At the annual festival of Wilson College last year, a writer for the Parsi Times, a local community pullout, decided to have a bit of fun. A ‘PRS Bike Race’ was being held as part of the festival, sponsored by the Performance Racing Store. The next edition of the newspaper carried a front-page piece on how the “Parsi Racing Society” had “sponsored” this event and that “full credit should be given to Parsis for organising a racing event”. “If there’s any community that happens to be more jovial, quirky, contrarian and unpredictable, I’ll be extremely surprised,” says a man who enjoys the company of his many Parsi friends.
Mumbai’s history is interwoven with the history of Parsis: a bulk of the minuscule community still lives in this metropolis. Some of the largest plots, real estate and businesses belong to Parsis. In several historical accounts of Parsis, there are references to how the British found Parsis easy to deal with and even a bit like them in manner, education, even eccentricities. Later, the British came to see them as efficient at work, honest and reliable.
Arun Kejriwal, director of Kejriwal Research and Information Services, recalls a Parsi trying to buy a house in Mumbai some years back. The builder refused to sell the property unless part of the payment was made in cash. The Parsi withdrew the required sum from a bank and wrote down the date, the builder’s name and other details on the counterfoil. Later, when the income-tax department questioned him about the transaction, he explained the circumstances and produced the counterfoil in evidence. They readily believed him. “Given the goodwill the community enjoys, they accepted his word and let him off. Later, it was the builder who was questioned,” says Kejriwal.
A senior banker at a public sector bank says one thing has stood out in his dealings with Parsis: they are shrewd, they know how the game is played, and they are uncomfortable about pushing the boundaries. “I am not saying they don’t use the system,” he says, “but doing so goes against their grain and, as far as possible, they would rather not know of any sort of wrongdoing. They might hire somebody else to get their job done. You can call that being an ostrich, but it’s the truth.”
Says Benaifer Shroff, a senior office manager at a leading multinational firm, of her community’s “types”: “I think there are two types of Parsis—the really good ones and the really annoying ones. The really good Parsis will be honest to a fault, friends for life. The annoying ones will be out-and-out rogues. There are no grey areas with Parsis.” Generally, Parsis are honest, almost blunt; non-Parsis who have worked with them say that, even if you are the closest of friends with them, there’ll be a point that cannot be crossed. Most Parsis tend to be reserved and understated, generally happy with life; they maintain a healthy work-life balance. “It’s that thoda hai, thode ki zarurat hai attitude. Most Parsis have a laidback attitude, are happy with life, happy with what they have and manage to have a balanced life,” says Shroff.
They love to laugh at themselves, at life and at their own community. Kejriwal speaks of a Parsi classmate from Campion school in Bombay, who the boys would tease by calling him half-witted; he’d retort that he’s grateful he didn’t turn out witless, for his parents happened to be first cousins. The boy went on to become a top lawyer in the UK.
Strangely, the older generation of Parsi entrepreneurs who set up business houses—the Tatas, Wadias and Godrejes—haven’t found enterprise flowering in the younger generations. Most young Parsis seem content with handling family-owned businesses, expanding them or changing them to suit the times, but rarely venturing to create new businesses. These days, young Parsis are keen to take up professions, like medicine, law, architecture and education.
There are a few exceptions, though, with the new generation showing more ambition. Boman Irani, 43, founder-chairman and managing director of the Rustomjee Group, a real estate firm, says he has benefited from his Parsi lineage. The company’s name—it’s named after his father—marks it out as a Parsi company, and people tend to trust and feel comfortable with it, he says. Irani believes it’s his responsibility to make sure that his customers and employees are well taken care of as long as he heads the business. He recalls an old gentleman reminding him at a Parsi conference that if a business was not conducted the Parsi way, it was not the right way.
As a community, Parsis are viewed to be quite open to change and technology, especially the newer generation. Architect Hafeez Contractor, who grew up with Sindhi and Marwari friends, speaks of this openness to change, “It is the people you meet in your transformative years that determine your approach to life, business and money. We’re no longer insulated and therefore will not necessarily reflect the characteristics of the community. We still draw from our heritage, but outside influences make a key difference.” Indeed. Given the diminishing population size—there are only a few hundred Parsis in Delhi, for instance—the circle of influence would seem to be small. However, Parsi influence in the business world still rules strong. For proof, look no further than the intense media attention around Cyrus P. Mistry, Ratan Tata’s chosen successor. He belongs to the Pallonji family, who are so reclusive, says an insider, that “you need a microscope to find out where they are”. Mistry’s track record is primarily in Shapoorji Pallonji’s construction business, which he heads. Now he has the chance to be a new-gen flag bearer for an old business community.
Parsis are minorities within minorities (Straight, Honest Parsimoney). They came as penniless refugees from their old fatherland, broken and in disarray. Yet, you don’t see them begging for crumbs and doles from the Centre. Instead, they chose the route of toil and hard work. Today, they are not only among the richest Indian communities, their contribution to nation-building too is undisputed.
Kiran Bagachi, Mumbai
I worked in a Parsi-owned engineering firm for many years. By and large, Parsis are clannish; as expected, the majority in their firm are Parsi. Also called ‘Bawas’, they are mostly sensitive people; many are emotionally unstable. It thus requires great tact and understanding to deal with them.
G. Venkatesh, Chennai
The article is a tribute to the contribution of this dynamic community in all spheres of Indian life, especially in social commitment and philanthropy.
G.S. Rao, Bangalore
The Parsis in general and Tata Group in particular have really shown how when "The GOING GETS TOUGH, ONLY THE TOUGH GET GOING".
Unlike the Birlas, the Tata Group post independence started with double disadvantage - Being too westernized and being not close to the Ruling Nehru Dynasty/Congress Party and subsequently that meant that the group lost lot of opportunities to expand business, relatively speaking (compared to their rivals).
But yet , after 65 years (and 58 years of Congress rule in that), the Tata Group stands ahead of all business groups, with large non Indian market presence (which a group like Reliance can never think of) and above all huge strength in New Age businesses (IT - TCS).
Hats off to the group and the community that lived through the Nehruvian Socialist era and proved them all wrong !!!
You might add that the Parsis are very good managers, also they have also encouraged thier women to get educated and run thier businesses.
Parsis are the minorities within minorities. They came as refugees, penniless, and broken. Yet you dont see them begging for crumbs off the establishment, asking for doles and reservations. Instead, they chose the route of toil and hard work. They got educated. And look at them today. They are one of the richest indians, enterprising, honest, hardworking, willing to take business risks, never depended on any government to uplist them, them formed a vote bank, never stood in line for employment but gave employment to many others,
Just compare them to the largest minority of india and the difference is as stark as black and white!!
If Parsees are 'either black or white, and not grey', then the Tatas must certainly belong to the black. After getting Nehrus mining license- the 'original' mining scam, the Tatas got one of the most profitable mining leases in history. Same story with inciting the Bengalis with their land lease and benefitting from Modis desperation too.
It is bemusing to see the media keep secret, the fact that the Tatas have spirited away the Tata money abroad. The reclusive Mistry, who owns some 25% of the Tata empire, pays taxes in IRELAND, since taking Irish nationality since the past few years.
( as for wealth admirers, one must note that moneyed people are not necessarily good )
One has only to work in a Parsi company to feel the preferrential treatment a Parsi employee gets over others like the Hindus.
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