Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Parsis Watch Numbers Decline

Because many want fewer children or have left India, some fear the descendants of Persians who fled Iran will not survive.

 At 24, Darayus Tirandaz knows what he wants: a Parsi wife, several children and an orthodox life within contemporary society.

"I want to get married before I'm 28," said Tirandaz, a troubleshooter for Dell Computer. "I see so many beautiful Parsi girls, many intelligent girls, so why would I want to marry outside the community?"

But as the global village opens new windows, younger Parsis leave India and marry outside their faith, and those who remain want fewer children.

Today, there are 76,000 Parsis in Bombay and 6,000 scattered elsewhere in India. They are one of hundreds of ethnic groups in India, constituting the world's largest group of Zoroastrians, followers of the Bronze Age Iranian prophet Zarathushtra.

The Zoroastrians of India are descendants of several hundred Persians who fled Arab persecution more than 1,000 years ago. They sailed toward the warmer climes of India and landed on the western shores. The Hindu maharajah -- keen on trade with the Persian Empire -- welcomed them and gave them land.

The Parsis eventually made their way south to Bombay, where they built the city's first hospital, ports and universities. From several hundred Persians, the Parsis grew in numbers to nearly 115,000 by the 1940s.

Today, there are an estimated 130,000 practicing Zoroastrians, mostly in Iran, the United States and Britain.

Population experts estimate that if Bombay Parsis don't have more children, only 23,000 will remain by 2021. The number of Zoroastrians worldwide could dwindle to 69,000 in two decades.

"The community in a sense may be doomed," said Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana magazine. "It is a serious problem that you can no longer ignore."

The Parsis of India have reared some of the best and brightest, such as Rohinton Mistry, the Bombay-born novelist short-listed for the Booker Prize for "Family Matters," a sad, sweet look at a Parsi family.

Atty. Gen. Soli Sorabjee, India's senior constitutional scholar, is a Parsi, as was the late Freddy Mercury, lead singer for the British rock band Queen. Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic music director, is the son of the late Mehli Mehta, a Parsi and Bombay Symphony founder.

"In numbers, Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution beyond compare," said India's Hindu father of independence, Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Many mistake Mahatma -- "great soul" -- as the patriarch of India's great political dynasty. In fact, the daughter of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, married a Parsi, Feroze Gandhi. Indira became prime minister, as did their son, Rajiv.

The young Parsis of Bombay today are well educated; about 80% are college graduates. Young women are headstrong, marry later, and are pragmatic about family planning and home economics.

Dilshad Unwalla, a 16-year-old in bellbottom jeans and platform shoes, wants to marry a Parsi and make family her career. She wants two children.

"No more than that, as poverty is a big problem here in India," said Dilshad, ash on her forehead from her neighborhood fire temple, where Parsis pray before perpetual consecrated fires that Zarathushtra called the sacred source of life, warmth and light for followers.

"Everyone wants to fill their pockets and bank account and not think about others," she said. "I'll do my part by only having two kids."

Forty-year-old Freddy Tirandaz, Darayus' brother, shrugs off marriage, to his parents' chagrin.

"I'm indifferent to the whole proposal," said Freddy Tirandaz, who dabbles in stocks and helps with his father's import-export business. Still, he joins in the sports teams of Parsi singles who compete with each other's neighborhoods, or colonies, to mingle with potential spouses.

Both brothers are passionate about their faith and feel fortunate to have been born into it by their father, the only way to become a Zoroastrian.

"It's not like I'm preaching my religion, but I want people to know it's so beautiful and simple: Have fun in life and stay away from evil," Darayus said.

The Parsis, who don't smoke but gladly drink, follow a sacred triad: good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Making money is good, as long as charity follows. Parsis are legendary for their humor and loyalty to the Hindus who gave them refuge so many centuries ago.

"The survival of the community as a unique religious and ethnic group in [this] century will depend entirely on how much we adhere to these fundamental customs, traditions and precepts," said Norshir Dadrawala, a Parsi who heads up the Center for Advancement of Philanthropy.

Although the Hindus of India -- the world's second most populated country -- are encouraged to have only two children, the influential Parsi Panchayat, which regulates the internal affairs of the community, encourages Parsis to have three or four.

The council -- wealthy through centuries of donations and shrewd real estate deals -- offers to pay expenses for those additional children until they're 18. It also subsidizes housing for thousands of Parsis in an effort to keep them in Bombay.

Rustom Tirandaz, father of Freddy and Darayus and a member of the Parsi council, believes that Parsis must continue to unite and are successful because of good DNA. He scoffs at the medical theory that inbreeding weakens the genes and that his brethren are dying off.

"If we're supposed to be imbeciles and senile, then how come we keep producing intellectual giants?" he said. "Over the centuries, our DNA has been carried down and this superior DNA has been crystallized. If you take 100 people, you can always pick out the Parsi. He's got that peculiar nose; he's got that look of kindness in his eyes. That's due to centuries of inbreeding."

Tirandaz and other orthodox Parsis concede economics have forced some of their best minds to leave the community for the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. "But they do leave behind very strong heartstrings," he said.

Khojeste P. Mistree, an Oxford scholar of Zoroastrian studies, said he and his wife, Firoza Punthakey Mistree, pray that their children's heartstrings will cling to Bombay. He and his wife live in a luxury apartment complex reserved for Parsis. Their daughter is studying at Georgia Tech, and their son is preparing to study abroad next year.

The parents believe that, although their children will mostly mingle with non-Zoroastrians, they will not stray.

"We as a community cannot afford that luxury. If in 100 years there is no Parsi ethnicity, then how does one sustain the religion?" he said. "From the point of view of self-preservation, it's what we have to do."


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