Thursday, August 13, 2009

My people - the Parsis

I am a Parsi, part of a unique Indian community who trace our ancestry to a ship load of Zoroastrian refugees from far off Persia. Thse people landed on the shores of Gujerat over 1000 years ago, seeking a safe haven to practice their faith. The Hindu king Jadi Rana was at first reluctant to give shelter as there was just no place in his land for more people but one of the Parsi refugees asked the king for a bowl of milk filled right to the brim. He then stirred a spoonful of sugar without spilling a drop!

He explained to the king that this was the way his people would co-exist with their new neighbours - seamlessly and in complete harmony.

The king was impressed by this analogy and allowed the Parsis to settle down in a place they called Sanjan, on condition that they adopted the dress, language and customs of the local people allowing us to retain and practice our ancient religion. This is how we became one more part of the beautiful rainbow that is my country - India.

Parsis have been loved and admired for their contribution to India, a feeling that is captured so well by Jerry Pinto, a well known Mumbai journalist.

Pinto on Parsis

By Jerry Pinto

In the 1970s, Victoria High School, Mahim, was a melting pot as state-aided Roman Catholic schools tended to be. The majority of the students were Hindu, the second largest group was the Christians, then came the Muslims. So far, so ordinary. But we had some Parsis and three Jewish boys too.

I didn't think much of the heterogeneity of the school. It was a fact of life, like knowing that the class would split up for religion period, with the Roman Catholics going in one direction and the others, including our Protestants, going off to learn Moral Science. I think I realised who the Parsis were when I got to college.

I went to Elphinstone College as a way of getting away from Mahim, where I had been born and raised and where I felt familiarity was blocking out the sky. St Xavier's had fourteen boys from Victoria High School; I would never get to meet anyone else or talk to anyone else. At Elphinstone, I made my first friend, Jehangir Palkhivala. It occurred to me that he was Parsi but then everyone seemed to be. There was the delectably named Tehmtan Ookherjee and the delicious Lyla Lalkaka. There was Goolrukh Damania, who sang 'Cherry-ripe' at our farewell party. The principal was a battleship called HMS Homai Shroff and the head of the English department was an even more magnificent battleship called HMS Mehroo Jussawalla.

The English department, and a star department it was in those days, seemed dominated by Parsis. The college heart-throb was Shireen Vakil; but those who liked legs swore by Zarine Mirocher-Homji Pinto. There was also the utterly delightful Soonu Kapadia who loved the Romantics with a deep and lonely passion in an age where the Modernists had crowded them out and the Post-modernists were beginning to bay at the text.

Parsis getting extinct? The tribe vanishing? I laughed incredulously whenever I heard that. My life was saturated with Parsis. I was even studying in a building that had been donated to the Elphinstone College by Sir Cawasji Jehangir. Across the road, the same gentleman had donated the space for the Jehangir Art Gallery. The area was riddled with his donations or the donations of his kind. If you started from Colaba, there was the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Homi Bhabha auditorium. (This auditorium is a class conspiracy; I do not own a car so I cannot go there unless someone promises me a ride home.) You come out of the Colaba Causeway and there's the Taj Mahal Hotel which was started by a Parsi who was refused admission into a British hotel. You walk down a little and you'll come to the Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art where almost everybody who matters in India's art world has learnt their technique or rebelled against learning technique. Further down there's what was once called the largest hospital in Asia, the Sir J J Hospital, same man. I had visited it when many family members had been there and watched as people lit agarbattis and prayed in front of the large stone statue of the old entrepreneur.

Across the city, I had friends studying at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences or sitting with family members at the cancer hospital or applying for Parsi-owned and driven scholarships or jobs. And when I wanted the budget decoded, I went to listen to nani Palkivala do it for me. Across the street Jehangir Sabavala showed his paintings. I couldn't believe we didn't have enough Parsis. Every European consulate in town had a Parsi trying to stop you from going abroad. The British Council Library was guarded by a ferocious old bat whom we called, 'No please' because that was what she snarled at you all the time, whatever your request was. All the pursers in Air India were gay or Parsi or both. All the lawyers in Mumbai were Parsi. All the old cars were owned by Parsis. There were Parsi baugs almost as frequently as there were Roman Catholic churches. You could go to the Ratan Tata Institute and watch the old ladies have food fights—I swear, they used to throw things at each other, small things, dhokla-sized. The poets were Parsi: Adil Jussawalla and Keki Daruwalla and Gieve Patel. The theatre was overrun by Parsis: Hosi Vasunia and Adi Marzban and Shernaz Patel and Nosherwan Jehangir and Khodaai, you mean to say Alyque Padamsee is not a Parsi? The journalists were Parsi: Bachi Karkaria and Hutokshi Doctor and Behram Contractor. The Tatas made our trucks, the Godrejs made out tana-tan cupboards and lived in Vikhroli where my aunt, Celine Coelho, taught in the Godrej school. There is an old joke about Parsis and RCs but I have forgotten it.

One year, in the early 1980s, a tall figure began to stalk the corridors of Elphinstone. He had the look of intelligent life but he wore his kurtas tucked into his jeans. Shiraz Rustomjee had come from Sri Lanka.

'There are Parsis in Sri Lanka?' I asked. I had thought of Parsis as a Bombay thing like, like, like, Bombay ducks and Goan coors where boys from Goa's villages could doss down.

'Just fifty of us,' he said, 'But mark you, it's an influential community.'

'Forty-nine, now,' I said.

'Forty-eight,' he returned evenly. 'My mother's here too.'

It was the first time I ever thought about their numbers.


I was freelancing for The Free Press Journal when its editor Janardhan Thakur asked me if I would do a story on the Parsi Sena. Delicious, I thought. The Parsi Sena? Like the Shiv Sena? Where the Shiv Sena would destroy the property of the South Indian restaurateurs they saw as outsiders, the Parsi Sena would…would…take Victrolas and play Debussy loudly under the windows of the enemy. Where the Shiv Sena would badmouth the Muslims, the Parsis, who share some of this antipathy, would ask for Persia to be returned to them so that they could all marry Irun girls.

I never did the story because the Parsi Sena disappeared from the news but it still fascinated me as an idea.

What would a Parsi Sena do?

Well, for one, if they wanted to emulate the rightwinginess of their namesake and get the Parsi community all worked up, they would have to concern themselves with racial purity. This is one of the ugliest things about a community that we have all learned to love thanks to films like Pestonjee, Baaton Baaton Mein, and Being Cyrus. There is a deep streak of otherness that some of the less bigoted ones say, reaches back to the time when they escaped Islamic persecution and came to India in a boat in the 11th century AD. The king of Gujarat would have none of them. He did not want to turn his guests away rudely so he sent them, so legend maintains, a glass of milk that was filled to the brim. The community fathers put their heads together, added sugar to the milk and sent it back. They were saying they would improve the community, they would sweeten it, but they would take no space. They also promised they would not try to convert people and would learn to speak the language. This they have done.

But from an innocent story—and no one has shown me convincing proof that it is anything but a story—a strange obsession with race has begun. It's an ugly thing but there are many Parsis who think that there is something called the pure Parsi and that this should be maintained at all costs. I once talked to a fairly lunatic dastur. He said to me, 'We are the true Aryans.'

He also said, 'How can anyone say all Gods are one? His God says don't eat beef and his God says don't eat pork and my God says you can eat what you like. How can that be one God speaking?'

This was a completely new spin on the whole divinity thing: God the dietician.

You'd think this was a harmless thing that does nothing more than cause many slammed doors and spilt tears. But in a rich community with huge assets that are held in common for the good of the community, it translates into discrimination.

Thus the Parsi Panchayat will sponsor the education of a third child as long as both father and mother are Parsi. Parsi women who marry outside the community and have children cannot bring up their children as Parsis, nor can they be offered to the vultures (none of whom care to dine these days, anyway) at the towers of silence. There are things one can forgive. None of them like to be reminded that the bulk of the great fortunes came out of the opium trade. But then the drug trade funded even the great colonial enterprise that was the Raj. Nearly 30 per cent of its gross came from pushing opium at China. And who were the guys who built the ships and went to Shanghai and made pots of money and brought home chinoiserie and carved screens and Ming vases? That they'd like to forget is understandable. That they want to inbreed until they die out?

You can say what you like. I think it's ugly.


At the end of my third year in college, the aforementioned literary delight, Dr Soonu Kapadia threw a party for the students of the English department. She invited me although I wasn't an Englitcritter, on grounds that I had attended almost as many lectures as any of the students. She also invited the head of department, the aforementioned Dr Mehroo Jussawalla.

This was kind.

Mehroo, as everyone knew, was a wonderful scholar. Her notes on the Faerie Queen were being used in Oxford. She was also a barking loon, who was paranoid. Just three months earlier, she had failed everyone in the class in her paper. Then she had returned to class and said that an impostor had taken her papers, corrected them, and handed them back to the class. She would now correct the papers and return them.

Into the startled silence that greeted this announcement, she said that it was all of a piece from the time she had been a scholar in Oxford and ambulances had chased her around the town, with young dons in them waving fig leaves at her.

No one laughed. You didn't if you knew Mehroo and you wanted to live.

But Mehroo was also sure that the teachers in her department were also aligned with the fig-leaf-bearers. Soonu Kapadia, she was sure, was the head of this conspiracy. And here she was, dining at Soonu's table. Lunch passed quietly with only Phiroze Palkhivala disturbing the peace a little by telling Mehroo that there was no proof that God existed. Phiroze was much younger but he had put in a sterling performance as the junior secretary of the MacDougall Literary and Debating Society of which I was the senior secretary for an unchallenged three years.

'In Jewish belief, Phiroze,' said Mehroo, 'The angel of the Lord takes the soul of the faithful to be weighed in the scale and if it is found wanting…'

'Whatever that angel does, it's still not proof,' said Phiroze.

Mehroo began to fulminate.

Soonu said, 'Dessert anyone?'

The combatants disengaged and everyone went off to scoff some sweets.

'Is it a felicitous combination, young Jeronimo?' Mehroo asked me. 'Lemon soufflé and strawberry fool?'

'Love it,' I said, aware as ever of my Roman Catholic Goan pao accent. She served herself and turned to go back.

'Did you come by car, Miss Jussawalla?' Monaesha Pinto asked. She was a girl with an accent so refined it had to be bad for you to even listen to her speak.

The storm broke.

'No, I did not come by car,' said Miss Jussawalla. 'I could not come by car. I cannot use my car. I will not use it. Someone has broken into it and despoiled it most horribly.'

My mind began to whirl. I put down the plate. Surely, no one had broken into Miuss Jussawalla's magisterial old Ambassador and…

But Mehroo was not going to give us details. 'I will not use it until the miscreants are brought to book.'

'So you know who the miscreants are,' Phiroze said. He was very young and he had the fearlessness of the very young.

Mehroo exploded. It was a quiet explosion but it was a venomous one. She set her plate down. She said her bit. She never looked at Soonu Kapadia though she implied her each time she said, 'some people.' Soonu Kapadia stood as if made of stone, her lower lip clenched between her teeth.

When it was time to go, they bade each other farewell as if nothing had happened. It was a perfect pas de deux of paranoia and politeness.


Many years later, I met Dr Soonu Kapadia on the bus. She lived on Nepean Sea Road but she took the bus. She was putting the finishing touches on her thesis.

'Ah Jerry,' she said, looking relieved. 'What do you think of monophysitism?'

I wondered what it was but Dr Kapadia was already away on the nature of heresies in the Catholic Church. After she had told me all about it, she cracked a small joke about Gnostic-Docets. I determinedly turned the conversation to old MCJ.

'How did you bear it?' I asked.

'She was a very fine scholar,' she said. 'I would have you remember that, Jerry.'

Two weeks later, I was in a taxi going up Altamount Road. And sitting on a heap of rubble that had a plastic chair on it was Dr (Miss) Mehroo C Jussawalla. I ordered my taxi to a halt and leapt out.

'Miss Jussawalla?' I asked. 'What happened?'

'Jerry,' she said. 'How very pleasant to see you.'

'Miss Jussawalla?' I said. I wondered if the shock had not broken her.

'One takes one's cue from Richard Sheridan,' she said and laughed, inviting me in to the joke.

'Miss Jussawalla?' I asked again.

'Oh don't you know? When Richard Sheridan's theatre, The Drury Lane, burnt down, his friends knew that he would be a pauper. But they found him sitting by the blaze, stretching his legs out to the fire with a glass of wine in his hand. They asked him what he was doing there and he said, 'A man may surely take a glass of wine by his own fireside?' I ask you now, 'A woman may surely take a cup of tea by the ruins of her home?''

I wished I could think up some apposite literary allusion. I could only ask again, 'What happened?'

'I was on the telephone, explaining the nature of Shakespeare's hero to a student, when suddenly, KABOOM,' and here like Father William, she shook her greying locks, 'one side of the building came down. Luckily no one was hurt but we cannot stay there until we are assured that it is structurally sound.'

When Dr (Miss) M C Jussawalla's sister turned up, I left. And I knew then that whatever else they were or they were not, whatever they are or they are not, there is something to this bunch, a tenth of whom are the most civil and intelligent people you can encounter on the plane, half of whom are apolitical fun-loving people who run schools and colleges and banks and everything else with considerable devotion to duty, a tenth of whom want to go abroad and leave this ratthead country called India, (my god, so filthy these people, no etiquette, when you Go There, my so clean and everyone so polite); and the rest of whom are lunatics.

I think it's called class but you didn't hear it from me.

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