Zoroastrains in India to explore cultural boundaries

#1 Jan 12th, 2018, 22:55
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Dec 2008
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Return To Roots fellows on a BEST, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

As the tall blue bus rounds the corner of Mumbai’s Crawford Market on to Mohammed Ali Road, the Sunday morning street traders squint up at the tourists assembled on its open upper deck. Some of them wave, and one guy blows a cheerful kiss to the 22-year-old American with a camera strapped around her neck. She returns the gesture, laughing.

“There’s the husband your family wanted you to find on this trip,” one of the other girls jokes. “It can’t be,” the 22-year-old shoots back, mouth curving. “He’s not Parsi!”

They are a gathering of nearly two dozen young Zoroastrians who have never lived in India. Some, born in Iran, aren’t even Parsi, a word which defines a subcontinental social group. They’re at the end of a fortnight-long trip, part of Return To Roots (RTR), an annual programme run by their co-religionists to give diaspora youth—anywhere between the ages of 22 and 35—an anchor in the nerve centre of Zoroastrianism, on the western coast of India.

There may be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world, by some accounts. The 2011 census of India indicated that just under 60,000 live in India. Most live in Mumbai, where they grew to be a dominant force in public life under British rule; and in Gujarat, where the first immigrants landed, fleeing persecution in Iran between the eighth and 10th centuries AD. A second wave of “Iranis” arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, escaping Qajar-era pogroms. Many of their descendants now live and work abroad, away from what the RTR programme director, Arzan Sam Wadia, a 44-year-old architect from New York, sometimes refers to as the “motherland”.

It was for such young Zoroastrians that RTR was conceived in 2012 by a group of young expatriate Zoroastrians, Wadia included, who met at a community event in New York. Wadia, a Parsi born and brought up in Mumbai, now leads the programme’s annual two-week trip. It is open to any young Zoroastrian who applies to join, and can cover, at least partially, the door-to-door cost of $5,000 (around Rs3 lakh) a head.

A kernel of inspiration comes from Israel, where the government helps run the “Birthright Israel” programme meant to inculcate the spirit of the Jewish homeland in young members of their diaspora, helping them understand both religion and culture, past and present. In contrast, RTR is privately funded by friends and well-wishers, of whom there are many among India’s wealthy Parsis (a previous group even managed a rendezvous with Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Sons). It’s not a call to resurrect a glorious past, or take sides in ongoing Zoroastrian battles over issues that deeply affect the community, including its sharply dwindling numbers and strict laws governing marriage outside the faith.

“It’s some good news in the middle of all that,” Wadia says. “To see young people come together to explore their culture instead of more bickering.”

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