A Window Into A Vanishing Culture

Sustaining Parsiana’s high-quality journalism is quite a task given the declining numbers of people interested in the Parsi way of life.

“The Parsi community is such a marvel that it does not need the protection of anyone. It finds its way and protection by its wisdom, intelligence and ability,” proclaimed Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. Yet, as per the 2001 census, their numbers had halved to about 69,000 from 1.41 lakh in 1941. By 2011, the numbers looked even grimmer, with a drop of 10 per cent in the overall population, as estimated by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), the apex governing body of the community.

2While organisations such as BPP play an important role in organising communities, community media plays an equally vital role in engaging citizens with decision makers. Parsiana, a bi-monthly magazine published in English, is in its 51st year of publication. Pestonji Warden launched it in November, 1964. The 180-year-old English-Gujarati weekly Jam-e-Jamshed and The Bombay Samachar, Asia’s oldest newspaper, are the two other popular publications within the Parsi group. Edited by Jehangir R. Patel, Parsiana delves into current affairs, culture, personalities and covers happenings across the Zoroastrian society worldwide.

Geeta Doctor, a freelance writer, who has spent some time in Iran and Pakistan, met Patel in the 1970s. She recalls that Patel wanted to spearhead a publication that would be “of interest to any intelligent reader, not necessarily a community specific one.”

Pooja Nopany Bharucha, a 34-year-old businesswoman, married a Parsi more than a decade ago. “Parsiana is a very informative magazine. It’s interesting to read about how Parsis have succeeded worldwide and how they contribute towards their community.” Since she’s not a Parsi herself, Poona feels the need to stay abreast with developments within the community. Her children, Xenobia and Johann, had their Navjote a few months ago. “They attend the Sunday school to learn about the religion and understand it better,” she says. Having a resource like Parsiana is certainly helpful, she adds.

2-1“The magazine’s voice strives to support and safeguard citizens’ fundamental rights. Parsiana’s is a liberal point of view,” Patel says. Natasha Irani, a regular reader from Pune, concurs with this view. “My family, quite a conservative one, has been subscribing to Parsiana since before I was born! The publication takes a liberal stand on things, yet it seems tolerant of opposing perspectives,” she says over a call. The 29-year-old teacher doesn’t always agree with every opinion expressed in the magazine, but she believes the magazine provides a healthy platform to encourage debate in an otherwise fairly closed and rigid community.

The magazine’s liberal stance was showcased in 1986-87 when it went on to publish a column on interfaith marriages. In Parsi tradition, if a man marries outside the community, children attain natural membership of it. However, the same does not hold true for women. The report on interfaith marriages, therefore, caused alarm, with some demanding a boycott of the magazine. “We’ve taken strong stands on regressive beliefs, we’ve tried to break taboos, and we’ve received negative feedback for doing so. It’s been tough, but someone has to do it,” says Patel.

A team of five part-time writers contributes to the magazine. Usually social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook are updated with breaking news stories. Every bi-monthly issue is about 40 pages, and it’s released on the 7th and 21st of every month. There are two New Year issues, one published in March and another in August, which are 240 page editions. “Revenue is made on the New Year issues. That’s how we sustain through the the year. Given the shrinking market, it’s a challenge to keep up with the needs of the publication,” Patel confesses. Roughly 2,800 copies are printed in a go; 20-22 per cent of the subscriber base is from North America, and the remainder comes from India.

2-2Advertising is the mainstay of the revenue stream, followed by subscription fees and sponsorships. Sustaining Parsiana’s high quality journalism is quite a task given the declining population of those truly interested in the Parsi community. Even writers are hard to come by. “Mostly people into journalism remain in the mainstream. There are few takers for community-based writing,” rues Patel. The need for focussing specifically on community, especially one that’s heading towards probable extinction, is urgent in the contemporary scenario. “General media covers news, but not those matters that affect our community, as these are obviously not relevant to the people at large,” Patel adds.

Percy Bharucha, a 45-year-old businessman from Mumbai, used to read Parsiana at his workplace. “These kind of publications hold a lot of value for the youth, as it lets you know about community happenings on a regular basis. It’s a good way to stay connected,” Bharucha says. At a broader level, Parsiana, maintains an archive of Parsi anthropology; it’s an open and credible source of curated content, which can enable information dissemination pertaining to key policies, laws and societal arrangements.

The semi-monthly also tracks births and deaths within the community. Considering the criticality of upping its population, Parsiana assumes the role of community watchdog.

Although the numbers don’t match up with desired growth rates — the death rate among Parsis is approximately 800 versus the birth rate of about 185 — getting the new generation enthused to learn about their culture and religion is crucial.

As an afterthought, Bharucha says he wishes to obtain a subscription of Parsiana to renew his connect with the community.

There is a glimmer of hope, after all, of rescuing an industrious community and its language and heritage from the brink of disappearance.

Published on The Hindu