I’d planned a trip to Udvada purely because I’m a glutton. With shraavan drying up Mumbai’s fish supply, my starved Bengali heart pounced upon the name of this little hamlet in (of all places) Gujarat. I could expect stupendous Parsi non vegetarian food, the internet promised. And it was only around a three-hour train ride away. Super, I thought, and landed there on a balmy day.
I also knew of course that the town is special to Zoroastrians. It is home to Iranshah, the holiest of the sacred fire, burning there continuously since 1742. It is to Parsis, as a friend told me later, what Varanasi is to Hindus or Mecca to Muslims. But being a non-Zoroastrian, it meant little to me. Till I looked around.
Udvada is like nowhere I have ever been to. It’s tiny - it seems to end before it has properly begun – and it seems to have slipped through the nets of time.
Eons away from the 21st century, the coastal hamlet is dotted with huge, gorgeous bungalows - quite befitting their enterprising owners. High rafters, rich wood paneling, broad verandahs fitted with giant wooden swings, and the Faravahar finding pride of place over the gate or the wall of the house.
The fire temple itself is cocooned among narrow lanes and looks nothing short of majestic.
Though it comes alive during festivals, Udvada on that day wore a distinctly deserted look. As I walked about, I realised many of the bungalows were actually empty. Some were dilapidated, a few had trees growing inside. And yet, midst all the beauty and decline, I’d suddenly stumble upon towering modern apartment buildings, that jar with the surroundings but promise urban frills. I found several of these ghastlies under construction as well.
“A lot of Parsis are buying second homes - extremely expensive condominiums - in Udvada now,” shares 47-year-old Ratan Mistry (name changed on request), a marketing and communications professional based out of Canada.
It seems rather like a waste. Why not buy and restore these lovely bungalows? It’s a matter of choice, says Mistry. May be the owners don’t want to sell, or the buyers don’t want to invest so much time and money on an old property!
It is, I later realise, emblematic of the changing nature of Parsiana. Like the people who built Udvada and have fiercely protected its milieu over centuries, the town too is at a point of flux (though contrary to popular belief, it’s not exclusive to Parsis). The old and the new are battling each other here for survival.
Though one of the most progressive and liberal of Indian communities, Parsis still shut the door against marrying outside the community, especially where their women are concerned. The children of a woman marrying a non-Parsi are not accepted into the Zoroastrian fold, unlike the men.
[Currently there are two sub judice cases where Parsi women have petitioned for: a) reversal of the draconian assumption that a married woman automatically follows the husband’s religion, and b) for equal rights in the temple for themselves and their children born of non-Zoroastrian fathers.]
Parsi women in general are way more educated than the men, so it’s not easy to find a suitable mate. And it’s very painful for the women who choose to marry outside the community when their children are not allowed into the fire temple.Hormuz Wadia (name changed on request), 42, Pune-based architect
The rigid rules have progressively reduced the community’s population.
“Marrying outside the community should be allowed and there should be a choice to bring up your child as a Zoroastrian. The numbers (of the community) are not very promising and we must attempt to change that,” feels Nazneen Batliwalla, 33, who works as a talent development head in a Mumbai-based e-commerce company.
And this is where the controversial Jiyo Parsi campaign steps in. Put simply, it exhorts the community to procreate, so as to boost its population.
“The Jiyo Parsi programme is unique, supported financially by the government of India in acknowledgement of the Parsi community’s contribution towards the country’s growth. It is very efficiently and effectively run by a group of dynamic ladies who are focused on transforming the community’s dreams of today into the realities of tomorrow,” says 72-year-old Dinshaw Tamboly, currently hon. advisor to UN in their project to eradicate global poverty and refugee resettlement in Eastern & Central Europe.
But what do members of the community feel about this campaign that has been drawing flak for being regressive, sexist and elitist?
Instead of addressing the deeply patriarchal and hypocritical dictum that has actually led to the dwindling numbers, the Jiyo Parsi campaign is simply telling people to procreate more. It undermines the intelligence of the community. Religion has to evolve to remain relevant.Ratan Mistry (name changed on request), 47, Marketing and communications professional
According to him, it is only in India that these rigid rules still exist. Beyond the borders, the community is thriving with children from non-Zoroastrian fathers being inducted into the fold with open arms.
Others however, while wishing things were not so rigid, feel the campaign can do some good.
23-year-old journalist Sheriar Irani says: “Jiyo Parsi is a noble initiative to help increase the number of Zoroastrians. But the outreach is limited and so is the vision. But we are glad that the government understands there is a problem. Now it is for the community to address it.”
But doesn’t this amount to some real pressure on the young to have children? 32-year-old Roshni D Dadabhoy, who works as the creative lead in a digital agency in Mumbai, thinks so.
Children are a huge responsibility and just because a couple is married, having children is not necessarily the next step – that’s another ball-game altogether. The community pressurising young ones to procreate seems logically sound to increase our numbers. But practically it’s not, because of economic and social constraints.Roshni D Dadabhoy, 32, Creative lead in a digital agency
Batliwalla doesn’t agree. “You can't force people to mate... I think if the laws are a bit relaxed and people are allowed to intermarry and still continue being a Zoroastrian, then Jiyo Parsi wouldn’t be required. Earlier some Parsis had about 13 kids... and that was without pressure,” she points out.
60-year-old Zarin Havewala, who traces her ancestry to Naryosang Dhaval, the leader of the group of pilgrims who first set foot in India, feels it is no pressure at all. “Each couple would procreate according to their own wishes and convenience. If they are influenced by ‘Jiyo Parsi’ campaign, then it is good for the community,” she insists.
For young Sheriar, the hoopla over Jiyo Parsi is just that.
Young people are not that concerned about the issue really. It is a Parsi way of life - khavanu, peevanu, ney majja karvanu (eat, drink and have fun). We understand the grave situation with numbers but it does not hamper us in selecting our life partner. He/ she can be a Parsi or from whichever religion. There is no compromise on compatibility.Sheriar Irani, 23, Journalist
There is no easy way out of the debate of course. But there’s also no denying that the Parsi community today is in the throes of an upheaval. It remains to be seen which side the balance tips. Meanwhile, I am planning to celebrate the Parsi New Year in Udvada.
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 17 August 2017. It is now being republished to mark the Parsi New Year.)