A Modest Proposal for Persian Gharwapsi

There is a question that has been bothering me for a long while: how are we (as a species, but particularly as Indians) going to cope with the looming extinction of the Zoroastrian Parsi race? In the past week, two things have brought this question from merely background, low grade worrying to a major preoccupation: Navroz, and Justice Rohinton Nariman’s judgement on Section 66A. Within four days, we saw how much we have to lose if India no longer has Parsis: not just dhansak, but also a robust defence of the freedom of speech. The stakes are high enough that I am putting down my thoughts on the problem, and also advancing a possible solution with the hope that it may find support among the concerned stakeholders – though, as I hope to demonstrate in the following paragraphs, all of us are concerned stakeholders.

As I grow older, I find myself agreeing with Aakar Patel more and more. Most recently, I agreed with him on the ridiculousness of Indian formal wear. But this was something that really started back in April 2012, when I visited the Godrej office in South Bombay, for a panel discussion with Supriya Nair, Sidharth Bhatia, and Sathya Saran about Indian cinema. This was a talk conducted by the Godrej India Culture Lab, which was something started by Godrej to regularly showcase artists and writers and filmmakers both to Godrej employees and to the public at large. That in itself is quite a remarkable way for an Indian corporation to spend its money. However, what was even more remarkable was the venue itself: the terrace garden of the Godrej office.

This terrace garden was not the usual terrace garden which is a bunch of potted plants placed around the corners of a concrete terrace. Someone had filled the terrace in with soil, created a lawn, and then put paths across the turf. Which is impressive in itself, but again, not unique. A bunch of people have done that. What made it truly remarkable was that this terrace garden had trees. Full grown ones, big enough that you could sit in their shade on a hot Bombay afternoon (and really, eleven months of the year, is there any other kind?). These were trees which had to have been planted at least ten years prior, perhaps even earlier. They could not have been so large, full grown, and shady otherwise.

Think through the implications of that. Whoever was in charge of managing the Godrej head office in South Bombay would have been fairly senior. Let’s say, late thirties at the youngest. In twenty or twenty five years, they would have been retired and out of the office. When they planted these trees (or had them planted), it would have been with the awareness that it would take them at least five years to enjoy their shade; and that they would perhaps never get to enjoy the shade. Certainly, they would never get to see the trees they planted be as full grown as possible. And without any immediate or major benefit to themselves, they went ahead and did it anyway. Ten years on, shameless dilettantes such as myself were the ones to reap the effort of their vision.

It was this, that for the first time, made me realise that Aakar Patel’s wild generalisations are not merely trolling Indian smugness (which is worth trolling even if the means being used are idiotic), but actually arise out of a kernel of truth. So here was a stark validation of his claim that Parsis are the only people in India to make an effort to do good for other people.

Aakar Patel’s characterisation of non-Parsi Indians as merely cultured (if even that) and not civilised is, of course, reckless exaggeration. But the rest of India truly has a way to go before it can catch up with the Parsis. In this I am optimistic, and think that we will get there someday – and that day will come faster as long as we have Parsis to be role models. In fact, another Parsi had once drawn the analogy on his now defunct blog about how all change is like making dahi – first you put in a starter (the role model), then you churn through furious effort, and finally you end up with something delicious. To my annoyance, this analogy conflicts massively with Aakar Patel’s article: he thinks the Parsis have a civilisation and not a culture, but dahi starter is a culture and not a civilisation. And it also conflicts with the origin story of Parsis in India, in which they claim to be sugar being added to milk, and not curd added to milk. Even so, my original point of Parsis being vital role models to the rest of us, who can improve Indian society as a whole, stands.

There is, alas, one problem with this: by the time other Indians get around to behaving like Parsis, the Parsis may themselves be extinct. The Parsi population is plummeting. What can be done?

Well, the government of India is on it, and has started a campaign of moral suasion to get Parsis to make more babies. Like so many other efforts of the Government of India, it has been widely criticised for being really stupid and really insensitive. But even if the campaign had been sensitive and well done, there is no guarantee that it would have worked in the long run. Surrounded by a hegemonic Bollywood culture, any new Parsis might have grown up doing disco dance instead of listening to Haydn. Some of them might even end up adopting (shudder) Bengali culture and propagating the virtues of rosogollas. Then, there would be many Parsis, but no Parsi civilization. And while the more Parsis the better, retaining the Parsi civilization is equally important.

The simplest way to spread the Parsi civilization would be for the Parsis to start converting all the non Parsis around them to Zoroastrianism. By itself, this wouldn’t be good enough – after all, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians have been carrying out conversions but the cultural baggage of the caste system persisted – but at least it would speed things up. Alas, Indian Zoroastrianism doesn’t do conversion, possibly because of the origin story I mentioned earlier, so even that is ruled out. Is there no way out?

Actually, there is! And it relies on a loophole. When the Parsis came to India, they were asked not to carry out conversions of the local population. But nobody said anything about not converting other Persians, of whom there is luckily an abundance.

My solution to the whole vexed problem (which, as we shall see, also ends up solving other problems) is for India to throw open the borders and offer Indian citizenship and residency to any Iranian who is willing to start speaking English and/ or Gujarati, adopt Zoroastrianism, and act by the Parsi virtues.

The advantages of this are massive. First, as Sumeet Kulkarni points out, people who become Parsis by choice will probably be much more motivated in their propagation of Parsi civilization than those who just happen to be born Parsi.

Second, it avoids the whole conversion mess. Since the people being converted to Zoroastrianism are people whose ancestors used to be Zoroastrians themselves, it’s actually much more like a gharwapsi. In fact, from my (admittedly very limited) observations from my visit to Iran in 2012, Iranians are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, to the extent that you could make a case that converting to Islam for them was like doing an operating system upgrade on an existing phone, not throwing out an iPhone and getting an Android as it is made out to be in India. Extending this analogy, going back to Zoroastrianism is like installing a previous OS version because you find it’s better for battery life. Or to use the gharwapsi analogy itself, it’s not even coming back home, but moving from the first floor to the ground floor of the same house so that you can help your cousins out with taking care of their kids or aged relatives.

Thirdly, it benefits the Iranians themselves, who are currently suffering under the sanctions regime. They get a chance to move from a wrecked economy to a… well, also tottering economy, but not a wrecked one, and importantly, one in which they will be looked up to as business and professional superstars and in which a hugely rich Zoroastrian Parsi community stands ready to subsidise their housing and children’s education.

Fourthly, if the civilisational and societal advantages are not enough to convince you, there is a baser motive to support this: an influx of Iranian people will make the average attractiveness of the Indian population skyrocket.

Finally, there will be benefits even at a governmental level, since this pool of freshly arrived Iranians will be able to spur Indo-Iranian trade and carry out Track II Diplomacy. Nitin Pai and K Subrahmanyam’s dream of India getting involved in Iran-centric diplomacy and carrying out a USA-Iran rapprochement could come one step closer to reality.

The many benefits of this plan mean that Persian gharwapsi is a win-win scenario for all involved. It has massive and visible benefits for all concerned, which is much more than can be said about the VHP conducted gharwapsi, which has no benefits for anybody, except perhaps VHP officials who are desperate footage seekers.

I hope, therefore, that my plan is taken up by anybody competent to implement it. I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country.

Android R

Google names major Android versions after desserts. Which is why, two and a half years ago, when the ‘K’ version of Android was scheduled to be released, Indians started campaigning for Android Kaju Katli. In a great blow to deliciousness, Google named Android 4.4 KitKat instead.

The year after that, Laddoo was bypassed for Lollipop. We now face a situation where at one major release a year, there could be a few years before another Indian sweet is in the running. Consider:

  • This year should be Android M, where the best contender from India is Mysore Pak. It faces fierce competition like marshmallows, macarons, macaroons, marzipan, and marble cake. Its prospects are not good.
  • After M comes N, and I can’t think of a single Indian dessert that begins with n. Whereas the west has nougat. Which is disgusting, but at least it has a name beginning with n.
  • Next we have O, where again I can’t think of a single Indian dessert. Even Asian desserts, which I thought might have a chance, because apparently the preferred spelling is Umm Ali, not Om Ali, which is just Indian caterer spelling. So… Android Orange Marmalade?
  • Android P next. We could potentially have Android Pedha, Android Petha, or Android Piste ki lauj. But if you can’t get Android Laddoo, no way are you getting Android Pedha.
  • I can’t think of anything, Indian or Western, that starts with Q and is also a dessert.

Which brings us to R, where for the first time India has a serious contender: Rasmalai.

It would be wrong to call Rasmalai the king of desserts. For starters, it’s feminine in Hindi. But more than that, it has no monarchical pretensions, so you couldn’t even call it the queen of desserts. Go to a sweet shop – particularly Evergreen Sweet House if you want to have the greatest rasmalai in India – and you’ll find rasmalai lying placidly (in plain or kesar form) among the gulab jamuns, kala jamuns, and cham cham, not at all suggesting that it tastes better than anything else around. The laddoos may occupy the top shelf, the anjeer ki barfi may come at the beginning on an alphabetical listing, but the rasmalai is content to maintain a low profile until it comes to the crucial question of how it tastes. It is, therefore, the primus inter pares of desserts. It is a dessert for republics, not decadent monarchies. For reasons of deliciousness as well as reasons of politics and philosophy, we should therefore devote all our energy to campaigning for Android Rasmalai, even if this means taking away our chances for an Android Mysore Pak.

At one Android release a year, there are five years to go. This gives us enough time to build up our campaign. You might say it is too much time. You would be wrong, because we have to defeat the enemy within: Rasgulla/ Rosogolla.

There is a grave threat that by the time Android’s R release is coming up, the insidious Bengalee lobby will try to promote Rosogolla as an alternative contender for the name. This is all the more sinister, because if they succeed, not only will they have scuppered the chances of the more delicious Rasmalai, they will have further succeeded in promoting the originally Oriya Rosogolla as something Bengali. For the sake of both deliciousness and Oriya pride, we must not let this happen. It will be a matter of great shame for all Indians if the first Indian dessert to make it to an Android codename is an abominable, oversugary mess instead of a perfectly balanced, nutty and spicy rasmalai. Besides, the Bongs can always try for Sondesh.

Join me to promote R for Rasmalai my comrades!

Two Losses

In May 2001, I was about to end the first year of a Bachelor of Engineering course in a university that I hated. In retrospect, this may have been my fault – or the fault of external circumstances – as much, or more, as the university’s. Six months earlier, my grandmother had had a massive lung failure, my father had injured his leg and was being extorted for a bribe by the Income Tax department, and my mother had developed tuberculosis or something very like it. I myself was compounding my misery into depression, barely eating, not attending classes, and doing atrociously in them as a consequence.

But there were some routines I clung to that prevented the depression from getting full blown – attending laboratories, going home on the weekend, and reading the newspapers in the hostel common area.

On the twelfth or thirteenth – by which time final exams had probably started, I read in the Indian Express that Douglas Adams had died.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wretched about the death of somebody I had never met, either up to that point, or since then. In a very shitty year, this was news that hurt me even more. I had spent 1999 reading and rereading the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, and it was tragic that the person who had created it would never create anything more.

I went for my exams, and ended the semester with five D’s and an F.

*

In December 2001, things were not so bad.

My father’s leg had healed, my mother’s TB (or whatever it was) had disappeared, my hostel roommates were now friends, and I was doing better in classes. And by a happy alignment of the calendar and the timetable, I got to come home for my birthday between two exams.

When I took the train back to college, it was with my birthday present – a copy of Terry Pratchett’s The Truth. I managed to complete it on the train itself, grinning and laughing all the way from New Delhi Railway Station to Rajpura at the puns, the jokes, and the real world references.

Over the next five years, I began to work my way through the entire Discworld series.

In 2003, I read Hogfather, and its line about humanity being the place where the falling angel met the rising ape, and for at least five years, it stayed with me and kept me from getting into too much existential angst.

Right up to 2013, I read the new Discworld books, Good Omens, and Terry Pratchett’s other books, loving them. I also read his announcement of his Alzheimer’s, and his interviews and letters to the Times where he managed to be far angrier and sharper than he was in his books, and came to appreciate that side of him too.

Earlier this week, I saw on Twitter that he had died.

*

Although Terry Pratchett’s worlds had captured me just as much as – probably more than – Douglas Adams’, I did not feel the same shock and pain on his death as I had almost fourteen years ago.

Maybe this was because Terry Pratchett had already started planning for his death, so that when it did come, it wasn’t a shock.

Maybe it was because with Death as a character in every book of the Discworld series, it seemed like he was only meeting an old friend.

Maybe it was because in the past fourteen years, I lost my own innocence.

But perhaps it was because this past week, the pain was less noticeable than all the love that his fans have been expressing, all over the internet.

*

In 2001, the only news I had about the death of Douglas Adams were those two columns in The Indian Express. Later that week, I may have seen a thread on slashdot. Much later, I would see a tribute on the h2g2 website, where I believe he is still User 42. (On a side note, what an irony that Wikipedia achieved Douglas Adams’ vision of being a guide to everything faster and better than his own project could.) And much much later, I would come across other tributes and obituaries and biographies.

This past week, within an hour of first hearing of Terry Pratchett’s death (on Twitter), my Twitter and Facebook feeds began to fill up with messages of sadness, tributes to Pratchett (nonfictional, fictional, artistic), and links to obituaries. Compared to 2001, where I may have been one of ten people in the entire university to know who Douglas Adams was, I was now connected to people I knew and complete strangers who were feeling the same sadness (or more) than me.

We have been so inundated with social media and breaking news in the past few years that it’s very easy to be cynical about them and give up in disgust. I personally have deleted my Facebook profile once (though I came back), done mass Twitter unfollowing, and tried to strictly avoid daily news. It’s easy to extend that cynicism and disgust to the Internet itself.

And yet, in the past few days, I saw and realised that the Internet still holds the promise that it had back in 2001, and that Douglas Adams himself had marveled over: that it could bring together strangers who were otherwise alone in their usual milieus. Maybe that is Terry Pratchett’s last gift to me.