Rediscovering the Parsis of Calcutta


By Vishnu Makhijani

It began with author Prochy N. Mehta’s grandchildren being barred from Kolkata’s sole fire temple and culminated in a meticulously researched book on the role of prominent Parsis and the community in various aspects of the city’s growth in diverse areas over the decades.

“My grandchildren were going to the only fire temple in Kolkata (the Late D.B. Mehta’s Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran) with us. In 2015, the newly appointed Head Priest requested us not to bring my daughter Sanaya’s children to the fire temple (because Sanaya married a non-Parsi). On asking why, I was told that the (temple’s) Trust Deed is sacrosanct,” Mehta, author of “Pioneering Parsis Of Calcutta” (Niyogi Books), told IANS.

“This started my search into the past. The Trust Deed is dated 1915, but no one today has any recall of us Parsis of that time, of the community in Calcutta, and what they fought for and believed in,” Mehta, one of just 420 Parsis in Kolkata, said. Prochy, 66, has represented Bengal and India in hockey and basketball. Her family runs one of the biggest outdoor advertising agencies in India.

The Parsi community in Kolkata has seen zero growth in the last three years as there have been no births. “Every one of our families in Calcutta has children who have intermarried,” says Mehta, and children of such couples are not considered Paris. The case is pending in court.

Mehta’s initial curiosity turned into a voyage of discovery, which changed her perception of her community and awoke in her an intense pride in the Parsi stalwarts of yesteryear. Her meticulous research reaped rich dividends as she slowly dusted off the cobwebs of history that revealed the pioneering Parsis’ arduous journey to Kolkata, their forward thinking, their broad-minded approach, their willingness to give and to improve the lives of all around them.

These extraordinary Parsi men and women played a prominent role in society by taking upon themselves the responsibility of helping one and all, regardless of class, caste, creed, or color. Their ability in business and faith in the future was matchless. These early Parsis were not afraid of taking on the establishment and fought publicly to resolve disputes where the orthodox members were unwilling to give the reformists their way.

“I try to trace the history of the Parsis, as there is no recorded history of the Parsis in India, except for a poem the Kissa-e-Sanjan written in 1599 by a priest, Boman Kekobad,” Mehta said.

“An interesting fact is that we had forgotten our religion till Changa Asha (the leader of the Parsis in Navasri) found a group of Parsis in about 1490 living amongst the Hindus as a tribe following Hindu customs and way of life. Till today, the World Zoroastrian Organisation is finding such co-religionists living in poverty in the villages of Gujarat and seeks to rehabilitate them,” Mehta elaborated.

To turn to the pioneers, the book says Rustumji Banaji may have been the most prominent man in Bengal in the 1800s; owner of Kidderpore and Salkia docks, master ship builder, pioneer in banking, insurance, social service, social reform, and shipping. But alas, forgotten today.

Many of the pioneer Parsis of Bombay had their early roots in Kolkata: Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy; Nusserwanji Cowasji Petit; Dinshaw Petit; Framji Banaji (brother of Rustumji Banaji); the Wadia family of shipbuilders; Meherwanji Mehta, father of Phirozshaw Mehta; Khurshedji Cama; Dadabhoy Naoroji; Jamshedji Madan (father of Indian cinema); and Dorab Mehta (Meherwanji’s brother), who had done extensive charitable work for the city of Navsari.

Then there were the nationally famous Parsis who belonged to Calcutta, but were forgotten by us. D.N. Wadia, the world famous geologist; Erach Bhiwandiwala, the artist; A.C. Ardeshir and his famous horse photograph titled ‘Ethics’; and Dr Irach Taraporewala, who translated the Gathas and wrote the Divine Songs of Zarathusthra.

And then there was the Tata family connected through marriage with the (DB) Mehta family. Jamshedji and Dhunjibhoy Mehta met at Dadabhai Naoroji”s home in England, where they purchased machinery for their cotton mills, Empress Mills, Nagpur, and Empress of India Mills at Srirampur. Dhunjibhoy’s grandson, Phiroze Sethna, and Jamshedji’s son, Ratan, married the daughters of Ardesher Sett, Navaz, and Banoo. This must have sealed the bond of friendship among the families, the book says.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

Share this post