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Mumbai Parsis divided on intermarriage

With numbers dwindling, young Parsis turn to organized social events to meet, and hopefully marry, others of their cultural group.

MUMBAI, India — A group of about a dozen young Parsi professionals gather around a table at the Parsi Gymkhana or social club at Marine Lines in Mumbai. They drink Pepsis and snack on toast topped with akuri, a spicy mixture of scrambled eggs and tomatoes, as they wait for others to arrive.

“What’s up, homies?” says 23-year-old Peshotan Kapadia as he makes his entrance. Sporting a goatee, jeans and T-shirt, Kapadia — like the rest of the group — looks like a typical modern young adult.

But despite the modern scene, the group’s underlying purpose is a reflection of their traditional beliefs: to foster marriage between young Parsis.

The group, Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation (ZYNG), was launched in mid-December and aims to provide social, cultural and employment opportunities for young people in their community. Zoroastrianism is the religion that the cultural group Parsis follow.

The main objective is “social interaction,” says Viraf Mehta, a good-looking 32-year-old who wears stylish glasses and a button-down shirt and has his hair gelled back. “We are hoping to have a Parsi meet another Parsi to …” Mehta clasps his hands together, interlocks his fingers and smiles widely.

Members of Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation plan event at a Parsi Gymkhana in Mumbai Dec. 16, 2009
Viraf Mehta and Aniza Patel, members of the Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation.
(Hanna Ingber-Winn/GlobalPost)

The Parsi community fled Persia a millennium ago and has managed to prosper in India while maintaining its distinct religion and traditions. Parsis, who have coexisted peacefully with the Hindu majority, tend to be well-educated, financially successful and urban.

However, the population has decreased due to a low birth rate, and the community is deeply divided over how to fight off what some consider the threat of extinction. On one side, an orthodox contingent insists the Parsis will flourish only if more young people marry within the community and have more children. Opposing them, a smaller group of reformists insist the Parsis must open themselves up to intermarriage, adoption and even conversion. There are about 61,000 Parsis in India of which two-thirds live in Mumbai, according to Jehangir Patel, the editor of Parsiana Magazine. He said about 30 percent marry outside the community each year.

Both sides speak with a feisty sense of determination and conviction, adamant that their views are the only possible way forward for the community. Members of both contingencies used the word “rubbish” to describe the other’s arguments.

“We are not the Taliban … we are not fascists,” says ZYNG member Hoshedar Havewala, 24, as he explains why intermarriage is unacceptable to him. “We have survived only because we have not married outside.”