A half-breed in Bombay

How do you preserve the purity of lineage and yet propagate the line of an ever-dwindling community? This is the question that Parsis continue to debate fiercely

Updated - November 29, 2015 10:40 am IST

Published - November 28, 2015 04:30 pm IST

A Parsi family visits an agiary as the community celebrates "Pateti", the Parsi new year in Mumbai.

A Parsi family visits an agiary as the community celebrates "Pateti", the Parsi new year in Mumbai.

Half-breed. I could see my grandmother flinch as I read out the term in an article in her carefully curated issues of the Parsiana magazine. In the early 80s, when I was growing up, it seemed as if all of Bombay was boiling over the issue of whether to allow children (like me) of Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers into the Zoroastrian faith. Okay, it wasn’t all of Bombay, but all of the close-knit Parsi community which made up my world when I visited Nanijee (my grandmother), for vacations. “Half-breeds are like mules,” the article read, “With no sense of history or hope for the future propagation of the community.” Nanijee was visibly upset by the debate that tore through her community, but she was devout and bound by its rules. As a result, neither my sister nor I could ever be Zoroastrians by faith, enter fire temples or agiaries in Bombay (she never called it Mumbai) with her, or be included as members of the community.

Nanijee took great pains to explain that it wasn’t just because of the ‘purity’ of the Parsi line, descended from Persians who fled Iran before the 10th century, but about the promise they gave the King in Gujarat when they landed, to adopt the clothes and language of this land, but to never convert, to propagate their religion. As a result, their numbers have dwindled with each passing decade, to an estimated 60,000 worldwide today. The other reason for the numbers is that so many prefer to remain single or marry very late. Despite all that, Nanijee said, they would probably never accept children of ‘mixed marriages’, and even when she died, we didn’t follow her body for its last rites, watching her instead, from our non-Parsi enclosure at the dakhma (Tower of Silence).

Nothing in her religion prevented Nanijee from including us in the culture, however, and introducing us to the whole, almost secret life that every Parsi in Bombay knows so intimately: the Parsi General Hospital where one was born, died, and visited frequently to meets fellow Parsis. The Ripon club or PVM Gymkhana (Princess Victoria Mary) for Parsi men and women, or Nanijee’s own Time and Talents club made up mostly of Parsi ladies that organised music concerts, cookouts, and yes, Christmas carol mornings. Parsi Bakery batasas (madelines) to go with your tea. Mava cakes from B. Meherwan. Mithai and cream from the Parsi dairy. ‘ Basket paneer ’ delivered home. Patrel (a savoury) from RTI (Ratan Tata Institute), also famous for nightgowns worn uniformly by Parsi women inside their homes. Gaara Saris from Naju Dawar, although most saris were simply handed down the generations.

And of course, scrumptious feasts at weddings and navjotes (the initiation ceremony for Parsis) where the famous Godiwala Caterers presented all the famous Parsi dishes: patra ni machchi (steamed fish), sali ma boti , chicken farcha , and several so-called vegetarian dishes that were topped with an eeda (egg).

Today, their daughter Tanaz Godiwala carries on the catering tradition, although she says it's a sunset industry. “The number of events is down drastically,” she says. The wedding season has shrunk to about four months in the year, mainly on weekends. And weddings are much smaller, about 400 people on average, down from 800-900 in the old days. “I’m not helping the situation either,” she laughs, as she explains that she has never wanted to marry.

Nanijee also insisted we learn the Gujarati script, as that was the only way to read her newspaper, Jam-E-Jamshed, which has published regularly since 1832. At their offices in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda area, editor Shernaaz Engineer tells me the newspaper has never missed a single edition in 184 years, although it had to switch from a daily to a weekly given the community’s decreasing numbers.

I move quickly from memory to the paper’s comics pages. “I am sure Phantom is secretly a Parsi under that mask and costume,” Ms. Engineer laughs when she sees what I am looking for. “My readers just won’t let me discontinue the comic.”

What sets the Parsis apart, I ask her. “Four things,” she replies. “The pursuit of excellence in every field from business to law to even music, a culture of philanthrophy, their joie de vivre in everything from food to films, and a cosmopolitan nature, if you make a concession for the lack of inclusion.” She tells me that the debate over the inclusion of children of mixed marriages still rages through the community, with legal cases ongoing, and the near ostracisation of priests who agree to perform ceremonies for those who marry out of the faith. There is, however, a greater flexibility towards the ‘half-breeds’ than when my grandmother was around, and friends who are in mixed marriages say their children face far less discrimination within the community.

Like Godiwala, Engineer hasn’t married. “I guess Parsi women are just too independent. We are brought up on par with our brothers, and find it hard to give it up for a husband.” She also rues that dwindling numbers have meant that most young Parsis today are relatively comfortable, with inheritances, a secure place to stay in one of Mumbai’s many ‘ baugs ’ or Parsi colonies. “I don’t see the fire in the belly in the next generations, the kind that built the Tata, Godrej, Wadia and Mistry empires,” she adds.

Even so, just preserving their unique culture in a big city like Mumbai has been no mean feat. To keep it burning, like the eternal flame, the atash behram in agiaries that Parsis hold so dear. How to keep that flame alive, while keeping the culture intact remains, as it did in my childhood, the biggest challenge.

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