Rayomand Coins

We are one

The enterprising Zoroastrian Iranis in India seldom feature on the front pages of newspapers. Write-ups on them are often published in the food and entertainment sections. They are associated with the cafes they so popularized that offered no frills, affordable, wholesome food to all sections of society. In their heyday the cafes with their Minton tiled floors, bentwood tables covered with checkered tablecloths, armless chairs and a prominently displayed list of don’ts offered succor to office goers, Victoria hack drivers, cabbies, factory workers, students, struggling artists and poorly paid journalists, amongst a myriad others. Irani bakeries were also popular though not as well known or publicized. As the younger generation of Iranis moved to other professions and many went abroad, the eateries faded in importance, while the vegetarian, low cost southern restaurants filled their slot.

Capitalizing on the nostalgia, new entrants from various communities and countries redefined the Irani cafe concept with more upmarket dining, higher prices, expensive, look-alike interiors. The relatively few Irani restaurants that maintained their original look and feel readily attract clientele. The remnants of that long forgotten era manifested with the rash of obituaries published in the local Bombay papers of an iconic restaurateur, Boman Kohinoor, a partner of the much talked and written about Britannia Restaurant at Ballard Estate. The Times Of India of September 26, 2019 made mention of his death on their front page ("Britannia cafe owner died") along with an obituary write-up inside ("Man who served ‘Rule Britannia’ to his patrons," a reference to his high regard for British royalty).

Though 97 years of age and not engaged in the day-to-day operations of the eatery he would chat with the customers, the hallmark of a perceptive restaurateur, stated his son Afshin. Many returned to dine at the eatery with its old-world interiors just to view him and, if lucky, have him display photographs of British royalty, letters to world leaders and most cherished of all, a photo of him greeting Prince William and his wife Catherine (Kate) during the British royal couple’s visit to Bombay in April 2016.

Two days prior to Kohinoor’s demise, Wibs, run by three Irani brothers, made the front page of the popular tabloid, Mumbai Mirror (MM) ("Mumbai sandwich loses its slice of life"), as their popular brand went off the market due to a dispute between two brothers, Khodadad (the eldest) and Sheriar (the youngest) following the death of middle brother Hoshang in mid-September. Sandwich makers and households were inconvenienced as Wibs is the largest manufacturer of sliced bread in Bombay, their main rival being Britannia produced by the Nusli Wadia controlled Britannia Industries Limited and Modern bread manufactured by Modern Food Enterprises Private Limited. Wibs bakes 1,00,000 loaves a day in five factories located over the city with around 600 employees. When production resumed following court initiated, ongoing mediation talks, MM on September 26 carried another front page story, "City’s sandwich gets its zing back."

Parsiana had reprinted in our "So they say" column (April 7, 2015) a quote from Hoshang that appeared in the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) (January 11, 2015): "When a sandwichwala makes a sandwich, he puts butter, chutney, cucumber, tomatoes, beetroot, potato...the works. The bread should hold all this, and people eating the sandwich should be able to pick it up without the stuffing falling all over the place. Wibs is made keeping in mind how people treat their bread."

Actor Boman Irani often features in the news while his namesake, the builder Boman Irani, is low key but his company Rustomjee is mentioned in business stories focusing on the profession. The latter’s wife Perizaad is a well-known film star and helps manage her family business of Zorabian Chicken. But these examples are exceptions. The Irani Zoroastrians receive a fraction of the coverage that the larger Parsi community attracts though both communities have their distinctive characteristics and characters that so seem to enchant the general media.

The five-yearly elections to the General Body of the Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman (IZA) held on September 29 at the Sir J. J. Parsi Benevolent Institution on Dr Dadabhai Naoroji Road drew no media coverage, aside from mandatory notices in the Parsi Press, short write-ups in Parsiana and mention on our Facebook page on the day of the election. Of the three posts on the Parsiana page, only the third featuring the election results drew over 1,000 views and around six comments in the first 18 hours.

The IZA has a complicated electoral process where seats are allocated according to the 18 or 19 villages of origin in Iran as well as five allocated to Bombay. Only the Bombay seats were contested; for all the other areas, the number of contestants and the seats available were the same. Women can vote but not stand for election which is the norm for several other Parsi anjumans in south Gujarat as well. But the IZA can and does co-opt women on the committee. The voter registration list is still a work-in-process with addresses missing for several parties; some serial numbers were mixed up as the final copy for the election had not been proofed against the original list provided to the printers.

The IZA, represented by trustee Pervez Irani, is one of the few anjumans to offer any resistance to the autocratic functioning of The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India president and Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) chairman Yazdi Desai. Pervez was elected West Zone A vice president of the all-India body despite attempts by Desai to thwart the move by trying to deny his BPP co-trustees their vote. Pervez won by three votes to two. An earlier attempt to induct the IZA two years back had failed.

For long, the Iranis have played second fiddle to the Parsis. They have often been ridiculed and termed uncouth. In the early 1970s when Iran was a prosperous nation with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi welcoming Zoroastrians back to their homeland, the Iranis rose in stature. Many left for the promised land only to find the dream ending with the ascendancy of the Ayatollahs. Some returned to India but others opted for the West. There was a realization that India was not such a bad place to be after all. In due time their enterprise, toil and the wealth of their real estate whether in agriculture or cafes lent them an aura.

But, like the Parsis, they too are an ageing, disappearing community. The two have more in common than is generally believed. The legal definition of a Parsi includes Iranis. Perhaps working closer together could help to keep alive the unique legacy of these enterprising communities.

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There are differences in all religions. Christians are divided between Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, etc. Muslims have divisions between Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, etc. Hindus those following Krishna, Ram or Ashoka. Harmony, peace, co operation is required. Parsis and Iranian Zoroastrians have common problems. Population of Zoroastrians is aging, inter religious marriages have become common, staying single has become the rule, late marriages, child marriages are common, denying children of inter religious marriages the right to have a navjote is common, increase in the number of divorces and separation is on the increase specially among the Iranian Zoroastrians immigrants in the West, parents abandoned by their children is on the increase are the extreme problems faced,if nothing is done the name Zoroastrian will be history in a decade or so. Hope is there in Kurdistan,Tajikistan where increasing numbers are becoming Zoroastrians.
- Shapour B Badri
- 08-Oct-2019

This editorial makes some very excellent points. Artificial boundaries and outdated biases have long prevailed in the Parsi Zoroastrian community of the sub-continent which have also been carried into the diaspora albeit to a limited extent. The community needs leaders who are willing to examine and challenge archaic trust documents and practices that have placed a damper on any progressive action. This has resulted in alienating Parsis who do not conform to these archaic and divisive rules and regulations. If the Parsi Zoroastrian community of the sub-continent were a nation that had sunk to such a level, there would be a call for a Constituent Assembly to revisit the operational mechanics into which the community has become trapped. We need to slice the Gordian Knot! Starting with a clean slate seems to be the only sensible option left today!
- Yezdyar Kaoosji
- 07-Oct-2019


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