Mumbai Parsis divided on intermarriage

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.”

The organization, which is the youth wing of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), an elected group that governs the community’s religious affairs and oversees a trust, echoes the ideas of the older generation of orthodox Parsis. All seven members of the BPP espouse orthodox beliefs.

Marzban Giara, a soft-spoken author and publisher on Parsi history who wears a red velvet cap and a sudreh and kusti or traditional cotton undershirt and woven string, says the Zoroastrian religion forbids intermarriage. Many young Parsis, he says, have married outside the fold because they have become too focused on modern amenities like television and movies and have lost their grounding in the religion.

The reformists insist intermarried Zoroastrians should be welcomed into the community and deserve the right to worship at the fire temples, which are integral to the religion but are off-limits to non-Parsis.

“We’ve got to wake up to reality,” says Vispy Wadia, who co-founded the Association for the Revival of Zoroastrians and is in the process of setting up new fire temples for intermarried families. “We would love Parsis to survive. But if the community is dwindling, we would like the religion to survive.”

Wadia insists the religion never outlawed intermarriage and that such objections are due to social concerns that converted Zoroastrians would attempt to reap the benefits of the BPP trust, which provides subsidized housing and social services. However, converts would not have access to the services, he says, because the trusts are only for Parsis. While one can convert to the religion, he or she would not be able to convert to the ethnicity of Parsi, he says.

The reformist organization Association of Inter-Married Zoroastrians has successfully fought for the right of Parsi women who marry outside the religion to be allowed to worship at the fire temples. Men who marry outside have always been allowed to do so. Now, the organization is fighting for their children to be accepted, says Meher Amersey, the group’s president.

Another key issue that divides the orthodox and reformists is the disposal of the dead. Parsis have traditionally disposed of their dead by placing them on a dokhma, or Tower of Silence, and left them to be decomposed by the sun and vultures. However, a drug used in livestock has effectively killed off all of Mumbai’s vultures.

The orthodox insist the dead should be left on the dokmas and have installed solar reflectors to decompose the bodies. Khojeste Mistree, one of the BPP trustees, believes the bodies should be left for other birds of prey like crows. The reformists argue that those methods have not worked. They say the bodies should be cremated, and priests should be allowed to give prayers over those bodies.

Even the issue of dwindling numbers is controversial. Mistree says there has simply been a redistribution of the Parsi community as people have emigrated. At a recent Parsi wedding in Mumbai, Parsis living across North America and Canada were in attendance. Mistree says the reformists claim the population has dwindled to bolster their argument for intermarriage.

On one thing many from both sides agree — the infighting itself threatens to destroy the Parsis.
“It is so sad,” says Khursheed Narang of the Association of Inter-Married Zoroastrians. “They have reduced us into a close-minded, bickering community. We have lost sight of what we are supposed to stand for.”

The youth group ZYNG says they want to move beyond the fighting of the older generation and focus on group activities that bring people together. They are starting with a paint ball tournament scheduled for Jan. 10. And if paint ball leads to a new happy couple and eventually some Parsi babies, all the better.