Portraits of ageing Parsis living in Navsari, Gujarat'dhaakad' men and women battling loneliness with a ready smile and zest for life
“Let me comb my hair first. Should I change my dress? I keep myself busy by making this thread. It’s enough to take care of my expenses. My husband died and daughters are married off. This Parsi baug is good and everyone takes care of each other. Thank you for taking my photograph."
These are snatches of a typical conversation at a baug (Parsi colony) or an old-age home in Navsari, Gujarat. There are two-three old-age homes and roughly 10-15 Parsi societies here.
In January, I visited some Parsi family friends living there and came across these old-age homes. The idea of working on a series of portraits took root—most of the work on this community has been done by Parsis themselves.
I thought an outsider’s perspective would be interesting.
Parsis from cities across Gujarat and Mumbai are choosing to settle in Navsari, Surat’s twin city, in the company of new-found friends, some bedridden, some just elderly. Even though almost each one of them nurses the sadness of loneliness, their voices light up in loud, crisp and cheerful greeting, “Hi, Darling!", at the chance of a conversation with a stranger.
After visiting two old-age homes and one baug, and making a firm promise not to reveal details (including names) at the behest of those who run these homes, I found that the 100 or so people I met came to Navsari because the cost of living there is low. Many indicated that Navsari offers better care, a personal touch and a more closely-knit community than anywhere else, especially Mumbai.
The Irani Zoroastrian community, or Parsis, represent a 3,000-year-old religion from the days of the Persian empire. Yet they are said to be an alarming and dismal 0.007% of the population in India today. While the Parsis have integrated well into Indian society, they remain strict about their ethnicity, preferring to maintain their Persian roots by avoiding inter-caste marriages.
Perhaps this is why many ageing Parsis have no extended families or relatives to take care of them. Some have been abandoned by their families and some chose to live the last phase of their lives away from their children, so that they don’t become the cause of marital discord in their children’s lives. Even some of the younger people who have no one to turn to are shifting in.
“My knees hurt now, but I am healthy otherwise. And very single. Help me find a girlfriend, no...the ones here are too old for me," requests one of the elderly men I met.
The spirit of the dhaakad (fearless) Parsi lives on.