Saving Parsi Heritage

An abandoned Parsi house in Udvada, now overgrown with vines.

Note: The following article was printed in the Navroze 2012 number of Jame-Jamshed.

Do Parsis lack a proper sense of history? It is a question that I have often wondered while traveling and conducting research across India in the past fourteen months. Our history and culture is as rich as that of any other community in India, yet we have, at least for the past few decades, not been very good stewards of them. A number of our libraries and institutions are badly run. There are whole collections of valuable books and related items that are gathering dust in Godrej cabinets—or worse yet, in the open air. Many of the old Parsi wads in our ancestral towns and villages are deserted and decayed. Our holiest site, the Iranshah Atash Behram, lies amidst houses of great historical and architectural value, many of which are abandoned and garbage-strewn.

This is not how advanced, educated communities are supposed to act. We can rely on no excuses such as poverty and lack of resources—indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult across the rest of Indian society to employ these excuses. Institutions such as the BPP or Tata charities cannot provide all the necessary help or solutions. The responsibility for what is wrong—and the responsibility for making it right—rests firmly on each of our shoulders. We collectively need to do a much better job on protecting and preserving our past.

We have lost—and and are continuing to lose—far too much. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Parsis turned out a prolific amount of books and journals, ran dozens of newspapers and magazines, and supported a number of literary and educational societies. We had satirical journals like Parsi/Hindi Punch, filled with comics that poked fun of both British and Indians; serious newssheets like Sanj Vartaman, where Mahatma Gandhi figured amongst contributors; and societies like the Gayan Uttejak Mandli, which contributed toward the Parsis’ reputation as aficionados of Western music.  Scant records of these survive. In many other societies, they would be preserved and treasured.

There are a number of institutions and people doing their bit to help. The K.R. Cama Institute has employed INTACH to preserve many of its priceless manuscripts and other holdings. Homi Dhalla of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation has, among other activities, helped rescue Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy’s home in Navsari and establish the Zoroastrian Information Centre in Udvada. Along with preservation architects, he is hoping to turn Dadabhai Naoroji’s family house in Navsari’s Katrak Wad, which was nearly leveled by developers some years ago, into a proper memorial and museum. Shernaz Cama’s Parzor Foundation has, for years, labored to bring international attention to Parsi culture and has helped make the Meherjirana Library one of the jewels of our community.

These institutions and people need our active help and support. Yet I have been disappointed at how many Parsis display apathy and disinterest toward efforts to help preserve their culture. At the 2010 North American Congress in Houston, for example, I—perhaps too enthusiastically—showed a relatively affluent audience a check I had made out to Parzor for US$300, about one percent of my annual salary, and stated that if others who were far wealthier than I could do the same, then we as a community could truly do some good work with regard to protecting our heritage. If I remember correctly, my appeal generated a grand total of two checks—both for amounts much less than $300.

Let us begin with an obvious way to help protect our history. Many Parsi households have collections of old, rare Gujarati books on Parsi culture and the Zoroastrian religion, copies of old newspapers, and family trees. I have spoken with individuals who even have handwritten papers and letters of ancestors who were administrators in princely states, actors in Parsi theater, and merchants in East Asian trading outposts. Unfortunately, since many Parsis in my generation have limited or no Gujarati reading skills, they are considered of diminished value and are often rubbished. More than one elderly Parsi has offered me priceless Gujarati texts, telling me, “if somebody does not take this, my children will surely throw them away.”

For God’s sake, do not throw away such material. Old books, papers, letters, and other articles are of infinite value to historians such as me and, more importantly, future generations of Parsis and non-Parsis who will want to know about our rich past. Due to inexcusable carelessness and negligence, we have already lost papers of eminent Parsis such as Dinshaw Wacha and B.M. Malabari, personal items belonging to Dadabhai Naoroji, and the stories of countless other Parsis who have contributed toward both the community and India. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes again.

Parzor is keen to collect artifacts of our heritage. I would like to highlight some recent donors to Parzor’s growing collection. Freny Ginwalla of Ahmedabad has donated handwritten hakim recipes—antidotes for afflictions ranging from dizziness to cholera—penned by a relative in Rangoon in 1925.  Meher Medora, also of Ahmedabad, has given a Vakil family album. Banoo Merchant of Mhow arranged for around 15 thick volumes of Parsi Avaz to be shipped to me in Bombay—these will also be donated to Parzor. Freny Sethna of Juhu is donating several volumes of Stree Bodh, a journal from the late 19th century meant to promote female education, that were lovingly preserved by her mother.

These individuals’ actions are to be commended—and emulated. If you or others are

unable or unwilling to keep similar items in your own family collections, I implore to please contact Parzor or other organizations and make a donation. You will do a great favor to your community.

Contact Dr. Shernaz Cama of Parzor at shernazcama@hotmail.com, 9810007717 or 011-2411-4794, or write to her at C-53 Anand Niketan, New Delhi 110021. 

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