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The pains of gain

The management of trust property is always a challenging proposition. But if the number of beneficiaries continues to decline precipitously, survival becomes an issue. A survey done of the leading baug venues in Bombay by Parsiana (see "Baug bearings," pg 42) shows they are utilized for less than 50% of their capacity.

Barring a few cosmopolitan venues such as the Sohrab Palamkote Hall, the Mancherji Joshi Memorial Hall and the Dadar Parsee Colony Gymkhana, all in Dadar, the rest are only for community use. Furthermore, Parsi-only venues permit the navjote ceremony of interfaith children to be performed if the father is a Parsi, but not the mother. Interfaith marriage ceremonies, however, are barred. The baugs may permit the reception but not the actual ashirwad ceremony. This means the family has to make arrangements for the ceremony elsewhere — an additional expense. Even the concession to permit ceremonies for children of a Parsi father and non-Parsi mother is a recent development. It would have been unheard of earlier.

Some of the baugs have large corpuses they can rely on for funding. But others are not so fortunate. Several of the survey respondents said making ends meet was proving difficult. Not only are they finding it challenging to cover running monthly expenses, but finding funds for regular maintenance can be a problem. No one wants to celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime function at a venue that is rundown, has peeling paint or shabbily dressed personnel. If the family and their guests dress up in their finery, take the pains of commuting in the city’s nightmarish traffic and gift hefty pehramnies to cover the rising costs of the sumptuous lagan nu bhonu, they expect pleasant surroundings.

Accessibility is also a matter for consideration. The spacious Dadysett Atash Behram in Fanaswadi with its large otlas is underutilized (eight percent) as it is situated in the heart of the crowded Chira Bazaar area. Many are not even aware of the existence of the oldest atash behram in Bombay and confuse it with the Dadysett Agiary at Fountain.

Should the baugs open their doors to other communities? In a survey conducted for Parsiana by the reputed Hansa Research Agency in 2013, 70 to 80% of the 500 Bombay Parsi respondents opposed the proposal, even though the concerned baugs could use the additional income. The Olpadvala Memorial Trust Hall on Chowringhee Road in Calcutta is let out at higher rates to non-Parsis, resulting in a sizeable income for the trust.

In our cover story on Allbless Baug (see "Blessed to have Allbless" pg 22), lighting service provider Poarosasp Guzder recalls that when electrification of the grounds was considered at the time it first became available, there was opposition. Still they eventually went ahead. This is where leadership comes to play. You need people who are unafraid to do what is unpopular but necessary. Parsi schools, when faced with dwindling students, opened their doors to all. If the community had opposed Parsi schools becoming cosmopolitan, by now they would have all closed down. Instead, over the decades they have educated countless children of all communities, including many Parsis. What is ironical is that today barring a few exceptions most Parsis prefer cosmopolitan schools for their children over Parsi run schools. They look at the school’s standing rather than who founded the institution or who manages it.

Last month Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy lost his case for eviction in the Small Causes Court against the property laden Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) because the trust deed of the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Parsee Benevolent Institution specified the school was for the education of Parsi Zoroastrians. Even though the school is cosmopolitan the trustees may not have applied to the Bombay High Court for a cy pres doctrine to expand the scope of their objectives to other communities. The children’s loss of additional classrooms is to the advantage of the BPP.

The community has historically been wary of change. In 2004, the then registrar general and census commissioner of India J. K. Banthia narrated to the Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India delegates in Bardoli the sorry history of the community’s resistance to vaccination (see "Revival, not survival," Parsiana, March 2004). "In 1802 smallpox vaccination became available in the state of Bombay. The British expected the Parsis would readily accept it because it was an enlightened community. (But) for over 60 years, the community resisted it on religious grounds as defiling, impurifying the body. In 1805/1806 the community was told that if you vaccinate, you will be excommunicated."

Banthia said he found records in the India Office Library in London. Indians perceived the vaccination as a British attack on the Hindu community which had deified smallpox as a visitation from Sheetla Mata for several hundred years. "Parsis had imbibed this culture. Parsi women also prayed to Sheetla Mata. The British were amazed that an educated community was refusing (a scientific advance). Today it is silly to say we’d allow children to die. (But that is) the power of culture and religion. It takes time to overcome."

Banthia narrated that this situation endured until the epidemic of 1876. But between 1840-70 a group of Parsi doctors worked hard on community attitudes and from 1870 onwards the number of smallpox deaths declined among Parsis although the general population continued to resist vaccination and to die. Those were the days of the cowpox vaccine and a Parsi gentleman donated a cow for the purpose. The vaccine was taken from door to door in 1870-80 to carry out vaccinations. "The community eventually responds, but if the response is too late, there is a problem," said Banthia.

He was referring to the declining Parsi population figures. But the same holds true for community institutions. If there is a sound reason for change, the community should consider it rationally. The consequences of not doing so can prove disastrous.


Villoo Poonawalla