Who are the Parsis?

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It might sound amusing but the incident where a dead goose was tossed into the car of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by protesting Parsis brings to light a slice of life, not only of early-19th century Bombay but also of the Parsi community around 200 years ago.

Prochy N Mehta offers valuable insights like these in her book Who Is A Parsi? (2022), which takes a long, hard look at the community – from the rediscovery of their roots and ancient connection to Persia, the debate between the orthodox and religious groups, their personal law and what it has meant to interfaith marriage and conversion, and the socio-economic fabric of the community.

Mehta points out that while it is largely the wealthy elite of the community that we remember for shaping the city of Bombay, the Parsis were “clearly divided between the educated and affluent class (the Sethias) and the masses who lived in chawls”.

As for the dead goose thrown into the judge’s car… It was an act of protest by the Parsis of Bombay, during a mass uprising against the culling of stray dogs by the colonial British administration. The ‘Bombay Parsi Riots’ of 1832 showed that the Parsis, known for their brutal honesty and for placing integrity above all else, were willing to stand up for what they believed in. An extract from Mehta’s book:

Today it might sound unbelievable that a full-scale riot broke out in Bombay in 1832 over dogs. And it might sound even more incredible that the ever-so-gentle, decorous, well-bred Parsis led it from the front.

19th century photograph showing a Bombay street | British Library
19th century photograph showing a Bombay street | British Library

Noted industrialist and author J.R.B. Jeejeebhoy described Bombay in the middle of the 19th century as a ‘rowdy and corrupt place’ where ‘clashes between governors and chief justices were common’ and ‘bribery was rampant’ (Bribery and Corruption in Bombay; 1952). Many of the poor Parsis lived in typical Bombay ‘chawls’ where residents shared a common toilet and bath. The community in the late 18th and early 19th century was clearly divided between the educated and affluent class (the Sethias) and the masses who lived in chawls.

Sketch of Jejeebhoy, 1857 | Wikimedia Commons
Sketch of Jejeebhoy, 1857 | Wikimedia Commons

On 7 June 1832, the Parsis called a strike in Mumbai in protest against government action against street dogs. Faced with the menace of stray dogs, the government had decided to kill them. However, it relented when, in 1830, a deputation of eminent citizens led by Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy proposed that the dogs be captured and released elsewhere. But this reprieve did not last long.

The Parsis called a strike because on 6 June, the dog squad had entered the houses of many Parsis and had taken away their dogs.

The Parsis entreated them not to do so and asked them to release the captured dogs. There were some skirmishes between the Parsis and the members of the dog squads. It was then decided in a meeting of a hundred-odd Parsis that all the food and grain shops would be closed on the 7th of June, food supply to the English stopped, and a general strike be called. They indicated their program to the shops inside the Fort and the bazaar outside the Fort. The rich Parsis were not with them and were unaware of their plans.

Most of the rioters were of the lower class like cooks, and water-carriers; some middle-class gentlemen also joined them. On that day, they closed the shops, and stopped the supply of roti and bread being sent for the soldiers at Colaba. Many of the Khatki (butcher) people, who transported the meat did not support the strike; when they were carrying the meat, they were beaten up and the meat thrown into the moat surrounding the Fort. The Portuguese Christians, who also supplied bread to the soldiers, were threatened and the bread spoilt. This rioting continued till 10am.

Their action spread terror in the English. The Magistrate wrote to the Town Major asking him to send troops as the Parsis were Rioting. He did not respond for a long time. The British regiment in Colaba did not receive its bread. The British who were going to offices were waylaid. They obstructed the car of Sir John Awdry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and threw some garbage and a dead Goose into his car. The Magistrate arrested many of them and appealed to Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy and other prominent Parsis to control the situation. Their efforts failed. The rioters were too excited and would not listen. At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the British troops from Colaba were stationed in the Fort with instructions to shoot if required.

The Parsi gangs, seeing the armed troops, dispersed and ran away. Many were captured and jailed and some were sentenced to jail for 2 or 3 years. These riots led to the Englishman distrusting the Parsis. This situation was corrected when the British were convinced that the upper-class Parsis did not support the rioters and were in fact against them. (Frontline 16 October 2013 Story of 2 Riots.)

Here is an incident between Parsis and Europeans reported in The Times of India, Bombay, on 14 August 1878:

A Parsi named Maneckjee Aspandiarjee was yesterday charged before the hon’ble Mr Dosssabhoy Framjee, at the Girgaon Police Court, with assaulting a European woman named Dina Trickee Trackee, residing in the Cursetjee Sooklajee Street. It appears that on the night of the day previous, the defendant, while passing along the street, ‘made faces’ at the complainant and otherwise annoyed her. She came down from the verandah of her house and held the defendant, whereupon he bit her hand. Upon the evidence the defendant was convicted, and fined Rs 25 or in default, to rigorous imprisonment for 14 days.

Yes, it was quite a different community then.

Who is a Parsi? by Prochy N Mehta
Who is a Parsi? by Prochy N Mehta

Excerpted with permission from Who Is A Parsi? (2022) by Prochy N Mehta and published by Niyogi Books. You can buy your copy here.