Rayomand Coins

A sorry story

The vaccine may be here but the virus still determines how we live our lives. Elections, marriages and navjotes are postponed; restaurants, cinema houses, malls are shut; festival celebrations are banned; trips to houses of worship restricted; holiday travel is a memory; classrooms are empty, offices partly so.  

With only four percent or so of the Indian population reportedly inoculated and the Covid-19 virus mutating, the restrictions on lifestyles will continue indefinitely. So how do we cope? Do we keep putting off engagements or do we better adapt to the new realities?

As the lawyer for the minority Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustees told the two justices of the Bombay High Court in mid-March, "Covid has been around for a long time. We know what to do. Covid cannot be an excuse not to hold the elections." Very true. After all, the worst affected country in the world, the U.S.A. held a nationwide election for a President, the Congress and the Senate late last year.

When the Parsiana "Bombay: The telling figures" statistics were reprinted in the Parsi Junction online weekly of February 28, 2021, the Traditional Zarathushtris Mailing List (TZML) questioned the statistics that showed interfaith marriages overtaking Parsi-to-Parsi marriages in 2020. They said Parsiana had not taken into consideration that many couples had booked baugs for their marriage ceremony and reception but cancelled the event on account of the lockdown restrictions.

But why were interfaith marriages not similarly postponed? Is one to presume the interfaith couples place a higher priority on marriage than on receptions? Unlikely. People who want to get married go ahead; they know celebrations can follow later. The reality is that interfaith marriages are on the rise and will continue to be so. There is no "hidden Parsiana agenda" to promote interfaith marriages. Who one marries is an individual’s choce; what counts is the union should be happy.

Regarding navjotes being delayed, the emphasis should shift from wining and dining to formally inducting the young into the religion. Navjotes and weddings can be held at home or in fire temples. In lieu of patra nu bhonu (meals on plantain leaves) sweets can be sent to relatives, friends and others. True, the couples to be married and the children to be navjoted may look forward to celebrating the occasion with their family, friends, neighbors, business associates and others. But this is one of the "new normals" we have to willy-nilly accept.

Now is the appropriate time to reassess our priorities and decide how we intend to spend the rest of 2021 and even part of 2022, if not beyond. The shrinking Parsi community will see a further drop in numbers as occurred in 2020. Hospital beds will be full. Many may continue to feel the after-effects of the infection. Equally important is the economic factor. Incomes will decline and in some cases where jobs are lost, will cease altogether. The government has of April 1 this year reduced interest rates on savings. People will have to curtail expenses without sacrificing nutrition, medication, education.

Those who are homebound have to cope with boredom, frayed tempers, depression. Children and teenagers miss out on meeting their friends, play outings, classroom interactions. The quality of education is suffering.

Abroad, governments have handed out cash to individuals and businesses. In India we were told there would be "no free lunches." So to expect any help from government is futile. What about our trusts and anjumans? The fractious BPP struggles to pay salaries every month and manages mainly from the income derived by auctioning flats. But how long will there be bidders? At best this is a stopgap arrangement. A trusts income has to come from donations, especially legacies. The trustees have to be trusted before wealth can be bequeathed to them.   

Other anjumans also face financial difficulties as can be evidenced from the appeals for funds that appear in the Parsi Press. Even well respected anjumans would face difficulties raising resources if the local population is low and comprise mainly the elderly.

Community institutions face bleak times. Empty baugs, fire temples devoid of devotees, sandalwood shops and vendors without customers, unused pavilions, clubs bereft of members. How will institutions sustain themselves with their income being decimated? How many trusts have sufficient reserves to see them through this year and the next?

Residential colonies and housing societies have evolved their own rules and regulations to try and restrict the spread of the virus, with mixed success. The best practices evolved by them have been shared with others. But no matter what steps one takes, Bombay like many other metropolitan centers in India and abroad, is again in lockdown mode. When governments are unable to control the pandemic, will the community do better?

The disastrous lockdown ordered by the Central Government in March 2020 with just four hours’ notice resulted in millions of migrants losing their livelihoods and residence, trekking hundreds of miles or more to their villages and towns. The country’s economy was shattered. At that time community organizations including the BPP rallied to assist people, especially the elderly and infirm to avail of basic requirements such as groceries and food. The impetuous government learned an expensive lesson at the citizens’ cost. Future lockdowns will not be as impulsive, drastic or disastrous.

There has been no meaningful discussion or study on the effects of the pandemic and the periodic lockdowns on the community. How this pandemic will shape and affect the Parsis, Zoroastrians and their families is still an unformed, unwritten and unknown chapter. But as of now a happy ending is elusive.


Villoo Poonawalla