'Parsi population in India is certainly dwindling' says veteran Indian journalist Coomi Kapoor

joydeep@khaleejtimes.com Filed on September 16, 2021

A Parsi herself, Kapoor has penned a book about her community,

Veteran Indian journalist Coomi Kapoor, who herself is a Parsi, has penned a definitive book about her community, The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis, which is a riveting account of some of the prominent members of the miniscule-but -influential community that has contributed immensely to nation-building in both the pre- and post-colonial era. wknd. caught up with Kapoor for an insight into the Indian Parsis, whose meritocracy outweighs their rapidly dwindling population.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Less is more appears to be the mantra behind the formidable Parsi success stories through the generations. How can only 60,000-odd members of such a tiny community make such a telling difference in all walks of Indian life?

The Parsis have enriched India in different ways over the last two-and-a-half centuries. When the European traders arrived in India in the late 16th century, the Parsis were quick to interact with them, pick up their languages and acquire knowledge of the West much earlier than other Indians. As a consequence of their headstart, the Parsis were at the forefront of education and business in Western India during British colonial rule. They were practically the first settlers in the islands of Bombay, as Mumbai was called then, after the fisher folk contributed enormously to the development of the city in its infancy. Many of Mumbai’s landmarks are named after the Parsis, who also funded many of the pioneering charities in the city — hospitals, schools or training institutes. The Parsis have made a name for themselves in fields as diverse as law, finance, medicine, social work and politics.

How have the Parsis made a significant difference in India’s diverse social fabric?

The well-known author Amitav Ghosh notes that many of the institutions and practices which define modern India can be traced back to the Parsi origins. The film industry derived from the very active Parsi theatre movement in Bombay. Many of the country’s first films were made or funded by the Parsis. The first Indian cricket team was formed in 1848 by Parsi members of the Oriental Cricket Club. The Parsis have contributed to all walks of India’s social and cultural life — from music to dance and the fine arts.

Contrary to popular perception, the Parsis in India won’t fade out in a hurry. What’s your take on this?

Well, the Parsi population in India is certainly dwindling rapidly. From a population of 114,000 in 1941, the number of Parsis in India was down to 57,264 as per the 2011 Census. A fall of about 10 per cent per decade. By the end of the century, Parsis would be classified as a tribe. The Parsis may eventually disappear as a community. But the institutions, customs and practices they established will continue to have an enormous influence on India. The largest business group in the country, the Tatas, was started by a Parsi. Many other major Indian business houses, which were pioneers in industry — from steel, to cotton mills, thermal power to manufacture of consumer goods and the hospitality sector — were established by the Parsis.

Kainaz Messman, the owner of Theobroma, is one of the new Parsi kids on the block, who have caught Indians’ imaginations for her astounding entrepreneurial skills in the F&B sector. Who are the other members of the community to watch out for?

There is one pessimistic school of thought that Parsis today have lost their spirit of enterprise and adventure and are living on their past glory. But the continued success of younger generations belies this belief. For example, in 15 years, Messman built up a pan-India chain of bakeries with some 50 outlets. Cricketer Arzan Nagwaswalla, a left arm pacer from Gujarat, was included in the Indian test squad as a standby player in the series against England in May. Nagwaswalla is the first Parsi in the Indian men’s cricket team after more than four decades. There have been numerous Parsi success stories in the 21st century. The Poonawalla family’s Serum Institute of India grew into the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world and its vaccines were much in demand during the pandemic. In the field of entertainment, actor Boman Irani and TV anchor and political satirist Cyrus Broacha have made a name for themselves. Supreme Court of India’s Justice Rohinton Nariman, who retired recently, delivered many path-breaking judgments which established major precedents in the interpretation of the law.

The stranglehold of Mumbai’s Parsi panchayat, yearning for reforms, the role of the Trust, a lack of an Indian-equivalent of SOAS Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zoroastrian Studies (SSPIZS) are some of the recurring themes of the community debates.

Would you say these intractable issues can be resolved in our lifetime?

Surprisingly, for such a progressive and educated community, a strong streak of conservatism still holds sway in religious matters, regarding issues such as accepting the children of Zoroastrian women who marry out of the fold or changing antiquated methods of disposing of the dead. But reforms have also slowly gained ground, thanks to the efforts of some Parsi liberals. As more and more Parsis see examples in their own family marrying outside, there is a growing realisation of the need for more openness and acceptance in the community.

The Bawas seemed to be used as a pejorative term, which has often been stereotyped in popular mainstream Indian culture. Would you agree with this preconceived notion?

Some people objected to the term Bawa in the title of my book as being pejorative. In fact, the term Bawa is simply an affectionate term in colloquial Gujarati for referring to Parsis. The template for the stereotype of the eccentric Bawa in the Hindi movies was set by Parsi playwright Adi Marzban. The Parsis’ wonderful sense of humour is most frequently directed at themselves.

In retrospect, which Indian Parsi personalities — in light of the community’s rich history — would you think have been left out from your book?

Far too many. But the book was meant to be a readable story and not an A-Z compilation of famous names. I tried to include stories of people who fitted into the theme of the book and also avoided giving much prominence to icons of the past about whom so much has already been written, whether Dadabhai Naoroji or Pherozeshah Mehta. I’m a journalist and have preferred to focus more on new information about individuals rather than rehashing old data. My most grave omission was theatre personality, actor and journalist Adi Marzban, who — thanks to a last-minute alteration in the sequence of a chapter — got left out. He has been included in the reprint version, which will be available in the market soon.

Are the Indian Parsis homogenous in their thoughts and actions in the subcontinent — from Karachi to Navsari to Bharuch to Kolkata and with a large dollop of Mumbai thrown in between?

The Parsis are highly individualistic, and they are certainly not homogenous in their thoughts and actions. For instance, in India, you find Parsis espousing the whole gamut of political ideologies and many different and opposing movements. But they are bound together through shared beliefs in religion, some common customs, food and lifestyle.

joydeep@khaleejtimes.com

Joydeep Sengupta