Mumbai: After the Hakims married, they looked forward to a quiet life, interrupted often by the laughter of children.
Five years later, none had arrived. Troubled by the void, they began visiting doctors. But nothing worked—until they stumbled upon the fertility plan of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, the apex organization in the city that offers financial support to Parsi couples who want children.
“They said they would pay for fertility tests and treatment if we went to their doctors,” says the woman, who declined to give her first name, citing sensitivities in the community.
“You know how hope is, right? We went.”
As she speaks, she rocks the cradles of the initiative’s recent success stories: twin girls, Katrina and Kareena.
Unbeknown to them, the newborns are part of one more effort to not just keep the dwindling Parsi community alive but grow it, one child (or in the Hakims’ case, two) at a time. In the process, the offspring help bridge the deep fissure over the question of just who a real Parsi is, although they also fuel controversy: If couples are “mixed”—as in one member is Parsi and the other not—then only in cases where the father is a Parsi can assistance be offered.
Yet, even this gesture reflects compromise. Some believe a child can only be Parsi if born to two Parsis, while another line of thinking, as espoused by the Punchayet, says only the father passes on the Parsi heritage, rooted in a religious belief in Zoroastrianism and an ethnic identity descended from Persia.
While India’s population grew from 318 million in 1941 to one billion in 2001, the number of Parsi-Zoroastrians fell 39% from 114,000 to 69,000 in the same period. According to the 2001 census, the child-woman ratio, which is a key indicator of fertility, is 578 per 1,000 in India. Among the Parsis, it is 85 per 1,000.
“At the start of this decade, three people died for every child born. Now, four die for every child born,” says Kavas Panthaki, at the welfare department of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. “We are facing serious problems. There is no doubt about it.”
Some believe that the path to survival is drastic reformation: changing the definition of who is a Parsi.
“Think about it. If my brother marries a non-Parsi girl, his children are Parsis. If I marry ‘outside’ the group, my children are not Parsis. Even if someone converts, we don’t count them as a Parsi,” says a Parsi woman, declining to be identified.
For the conservatives, even the idea of counting “outsiders” as Parsis is blasphemous.
“The Zoroastrian identity is not just a religious one. It is a blend of Aryan race and Parsi religion that makes us who we are,” says Anita Desai, administrator at the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zoroastrians.
In this situation, the growing success of the fertility clinic is becoming a bridge between the two factions.
In four years, 120 couples approached the organization for financial help and, Rs25 lakh later, 40 conceived. Ab-out 60% of these were women more than 35 years old.
Beyond matchmaking, age has been an issue for Parsis as they marry late because they want to get their education, find a house and earn well before they settle down. “That’s what we are trying to do. We want to help those couples who would like help, but do not have the finances to pay for it,” says Panthaki.
The system is clear. Parsi couples can walk in to meet the Punchayet’s chosen doctor, Anahita Pandole. Mixed couples get help only if the man is Parsi because children of Parsi women who marry “out” are not considered Parsis, according to the backers’ philosophy. Dr Pandole has also received recognition from Unesco—the UN body is helping the community preserve its heritage and numbers—which, she says, is an expression of support for the hands-on efforts of the clinic.
“We do baseline tests, blood investigations and semen analysis to begin with,” Dr Pandole says. “The idea is to encourage couples to come in early. Identifying a problem early is key to solving issues—physical or psychological. Sometimes, all they need is counselling. These tests help us identify possible issues.”
The Punchayet pays for all these tests and follow-up treatment from other facilities—endoscopic surgeries, laparoscopy, hysteroscopy, intrauterine inseminations, including in vitro fertilization.
“We don’t ask questions. Women come with the bill, we pay it and that ends our involvement in the process,” says Panthaki, who adds that couples from all over the country come to her.
Contacted by Mint, few successful families agreed to discuss their treatments or their thoughts on just who is a Parsi. “It’s not easy, talking about it. Not all procedures end in children,” says Hakim. “Hopes rise and fall with every new thing you try. Procedures are very painful. So, when the children come, you don’t want to dwell on the past.”