Only Parsis Allowed
THE UNDERBELLY OF A SUGAR-COATED COMMUNITY
Written & Illustrated by Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh
To associate as closely as possible and resemble the hegemonic European, a white man of the west, and to distance and disassociate with the non-Parsi Indian communities then became the conscious choice of this ‘colonial elite’ group.
‘History could very well be the story of a people who have evolved with time.
It truly can be said of this (Parsi) minority community: Tough times never last, but tough people do!’ - Zarthoshtimanesh, 1996.
The early sixth century brought with it a brutal and destructive Arab invasion of Persia (modern-day Iran). Cities, monuments, homes and structures of reverence and lived histories were mercilessly ruined and raptured. But, the majority of the scarred, distraught bodies who survived this theft of land, life and liberty, still managed to keep the flame of hope burning. Parsis and Iranis are those tough, displaced bodies who chose to traverse miles and miles onward, toward the Indian subcontinent, to find refuge and a safe haven to house their lives once again and keep their faith aflame.
Today, a few may not know who Parsis are or may have just had their rare sighting of the Khada (standing) Parsi statue in Byculla (in Mumbai), but, I’m sure most bun-maska or dhansak lovers who began to read this article were already pre-empting that I would mention Queen at least once!
No, not Freddie, I meant aapri (our) Queen Elizabeth of course!
In the 19th century, with Britain having clearly established strong colonies rooted in the subcontinent and having significantly uprooted the culture around, new symbolic associations to the Parsis were made - ‘The Parsi’s business reliability is characterised by his truthfulness, by his charitable activity (which displays as well his Victorian ethical integrity), by his racial purity and the superiority of that race, by his progressive reformism and above all by his similarity to an English gentleman.’
In her powerful and critical book, ‘The Good Parsi’, academic and author Tanya M. Luhrmann, details and analyses the British hangover many Parsis are afflicted with. She seeks to break down the notions of how that association and need for correlation constitutes the social, ethical and moral attributes of a truly ‘Good Parsi’.
These denotations of the Parsi as a beaming symbol of honesty, charity, purity and progressive improvement, stems from the Parsi literature of that time that whitewashed the identity of the community. To associate as closely as possible and resemble the hegemonic European, a white man of the west, and to distance and disassociate with the non-Parsi Indian communities then became the conscious choice of this ‘colonial elite’ group. That resulted in most of the deep-rooted separatist ideologies and discriminatory doctrines that the community is still riddled with. Veiled with the delusion of being the ‘lucky race’ to have a good fortune to have their destiny ‘bound up with the British in India’, the Parsis othered the non-Parsi Indian bodies, looking at them through a colonised derogatory lens as well.
Today in Bollywood, the Good Parsi is portrayed as the carrom-playing, eedu-loving (egg-loving), unusual, eccentric, dutiful and sincere bawa or bawi comic relief. In the post-colonial landscape, Parsis have become even more disillusioned parodies of themselves in a lot of ways. But the humour portrayed only sugar-coats the surface of the bitter, buried, entrenched ideologies handed down through generations along with their mothers’ Singer sewing machines, or the patriarch’s love for automobiles.
Even today, Shania Mistry, a Parsi college student, talks of her personal experience with feeling like she ‘doesn’t belong’ and her disappointment in having her ‘identity as a whole’, still diminished within the community. Born to a Hindu mother and Parsi father,her childhood memories of living within that dynamic and being a child of that union painfully address how her mother has been viewed as an ‘outsider’. She recounts all the instances of her own body treated as a space for scrutiny, exclusion and unsolicited rude comments by ‘well-meaning’ neighbours telling her to ‘scrub herself (while bathing) harder to become fair’, or Parsi kids her age who would mockingly only speak to her in Hindi, even when she would respond and speak in Gujarati or English.
These are the casualised norms and folklores woven into the underbelly of this community. It is in the curriculum given to the all parsi schools’ children and blatant bias against the non-Parsi students, it is in the ritual of Parsi grandmothers insisting on kids washing themselves with a besan (gram flour) paste to lighten skin tones, it is in the pride of singing ‘Chaiye hame Zarthosti’(We are all Zarthostis - Parsi Anthem) and then not legally accepting adoption as part of the community.
With this personal example, we can also infer what is bred into the child who is scolded for her own being. Now at a stage where she has empowered herself to unlearn what she was forced to palette, Shania is cautious of the acceptance within the community when all she has known was a constant cross-examination of herself, making her jump through too many prejudicial loops to prove her genetic identity, to prove her belonging within her politicised reality.
It is in the curriculum given to the all parsi schools’ children and blatant bias against the non-Parsi students, it is in the ritual of Parsi grandmothers insisting on kids washing themselves with a besan (gram flour) paste to lighten skin tones, it is in the pride of singing ‘Chaiye hame Zarthosti’(We are all Zarthostis - Parsi Anthem) and then not legally accepting adoption as part of the community.
Sorabji Bengalee, a liberal reformist, argued in 1892, that this need to other and to alienate the other communities that Parsis live beside within diverse spaces in this country, ‘in the future it will cause them a lot of harm’. And harm has been inflicted. As the mourns for the dwindling Parsi numbers grow, the Parsi women who follow their hearts and marry outside of the community are chastised for doing so, their children - unwelcome and ostracised from the fragile, muslin-like societal fabric of the faith. It takes the shape of a performative onus then, on heterosexual Parsi women, held to a singularity of being perceived as reproductive mediums, to choose to make the right choice of marrying a sudreh-kashti (religious vestments worn by Parsis when they are initiated into the community) wearing, dad-jokes cracking, cricket/ football-obsessed, straight, Parsi boy.
They face assailing assaults of exclusion and righteous abandonment even from the dastoors or holy priests who carry out the initiation ceremony to welcome a child into the community (Navjots) and conduct the community’s traditional marriage ceremonies as well.
In cases of marriage to bodies external to the boundaries of the label of ‘Parsi’, at their discretion, the dastoors often choose to not associate with and not support that family lineage which is not ‘purely’ Zoroastrian. Further, acting as self-proclaimed, ethical gatekeepers of this race and religion, they claim to protect the inside of the community from that and those who are outside. But, unfortunately not from that which is already on the inside.
A fresh breath of change and integration, in fact, was felt from the Karachi apex Parsi trust, who, in 2011, gave the right to the children of Parsi women in Pakistan, to adopt their mothers’ religion.
But, even that much agency, space and freedom of existence is still not afforded by the queer Parsi community. A Parsi, queer, transexual boy I had the fortune to have a candid conversation with, insisted their name and identity remain anonymous since they haven’t and can’t share their truth with their biological family. Their parents, grandparents and siblings strongly believe that queer personhood is a choice and a result of bad parenting and poor judgement. They believe it can surely be undone via ‘religious hetero conversion camps’. Thus, the delicate precipice of an intrinsic fear of exposure they exist upon is a thin line that could push them into a trench of having even their already suppressed and hushed truth obscured further. This is why, when I ask them about whether they feel comfortable amongst the grating aunties and drunk or sober uncles who approach them at weddings, while walking or sitting or drinking or breathing and pelt them with the incessant jabs of - Why don’t you wear more dresses? Why don’t you grow your hair out? Why don’t you wear longer earrings?,
All they say is- No.
I ask them whether they feel like that makes them (want to be) less Parsi…
They say no.
Gender politics and identification were also a lethal tool of the colonisers to create a psychodynamic scramble in the mind of the subject subjugated entirely- mind, body and spirit. The constant feminization of the Indians and especially, native women, by the British, also further fuelled Parsi men to not appear emasculated and rival the machismo and virile agility of the admired and central image of the hegemonic white European man and his ‘masculinity’.
But, today in this post-colonisation, late capitalistic perspective, the Parsi community, feeling forsaken by their anglo relatives, have begun curating and broadcasting various campaigns, advertisements and events to grapple with the loss and dissemination of western fuelled hetero-normative narratives within their gated faith. The colony-bred bodies are fed a performative enacting of reclaiming and promulgating our genealogies.
A great example is the JIYO PARSI introduced in the early 2010s as a scheme that was birthed by the Government of India to ‘arrest the decline in (the) population of the Parsi Zoroastrian Community in India’. There is no finer singular example of Parsis, the faith, the culture, the people, their agencies, bodies and identities all being pathologised within a wider political, pharmacological, economic context.
‘Parsis, however, are not pandas, so the implication that Parsis have an obligation to procreate and within the community, has raised brows’.
And the furry, Parsi brows are the least, these absolutely crass, hetero-normative and primitive posters of mass consumption should raise.
Gender politics and identification were also a lethal tool of the colonisers to create a psychodynamic scramble in the mind of the subject subjugated entirely- mind, body and spirit.
These posters were published, funded and swallowed just as every other archaic, legitimised and dated in-group/out-group sentimentality and supposedly salient practices impregnated with- sexist and homophobic or queerphobic tropes, are still what is also locked behind our tall iron gates.
One ‘quirky’ poster title reads, ‘Will your boyfriend ever be as successful as Ratan Tata? Who are you to judge, Nicole Kidman?’
With the first line of the paragraph underneath it poetically explaining, ‘If you think his success is a precondition to getting hitched, think again…’ And I must choose to stop reading these or else I’ll have lost my ability to question and ‘think Again’.
The literacy rates of Parsis in this country are and have always been the highest , with Parsi women as well, since the time of colonisation, being taught and equally educated.
But, of course given only this collapsible representation and teased to keep striving for the improbable illusion of achieving self-authored ownership and power of our own agencies and voices, the women are pigeon-holed behind lakda na (wooden) doors, menstrual superstitions, and more JIYO PARSI propaganda making light of quotes like ‘Be responsible. Don’t use a condom.’
But this is not to dampen your light of optimism. The Parsi community does need to be resuscitated as a welcoming space and community truly letting go of their refusals and limiting lists of strict no-no’s (also adorning the walls in the much loved Irani café’s, as the more frivolous counterparts).
This article seeks to begin to dethrone and disentomb the complacency of only associating this numbered community with a glorious past and fun-loving surface level associations, and to critique the progressive and archaic multiplicities layered within.
Parsis are not just crystallised in– ‘15 Prominent Parsis’ lists that conveniently fail to make mention of parsi women or queer bodies. Other than the beloved Freddie Mercury of course, tokenised and adopted in these lists as a Parsi star of lagan (marriage) playlists but, often his queerness is excused and negated as good old Parsi idiosyncrasies at play. We truly do need ‘to break free!’
If ‘The milk is in grave danger of running out of sugar’, let’s mix in some jaggery, my mum and granny always praise how much it’s better for your heart and head!
So, we can then all have some ‘gud thoughts, gud words, gud deeds!