When I was a silly 10 year old my brother I played a game of pretending to be two Parsis called Freny and Homi and we carried on dialogues in funny voices between the imaginary pair and which we thought were hilarious. I found their names exotic and so different from run of the mill Aruns, Varuns and Veenas. Their surnames were even more intriguing: Mr Sodabottleopenerwalla and Mrs Screwwalla. In school there was a Gul Kapadia and her cousin Bunny and over the road lived Amy Edulji and her brother Hoshang.
My parents had told us the story of the Good Samaritan who came to their aid on the Calais docks while they were waiting to cross the Channel in their Vauxhall, with two small children in the back chewing on a baguette because money had not been telegraphed over in time. Father looked around desperately and to his delight he saw another Indian in the car alongside (in 1950 Indians were a rare species in Europe) so asking the compatriot to roll down the window he explained his predicament. “I’ll be able to pay you in England, but can you lend me some money to get over?” I imagine Dad was sweating in his leather elbowed tweed jacket and knitted tie at asking such a huge favour from a stranger.
Mr Readymoney- for that indeed was his name- leaped out of his car. “And I am burdened with too much currency,” he cried. “You can carry it for me ” (those were the days of strict currency regulations) “and pay me at the other end. In London if you like.”
Not only did the stranger hand over the money, but his wife looking at the jam-smeared faces of the four and eight year old opened her picnic basket and gave us chocolate bars and an apple each.
Parsis, or Iranis, have been settled in India for so many centuries (since they had to run from the conquering Mongol hordes who invaded Persia in the seventh century) that not many people realize that they are actually Persian by race. Because they only rarely marry outside, they have retained their distinctive appearance- fair skinned and large nosed. Freddie Mercury was a Parsi as is Rohinton Mistry, Nina Wadia, Farrokh Dhondy, Zubin Mehta and a Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, doubtless an ancestor of our Good Samaritan. Sir Jamsetji Tata’s name (he of the steel mills of Wales) is apparently derived from “Tartar” because he had a peppery disposition.
Their origins are N.E. of the Caspian Sea, around 3,000 years ago where the prophet Zoroaster established the first recorded ethical monotheistic religion in history. When he was thirty he saw a vision of Ahura Mazda, the wise Lord, and was told to spread the message of Truth- to hear, see and do only what is good. His followers and he found security under the Achaeminids, then the Parthians and the Sassanians. The three Wise Men, the Magi, were possibly followers of Zoroaster and the persecuted Yazidis of northern Iraq are the remnants of a corrupted form of this ancient religion. Then there was the mind-numbing must-read Also Sprach Zarathustra, which used to have an honoured place in Pseuds Corner. This was what Nietszche said of his tome: “The whole of my Zarathustra is a dithyramb (a passionately emotional speech or piece of writing) in honour of purity. Not, thank heaven, in honour of ‘pure foolery’ (disparaging Wagner dedicating his opera Parsifal to a ‘pure fool’).
Indians have always welcomed- or at the least tolerated- outsiders and when the Mongol hordes (they were always ‘Mongol hordes’ in school history lessons, which made them sound like a great swarm of hornets) invaded and ransacked Persia, the poor Parsis, being ‘Kufrs’ fled to the coast of Gujerat. Here they soon established themselves building fire-temples and growing in prosperity.
They were westernized, had gracious table manners, wore frocks and suits and sat on upholstered chairs. The great cartoonist Mario Miranda had a lot of fun exaggerating their foibles.A wonderful exhibition in New Delhi (Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum)
curated by the energetic Dr Sherry Cama gives a valuable, panoramic view of their ancient history and culture. I was fortunate enough to be shown around by Sherry in the company of a venerable Zoroastrian high priest from Teheran and an official of the Teheran Museum.
There are fewer and fewer Parsis in India, but they have made a magnificent contribution to modern history and culture and deserve to be celebrated.