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First cousins
Parsis: Zoroastrians in India
>>> See photo essay

Sharene Azimi
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 death."

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 home."

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 and play.

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 onto tradition?

"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 opposites."

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 gathered 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. >>> See photo essay

Sharene Azimi's father was from Tehran and her mother from Long Island. Currently she is in the part-time program at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She has written a novel titled Crows in the Nightingale's Tree; a mother-daughter story set against the backdrop of the revolution. It's based on the true story of a former leftist who went back to Iran, from Berkeley, when everyone else was leaving.

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