2021-10-03 17:03:53 Why India’s Parsi Population is Shrinking Dramatically

Why India’s Parsi Population is Shrinking Dramatically

UDVADA, INDIA (AP) — Khurshed Dastoor has a front-row seat to a tragedy that he fears may be too late to stop: the slow extinction of a people who helped build modern India.

Portraits of his ancestors who led prayers for generations of Parsis, Zoroastrian followers who fled Muslim persecution in Persia 1,300 years ago and settled in India, hang on the wall of his drawing room. Workers are renovating the majestic fire temple outside, across a narrow alley, where the marble has been polished clean and the stone of the outer walls has been treated with chemicals to resist decay.

Emptiness encroaches on him. Only one or two families remain in the tastefully constructed houses that line the surrounding streets. The brick-and-pillar walls are covered in moss. Weeds sprout from arched windows.

Some congregations remain in those homes, according to Mr. Dastoor, but many are too old and frail to attend services.

“I am the 21st in the line,” Mr. Dastoor, 57, said, pointing to portraits of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, all of whom were priests. “I doubt that the last of the houses will be open by the time I live my life and leave my legacy to my son.”

The legacy of the Parsi community is inextricably linked to the rise of modern India. Their dwindling numbers reveal, in part, how orthodox religious rules clashed with an early and rapid embrace of modern values.

The Parsi community, always a speck in India’s vast population, adapted quickly to British colonial rule. Its merchant class established ties with India’s diverse communities. Following independence, they held key positions in science, industry, and trade. Parsi trusts supported important institutions such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the National Center for Performing Arts by funding affordable housing projects and scholarships.

Among the notable Parsis are the founders of the vast Tata conglomerate, as well as early members of the Indian independence movement and the Indian National Congress, which was once the dominant political party in India. Outside of India, perhaps the most well-known Parsi is Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who was born Farrokh Bulsara.

However, the community’s population, which was 114,000 in 1941, is now estimated to be around 50,000. Even as India considers measures to discourage more children in some states, the government has incentivized Parsi couples to have more children, with apparently little effect.

Walk into a Parsi business in Mumbai, India’s Parsi capital, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of 50. The atmosphere in Parsi restaurants is similar to that of a senior citizens’ club.

According to local leaders, that Mumbai community has about 750 deaths per year and only about 150 births. In Surat, another city where Parsis have made a name for themselves, deaths have nearly tripled in the last three years, while births have remained low.

“When your numbers fall, where are you going to find the same number of people who excel in their fields?” asked Jehangir Patel, editor of the Parsiana, one of the oldest community magazines.

Even the most well-known name in the Parsi community, the Tata family, which runs one of the world’s largest business empires, is plagued by the issue of continuity.

Ratan Tata, the man at the helm of the empire, is 83 years old. He has never married and has no children.

“What one has silently watched is the deterioration of a community known for its excellence,” Mr. Tata said in an interview at his seafront home in Mumbai, where he lives with his dogs Tito and Tango. “There haven’t been as many leaders as there have been in the past. And when there have been leaders, there has been no generation after them.”

Mr. Tata attributes this to the orthodoxy’s influence over institutions such as the Bombay Parsi Punchayat, which manages the affairs of the community, as well as thousands of apartments and other properties owned by Parsi trusts.

They strictly define who qualifies as Parsi as having a Parsi father. Community leaders estimate that up to 40% of Parsi marriages are with outsiders, but women who choose this path are frequently shunned. In some parts of the community, they are denied basic rights such as attending final rites for loved ones.

They also lose the right to live in affordable Parsi housing, which is a significant advantage in Mumbai, where property prices continue to rise. Outsiders, Parsi leaders fear, will infiltrate the community to take advantage of those benefits, diluting Parsi culture.

The Tata family history is important. In 1908, community elders took Mr. Tata’s grandfather to court to prevent his French wife from being recognized as a Parsi, setting in motion a chain of events that set the precedent.

“As a race, we are shrinking,” Mr. Tata stated. “And we have only ourselves to blame.”

High priests, according to Armaity R. Tirandaz, chairwoman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayat, wanted to ensure that changes did not “wipe out the religious practices of our faith.”

Cries of “rules should be relaxed,” she claimed, were “only made by those who are not faithful or proud of the religion into which they were born, or who feel a deficit in its precepts.”

“If you can’t ‘conform,’ don’t try to ‘deform’ it to suit your sensibilities,” Ms. Tirandaz said.

Some Punchayat leaders attribute the decline to migration to the West and an increasing number of young people remaining single.

According to Kainaz Jussawalla, a Parsi author based in Mumbai, staying single stems from a dilemma: a limited choice of partners within the community, as well as the discouragement that comes with marrying outside the community.

“I chose to be single because the pool is smaller and finding a partner is more difficult,” she explained.

The national government has offered assistance and stipends for older relatives to offset the cost of caring for parents to those who marry. Parsis can receive about $50 per month for each child under the age of eight, and another $50 for each parent over the age of 60.

According to official figures, the program has barely made a dent, supporting the birth of 330 children in its eight years.

The program only changed the timing for Karmin and Yazad Gandhi. The funds came in handy during the Covid-19 outbreak, when Mr. Gandhi, who organizes vacation tours to Europe, lost almost all of his income.

Ms. Gandhi, who works at a consulting firm, said that if it hadn’t been for the program, she “wouldn’t have had the second kid so quickly — maybe five years apart or so.”

Sarosh Bana, a 65-year-old Parsi journalist and editor of the publication Business India, cited rising living costs in cities such as Mumbai. Many Parsis would prefer to raise one child in a city with a high-quality education rather than have larger families in the suburbs.

Mr. Bana stated, “The Parsis would not want any compromises in their living standards or quality of life.” “You won’t see many Parsis hanging outside trains leaving the suburbs at 6 a.m. — they aren’t cut out for it.”

Some Parsis believe that a savior will appear due to the dwindling population. Mr. Dastoor, the priest of Udvada, one of the faith’s oldest and most sacred temples, predicted that such a messiah would appear in 2000, 2007, 2011, and 2020.

“Whenever he comes, it’s like a jackpot for us,” Mr. Dastoor said, adding, “but we can’t just sit around.”

Mr. Dastoor, like many other community leaders, believes that the population has reached a tipping point. He has given up on persuading his fellow high priests to change their minds. Instead, he is preoccupied with running the temple. When he was a child, the temple in Udvada was served by 35 full-time priests. There are now seven.

Mr. Dastoor has two daughters and a son in the tenth grade in Mumbai who is already an ordained priest. He ponders what legacy he can leave behind.

“What exactly is he going to do over here?” Mr. Dastoor explains. “Because there won’t be anyone over here.”

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Why India's Parsi Population is Shrinking Dramatically