A Modest Proposal for Persian Gharwapsi

March 28, 2015

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.

Incorporating Heritage

August 6, 2009

Neel has a blogpost which talks about IIT-D designed board games that incorporate elements from traditional Indian stories into their design. He also laments that most Indian design and architecture does very little to showcase heritage, and picks on malls, airports and railways stations as being the worst offenders. I had some scattered thoughts about this which were too long for a comment, so here they are:

  1. One of the big problems with incorporating heritage into any venture these days is that you put yourself at grave risk of Rajan Zed issuing press releases that you are offending Hindu sentiments. In fact going by past experience it could be not just Rajan Zed but Rajput associations, Jain associations, Sikh associations, ad nauseum.
  2. Railway stations – depends on what you’re defining as heritage. When the British were building stations, they they built gorgeous facades which mixed up Mughal design elements (arches and domes), continental European decoration (the gargoyles at the station formerly known as Victoria Terminus), pre-Mughal construction (red sandstone), and some stuff which was entirely fresh from the architects’ perspective. I think that railway stations in princely states may also incorporate local architecture. It’s probably construction in post-independence India that gave us the horrible concrete blocks with no aesthetic appeal – the same applies to most of the airports.
  3. Airports – we seem to have moved from a situation where there was one single design of ugly concrete blocks being used for every airport to a situation where one single design of curved beams and glass walls is being used. Personally, I find the new one more attractive; but Neel’s point about it not having many Indian elements is valid. Delhi’s airport has made an effort with interior decoration for Terminal 1D, but this The Delhi Walla blogpost seems to suggest that it’s half-hearted.
  4. Malls – yes, these are the most egregrious offenders when it comes to cookie-cutter design and absolute lack of architectural imagination. I think that this is because somewhere there is a design handbook for malls which lays down points on laying out a mall to maximise retail sales which is being followed religiously without either any attempt to run local experiments to see what works better or imagination by architects on how to make it look cooler. [rant done] But even if architects did want to come up with cooler designs, would builders and tenants pay for them? Hm.

Another thing about heritage is that it’s desirable, but so are many other things (whether on pure functionality or for the wow-it’s-so-cool factor). So some of these are:

  1. Is it functional, innovative, valuable? Neel cribs about airports, but the fact that Delhi’s new airport has inline baggage scanning delights me so much that I hardly notice the lack of heritage design elements.
  2. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Everyone’s taste on what looks good will be different, so this is difficult to measure. But as an example, look at Jet Airways’ long-haul business and first class. Not much in the way of Indian design, but incredibly innovative and good-looking.
  3. Is it unique? This ties in with the crib about all malls and airports looking like each other. On the one hand, using a standard design brings down costs and I think China has built dozens of new airports just by reusing the same design over and over. Delhi’s new airport terminal might be standard curved beams and glass, but that standard design allows it to function on natural light throughout the day and not turn on electric lights until night – which has its own functional and aesthetic appeal. Of course, poor construction of that design is probably what led to the same terminal being flooded during the rains.
  4. Is it designed by Indians or an Indian company or even for Indian consumers? Even if it doesn’t reference existing heritage, if it’s iconic enough it could eventually become Indian heritage – like the Bombay Gothic buildings (good) or the Ambassador (bad). I know that Jagadguru has said that nationalism is the superset of religious fundamentalism which is itself the superset of terrorism, but I still think it is awesome if my national heritage is added to.

Another thing is that heritage doesn’t automatically provide quality. Air India paints Rajsthani chabutras on its aircraft windows but sucks as an airline. There have been so many animated movies about Krishna (Cartoon Network is running five this Janamashtami), but the dialogue and storytelling is usually terrible. 

So heritage is awesome, but only when the companies using it already have the capability to create great products; and also when designers and developers have the space to use their imagination.