tata trust that spends its profit worth billions of dollars each year to charity. While the Ambanis were busy building India’s greatest residence, the Tatas were busy building the nation.
The dwindling population
India accounts for more than half of the entire Parsi population in the world. Most Parsi families are settled in Mumbai, Pune and Gujarat. Unfortunately, their population in India has been on a constant decline for quite a while now. Some of the reasons behind such a drastic fall (115,000 in 1941 & 69,601 in 2001) in their numbers have been lack of interest in marriage, marrying at older age and inter caste marriages. The generally successful youth of the community prefer their careers over marriage in most cases which is resulting in the falling numbers. High number of divorce cases, owing to easier divorce laws as compared to the Hindu laws, has further deteriorated the situation. If the current trend continues, the number of Parsis might come down to less than 23,000 in 2020. In that case, they would be called a ‘tribe’ and not a ‘community’.
The Central Government came up with a ‘Jiyo Parsi’ initiative in 2013. Its recent ad runs with the tagline ‘Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight!’ Although meant at encouraging the declining Parsi population, the campaign met with some strong criticism from inside and outside the Parsi community. A number of people questioned the Government’s move to encourage such campaigns at a time when the country is already stressed under 1.2 billion people. The ad has also come under fire for putting undue pressure on the Parsi women to reproduce. Other ads under the campaign are seen encouraging the girls to marry at a younger age, without waiting for their boyfriends to become as successful as Ratan Tata!
Let us hope that some of these ads work their magic and the Parsi community sees a new light very soon because India can be a much better place with a whole lot of Parsis around!