At a posh venue in Dadar Parsi colony, the glass doors open to a scene that’s something between a promising party and a formal social gathering. The music is loud enough to drown the voices of the 40 Parsi boys and girls who’ve assembled here to seek out ‘the one’.
Pearl Dalal, 27, taps her feet to the music, even dances when asked. But midway through the evening, she decides to leave.
“Most guys I met were much older. It is so demoralising,” says Dalal, who works as an assistant manager at a cruise line. “I met a guy who was well into his forties. I referred to him as taame (‘you’ in Gujarati, used to indicate respect). It turned out that he was a relative, and then, he proposed! I felt so insulted by his audacity.”
Unaware of Patel’s agitation, Arnawaz Mistry, the 60-year-old trustee of the Bombay Parsee Punchayet (BPP) and the founder of this matrimony group, looks satisfied and anxious by turns. She has been busy processing the matrimony forms filled by over 300 Parsi boys and girls. On their Facebook page, the number is well over 400. “I try so hard to come up with a reason ‘cool’ enough to get them together… but not many girls attend.”
Where are the girls?
This mismatch was part of the problem discussed by Harvard graduate, Dinyar Patel, 28, at a talk he gave in the city recently, titled, Understanding Parsi Population Decline in India: A Historical Perspective. Says Patel, a PhD candidate in History at Harvard University,
“Many Parsis are hell bent on believing that their numbers are threatened because people are marrying outside the community or are migrating. They must accept that non-marriage is contributing to our decline, too.” He puts it down to the lack of social platforms where young Parsis could meet each other. Patel may mean well but many community members find his understanding of the problem rather limited. Says Vispy Wadia, trustee, Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism, (ARZ), “Singlehood will wipe us out, I agree, but that’s a symptom, not the core reason.”
Parsis, often heralded as one of India’s most liberal communities, can be insular about preserving their bloodline and shockingly patriarchal, explains Wadia. “It’s crazy to expect that our boys and girls will find their perfect match only within this limited pool.” The catch, he says, is that only Parsi girls, never the boys, stand to lose if they dare to marry outside the community: a home in a Parsi baug can never be inherited by the daughter; she can never enter an agiary, forget going in with her children; and neither she nor her children can avail benefits of Parsi trust funds.
“Children of Parsi men who marry non-Parsis aren’t denied any of these rights. You push the girls into a corner, and then complain that many choose to remain single? What do the self-proclaimed upholders of the community expect but an army of half-Parsis so jaded that they wouldn’t look back at their own religion? This is worse than Talibanisation,” says Wadia.
Banned for Navjote
In 2009, Zoroastrian priests Khushroo Madon and Framroze Mirza were taken to court by the BPP for performing “unreligious ceremonies”. They were being harassed just for doing the Navjote on children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis, and solemnising a marriage between a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man. Madon, 59, won the case, and proudly continues doing what he was once ‘banned’ for. “Show me one Zoroastrian scripture that is chauvinistic and prohibits inter-caste marriage and conversion. You’ll find nothing.”
Madon says he is disgusted by “the double standards of the messiahs of Zoroastrianism”. He adds, “Many educated successful Parsi women suffer because of these restrictions. Not all have the courage to sever ties and storm out.”
Wadia and Madon are worried by another trend that has developed over the last few decades. “There was a time when all our boys were enterprising and revered education. Today, many choose the easy life in Parsi baugs, comfortably paying the meager Rs300 rent, and eventually inheriting it from their parents. Which brings us back to the same issue — how can we expect our girls to choose them as partners?”
Men don’t like it
Back at the singles meet, after the party ends, a group of men sit around for a chat. J Batliwala (name changed) first refuses to talk because “he has only acid to spew”. But he opens up when promised anonymity. “Parsi girls are materialistic. 90% marry outside the community, and the rest probe us about our incomes and education.”
Should they not? “They should,” says Farhad M, looking annoyed.
“But shouldn’t they at least give us a chance?”
“Poor parenting,” chants Batliwala. Cyrus K, 38, tries to pacify Batliwala. “We know we are not exactly young. But even when we approach girls in our age group, it is a humiliating experience. They want everything.”
Why not, asks Diana Besania. The 26-year-old assistant manager at Jet Air Tours is a regular at the matrimony meets. “I have worked hard for this, and it isn’t my fault that the guys scraped through graduation. One fellow actually told me, ‘A competitive career woman cannot be a cooperative wife!” Dalal concurs. “It’s impossible to get along with someone who isn’t as enterprising, and can’t even hold a conversation. I need a life partner, not someone I’ll have to babysit in a difficult situation.”
‘Deviance’ is punished
Roshni, 36 was in a situation similar to Dalal’s, but “fortunately”, she fell in love with her Catholic husband. Last year when she decided to perform her children’s Navjote, she received threatening calls from the BPP warning her to cancel the ceremony or risk her children being harmed. “We went to the cops and had a notice served to the BPP,” recounts Roshni bitterly.
According to Madon, these regressive tenets are propagated by the five men considered to be the ‘high priests’ of Zoroastrianism.
“They were merely appointed as heads of their respective agiaries, no more, but now wield immense power. Daughters and sons of BPP trustees who opted for inter-caste marriages proudly enter agiaries with their families,” he says.
Goolrookh Gupta, 45, says she was engaged to a Parsi boy, but they were not compatible, and she married a Punjabi later. “I tried hard to marry within the community, but it didn’t work,” she says. “My 19-year-old daughter was a firm believer, but after seeing all this, she can’t stand Zoroastrianism.”