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Chennai’s Parsi community looks back on its ties with the metropolis

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The city’s Royapuram fire temple stands on the brink of turning 110

In Royapuram, heavy with humidity and the sharp tang of sea salt, stands a white building that has sheltered an undying flame for over a century now. Below its balustrade-lined terrace are engraved the atash (holy fire) and the farohar (winged symbol of the faith). Its four cusped arches are bordered by red steps that lead to a verandah from where doors open into the deep recesses of the nearly-110-year-old Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-meher — the only Zoroastrian place of worship for the community in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.

The Parsis, followers of Zarathustra and descendants of the Magi, fled the Muslim conquests of 8th Century Persia for Sanjan, western India, bringing with them their worship of Ahura Mazda, sense of entrepreneurship, industriousness and fair-play. A second wave of Zoroastrian migrants, known as Iranis, came in the 19th Century. Although they number only around 85,000 in 21st Century India, no other community, perhaps, has been more influential. With their ascent into prominence during the Raj, Parsis were at the sharp end of the stick when it came to industrialising the country, promoting education, upholding the law, spearheading research, conducting orchestras or leading the defence forces. Some of the names are legendary — Jamsetji Tata, Homi J Bhaba, Zubin Mehta, Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

Strength in numbers

It is on these eminent Parsis, and others from Chennai, and their religion that has influenced the Judeo-Christian faiths, that Tehnaz Bahadurji spoke of at a recent talk at the Madras Literary Society. Among the many slides in the presentation was one that holds a mirror to how the community is shrinking; it showed a couple gazing at each other with the words ‘Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight’ written underneath.

Chennai’s Parsi community looks back on its ties with the metropolis

“We are 250 people in Chennai. With pets, it’s about 300,” says Darius Bahadurji, tongue-in-cheek. Darius, president of the Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman, and chairman, Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-meher, moved to Chennai 35 years ago. “The numbers in Chennai have been constant over the last couple of years, while in Kolkata what was 1,200 is only 450 now. We are defined by being Parsi more than anything else. I know for sure we are much loved. It’s an advantage to be so accepted,” he says, when I meet him with a few other Parsis at his office.

“The first Parsis came to Madras from Coorg where they were traders and dubashes,” says Zarin Mistry, historian and honorary secretary, Madras Parsi Association (MPA), who was born and raised here. “In 1809, a delegation met the Governor of Fort St George. Hirjibhai Kharas was one among them and the first Parsi in Madras.”

Kharas and five other Parsis, along with two priests, bought a sliver of land in Royapuram and were later leased a plot for a burial ground. For nearly 50 years, there seems to be no record of the community here. In 1876, they formed the Parsi Panchayat that was renamed Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman (MPZA) in 1900. However, there was no place of worship until the Dar-e-meher was raised in 1910 in memory of Jal, the young son of philanthropist Phiroj Clubwala.

In the years since, the Parsis have been a significant weave in the fabric of Chennai. “We don’t feel like outsiders but we are still looked upon, at least in the South, as such. People don’t know much about us and we have to identify ourselves with a truck from Tatas or a soap from Godrej,” laughs Jasmine Kabrajee, language expert and president, MPA.

“That’s because we have never publicised ourselves or our contributions,” says Firdause Jila, vice-president, MPZA. “But everyone knows us to be a happy-go-lucky lot.”

Chennai’s Parsi community looks back on its ties with the metropolis

This zest for fun underlined Parsi life in Madras for well over a century. While the Clubwalas strengthened the community through their philanthropy, three generations of the Daji family served as priests even refusing to leave the fire unattended when Madras was bombed during the First World War and evacuated in the Second. Mary Clubwala Jadhav, first lady Sheriff of Madras, founder of the Guild of Service and Chennai’s most famous Parsi, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.

Jehanbux Tarapore set up a formidable construction company that built the Tungabhadra and Hirakud dams and a host of buildings in Chennai. Three generations of students at Madras Medical College were taught Anatomy by Dr Meherji Cooper, while every memorable film made in the 1940s had cinematographer Ardeshir Irani’s stamp on it. Minoo Belgamvala founded the Madras Motor Sports Club that put Sholavaram on the racing map of India. Ninety-three-year-old Katy Bharucha, a telephone operator for the Indian Air Force in the Second World War, is the oldest member.

“Seventy per cent of the community is 70 and above. Late marriages and single children have led to it shrinking,” says Jasmine. “But we are young at heart,” says Darius, adding that senior citizens still go motoring during weekends. “Some Parsis have moved to Chennai to work in the IT and automobile industries. They have married, stayed on and had children. That has moved the needle for us.”

“It’s only recently that we see children running around at our monthly community lunches,” says Tehnaz, of the times when they meet for a wholesome Parsi meal served on banana leaves. The navjote (thread) ceremony, and the festivals of Navroze and Jamshedi Navroze are also when the community gathers at the Clubwala Memorial Hall. “We also extend the facilities to other communities, at times, free of cost,” says Pervez Mulla, honorary secretary, MPZA, who was raised in Chennai.

Legal debate

While there is much legal debate about the acceptance of children of Parsi women who marry outside the community into the fold, socially there is complete integration. “Zoroastrianism sees women as equal but when they marry out, their children are not considered Parsi. It has led to heartbreak, sometimes. Some women go ahead and have the navjotes of their children in the hope that the religious stringency may ease in the future,” says Tehnaz.

Shirin Patel (name changed on request), a 27-year-old copywriter, says, “If the community is worried about shrinking, they should accept the children of women marrying outside. However I have never felt pressure and Chennai is the place I call home even if I’m still explaining who a Parsi is. I wish people could meet the fun-loving, older lot to know who we really are.”

Published on The Hindu