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‘A Parsi could belong to any religion or none’: Coomi Kapoor

Journalist and writer Coomi Kapoor on feminist Parsi women and lines of separation in the community

Parsis pride themselves for having no caste system, unlike most of India, says Coomi Kapoor. (Source: Tashi)

Behedins (your father’s side) are distinct from Athornans (your mother’s side). What lines divide these two sections of the community, known for its absence of caste divisions?

I assure you there is absolutely no divide in the community on the Behedin-Athornan question. Parsis pride themselves for having no caste system, unlike most of India. In the 18th-19th centuries, they weren’t as restricted by social taboos as other Indian religions and could mix more freely with European traders and British colonial rulers. They, thus, had a head start in trade and commerce with the Europeans. The only distinction between Athornan and Behedin is whether you can be ordained a priest, there’s no other discrimination whatsoever. Centuries ago, the priestly class may not have married their daughters to Behedins, but as early as 1777, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet sided with the laity (the Behedins) on this question. Today, even the most conservative Athornan family would be thrilled if their daughter married a Behedin and not, horror of horrors, a non-Parsi.

The only caste system among the Parsis is of the corpse bearers, Nassessalars, who, even to this day, are expected to remain confined to their homes in the dakhma (Tower of silence) compound and not mix with other Parsis. That this archaic inhuman system continues in the 21st century is disgraceful particularly in a generally progressive community.

Zoroastrian women can’t become priests, are excommunicated if they marry outside, their children can’t enter the fire temple. In 2017, Goolrukh Gupta moved the Supreme Court challenging this. Have things changed since? For you, was writing this book, as a ‘parjat’ (outcast), an act of belonging?
Indian Zoroastrian women cannot become priests, Iranian Zoroastrians allow it. This excommunication word is not in our religion. What some conservatives have done is decree that Zoroastrian women cannot enter the fire temple or perform Zoroastrian funerary rites if they marry out of the religion. But, even on this, there’s a difference of opinion. Most have come to accept that Zoroastrian women who marry under the Special Marriage Act should be allowed to enter any place of worship. Goolrookh Gupta was one such case. She wanted a guarantee that she be permitted to be present for the last rites of her parents at the Valsad dakhma. The Supreme Court conceded her specific demand but, I think, has referred the larger religious question to a special bench.

Many make the mistake of assuming that the term Parsi and Zoroastrian are synonymous. Zoroastrianism is the religion. Parsis refers to the racial stock of descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia and migrated to India because of religious persecution centuries ago. Actually, a Parsi could belong to any religion or none. Yes, reform is coming slowly and some priests are willing to carry out navjote (induction ceremony) for the children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis.

No, no, nothing like that as the reason for writing the book. A publisher asked me if I would write a book on the Parsis and coincidentally I had also thought of a similar project after a visit to the Parsi pilgrimage sites. In any case, I consider in my heart that I am a Zoroastrian because I believe in the teachings of the prophet, which is simply: truth and good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Ceremonies are unimportant. And no one has ever barred my entry from any Zoroastrian religious place.

Would you call Bhikhaiji Cama the first Parsi feminist? While she chose Madame over Mrs as a title, she (née Patel) kept the Cama surname, isn’t that embracing patriarchy? As a supporter of VD Savarkar, would she be seen as a Hindutva sympathiser today? Why do you draw a parallel between her and the Communist activist Kobad Ghandy in the book?

Madame Cama is one of India’s most inspiring feminists, but she is not the first Parsi feminist. Parsi women had a tradition of empowerment and emancipation as you can see from my chapter on trailblazing women. Motlibai Wadia, a widow, was running a huge business trading and shipping empire in the late 19th century. Jerbai Wadia, (Bombay Dyeing chairman and Jinnah’s grandson) Nusli Wadia’s great-grandmother, pioneered the concept of subsidised housing colonies for poor Parsis and cut her own sons out of the administration of the charities.
About Bhikhaiji’s surname, you have to consider the period in which she lived. In those days, you automatically took your husband’s surname and Bhikhaiji never formally divorced. Bhikhaiji was certainly an ardent supporter of Savarkar and his financier. She even took the blame for him in the Nasik Conspiracy Case (1909). Kobad Ghandy agreed with me that there were similarities between him and Bhikhaiji even if they supported completely opposite ideologies. He felt, ‘Patriotism was the guiding force for both of us’. While Madame Cama’s family disowned her, Kobad’s parents were proud of him and gave up their corporate lifestyle for a simple life.

Did the once-refugee Parsis, who dissolved like ‘sugar in milk’, continue to enjoy privileges after Independence? Unlike the Islamic community, they have never been considered a threat by the majority community.

What special privileges do we enjoy? At the time of Independence, the Congress offered them a special reservation in Parliament as was granted to the Anglo Indians because of the small size of their population. The Parsis declined saying they would prefer to stand on their own merit. Maybe, we are not seen as a threat to other religions since we ourselves don’t want anyone to convert to ours. I understand the PM (Narendra Modi) does have a soft corner for Parsis. As the Gujarat chief minister, he pushed for declaring Udvada a heritage site.

They who sew the very fabric of modern India, some counted among India’s richest (Tatas, Godrejs, Shapoorji Pallonji clan, vaccine maker the Poonawallas, among others), what will remain of India minus the Parsis in the future? 
Can schemes like Jiyo Parsi check the dwindling population?
I don’t think Jiyo Parsi, despite its good intentions, can make much of a difference. The Parsi population (57,000, 2011 Census) would automatically increase if they admitted the children of Parsi women with non-Parsi spouses. Hopefully, Parsi genes will continue to be part of the Indian gene pool in the years to come even if there are no Parsis left.

You spotlight two starkly different Parsi global music icons, rock singer Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara) and composer Zubin Mehta. Mehta, you write, was furious when the Indian government didn’t allow him to bring the Israel Philharmonic to Bombay in 1978, but he eventually established a cultural dialogue between the two countries. In a minuscule way, could Mehta, among others, have unwittingly contributed to situations like the Pegasus scandal today?

No, I don’t think so for a moment. Snooping machines and methods have been invented by companies all over the world. Not just Pegasus, which has got caught out recently.

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