Stayin’ alive
By Naresh Fernandes | Time Out Mumbai | October 22nd - November 4th, 2004


Sooni Taraporevalas's loving portrayal of her community titled Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India, a Photographic Journey, has just gone into a second edition. It's an endearing visual record of a group that the latest census says has only 69,601 members left. With many more older people than younger ones, demographers warn that the community- which doesn't accept converts or children of mixed marriages as members- is on its way to extinction.

Your book was published just after the census reported a steep decline in the Parsi population. What did you make of that juxtaposition?
The timing is ironic. I really get fed up when things like that happen because it's the only time Parsis get written about in the media. As soon as I get a phone call from a journalist, I immediately know that its about vultures dying or its about the census. I have strong feelings about what's going on in the community, but I deliberately keep my personal opinion out of the book because I wanted to present all kinds of Parsi opinion: orthodox, the liberal, the outrageous, all of them.

What is your personal opinion?
I think it's crazy that we don't allow kids whose mothers are Parsis to enter the faith. We should throw it open. I think we confuse race and religion - that's my view and I think it's the view of many other Parsis too.

You advocate conversation?
Yes. If we say that ours is a universal religion, then it should be open for anybody. I do believe that Zarathushtra's message was for everybody, not just for ethnic Iranians. It's not a popular opinion. The last time I said this in an interview, someone sent a copy of my book back to me. Her point of view was, " How dare you hold such opinions and do a book like this?" It came in an envelope, with a letter, as I was having tea in the morning. The book had sold out in the stores then, so I was quite happy to have another copy.

When did you start doing the pictures?
I started making them when I was in college in America. It's only when I went away that I realized how minuscule and marginal we were. I would come home on holidays and take pictures of my grandparents' generation and people I was close to. In 1982, Raghubir Singh saw the pictures and suggested that I start working towards a book. I think photographs are the only medium that allow you to freeze memories and time. Perhaps the book was a childish attempt to hang onto something that was fading.

What's the foundation for being Parsi?
The orthodox keep talking about Parsi panno- Parsiness. This is am old debate about whether it's nature or its nurture. I feel that anybody who has been brought up in a certain way will have the Parsi panno. It doesn't come in the blood, it doesn't come in the genes. It depends how you're brought up.

What does the community need to do now?
What will make a huge difference is if people could sit around a table and talk and come to some kind of understanding of the opposite position. If we don't want to split we'll have to come to an agreement.

What does India lose with the decline of the community?
I'm not good at blowing our own trumpet. But it's pretty remarkable that such a small community has made its mark in so many fields. I think the fact that it's a simple ethical religion has filtered down. I'm sure that it's the religion that teaches people to do things the right way.


Time Out Mumbai - October22 - November 4 2004

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