I just finished reading Michael Axworthy’s Iran: Empire of the Mind, one of Razib Khan’s recommended reads on Iran. The book serves as a useful primer on Iranian history for novices (such as myself), covering over 3,000 years of history in less than 300 pages. It lacks the literary flair and flourish of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s magisterial Arabs. I found myself skimming through the latter parts of the book- the Pahlavi era and the subsequent Islamic Revolution- as I am broadly familiar with the events of the modern period.
Pre-Islamic Persia was an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. Axworthy provides a good overview of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid periods of Iranian history. Ancient Iranians developed a complex and nuanced theology centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of the Sassanid Empire, one of the superpowers of the pre-Islamic world. All of this was to change with the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The armies of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula like a supernova and reduced the Sassanid Empire to dust. The Zoroastrian religion was swept away in this upheaval.
One group of Zoroastrians escaped and sought refuge in Gujarat in Western India. These Zoroastrians are commonly known as the Parsis (from Pars or Persia). The essay below is a personal account of the Parsis of Mumbai. I had written it a decade ago. Reading Axworthy’s book brought some of those sweet memories back.
The Parsis of Bombay
In the heart of old Bombay, very close to my school, stands an ancient, venerable Parsi establishment: Kyani & Co. Set up 110 years ago and looking every year of it, it is renowned for its bun maska (buttered bread) served with hot, sweet milky tea. Trudging back home from school, I would drop by on many a sultry afternoon, unable to resist the temptation. The bun maska and tea were, of course, always delicious. But equally fascinating for me was the place itself. The interiors looked as if they had never been refurbished. The neatly arranged wooden tables and chairs seemed positively antiquarian. The patrons were an eclectic bunch. There were the old timers occupying their favourite spots, dipping their bun maska in hot tea, some with a newspaper in hand, others even enjoying a quick siesta. Then there were workers from nearby offices who had stepped out for a quick break, chitchatting and sharing office gossip. There was also the constant stream of housewives, there to buy bread and biscuits for their families. And finally there was Mr. Kyani himself. Standing at the counter and overlooking his domain, the septuagenarian proprietor with a hunched back, horn-rimmed spectacles and a Zoroastrian skull cap on his head, seemed to satisfy just about every stereotype of an old Bombay Parsi. For decades, Bombayites have purchased their bread from and had their afternoon tea at tens of such Irani* bakeries that dot the South Bombay landscape.
Baking bread is, of course not the only thing they do well. The Parsis established Bombay’s (and India’s) leading business houses and excelled in a variety of professions. Their dominance of both business and professions is entirely due to their ability to grasp the opportunities that came their way. When the British were building Bombay with the intention of making it one of the major trading centres of their far-flung Empire, the Parsis jumped at the opportunity. Along with their fellow Gujaratis, they migrated in their hordes from their villages in South Gujarat, starting their life in a city that was still being built. That Bombay came to be recognised as one of the pre-eminent trading and financial centres of the world is down in no small measure due to the entrepreneurialism and business acumen of the Gujaratis. But unlike other Gujaratis who largely stuck to trade and business, the Parsis went a step further. They built relations with the British, learning their language and customs and entered the professions, which they quickly came to dominate.
Making the most of their chances was a trait they forged in adversity several centuries earlier. Originally inhabitants of Persia (hence the derivative Parsi), they were forced to flee their ancestral homeland following the Islamic conquest of Persia and the subsequent persecution of their faith. Their ships landed on the coast of South Gujarat. What happened next is the stuff of legend.
The local raja, understandably concerned by such a large alien presence on his soil, decided to convey his anxiety through a demonstration. He took a glass full of milk and added some more to it. Naturally, the milk spilled over. Upon seeing this, the head dastur, the revered spiritual leader of the Parsis stepped forward, again with a glass full of milk. He added sugar to the milk. The fears of the local populace thus assuaged, the Parsis were granted asylum. The story may be apocryphal, but it is highly instructive.
The Parsis have over the centuries, demonstrated their commitment to integration through their deeds. The community is an exemplar of the ideal of assimilation, blending into local society by adopting the local dress code, speaking Gujarati as their mother tongue and not interfering with the religious beliefs of the locals.
When they struck gold in Bombay, they went well beyond the terms of their original promise. In acts of rare, perhaps unmatched munificence, they provided generous endowments which facilitated the construction of public halls, libraries, schools and hospitals, established trusts that provided scholarships to deserving candidates, besides patronising the arts and the sciences. Bombay, the trading town metamorphosed into Bombay, the cosmopolitan city.
Substantial beneficiaries of these charitable deeds were the Parsis themselves. Massive plots of land were purchased in prime locations across south Bombay and houses built and provided to poorer Parsis. These ubiquitous “Parsi colonies” even today provide highly subsided houses to the community in prime real estate, making other Bombayites green with envy.
My fondness for the Parsis is also due to some vivid personal memories. I remember Mrs. Khosravi, my ninth grade class teacher, who made the extra effort and looked out for me at a time when I was an earnest, nervous student, prone to being disheartened at minor events. Somehow, she seemed fully cognizant of the adolescent dilemmas faced by her favourite pupil. When I moved to Bangalore to study law after high school, one of the first friends I made was a Parsi, a fellow Bombay Gujarati. In a class with very few Bombayites and no other Gujarati speakers, we instantly stuck a chord. Our bond was forged by our shared love for our common city and language.
The Parsis are afflicted with an addiction to wonderfully eccentric “hobbies and spare time interests”, a trait George Orwell memorably ascribed to the English. Take my classmate in seventh grade whose abiding passion was for science outside the classroom. During school lunch-breaks when the rest of the boys played games, he would be seen crouching on the ground looking for new insects he could study. He was also creating a scrapbook with details of the top two hundred scientists in the world and their discoveries. Inspired, I decided to emulate him. I learnt more science from preparing that scrapbook than I had in all those years in science class.
Or take my French language private tutor, the idiosyncratic Mr. Shroff, who was obsessed with aircraft technology of World War II. He spent all his spare time and money collecting books and models of World War II aircraft. One of my favourite tricks when I was not in the mood to study was to engage him a conversation on his favourite topic. I would gleefully watch the time tick away as he delivered a scholarly exposition on the technical superiority of the Luftwaffe over the Royal Air Force.
A quick detour around my house in South Bombay revealed the extent of Parsi heritage of my city. I began at the eponymous Parsee Gymkhana along the Marine Drive promenade, its immaculately manicured lawns leading up to the old colonial style clubhouse. Standing cheek by jowl alongside the Hindu, Muslim and Catholic Gymkhanas, it was the practice ground of the Zoroastrian Cricket Club, as they prepared for the famous Bombay Quadrangular cricket tournament during the halcyon days of the Raj. Turning left near Churchgate, I reached K. Rustom & Co., the ice cream parlour that my grandfather used to frequent during his college days. Its ramshackled appearance belied its enduring popularity.
I walked across the picturesque Oval Maidan and past the statue of Sir Dinshaw Wacha, one of the doyens of the Indian National Congress, looking over a game of cricket played by a bunch of boys dressed in spotless lily whites. The thud of leather on willow sounded as sweet that afternoon as it must have in Sir Wacha’s day.
I sauntered past Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tata Group, towards the Bombay Samachar Building which still houses the offices of the Gujarati language newspaper, the Bombay Samachar. Founded by a Parsi, it is the oldest newspaper in Asia. In close vicinity was Jimmy Boy, the well known Parsi cuisine restaurant. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling the aromatic fragrance of dhansak (a concoction of various lentils, vegetables and spices), my favourite Parsi delicacy. Further ahead, I reached J.B. Petit High School, one of Bombay’s best schools. Started by an Englishwoman and funded by a Parsi, it was one of the first English medium girl schools in Bombay. A brisk ten minute walk later, I reached the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel built by Jamsedji Tata, its magnificent façade a symbol of defiance against colonial prejudice. A stroll along Colaba Causeway took me past Cusrow Baug, the serene Parsi housing colony and the Parsi owned Leopold Café, Bombay’s oldest pub, etched in popular memory by Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram. Over the next few minutes, I came across Bombay’s best know art gallery (the Jehangir Art Gallery) as well as a public library and hospital, all beneficiaries of Parsi philanthropy.
I considered myself relatively well aware of my city’s Parsi inheritance, but was still amazed by the sheer scale of it. Yet, to me, all these impressive landmarks seemed like relics of a bygone era: an age of the Parsis’ absolute dominance of the city’s landscape. The community is suffering from stagnation. The younger generation of Parsis lack the pioneering, buccaneering spirit of their forefathers. They are being overwhelmed by their more ambitious; numerous countrymen who are building the new symbols that define vibrant, post-liberalisation Mumbai. Even the old Irani bakeries are vanishing, taken over by more enterprising owners.
A far graver threat to the community is demographics: the Parsis’ numbers are rapidly dwindling, due to a combination of low birth rates, emigration to Western countries and a strict adherence to endogamy. Experts have warned of a terminal decline, possibly extinction within a few decades. This is the single greatest challenge faced by the Parsis since their flight from Persia.
I reached the final stretch of my walk, stopping outside an agiary (Zoroastrian fire temple). A few old couples who had completed their rituals were sitting in the courtyard, enjoying the afternoon sun. The Kyani bakery was a few blocks from the agiary. I had not visited the place since I passed out of school, almost a decade ago and did not know what had happened of it in the intervening years. I took the final few steps towards the bakery with some trepidation. As I entered, I was relieved to see Mr. Kyani perched upon his counter. The hunch was more pronounced and the face was more weathered and wrinkled, but the glint in the eye was still in place. I smiled. “Kem cho uncle?” I ventured. He looked at me quizzically. “Su lese deekra (what will you have son)?” he finally asked, in his exaggerated Parsi accent. “Was there a glimmer of recognition?” I wondered. Of course not, after all these years, what were the odds? I was just being delusional. I placed my order and found myself a table.
I dipped my bun maska in the tea and had my first bite. The same great taste! My taste buds tingled in recognition. “Some things cannot, nay, must not change”, I decided. I took a second bite of my bun maska and smiled again, secure in my knowledge that despite the vagaries of time, this tiny corner of my city had remained forever Parsi.
* The term “Irani” is technically used for the second wave of Zoroastrian immigrants from Persia who largely arrived in the nineteenth century, in contradistinction to “Parsi” which is used for the first wave who arrived a few centuries earlier. Most bakeries are owned by the Iranis. There are some differences in the customs of these two communities, but both these groups are identified as “Parsi” in common parlance. With the passage of time the differences between these groups have reduced. Thus, when I use the term “Parsi” in this article, it refers to all Zoroastrians in India.
[The writer tweets @paragsayta]