What’s common to Freddie Mercury, the novelist Rohinton Mistry, the industrialist Ratan Tata, and the vaccine maker Adar Poonawala?
They are all famous, of course. And they are all Parsis from the west coast of India.
If you haven’t heard of the Parsis, don’t kick yourself yet. Parsis, also known as Zoroastrians, are one of the smallest religious denominations in the world. There are only about 1,50,000 of them in the world, with about half of them living in India.
The word Parsi comes from Persia – the ancient name of Iran – the land from which Parsis originate. The Zoroastrian faith flourished in Iran around 2000 BC, showing many parallels with the Hindu Vedic civilization that was flourishing in neighbouring India at around the same time. However, the faith began to decline towards the end of the first millennium CE, and after the Islamic conquest of Iran, most Parsis adopted the Islamic faith. A smaller number migrated to the western coast of India, in particular the state of Gujarat.
These events of Parsi migration to India are narrated in a medieval epic called the Qissa-e-Sanjam composed in 1599. The poem tells of an Indian king named Jadi Rana, who, when informed that a ship containing Parsi migrants had arrived on the coast, sent them a bowl of milk filled to the brim. The king’s message was clear – his kingdom was already brimming with people and there could be no space for new arrivals..
The Parsis, in turn, sent an equally ingenious reply. They sprinkled the bowl of milk with a pinch of sugar and sent it back to the king. When the king learned what the Parsis had done, he could not but marvel at the Parsi ingenuity. What the Parsis had told the king was that just like a pinch of sugar added to a bowl of milk does not cause it to spill over, but rather only adds sweetness to it, so would the Parsis live among the Indians – never being a burden but rather, enriching their culture.
True to this tale, Parsis have contributed far more than their minuscule numbers would indicate to whichever society they have migrated to. In India alone, some of the most recognizable names in business, the arts, the armed forces, and science are Parsis.
To begin with, there’s Ratan Tata, who owns the luxury carmaker Jaguar Landrover. He also owns a lot of factories that make everything from salt to steel. Then there’s Adar Poonawala, the owner of Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine maker in the world. There is also, of course, Freddie Mercury, who, not many people know, was an Indian Parsi whose family migrated to the UK. Born Farrokh Balsara, Freddie studied in the western Indian hill town of Pune till he was 7 or 8.
And if you read a lot of fiction, you’ve probably heard of Rohinton Mistry, a Canadian Parsi novelist from India, shortlisted for the Booker Prize on two occasions. Mistry was born in Bombay, India, a city that has perhaps retained the greatest imprint of Parsi culture than any other city in the world. The distinctive Parsi cuisine, such as Dhansak, numerous Parsi cafes serving Irani chai across the city are all testimony to the sweetness that Parsis have added to the jam-packed, bursting-at-its-seams megapolis that is Bombay.
One of the biggest challenges facing the community today is a sharply declining birth rate. There are fewer than 70,000 Parsis left in India, and about 1,50,000 the world over. The government of India is concerned that at this rate, the Parsis would disappear altogether in a few years, and so the state officially encourages Parsis to have more babies!
Other issues facing the community are preserving their ancient customs in the face of the deluge of modernity. For instance, Parsis have one of the most distinctive rituals to dispose of the dead. The dead body is placed in an open area, known as a tower of silence, and allowed to be eaten by vultures. The Parsis believe that even after death, the dead should be of some use to the living. However, many in the younger generation find these rituals repulsive, and opt for electric cremations instead. There is also the matter of India’s rapidly declining vulture population. India’s vulture population declined by over 90% from 1990 to 2000 due to the indiscriminate use of the drug diclofenac to treat cattle, which eventually found its way to vultures eating dead carcasses through bioamplification or biomagnification.