The minorities of Delhi

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Small community adjusting in a big city

The final days of 2011 have ended on a beautiful note for me. On the cold evening of December 18, around 0.0053715 per cent of the population of Delhi and its surrounding regions were invited to a location near Dilli Gate. They were to commemorate the golden jubilee of their fire temple. These people were the Parsis, whose numbers in the world is constantly dwindling.

The ancestors of these people, fleeing persecution in Persia, had landed on India’s western shores more than a thousand years ago. However, their history in Delhi is relatively new. In 1913, there were hardly 30 Parsis in the capital. At one point their number crossed 1,000 before dwindling to a couple of hundreds. Now there are fears that they would be finished.

I talked to a few of the city’s Parsis.

“Our community is disappearing from the face of the earth,” says Ava Khullar, a 73-year-old Parsi woman who married into a Hindu family but is still active in the community where she serves as trustee of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, the parsi community organisation.

As if confirming her fears, the city’s Parsi brotherhood appears cloaked in a blink-and-you-miss shroud. While driving, you won’t know when you drive past Dar-e-Meher, the Capital’s only fire temple, next to Maulana Azad medical college, on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg.

Not many know that there’s a tiny Parsi cemetery hidden behind Khan Market.

Perhaps such ignorance is understandable, for it is Bombay that has the largest number of India’s Parsis. Out of around 70,000 Zoroastrians in India, 55,000 live there.

In the national capital, their number is embarrassingly low. Check out the ‘Parsi Meter’ at delhiparsis.com, the community website for Parsis in Delhi. The population stat displayed there is so low that if you catch all Parsis in town, you would still not be able to fill the 980-seater Delite cinema in Turkman Gate.

On the day of writing this column, the meter reported only 752 Parsis in this city of 14 million. The reasons for such a low number of Parsis are the same as it is for them in other cities: emigration, inbreeding, infertility, and marrying outside the community.

The last is considered most threatening. “When Parsi women marry non-Parsi men, their children are more likely to adopt the religion of their fathers,” says Dhun Darains Bagli, who manages Parsi Dharmshala. In any case, they won’t be allowed to convert to the religion of their mothers.

Sometimes it is difficult even for children with a Parsi father to get initiated into the religion if their mother is not from the community.

Inter-religious marriage, however, is inevitable as a third of the population is 60-plus and a lot of young Parsis have moved abroad, leaving the rest with no choice of a suitable chokra or chokri.

Amid these dismal tidings, a religious revival is taking place among the young Parsis, says Bagli. “They are going to the fire temple more often than the previous generation.”

There are a few more reasons to be optimistic: come to the temple complex any second Saturday and you would find Parsis aged 5-20 years assembled there for Farohar (a special class for religious awakening). Even intermarriage has its advantages. “When Parsis marry outside their religion, they grow more interested about where they have come from,” says Mehernosh Shapoorjee of delhiparsis.com.

“Besides, we Parsis never lose our own in communal riots,” says Bagli. “We shall survive.”

A few evenings later I found myself among people whose very survival was once at stake. Once they were victims; now they have victims.

It was the final evening of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. I was in a Chabad House, a Jewish community center run by an orthodox Jewish organisation based in Brooklyn, US.

There are thousands of Chabad Houses in the world. In the capital, it is in Paharganj, a hotel district popular among the Israeli backpackers, and in Vasant Vihar, a residential neighbourhood dominated by foreign diplomats.

To travelling Jews, a Chabad House is a home away from home. The rabbi (priest) and rebbetzin (priest’s wife) host religious festivals and Sabbath (Saturday) meals for both practicing and secular Jews. A Chabad House serves as a synagogue, the Jewish house for prayer. It offers classes in Torah, the first five books of the Bible that were revealed by God to Prophet Moses. It is also a community kitchen for Jews, especially Israeli tourists, feeling homesick for dishes like hummus, thina and Israeli salad. India receives a great number of tourists from Israel who land in Delhi on their way to destinations like Goa, Pushkar and Mnali.

After about 10 people had gathered on the first floor of the Chabad House, a young man from Paris was awarded the honor to light the menorah, the nine-branched candle stand. On the first night of Hanukkah one candle is lit on the right side of the menorah. The following night a second candle is lit to the left of the first candle and so on, proceeding from right to left over the eight nights. The leftmost candle is always lit first. On the final night, all candles must burn.

As the Parisian lit the candles one by one, moving from left to right, the congregation started chanting Hanerot Halalu, an ancient hymn reminding the sacredness of the Hanukkah lights. The ceremony symbolises the miracle of the temple oil in Jerusalem that was expected to last for a day, but burned for eight. Some secular Jews see this glow as a source of comfort, particularly in a season when days are shorter and nights longer.

As a candle flickered, the man wearing a flat-brimmed black hat, black pants and white shirt, the dress of Hasidic Jews, cupped his palm around the dying flame.

The worshippers then proceeded to the Main Bazaar to light candles on the street. The shopkeepers, beggars and street children – many of them Muslims, many of them Hindus – clapped. The festival ended with the traditional Hanukkah meal of sufganiyot (doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancake).

Friend, my New Year wish is for such a world where people form different religions can live together happily.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.