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Feature: Parsis face success, survival

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   June 11, 2002 at 4:23 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 11 (UPI) -- Last year, a Miami psychotherapist visited a Sydney database administrator's Web site for help in finding the girl of his dreams, who turned out to be a flight attendant based in the Persian Gulf.

Welcome to the dizzyingly cosmopolitan realm of Parsi matchmaking, where the Internet is helping one of the most culturally sophisticated ethnic groups keep alive one of the most ancient but endangered major religions.

In a world in which minorities are often violently persecuted, the collective survival of the Parsis and their Zoroastrian religion is threatened by a more paradoxical peril: lots of non-Parsis want to marry them.

The Parsis are India's remarkably well-educated and affluent followers of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or "Zarathustra"). The Parsis are centered in Bombay, India, but are increasingly spread thinly throughout the world. Mahatma Gandhi said of them, "In numbers, Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare." During British rule, when the Parsis became the commercial leaders of India, Parsi capitalists, such as the Tata dynasty, built much of India's heavy industry.

To explain their economic success in India and America, Rumi Engineer, the president of the Zoroastrian Association of Rocky Mountain, pointed to the Parsi tradition of intensive education. Houtoxi Contractor, head of the Zoroastrian Association of Pennsylvania, suggested to United Press International, "Parsis can't become complacent because they don't have a country of their own." She noted that her medical student daughter will soon represent the fifth straight generation of doctors.

(Just as many medieval Englishmen converted their occupations, such as smith and cooper, into surnames, some Parsis did the same during the British Raj. They often added the suffix "wala," which means "dealer or manufacturer." The most memorable Parsi name might be Mr. Sodabottleopenerwala.)

The Parsis originated more than 1,000 years ago when Persian Zoroastrians fled Arab-conquered Iran. They were allowed by the Hindu king of Gujarat to settle on the west coast of India. Over the millennium, Parsis began speaking their own dialect of Gujarati, in somewhat the same manner as European Jews turned German into Yiddish.

Strikingly, in over 1,000 years, the Hindus never violently harassed Parsis, though Hindu-Muslim civil strife is common in India. The Parsis remain grateful to the Hindus for refuge, just as many Jews greatly appreciate the security provided by America.

The number of Parsis has been dropping. In India, they are down from 115,000 in 1941 to perhaps 65,000 (out of 1 billion Indians) today. By 2021, they are expected to fall to a mere 21,000.

As with U.S. Jews, who are predicted by the American Jewish Committee to shrink by one-third over the next 80 years, intermarriage plays a role in the Parsis' worldwide numeric decline. (Other factors include small families and marriages postponed during the pursuit of advanced degrees). Something like 20 percent of Parsis marry outside the community, compared to as many as 52 percent of American Jews.

There are roughly 10,000 to 15,000 Parsis in North America, along with a somewhat smaller number of Zoroastrians from Iran. Like the long-separated European and Middle Eastern Jews who are slowly coming back in contact in Israel, in the diaspora the Indian Parsis and their Iranian brethren are perhaps beginning to merge again into one people, the Zarathushtis.

The Parsis face many of the same demographic problems as the Jews.

"Only we, unfortunately do not have the luxury of numbers that the Jews have," points out Roshan Rivetna, editor of the Journal of the Federation of Zoroastrian Organizations of North America (FEZANA.org). Because there are only about 1 percent as many Parsis as Jews on Earth, the survival pressure on them is more intense. Further, Parsis don't have their own country like Israel, where millions of Jews are geographically isolated from gentiles who might want to marry them.

The Parsi example raises a seldom-asked but important question: Can diversity survive tolerance? The fate of the Parsis will say much about whether Westernized religious-ethnic groups that encourage education and gender equality can maintain their ancient coherence as a people in a globalizing world.

Followers of Zoroastrianism, which arguably rivals Judaism as the oldest form of ethical monotheism, are turning to world-spanning modern technology in order to marry within their faith.

Parsis also compete with Jews for the title of best-educated diaspora group in the world. Shahrokh "Sam" Mehta, a prominent figure in the American Parsi community and a cousin of conductor Zubin Mehta, estimates that 80 percent of Indian Parsis earn college degrees, and the figure may be even higher in America.

Unlike most immigrants, Parsis do not cluster in one particular location or occupation, but instead spread out to the wealthiest cities of the English-speaking world (virtually all Parsis speak English). They go wherever there are lucrative opportunities for doctors, engineers, accountants, entrepreneurs, and computer scientists. This dispersal can make finding a Parsi mate difficult.

Like many Parsi immigrants, Bombay-born psychotherapist Framroze Sarkari, 38, fairly quickly found an American non-Parsi spouse upon arriving on this continent.

For example, the best-known Parsi in the United States is California-resident Zubin Mehta, who has been the musical director of the Philharmonic orchestras of Los Angeles, New York, and (currently) Israel. He is married to former Hollywood star Barbara Kovack. Previously, Mehta had been wed to another non-Parsi, classical singer Carmen Lasky. After their divorce, she married a second Parsi, Zarin Mehta. He is the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, and is Zubin's brother.

(The other world famous Parsi musical prodigy was the late Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the British rock band Queen. He was born "Farrokh Balsara" in a Parsi community in Zanzibar, off the coast of Africa.)

Back home in South Asia, members of the Hindu and Muslim ruling families sometimes fall in love with Parsis. The name of the most famous political dynasty in India, Gandhi, is derived not from Mahatma Gandhi, but from a Parsi named Feroze Gandhi, who married the daughter of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Feroze Gandhi's wife, Indira, became Prime Minister and their son, Rajiv, followed her to the top.

Similarly, Nehru's great enemy, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Muslim Pakistan, married a Parsi. When Jinnah's only child, his half-Parsi daughter, in turn married another Parsi, it broke his heart.

After Miami psychotherapist Sarkari's amicable divorce from his American first wife, he increasingly longed for a Zoroastrian bride. He believes that Zoroastrians -- whose lives are guided by the principle of "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds" -- are particularly rational, fun-loving, and gentle. "One reason I'd hang out with Zoroastrians in Bombay is because the other cultures in India, they would always be talking about killing somebody," he recounted, only somewhat jokingly.

But Sarkari lives in the Miami area, where -- to the best of his knowledge -- there are only 92 Zoroastrians.

Worse, Sarkari was not sure if a Zoroastrian family would have him. He has always been much more enthusiastic about the Parsi people than many of them have been about him, due to his being only half-Parsi by birth. His mother is an Indian Catholic.

Although arranged marriages are common in South Asia, Parsis almost always make love matches. Still, when he was in his early 20s in Bombay, Sarkari's early romances with Parsi girls always ended badly. "'You're not a full Zoroastrian,' they would tell me. I would be criticized all the time. I especially wouldn't be offered marriages."

In mixed marriages, Zoroastrian husbands (such as Sarkari's father) can officially pass their religion on to their children, but Zoroastrian wives cannot. (This is the mirror image of the Orthodox Jewish rule that Jewishness is passed down through the mother, not the father.) In practice, though, many Zoroastrians don't accept either kind of offspring as genuine members of the community.

While American Zoroastrians tend to be more accepting of the children of mixed marriages than their relatives in Bombay, Zoroastrian religious educator R. Karanjia spoke for much of the community when he said, "Zoroastrianism is an ethnic religion. We believe that religion is decided by birth."

The Parsis' traditional hereditary exclusiveness served them well in India. Because they neither proselytized for their faith, nor even accepted converts, the Parsis were no threat to their vastly more numerous hosts. The Hindus found the typical Parsi refusal to intermarry not standoffish, but proper. After all, the caste system split Hindus into countless little communities that wouldn't intermarry with each other.

These barriers to intermarriage on both sides made multiculturalism in India possible over the long term. Without them, over the past thousand years, the Parsis would likely have disappeared into the vast Hindu population. Today, though, Parsis remain not just culturally but physically somewhat distinct from most Indians, often fairer-skinned and taller, like their Iranian ancestors.

As with Jews, Zoroastrian religious opinions range from orthodox to reform. There is much debate within the community today over whether to discourage intermarriage by excommunicating the offspring, or welcome them into the community. Rivetna, the Parsi-American editor, suggested a compromise. Intermarriage should be "discouraged very strongly. But if it happens, the spouse and children should be made very welcome in the fold."

This parallels a dispute within the American Jewish community. Elliott Abrams, a Jewish activist now at the National Security Council, made the case against mixed marriages in 1997: "Intermarriage is both inevitable in our open society, and immensely threatening to Jewish continuity here. ... Despite the hopes of many in the Jewish community, the effect of mixed marriages on children is evident. Only 28 percent are raised as Jews, and an even smaller percentage marry Jews. ... A three-generational study of Jews in Philadelphia found that no grandchildren of mixed marriages continued to identify as Jews."

Sarkari had become resigned to marrying outside Zoroastrianism. Then his Parsi sister-in-law started sending him the URL for Zoroastrianism.com, which hosts a Zoroastrian Matrimonial Page run by Porus Havewala.

Sarkari thought, "Oh come on, no Parsi is gonna marry me." He e-mailed back to her bemusedly, "Forget about arranged marriages, now you are talking about Internet arranged marriages?'"

Havewala, a computer administrator in Australia, has helped introduced over 50 Zoroastrians couples who have gone on to marriage. He founded his Web site because, "Intermarriage was growing in our community in the 1980s and onwards. The frequent reason given was, 'I couldn't find a suitable Zoroastrian match.' Our parents and grandparents consider intermarriage to be a sin and a destroyer of the community, so the rising level of intermarriage pained me deeply."

On Feb. 11, 2001, Sarkari visited Havewala's Web site for the first time. Within 15 minutes, he was e-mailing back and forth with Parivaz Roshni, a stewardess with Gulf Air. "She didn't care that I was only half Parsi, she was only interested in finding out about the real me. Feb. 11 -- that's the most wonderful memory I've ever had."

Six weeks later, Sarkari flew to Bahrain and proposed. He then made a one-day trip to Bombay to meet his new fiancée's parents, who are Zoroastrians who immigrated to India from Iran when they were children. "A wonderful family, very warm, very understanding, the real Zoroastrians you always longed for," remembers Sarkari.

They will marry in a civil ceremony in Miami in July. The big Zoroastrian wedding, however, will be in Bombay in January.

The psychotherapist summed up his complex feelings, "For me it's so sacred. As a Zoroastrian human being, it means a lot to me to be marrying a Zoroastrian. I always wanted to belong. It's very nurturing to be among Zoroastrians. After all these years, finally it's like a miracle for me. I finally end up being among the Parsis. The acceptance now completes the cycle and makes me feel like I don't have to worry ever."

"I have talked to my fiancé Parivaz about this and she laughs and laughs."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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