Rediscovering the Parsis of Calcutta

It began with author Prochy N. Mehta”s grandchildren being barred from Kolkata”s sole fire temple and culminated in a meticulously researched book on the role of prominent Parsis and the community at large in various aspects of the city”s growth in diverse areas over the years.

“My grandchildren were going to the only fire temple in Kolkata (the Late D.B. Mehta”s Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran) with us. In 2015, the newly appointed Head Priest phoned and requested us not to bring my daughter Sanaya”s children to the fire temple. On asking why, I was told that the (temple”s) Trust Deed is sacrosanct,” Mehta, author of “Pioneering Parsis Of Calcutta” (Niyogi Books), told IANS in an email interview.

“This started my search into the past. The Trust Deed is dated 1915, but no one today has any recall of us Parsis of that time, of the community in Calcutta, and what they fought for and believed in,” Mehta, one of just 420 Parsis in Kolkata, said. The community has seen zero growth in the last three years as there have been no births.

“Sanaya is married to a non-Parsi. Her children were visiting the fire temple till 2015 We have an Originating Summons in the Calcutta High Court asking for interpretation of the Trust Deed. That is why I studied the Trust Deed and unearthed information. We can now interpret the Deed with this new information. The fire temple trustees are not opposed to it.

“Every family in Calcutta has children who have intermarried. In the last three years, all marriages are intermarriage. They do not want to take a decision in case people point fingers at them saying it”s being done as they are in a similar situation. If the court rules that would decide the issue (but the case is still pending),” Mehta explained.

Mehta elaborates on the issue in the Preface.

“I had no illusions. What I was taking on is what every religion faces at some state: the fear of change. Any change from the norm upsets someone of the other. Sometimes, change comes about because there are enough people to force the change through. Sometimes, the silent majority want the change but do not have the time, means or patience to make it come about. I felt I had all three. More importantly, I wouldn”t allow my daughter”s children to be treated any differently than the children of my son,” Mehta writes.

This initial curiosity turned into a voyage of discovery, which changed her perception of her community and awoke in her an intense pride in the Parsi stalwarts of yesteryear. Mehta”s meticulous research reaped rich dividends as she slowly dusted off the cobwebs of history that revealed the pioneering Parsis” arduous journey to Kolkata, their forward thinking, their broad-minded approach, their willingness to give and to improve the lives of all around them.

These extraordinary Parsi men and women played a prominent role in society by taking upon themselves the responsibility of helping one and all, regardless of class, caste, creed, or colour. Their ability in business and faith in the future was matchless. These early Parsis were not afraid of taking on the establishment and fought publicly to resolve disputes where the orthodox members were unwilling to give the reformists their way.

“I try to trace the history of the Parsis, as there is no recorded history of the Parsis in India, except for a poem the Kissa-e-Sanjan written in 1599 by a priest, Boman Kekobad,” Mehta told IANS.

“An interesting fact is that we had forgotten our religion till Changa Asha (the leader of the Parsis in Navsri) found a group of Parsis in about 1490 living amongst the Hindus as a tribe following Hindu customs and way of life. Till today, the World Zoroastrian Organisation is finding such co-religionists living in poverty in the villages of Gujarat and seeks to rehabilitate them.,” Mehta elaborated.

To turn to the pioneers, the book says Rustumji Banaji may have been the most prominent man in Bengal in the 1800s; owner of Kidderpore and Salkia docks, master ship builder, pioneer in banking, insurance, social service, social reform, and shipping. But alas, forgotten today.

Many of the pioneer Parsis of Bombay had their early roots in Kolkata: Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy; Nusserwanji Cowasji Petit; Dinshaw Petit; Framji Banaji (brother of Rustumji Banaji); the Wadia family of shipbuilders; Meherwanji Mehta, father of Phirozshaw Mehta; Khurshedji Cama; Dadabhoy Navroji; Jamshedji Madan (father of Indian cinema); and Dorab Mehta (Meherwanji”s brother), who had done extensive charitable work for the city of Navsari.

Then there were the nationally famous Parsis who belonged to Calcutta, but were forgotten by us. D.N. Wadia, the world famous geologist; Erach Bhiwandiwala, the artist; A.C. Ardeshir and his famous horse, Ethics; and Dr Irach Taraporewala, who translated the Gathas and wrote the Divine Songs of Zarathusthra.

And then there was the Tata family connected through marriage with the (DB) Mehta family. Jamshedji and Dhunjibhoy Mehta met at Dadabhai Navroji”s home in England, where they purchased machinery for their cotton mills, Empress Mills, Nagpur, and Empress of India Mills at Srirampur. Dhunjibhoy”s grandson, Phiroze Sethna, and Jamshedji’s son, Ratan, married the daughters of Ardesher Sett, Navaz, and Banoo. This must have sealed the bond of friendship among the families, the book says.

Published on Outlook India