The Parsi Community

Two articles copied from the British Press without permission. Comments in [] are mine.

The Independent 28/11/91

Unlike Christianity, Zoroastrianism is a non-proselytising religion and, if you are not born one, it is very difficult to become one. Zoroastrians pray to one god Ahura Mazda (the "wise lord") to help them in the dualistic battle between Spenta Mainyu (the "Bounteous Spirit") and Angra Mainyu (the "Destructive Spirit"). Humans are free to follow either spirit but, according to whether they commit good or bad deeds, are finally responsible for their fate: after death, the soul is judged and passes into either a heavenly kingdom or to hell-like regions of horror and darkness. They are enjoined, therefore, to lead an industrious, honest and charitable life. Also, since the world created by Ahura Mazda is deemed essentially good, they are encouraged to live well and enjoy themselves - although only in moderation, since excess is considered the work of the Destructive Spirit. After death, Zoroastrians are traditionally lain naked in a "Tower of Silence" on a mountain or hilltop, to be devoured by vultures and their bones dried by the sun. The idea is to avoid "polluting nature with rotten flesh", but since such rites are not possible in this country Zoroastrians make do with cremation.

The article ends:

He [leader of Zoroastrians in UK] was not aware that Mercury had ever been to Zoroastrian House [HQ in UK], but he was hopeful of the singer's chances in the afterlife. "From what I gather, he had the Zoroastrian traits of generosity and kindness", he said.

Parsis: The Jews of India (New Society 22/1/88)

The Parsis are the oldest established Asians in Britain, but traditionally they have never drawn attention to themselves. Estranged from their communal roots, can they survive?

Take three men: a Liberal (Dadabhai Naoroji - MP for Finsbury 1892-95), a Tory (Mancherjee Bhownagree - MP for Bethnal Green 1895-1905) and a Socialist (Shapurji Saklatvala - MP for Battersea 1922-29). These men, Britain's first Asian MPs, all belonged to the small and highly influential Indian community known as the Parsis.

The Parsis are a community with a long tradition in public life in India itself. Wherever its members have settled, they have endeavoured to carry on that tradition. In recent years, for example, the Parsis in South Africa have emerged as the most eloquent critics of apartheid.

Parsis have been coming to Britain for over 200 years - longer than any other Asians. Yet how many people could say with any certainty what a Parsi was? Parsis in Britain have never drawn attention to themselves, or had much attention drawn to them. Among Parsis well-known here today are Freddie Mercury of Queen, Farrukh Dhondy (the Channel 4 editor and scriptwriter) and Zerbanoo Gifford (Liberal candidate for Harrow East at last election). None of them, however, is known as a Parsi, although Gifford at least is proud to be one. The oldest established Asian people in Britain remain a hidden minority.

The Parsi are a remnant of the great Persian Empire. Followers of the Persian prophet Zoroaster [aka Zarathustra, of 2001 fame], their ancestors were driven out of Persia by invading Muslims 1400 years ago. Some, known as Irani, took refuge in the desert. Others, later joined by the Irani, fled to Gujarat in north India. It is these Indian Zoroastrians who are termed Parsi. On Indian soil, they erected Zoroastrian fire temples - the temples in which a flame is kept burning as a symbol of the life cycle and of eternal recurrence. This symbol has been richly significant to the nomadic Parsis: in a literal sense, the Zoroastrian faith has been kept burning. In India, Parsis also erected "Towers of Silence" the buildings in which they leave their dead to be devoured by vultures - a practice which, strange though it may seem to modern western thinking, has the ancient religious purpose of affirming the equality of all men in death.

Suffering no further persecution in India, for centuries the Parsis made modest livings out of their farming and small trade. Gujerati became their mother tongue, though the Gujerati spoken by Parsis is an idiosyncratic variant of the language. This is highly typical of the Parsi tendency to adapt but without any surrender of their distinctiveness.

With the arrival of the British, however, Parsi fortunes underwent a quantum leap. Manifesting a business acumen which got them dubbed the "Jews of India", the Parsis came to dominate the commercial life of Victorian Bombay, the city in which they are still mostly concentrated [and where Freddie went to school].

Monotheists, unconstrained by any caste system, and lighter skinned than the majority of Indians, the Parsis were eminently acceptable to the British imperium; and with some exceptions - notably Dadabhai Naoroji, an early proponent of the independence movement - their loyalty to the crown was unswerving. Indeed, there was no shortage of those who - like Mancherjee Bhownagree (nicknamed "Bow and agree" by his detractors) - regarded British rule as little less than providential. They are however renowned for their honesty and their philanthropy - there is a saying "Parsi thy name is Charity" - and they have always enjoyed a high moral standing in India. Parsi charity begins at home, and - like Quakerism - the Zoroastrian religion has always encouraged mutual assistance.

Although Parsis never surrendered their religious identity, or - in contrast to the ill fated Anglo-Indians - ever became reviled as sycophants of the British, they were eager to absorb British culture and education. The Parsis remain an extraordinarily highly qualified, and in a superficial sense, westernised people (today, around 70% of Parsis in the USA and Canada hold doctorates). Indeed Parsis are the "Jews of India" in terms of intellectual as well as commercial achievements. And since Zoroastrianism enjoined equality between the sexes - an imperative which sharply distinguishes it form other eastern religions - Parsi women tended to be at least as well educated as Parsi men. They can also be combative, and it is said that Parsi plays typically depict women as the dominant sex.

Zerbanoo Gifford, a forthright representative of this tradition of female independence, thinks of Parsis as "very Victorian" in their energy and enterprise. The firm of Tata, a giant commercial and industrial undertaking with its own city, Jamshedpur, outside Calcutta, and bases all over the world is an awesome monument to Parsi entrepreneurship.

But the Victorian comparison is revealing, for the Parsis are nothing resembling the force they were. In India, their religion is struggling to survive. Furthermore, Parsi numbers, always small, are now diminishing at an alarming rate. In 1971 there were 91000 Parsis in India, by 1981 the figure had fallen to 71000, and one in five Indian Parsis is now over 65. Non-marriage, marriage outside the community and late marriage have all contributed to the decline, the major reason for which is perhaps the career-mindedness of highly educated Parsi women.

The Parsis have also steadily been losing their prosperity and prestige, and even their sense of purpose. Nowadays, 40% of Parsis in Bombay - a city where they could once boast they had no beggars - are on the verge of poverty, and among the young there is a growing problem of drug addiction. There is some evidence, too, that they have particularly high incidences of mental illness and haemophilia, both perhaps exacerbated by their defensiveness as a community and some degree of inbreeding.

Arguably, the crisis afflicting the Parsi community in India dates back to 1947. For although they have not dropped from notice - Rajiv Gandhi's father was a Parsi and the defence services have has Parsi commanders - they have not benefited as a people from the new Indian society which has emerged since Independence.

The Parsi journalist Delshad Karanjia believes that, using their still-ample resources, Parsis must act now to rebuild the community. But the action taken by young Parsis has been to emigrate. In Britain there are about 5000 Parsis, mainly based in London. The residue of the a once-dynamic Indian bourgeoisie, many of them are affluent professionals - although it is important to appreciate that British Parsis have been subsumed into a slightly larger community which includes Zoroastrian immigrants from East Africa [e.g. Zanzibar where Freddie was born, and Dar-es-Salaam where he used to spend his childhood with his uncle] and Zoroastrian refugees from Khomeini's Iran.

So far as the community has a hub, it is Zoroastrian House, a big Victorian house in West Hampstead where prayer meetings and social functions are held. Here, however, as elsewhere, Zoroastrians are riven by ideological disputes. Some, worried about shrinking numbers, want to waive the traditional Zoroastrian taboo against accepting converts; for others - the highly orthodox east African Zoroastrians in particular - such proposals are anathema. Their debates, apparently, are lively. Rustom Irani, who came here from India in the fifties, tells the joke that wherever three Zoroastrians meet the result is four arguments. A Bayswater hotelier and the founding president of the World Zoroastrian Organisation, Irani is proud of his religion and heritage. But the bickering which goes on at Zoroastrian house gets him down and he takes no heart from a younger generation who seem to be indifferent to the old traditions and to have lost the old zest for business. The British Empire, he likes to recall, was built on a gamble, but watching young Parsis opting for safe jobs and amusing themselves at discos, he sees no sign of a gambling spirit and he is despondent about the communities prospects.

Yet there are younger British Parsis who are just as anxious to preserve their traditions. Thrity Shroff, a young professional Parsi woman from a Bombay family, has been bringing together Zoroastrians in Harrow. Having noticed faces in the street which she thought might belong to fellow-Parsis, she scoured the electoral register for Parsi-sounding names. Through her efforts, Harrow Zoroastrians are meeting to read the gathas, their religions ancient scriptures - no easy task, since what has survived of them is open to wide interpretation and they have no priest to guide them. Training a Zoroastrian priest is a long and complex business and in Britain, a tradition of Zoroastrian priesthood has scarcely emerged.

Harrow's Zoroastrians are talking, too, about their practical difficulties as a religious minority which has barely been identified. Some Zoroastrians want to get planning permission for a fire temple. The trouble is, says Thrity Shroff, that Parsis used to be loath to be seen as a burden on society, and she thinks they may have missed their opportunity to get their special needs acknowledged. It is a question of how these devotees will sustain their faith in the absence of authoritative guidance, though there is no doubt that they are determined to do so.

Overcoming a sense of estrangement from their own communal past is a problem for British Parsis. Ironically, it is to western scholars that they have principally turned to learn in detail about their history. Prof. John Hinnells of Manchester University has made a major study if the Parsis, and Dr Mary Boyce is perhaps the leading authority on Zoroastrianism. Both names are well- known in Parsi circles and their lectures and writing have contributed greatly to the community's self awareness. Zerbanoo Gifford, for instance, says that she never gave a thought to her preoccupation with cleanliness until she read about the ancient emphasis on ritual purity in Hinnell's work.

It is a mystery why a people with so interesting a past, and so old and close a connection with the British, should have gone largely unnoticed. Partly, perhaps, they have been victims of their own assimilationist tendencies. They may have been overlooked because of the smallness of the numbers. In the Indian population as a whole, Rustom Irani remarks that the Parsis were never more than a "speck of dust". Today, however, the question is whether the Parsis and Zoroastrians in general can survive at all. Maneck Dalal, MD of Tata Ltd in London, is not inclined to take talk of the impending disappearance of the Parsis too seriously, It has always gone on, he says. In view of the sharp decline in the Parsi population, this may seem complacent, but the Parsis have an impressive record of resilience and their adaptability is almost proverbial. It is not yet time to write their obituary.