"Despite all the talk of getting security from the baug [neighbourhood] culture, the Parsis were actually getting ghettoised" - Katy Gandevia, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Coming from an ancient movie projector, the image is shaky and scratchy. Kajol and Anil Kapoor's marriage seems beset with problems. But, that does not stop the usual Bollywood song and dance routine in Hum Aap Ke Dil Me Rehte Hain (1999).
When the lights come on, reality hits you. The hall is nearly empty and has not been renovated in years. The audience mostly comprises local shopkeepers and drunkards. The show THE WEEK saw was one of the last in New Majestic Talkies in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Unable to survive the multiplex boom, it shut down on February 28. Major (retd) Noshir K. Marfatia, the owner of the cinema, too, is a vanishing breed. He is one of Ajmer's last Parsis.
The Marfatias bought the cinema in 1928. After running silent movies, it screened the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931). There were around 80 Parsi families in Ajmer then. “From the shrine of Gareeb Nawaz [Moinuddin Chishti] to the railway station and the Mayo College, Parsis were the flavour of Ajmer for a century,” said Marfatia. “They have all vanished. I am one of the few left behind.” The septuagenarian widower, however, tries to keep the Parsi way of life alive by using the incense, the cuisine and the old family crystal and the ceremonial bronzes.
The Parsis thrived in Ajmer when the British, mostly military and railway officials, stayed there. Little surprise that one could order a whisky soda during the break at the New Majestic Talkies. Said Marfatia, “We were the favoured community during the colonial era and our families prospered during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. We spread from Gujarat and Bombay to other parts of India. But, India has its own dynamics. And we failed to look beyond our community. But, I am ensuring that the community should change bit by bit.”
Once an orthodox Parsi, Marfatia had to fight his own inhibitions when his daughter said she wanted to marry a Bengali. He resisted for a year, and then gave in. His son-in-law, he said, is better than many other grooms he has seen. “To multiply and survive, Parsis should come out of the grip of orthodoxy,” he said. “Or else, we will be part of the history of India.”
Demographics aside, loneliness is also an issue. Marfatia rents out several rooms of his large house to tourists. “But I do not open my house to every tourist. They are usually checked by my helper,” he said.
Now, a movement is on to increase the Parsi population. And, at the forefront of the movement is Shernaz Cama, daughter of the late Lt-Gen Adi Sethna, a dear friend of Marfatia. Cama launched The UNESCO Parsi-Zoroastrian Project, simply called the Parzor Foundation. It was launched in 2003, the year UNESCO celebrated 3,000 years of Zoroastrianism. Among Parzor's patrons were the late B.G. Verghese, the Magsaysay-winning journalist.
Parzor works on multiple fronts, including heritage and community conservation. For seven long years Cama researched the social and cultural challenges which stand in the way of the community’s desire to multiply. In 2013, Parzor tied up with the Government of India and launched the Jiyo Parsi project.
The Jiyo Parsi project has been in the news of late for its ad campaign asking Parsi couples to “be responsible” and shun the use of condoms. Cama said building a network of sympathisers for such a radical scheme was not easy, especially because Parzor was focused on culture preservation initially. But, Cama found willing allies in Katy Gandevia of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and, in her assistant, Pearl Mistry. At present, Jiyo Parsi is being run from a tiny room in the TISS academic block and from Cama’s south Delhi house.
The ad, designed by Sam Balsara, raised hell in the Parsi community. People like Simin Patel, Cama’s former student from Lady Sri Ram College, went public with their criticism. What right did the government have in the Parsi bedroom? asked the global Parsi community. It took dozens of phone calls and emails from the Jiyo Parsi team to douse the fire. The ad also raised the question as to why the community was in slumber so long.
Once younger Parsis understood the concept, they chipped in with new ideas. Choreographer Pearl Tirandaz and her husband, Darius Tirandaz, launched ZYNG―Zoroastrian Youth for Next Generations. ZYNG brought in new ideas like speed dating among Parsi singles. Pearl organised a mega community jamboree with support from the Taj Group of Hotels.
“We have mixed social gatherings with adventure sports, which allow us to take Parsi singles for rafting in the Himalayas,” said Darius. “We also have Parsi singles only parties in Mumbai.” Next, ZYNG plans to help Parsi couples achieve work-life balance.
Pearl and Darius are, however, worried about the overall decline in the community’s status in society. “We had access and prosperity. But, now the community's identity and survival are the issues,” said Pearl. Many Parsis feel that the community today is not throwing up legends like Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and J.R.D. Tata.
But, Marfatia said that it was no surprise. “Parsis were privileged and bright, so they made it as soldiers, scholars and administrators,” he said. “But, now the field is open for those sections of society which did not wield power earlier. So, we have competition, but we can rival all if we take care of the community’s numerical issues.” Marfatia called Parsis the “micro minority of India” and said the community deserved all possible support from the government.
A surprise finding by the Jiyo Parsi team was that the Parsi baug (neighbourhood) culture had created a false sense of comfort among the youth. “Despite all the talk of getting security from the baug culture, the Parsis were actually getting ghettoised,” said Gandevia. “So, you see, we have no illusion that the ads will help Parsis multiply. We have to deal with a series of social barriers that prevented them from acquiring more responsibility.”
The Jiyo Parsi team also burst the myth that Parsis are the most affluent community in India. Cama found many Parsi couples who were not having babies for financial reasons, including not being able to pay for treatments like in-vitro fertilisation. So, the Jiyo Parsi team now works on two fronts―pleading with Parsi singles to get married and have more than two babies, and supporting couples with financial, health and emotional needs. The Jiyo Parsi team meets Parsi singles and couples either discreetly or in counselling sessions, where anonymity and secrecy of the participants are ensured.
Very few beneficiaries are willing to come on record. Sheriar Khosravi of Mumbai is an exception. He thanked the Jiyo Parsi team for helping him and his wife with IVF costs. “We tried twice before, but failed,” he said. “We hesitated, given the expenditure that we had to undergo for each attempt. But now Jaslok Hospital is giving us exclusive attention and I am confident that this time we will not have to worry about money.”
Identity is another issue Jiyo Parsi is looking at. Gandevia and Marfatia said that, as champions of secularism, Parsis chose to dilute their identity. “As a result, names like Ardeshir and Keki are increasingly viewed as those who were born in the early 20th century,” said Gandevia. “The new trend among Parsis is to give more Hindu-sounding names like Rahul and Divya. While new names are OK, they also dilute the identity of a community which needs to hold on to its tiny cultural identity.”
The Jiyo Parsi team is confident that in the next four years around 300 Parsi babies will be born. Jiyo Parsi will back each baby with a corpus of Rs5 lakh, taken from the Rs10 crore given to the programme by the ministry of minority affairs.
The Jiyo Parsi team is already famous beyond India. Phone calls and emails are pouring in from countries like Israel, Finland and Norway, where low birth rates are a problem for long-term national plans.
Being part of a small team, Gandevia and Cama also act as agony aunts to singles and couples. Their phones keep ringing off the hook. Just as THE WEEK was taking leave of Cama, Ferzeen from Mandvi, Gujarat, called her. The young woman and her factory worker husband had fertility issues. They had not planned a family, fearing treatment costs. They were seeking Jiyo Parsi's help. Ferzeen’s elderly father-in-law thought this was all an elaborate con and grilled Cama over the phone. She convinced the family that she and Jiyo Parsi were real.
So, after babies, what next? Cama is already dreaming about a museum of Parsi culture and artefacts in Delhi.