One of the wealthiest minority groups in India enjoys some of the best Mumbai rentals. This is why
Located below the Eastern Express Highway, this historic enclave is everything most of Mumbai is not: idyllic, languid, and devoid of the city’s characteristic traffic.
“Living here has given me a sense of belonging,” says the 30-year-old marketing executive.
Bana lives in the Dadar Parsi colony, one of the 25 colonies in Mumbai that officials designed exclusively for Parsis, an ethno-religious group of Persian descendants in India who follow the Zoroastrian religion.
The Zoroastrians, whose doctrines influenced the principles of Judaism and Christianity, fled Persia, modern Iran, to India in the 7th century to avoid political and religious persecution. Over the centuries, a thriving community of bankers, industrialists, merchants, and engineers grew along the west coast of India.
A Parsi temple in Mumbai on March 12, 2012.
But their numbers are decreasing. According to Indian census data, there were more than 1 million Parsis in the country in 1941. By 2011, there were less than 60,000. And by 2050, experts predict that the numbers will drop to approximately 40,000.
As numbers decrease and the community struggles to stay, progressives want to expand the reach of new members. But they face strong resistance from more orthodox Parsis, who believe that any dilution of their faith is sacrilegious.
Inside the enclave
The Dadar Parsi colony was established in the mid-1890s after the bubonic plague tore through Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, claiming thousands of lives.
At the time, the city was home to some 800,000 people, and the disease spread rapidly through crowded slums. To alleviate congestion, the British colonial leaders of the city expanded the boundaries from Bombay to Dadar, then a low swamp.
Visionary engineer Mancherji Edulji Joshi persuaded British authorities to reserve plots for lower-middle-class Parsis, and produced a blueprint of a model neighborhood, detailed for the type of flowers and trees that would be planted on the streets. Joshi received a 999 year lease for 103 parcels.
Khorshed Villa, one of the oldest buildings in the Dadar Parsi neighborhood.
In Dadar, the leafy streets of the colony were laid out in a grid pattern, bordered by low-rise Victorian apartment blocks.
“I had a rule that no building should be more than two stories high,” says Joshi’s granddaughter, Zarine Engineer. “Before a single house was built, he planted the streets with trees, each street with a different type.”
Named after the prominent Parsi newspaper, Jam-e-Jamshed Road still has rows of ashoka trees. Named after the Persian poet Firdawsi, Firdausi Road is mottled with mahogany.
There is a library, a function room, sports fields, a seminary, a school and a temple. The buildings are named after their owners: Dina House, Readymoney House and Marker House. It was not uncommon for Parsis’s last names to reflect his line of work.
The Readymoneys, for example, made their fortune by trading opium, which was a ready source of money. Another family, the Sodawaterbottleopenerwalas – “wala” meaning “from a place of commerce” – probably did a business of opening soda water bottles. It is still one of the best known Parsi surnames and there is even an Indian restaurant chain that bears his name.
Of all the Parsi colonies in Mumbai, Dadar Parsi Colony is still the largest. It is home to approximately 15,000 Parsis, approximately 12% of the community’s world population.
Every morning, sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m., the neighborhood’s fitness enthusiasts walk the streets. Many of the older residents emerge a little later, perched on their terraces to intrude on what is happening below them.
Soon, fishmongers and vegetable vendors head to each apartment, selling their daily produce. Garbage collectors obediently come to pick up trash, and the laundry does the same for clothes. There is a man who irons to pick up and leave the ironed clothes, and the knife sharpener visits to sharpen knives.
But over the years, there have been attempts to thwart the community’s traditional lifestyle. Engineer, time and time again, has fought threats of invasion of the colony by municipal corporations.
Parsi School for Girls around 1870.
Twins Mithoo and Mani Contractor, 90, Joshi’s cousins, have lived in the colony their entire lives.
Joshi’s granddaughter, Zarine Engineer, 75, another local from the Dadar Parsi neighborhood, sits on the same board of trustees as her grandfather, the Central Association of Parsi (PCA).
The PCA watches over the welfare of the residents of the colony, although 99 years later, the PCA’s methods have changed. Now, he has a WhatsApp group, in which members voice their complaints, perhaps a broken lamppost or a pothole, and the engineer will see to it that it is repaired.
“When I was a little girl, I sat next to (Joshi) while patiently listening to the residents’ qualms,” says Engineer. “Some would complain about monkeys entering your home through windows or a fallen tree, and today I am doing the same.”
The apartments are cheap and empty.
Today, Mumbai’s extreme wealth disparity has earned it the nickname of the “most expensive slums” in the world.
More than half of its residents live in slums without running water, often just a few meters from some of the city’s most expensive skyscrapers. Average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dadar’s broader district costs an average of Rs. 145,000 ($ 1,920) per month.
But rents within Mumbai’s 25 Parsi neighborhoods have barely increased in decades. Long time tenants continue to pay for Rs. 300 ($ 4) per month, and most are no longer perceived as lower middle class.
Parsis is one of the richest and most successful minority groups in the world. They represent less than 1% of India’s total population, but four Parsis are on the country’s Top 20 Billionaires list.
Spacious, well-maintained and inexpensive apartments like those in the Parsi neighborhoods are hard to find in Mumbai. Its interiors are a mix of British and Chinese influences, from Victorian motifs carved from oak bed frames to porcelain vases obtained through trade with mainland China.
A Parsi bride and groom circa 1921.
Rents have been kept low due to the Rent Control Act of 1947, which regulates the housing market in Mumbai and limits the increase for residents who have been living in the same apartment before 1947, said Viraf Mehta, member of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) board of directors. )
The BPP owns most of the apartments in the Parsi neighborhoods, including approximately 3,000 that enter the law, since the same families have lived in those apartments for generations.
Mehta says the BPP rarely raises rents for new residents “out of benevolence.”
Colony apartments are highly sought after for their unique features and low price. However, about a quarter of the floors in the colonies remain empty, according to Mehta. Many of the occupants have settled abroad, but continue to pay the rent to make sure they don’t lose the apartment.
“The turnover rate is extremely low,” says Mehta. “We have about 1,000 people on waiting lists who want a flat in one of the colonias, but there are no empty houses.”
Everyone on the waiting list is Parsi.
Joshi could not afford to build a wall around the colony, and as a result, Dadar remains the only Parsi enclave without one. But the lack of a physical wall does not mean that there are no barriers to entry for those who want to join the community.
After BPP sold three parcels to a developer a few years ago, in 2009, that developer wants to sell apartments on the parcel to the highest bidder, even if they weren’t Parsi.
The PCA eventually won a six-year battle against the developers, and a court issued a permanent injunction preventing the builder from selling flats within the colony to anyone other than a Zoroastrian.
Five years later, the Street Vendors Act, a national bill intended to improve the lives of street vendors, would have paved the way for street stalls in Dardar Colony. Led by Engineer, hundreds of people marched in protest to preserve the heritage of the colony.
An interior of a typical Parsi house.
The plan was withdrawn and the roads of the colony remain off limits.
Bana, an ordained Zoroastrian priest, lives in an apartment block built by his great-grandfather. Her father grew up there, and her grandmother before that.
“For a layman, it would be very difficult to identify where the colony begins and ends,” he says. “But for us, we know every nook and cranny like the back of our hands.”
Since the 1940s, the number of Parsis in India has plummeted.
According to a study by demographer Ava Khullar, there are several reasons for this phenomenon. Low fertility is one: About a third of Parsis does not marry, and the average Parsi woman of childbearing age has one child, compared to a national average of 2.5 children.
The exclusion of children born to women who marry non-Parsi men in population figures is also a key reason.
The rule was made legally binding after the Petit v Jijabhai case in 1908. Suzanne Briere, a French woman and wife of Parsi industrialist Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, wanted her body to be left in the Bombay dokhmas, or Towers of Silence, to be exposed to vultures, according to the traditional rites of Zoroastrian death.
After his marriage, he converted to Zoroastrianism by undergoing an initiation ritual performed by a priest. During the ceremony, individuals wear a sudreh (a holy muslin robe) and a kusti (holy thread) for the first time, while reciting prayers and completing their initiation into faith.
Whether this conversion was allowed was debatable, as Orthodox Parsis believed that being born into the community was a prerequisite for initiation.
A boy performs the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony in Mumbai in 1999.
Briere took his case to the Bombay High Court, where judges Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beamon concluded that the Parsi community is made up of Parsis, born to Zoroastrian parents who profess the Zoroastrian religion; Persian Iranians who profess the Zoroastrian religion; and the children of the Parsi parents by “strange” (non-Parsi) mothers who have been duly and duly admitted to religion. The legal definition excludes children of Parsi mothers by “foreign” (not Parsi) parents.
Years later, the same rules are largely followed. Reformers argue that he is sexist and fanatic, while others believe that this is how things should be. “I think it is our duty to make sure we maintain our career,” says Bana, who married a fellow Zoroastrian.
“I have no opinion on inter-religious marriages. But personally, I think these are some things we can do to give back to a community when it has given us so much.”
Locked up in the colony
The BPP follows the same 1908 trial by Judges Davar and Beamon. If a spouse is not a Parsi, they are not considered eligible for the life of the colony.
“When it comes to BPP, this is the law of the country,” says Mehta. “Whatever my personal beliefs may be, I have a duty to uphold the trust deed that is bound by this.”
In 2019, Sanaya Dalal, a Parsi woman married to an average Parsi man and resident of the Dadar Parsi neighborhood, challenged these rules after her five-year-old son was not granted membership in the neighborhood gym for not being “Parsi”.
“So I am supposed to explain to my son that he will have to gracefully retire, leaving behind his friends and the playground that he loves so much,” he wrote in an opinion piece.
Dalal’s case caused controversy within the community, with conservative members supporting the rule and progressive members considering them anachronistic. After a discussion, your child remains without membership and is not allowed to enter the clubhouse unless a member is logged in.
Cusrow Baug Colony, one of the oldest Parsi settlements in Mumbai
Farzeen Khan, a 29-year-old Parsi woman who grew up in the Khareghat Colony, allies with Dalal. “The solution (to the falling numbers) is to be more inclusive,” she says.
“We are one of the smallest but richest communities in the country. I think it is time to open our doors and see how we can be more inclusive, rather than clinging to our unique identity of yesteryear,” says Khan.
Despite their disagreements, Bana, the Zoroastrian priest, says Parsis will find a way to continue his legacy.
“We are not a community that focuses on the negative,” says Bana. “I am confident that we will overcome any obstacle that comes our way, whether it is inter-religious marriages or extinction.”
Courtesy : News Dio