The Parsis of North America

The Parsis anywhere in the world are a furiously funny, yet cherishingly charming lot. Tired of the drudgery of Mumbai, (then still blissful Bombay) and in search of greener pastures and organic eggs, the first currently surviving settlement made their move to North America in the 1960s. These humble blokes were straight out of college and armed with basic degrees and a profuse passion to make a better life for themselves and the families they would make.

We met one such couple who made this dauntingly daring move 60 years ago. Now well into their eighties, they have housed every single distant family member, their friends, and even distant relatives of those friends visiting North America. Their hospitality and kind-heartedness has resulted in them mastering the skill of driving blindfolded to the Niagara Falls, riding the popular Maid of the Mist boat ride there, gambling at the casino, and returning wholesomely happy with their gracious guests.


“When we first came here,” she tells me, “every weekend, we used to attend a Parsi wedding, a birthday party, or a potluck. We made for ourselves a wonderful circle of friends, worked with rigour at multiple jobs, cooked, cleaned, prayed, and lived conscientiously.” Now, into their ninth decade of life, they are busy attending a funeral every month. “Arre, aaje, bicharo Soli gujari gayo,” she says, her voice resonating with her heartache, when I call her on the weekend to keep track of her paidast count of the year. Her voice is seasoned with a righteous relief that their turn has not yet come. “We just had a barbeque at his home last month and he was planning a trip to see the Northern Lights next summer. But he was 90,” she jokingly justifies. “Bichari Roshan ekhli pari jase, after 65 years of marriage,” she laments.  Their lives were peppered with poised and garnished with grace – partly because they were big-time foodies.


Life has come full circle for them. They have all learned to look out for one another, and now spend their time guiding younger generations that continue to arrive with exhilarating enthusiasm, as the prospect of India seem dispiritingly dismal for some. “All this was barren land when we moved here in the ’60s, kai bhi nai, khalli nalla nalla khopchas,” exclaims another elderly uncle as we drive through downtown Chicago, now strewn with soaring skyscrapers bouncing mesmerizing sunlight off one another. He quoted Mark Twain, who once said, “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”


He drives me to the Indian store in the suburbs, where I buy everything for thrice the price just to feel at home. Then, I promise not to curse Gangar stores for their bills. With the money he made as a university professor in this city, both he and his wife set up a nursing college in Panchgani, where they continue to teach annually as part of their endeavour to give back to society. On their trips to India, their suitcases are filled with adult diapers but their hearts brim with childlike joyfulness. These are my real inspirations.


Most big cities in the US have their own Zoroastrian associations with fancy acronyms: ZAC, ZAGNY, and ZAKOI, just to name a few. These would also make good names for triplets born to Parsi parents; Jiyo Parsi, take ‘stork’! It is unfortunate that Parsis across generations don’t get time to spend with one another. It is only on occasions of New Year, Navroze, and a few other regional functions that people congregate at the local Darbe-Mehr—a multipurpose venue for prayers, preaching, and parties. It is also here that despairing parents attempt to find impeccable, flawless, and full proof sons- and daughters-in-law, realizing, only in hindsight, that they don’t exist. The elders are always there early for the religious sermon that follows the jashan, while the younger ones stroll in gleefully much later for the grub. The community gets together to perform small skits, rivetingly reminiscent of Adi Marzban’s gags, and the little ones always have a song and dance ritual that my daughters tend to photobomb, ruining weeks of practice put in by the other kids.


The newer generation in the US has its own way of professing solidarity for the religion. My cousin has a prodigious Ahura Mazda tattoo (also known as the Flying Parsi to most Americans) on his back. When reprimanded by one of the seniors at a Navroze function, he justified his stance by mentioning that his girlfriend feels closer to khodaiji while making love to him. “She can hold onto him in case it gets too rocky,” he quirks, with a smile reminiscent of the last time it actually happened. A time has come now that the elders are willing to accept most things youngsters do if it keeps them glued to their faith.


In the West, it’s not only about religion but also about culture. Children are exposed to varied civilizations; how many of them are truly civilized is a whole other debate. Nonetheless, they will mingle and learn to dance like African Americans, cook like the Chinese, innovate like the Japanese, work hard like the Mexicans, and get an accent like their Eastern European counterparts. In India, you have the opportunity to refine other skills. Kids learn to bargain with the machiwalli, shout out to the joona poorana samanwalla, wake up at the crack of dawn for the paowalla and doodhwalla to engage in friendly banter—activities I enthralled in as a child and hope my children will as well. “Aaj doodh mein kitna paani dalla?” I used to infuriate the Parsi Dairy Farm bhaiyya with, as he menacingly spread his arms in a circus-like act to pour frothing milk in my tapeli from a height of three feet.


The weather is a big bummer in this part of the world. You spend half the winter putting on and removing clothes; the other half is spent talking about it. You shovel snow and you slip, and that cycle continues until you fracture a hip. For the Parsis in Florida and California, it’s a different story. They have the good fortune of stepping out in floral tees and Ray-Bans, sipping their afternoon Malibu on the sun-soaked beaches, while their counterparts in New York, Minneapolis, and Toronto are bundled up so tight that they’re unable to breathe or breed. Such problems thankfully don’t exist in India.


You don’t choose your city; it chooses you. You can’t always know what you’re going to love about a place until you get there, so it’s important to let go of the idea of a perfect place to call your own and work with the choices you’ve made—because at the end of the day, you’re always only one decision away from a totally different life. So, live where you love and love where you live!


Happy Navroze!