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February 17, 2016

#TheHybridLife: No Pairing Please, We’re Parsi!

Text by Meher Marfatia. Photographs by Sooni Taraporevala

Meher Marfatia finds her quixotic community at the vanguard of change and yet curiously immune to it

1947 didn’t happen. At least not for legions of frozen-in-time followers of the world’s oldest monotheistic faith who yet believe they’re true remnants of the Raj. So some Zoroastrians still stubbornly cling to their colonial hangover and here’s charming proof of it….

Two Parsi dowager sisters baffled an income tax officer calling on them in their elegant home. Treated to a sumptuous silver-service tea, he was welcome till the tricky moment came for him to enquire into unpaid dues. “But we don’t recognise this government,” came the ladies’ cool response. This was more than half a century after Independence.

They’re hardly alone. Photographs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert continue to grace many a mantelpiece, right beside the garlanded frame of Prophet Zarathustra himself. Dare to suggest that such tribute is out of sync with current political reality, even in England, and prepare to be treated to an indignant tirade steeped in nostalgia for grand times past.

So you want to mash us up? Create cultural fusions? Warn: evolve or go extinct? Sorry, that’s not happening. It hasn’t for centuries and is especially unlikely today when we’re a precious fistful left: 65,000 nationwide, 45,000 of us in Mumbai alone. We walk different, talk different, think different. Many take pride in the fact that we have community bastions and beliefs that will never be surrendered. For a people otherwise remarkably liberal, we continue to be the only community in the country which will not allow non-Parsis to watch us at worship. Fire temples, called agiaries, are strictly out of bounds for all else. A debatable rigidity this may be, yet the tight insulation will resist change in the foreseeable future.

From the divine to the domestic — while plenty of other housing enclaves bind communities sharing a common faith together you’d be hard put to find any resembling the beautiful baugs of the Parsis. Generations have inhabited these serene Art Deco-designed hubs for which we thank visionary forefathers like the Wadia, Tata and Cama clans. Oases of peace with sprawling lawns amid the chaos of city badlands dotted with ‘matchbox’ apartments, the verdant baugs envelop their denizens in comfort and camaraderie.

Besides, who else would showcase an ancient legacy within their garden gates? Head midtown to Khareghat Colony on Hughes Road in Mumbai to see how, safe in a corner of its grounds, in the FD Alpaiwalla Museum, lie secrets of long-ago Iran. No lesson in Persian history is complete without a tour through this treasure trove — open to visitors by appointment. Uncommon exhibits include a firman (land grant) issued by Emperor Jehangir to Dadabhai Naoroji’s ancestors and the cuneiform inscription of Artaxerxes III at Persepolis.

Eccentricities galore mark our habitats too, naturally. The majestic Claude Batley-built Cusrow Baug standing sentinel as our southernmost colony on Colaba Causeway boasts blocks lettered from A to U, but how quirkily mysterious that Blocks I, L, N and O are conspicuously absent. Way before the government woke up to our dwindling numbers and sponsored the Jiyo Parsi campaign that badgers us to birth more babies, hundreds of couples met and married within their tight-knit colony zones.

Bringing us to the most controversial of the few mash-ups Parsis are actually party to: mixed marriages. Possibly no other community marries ‘out’ as much as we do. Much to the horror of tut-tutting ancestors hung up on viewing the faith as being blue-blooded, 100-per-cent exclusive. Seeing their so-called sanctity as a sacred commandment, they feel tying the knot beyond the Bawa brigade is a betrayal. The perceived push-down from pedigree even often results in disinheriting the errant child who gets hitched to a purjaat (apologies for this dreadful partisan word coined to translate as ‘other community’).

But two can play at the same game. Parsis can be surprised or peeved to learn that they can also be the dimly considered ‘other’. When a distant cousin’s daughter fell in love with a boy from the orthodox and staunchly vegetarian Jain community, the dichotomy was on distinct display at the wedding. The aristocratic girl’s side stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of a silk curtain screening off the long dining tables at which sat a meaty repast including fish and fowl of every conceivable variety. This kind of segregation from the opposite camp is the unkindest cut for robust, ruddy-cheeked Parsis who live to eat their rich, flavourful food washed down with the world’s worthiest whiskies.

Now, because we’re a live-and-let-live lot that has helmed the greatest strides in education, industry and philanthropy, we strongly object to the cultural fascism Indian cities reel under today. We greet statewide bans on everything from what we can watch to what we should eat with colourful cuss words. But this is bad language rendered with a clean heart. It is good-humoured and uttered in what has gone down in history as the funny, broad Parsi accent.

More importantly, we have the lovely ability to laugh at ourselves. Sooni (Taraporevala) and I wrote in the Introduction to our book Parsi Bol — Insults, Endearments & other Parsi Gujarati Phrases: ‘Like everything about our community, the language — Parsi Gujarati — is completely our own: unique, inventive, lively.’ Only Gujarati speakers can figure what’s going on. Aha, in case you don’t know, this is exactly what we want. Snobby-nosed creatures we are, revelling in the esoteric, like the purist taste for Western classical music and other highbrow aesthetic pursuits. Connoisseurs, bon vivants, lotus-eaters….

At their ludicrous best — or worst, depending on how you look at it — are Parsis who would sooner mesh with the rest of the universe rather than their own kind. Our favourite anecdote involves a dapper old anglicised gent who snapped when wished warmly on Navroze, the Parsis’ New Year’s Day. “No, no, it’s JFOB!” he declared waspishly. Jan First Old Boy, if you please. The first day to dawn according to the Roman calendar was the only New Year’s Day that he would acknowledge.

There’s no messing, oops, meshing, with the incorrigible Parsis. How dull a life without us though.

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