Parsis: Zoroastrians in India
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November 15, 2004
Before Mohammad, before Jesus, even before Abraham,
there was Zarathustra and his followers -- the first monotheists.
After founding the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C., the
Zoroastrians fell to the Greeks at Takht-e-Jamshid (Persepolis),
only to rise again under the Sassanian dynasty and to fall, again,
to the Arab invaders of the seventh century A.D. Many of those
who refused to convert to Islam found their way to Gujarat, in
India, where the Hindu rulers allowed them to establish fire temples
and practice their religion in peace.
Today the descendents of these exiles, the Parsis, may be fading
into history. Numbering 100,000 worldwide, mostly in densely populated
India, Parsis are a people whose deaths outpace their births. Because
of their fusion of race and religion -- evidenced by a tendency
to intermarry and a reluctance to convert anyone to Zorastrianism
-- they are facing a critical juncture in their three-thousand-year
evolution: change or die.
Fueled by a sense of urgency as well as admiration for her community,
the screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala spent nearly
25 years documenting the faces, feasts, and faith of her culture.
As she writes in the introduction to her new book, Parsis:
The Zoroastrians of India -- A Photographic Journey, "This book
has its genesis in that childhood desire to hold on tight to what
is precious, not allow it to change or disappear. For me photography
has always been a form of magic. Photographs freeze time and survive
The journey itself was not straightforward for Taraporevala.
The screenwriter of the acclaimed films Salaam Bombay and Mississippi
Masala, directed by her college friend Mira Nair, Taraporevala
was unable to find an international publisher for her personal
project. After many disappointing rejections, she self-published
5,000 copies of the book in November 2000. With the help of a Bombay
businessman -- who distributed copies from his water-delivery trucks
-- and some cousins in North America -- who filled orders from
their basements -- the first edition sold out by the following
March. Still, non-Indian publishers considered it too "niche."
By this time, however, Taraporevala had enlisted the help of
Tamina Davar, a New York-based publicist who urged her not to self-publish
again. In what Taraporevala calls a "last-ditch attempt," she
went to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2003.
"At the time, it felt completely disheartening," Taraporevala
wrote in an e-mail interview. "There were thousands of books
on autos, gardens, lifestyles of the rich and famous -- and then
there was my book, which was the first of its kind, about a unique
community that might get extinct, that seemed unable to find a
Her patience was rewarded: Peter Mayer, the publisher of Overlook
Press, offered to buy the book at the fair. Last month, Overlook
released the new edition.
"The satisfaction I got when the book was finally published
can't compare to anything else I've done. The book has been a much
longer journey -- over 25 years. It's very personal, close to my
heart. I made it for my children."
The book jacket and press release emphasize the creative contributions
of such famous Parsis as the conductor Zubin Mehta, the author
Rohinton Mistry, and the late rock star Freddy Mercury. But what
is most compelling about Parsis are its portraits of ordinary people
and how it captures moments of reflection and celebration, of work
Divided into chapters with thematic titles such as "Young
Priests," "The City," and "The Village," Zoroastrians
mixes lush color photography with crisp black-and-white images,
augmenting each chapter with short histories, profiles, interviews,
and anecdotes from the author's childhood.
One particularly charming slice-of-life concerns both a person
and a place. Rashid Irani runs the Brabourne, one of the last "Irani" restaurants
in Bombay. Founded by Zoroastrian Iranians who emigrated around
the turn of the twentieth century, these restaurants became known
as gathering places for workers, students, and old folk alike.
When Rashid's father arrived came from Yazd in the 1920s, the
Brabourne and many others like it were part homey restaurant, part
grocery store, and part café where for the price of tea
and bread with butter one could spend hours reading the newspaper
or chatting with friends. Now many Irani restaurants have been
sold, and others have "gone completely up-market," Rashid
says. The only way the Brabourne has been able to survive was by
adding a beer bar.
When he is not manning the till at the Brabourne, Rashid reads
poetry, attends film festivals, and reviews films for the Times
of India. This type of double life, Taraporevala suggests, embodies
the entire Parsi dilemma: how to be modern while still holding
"I used to think when I was younger, that as my grandparents'
generation died out, their way of life, their traditions and rituals
would disappear with them," Taraporevala wrote in her e-mail. "Well,
now I'm older, and I can see that hasn't happened. I think this
is because in India, we have always had this ability to reconcile
Aside from its sociological value, the second edition of Parsis is a lovely book, each image planted on its own large white page,
each caption telling its own story. One of the most beautiful photographs
is one of the most recent.
This May on the day consecrated to Avan, the female
divinity who presides over water, Taraporevala joined other Parsis
along Marine Drive in Bombay. She brought her camera up close to
a young woman holding her small son. A sunset glow highlights the
woman's profile as she nuzzles her son's nose. It is a gesture
at once intimate and universal. >>>
Sharene Azimi's father was from Tehran and her mother from
Currently she is in the part-time program at Columbia's Graduate
Journalism. She has written a novel titled Crows in the Nightingale's
a mother-daughter story set against the backdrop of the revolution.
based on the true story of a former leftist who went back to Iran,
Berkeley, when everyone else was leaving.