A story with a happy blending

Zoroastrians in Britain - The Good Parsi
August 15, 1997

Britain's first Indian MP was elected more than 100 years ago. He was Dada-bhai Naoroji, known as the Grand Old Man of India for his role in India's nationalist movement. He belonged to the Parsi community, based in Bombay.

Modern Indian history is full of prominent Parsis. Jamsetjee Tata built India's first iron and steel works, and founded the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore and the great industrial house of Tata. His descendant, J. R. D. Tata, founded and piloted Air India, the national airline. The Wadia family built part of Nelson's fleet, two centuries ago, and is still at the helm of India's economic boom. Godrej, one the world's largest privately owned companies, is a national leader in the manufacture of soaps, oils and domestic equipment. Shapoorjee Pallonji Co. is one of India's greatest builders, who has also constructed much of the modern Middle East. India's first nuclear scientist, Homi Bhabha, was a Parsi. So is India's only international celebrity in the world of western classical music, Zubin Mehta. The Parsis, of all the communities in India, have always been the most open to western and other influences, including that of science.

These two books on the Parsis are very different but complement each other well. John Hinnells, a historian writing about Parsis in Britain, is more pro-Parsi than T. M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist who writes about Parsis in India as well as in the West, and tackles some very delicate problems head-on. Even a broad-minded Parsi is likely to be offended by some passages that appear in her book.

For the Parsis of today are a once-prosperous community existing in a false aura of greatness deriving from their past glories - and Luhrmann is blunt about this. What happened was that the generation of Parsis of the early part of this century were so involved, through their business empires, in blending with British customs, that they ignored Parsi customs and traditions and became exceptionally anglicised in both their appearance and values.

Parsi affection for the British crown and the British upper-class is highly evident in both these books. Because most Parsis were very well-educated, spoke English fluently and conducted business with the British, most felt that they were accepted as equals by the colonialists. When the British empire crumbled, they felt they were left in a void.

Whatever the truth of that time, today the situation is much more confused. Luhrmann quotes a young British-born Parsi girl, studying at Oxford University. Travelling on a train from Oxford to London, she is reported to say that she does not understand whether she should identify herself as an Indian or instead dress in western attire like many Parsi women and not be linked to any community. The girl says that she, and other Parsis she knows, feel ashamed of being called Parsi. But according to the wife of Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, India's best military leader since 1947 and a Parsi, who is also quoted by Luhrmann, this identity crisis is now leading to a revival of Parsi identity, at least in India and among the younger generation.

My own view is that recent generations of Parsis have been spoilt by their mothers and by the wealth that their forefathers worked so hard to generate. Yet you do get preferential treatment in India, even today, when you mention that you are a Parsi. People trust you more and expect you to be honest and committed to whatever you do. These two books provide a fascinating, if sometimes painful, account of why this remains so.

Cyrus Todiwala is a leading member of London's Parsi community, who founded the restaurant, Cafe Spice Namaste.

Zoroastrians in Britain

Author - John R. Hinnells
ISBN - 0 19 826193 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £42.00
Pages - 336

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