History Article

Those Brits are Something Else

Zoroastrians practice a religion that traces its roots back to Ancient Persia around the year 1000 BC. Zoroastrians were forced to flee their land in 651 AD, following eighteen years of Islamic assaults. Many Zoroastrians eventually settled in India, where they became known as Parsis, a name that invokes their ancient Persian lineage. Under British rule in Colonial India, many Parsis shaped their culture from British cues.

– Jesse S. Palsetia’s The Parsis of India

Amy Williams sports a Union Jack on her helmet and speeds head first down Whistler’s sliding track at 143 km/h. After four heats, Williams wins the gold medal in women’s skeleton at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. My dad, my uncle and I watch the Games on television in our living room in suburban Toronto.

“Boy those Brits are something else,” my uncle says. “No snow, no mountains, and they still win.

My dad and uncle applaud as Williams waves to the crowd, a Union Jack draped over her shoulders. I stand before the television with my hands shoved into my pockets. Canadian Mellisa Hollingsworth finished fifth. I had no reason to applaud. I wonder why my dad and uncle are taking pride in a gold medal that bolsters Great Britain’s tally. Neither of them has ever lived in Great Britain. They were both born and raised in India, a part of India’s Parsi minority. Their loose allegiance to the British Empire seems to stem from the remnants of India’s colonial past.

T.M. Luhrmann writes that under British rule, Parsis grew to accept “the colonial ideology of progress and moral superiority, of westernization as a means to advancement, and of the British as the agents of positive change.”

In 1615, chaplain Edward Terry created the first British account of the Parsis. He called the Parsis a race of heathens living among the Hindus around them, but differing from them in several ways. Terry wrote, “For those Parsees, further, they believe that there is but one god, who made all things and hath a sovereign power over all.

After Britain assumed control of India in 1612, encounters between Parsis and their colonizers increased, and the British view of the Parsi community turned increasingly positive. In 1670, Bombay Governor Gerald Aungier wrote that the Parsis are, “an industrious people and ingenious in trade, therein they totally employ themselves.”

In 1830, Bombay Governor Sir John Malcolm stated, “There is no body of natives in India so remarkable for their intelligence and enterprise as the Parsis. Bombay has owed its advancement in a great degree to this class.”

In a letter to Queen Victoria in 1906, the Earl of Lytton wrote, “The Parsees are, I think, among the very best of your Majesty’s Indian subjects; and I wish your Majesty had more of them. They are a wonderfully thriving community wherever you find them. They have a genius for business, and rarely fail in it.”

Both my dad and uncle attended schools in India run by British teachers and headmasters. My dad attended the Scottish Orphanage. The Bombay school was founded in 1847 to educate the children of Scottish Presbyterian soldiers and Indian Navy Seamen. It later changed into the private school my dad attended, and no, he wasn’t an orphan.

“I was six when I started at the Scottish Orphanage, in 1944,” my dad recounts. “The school was mixed. Very mixed. About half the school was white, and then there was a mix of Parsis and other Indians. We all rode the bus to school together and has classes together, there was never any segregation. Our teachers were British, and we had a bagpipe band, but I wasn’t in it.”

Following Indian independence in 1947, my father continued to attend schools with primarily British faculties.

“At another school in Byculla, I had a music teacher, Ms. Palmer. For whatever reason I didn’t have a good voice, and music class was just before lunch. So sometimes she would keep me in class during lunch to practice my singing, while she played the piano.”

“There were Parsi schools too, but if a family had enough money, they would send their child to a private school. And we Parsis took care of each other. In the baugs, we basically created subsidized housing for each other. So people didn’t have to pay that much for rent, and they could afford to send their kids to a private school.”

“Sometime after independence, I remember King George VI died. And when I passed by a British flag, I gave it a little salute. I was alone, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if there were other Indians around, but I gave a little salute to the flag.”

By his own account, my dad was never indoctrinated with British ideology during his time in private school. But the mixing with British classmates and teachers in a cordial environment may have led to his identifying more with British than Indian culture. The same may be true for other Parsis who experienced similar childhoods.

These residential colonies were created in part by charitable trusts funded by Parsis.

– Palsetia’s The Parsis of India

In Bombay, Parsis established several baugs, apartment complex communities made for the exclusive housing of Parsis.

To this day, my dad never passes up an opportunity to note that the British established one of the world’s largest railway networks in India. The Indian railway network currently ranks fourth in the world, according to the CIA.

My dad, my uncle and I all cheered on Canada in the men’s hockey gold medal game on the last day of the Vancouver Olympics. But if by some miracle Great Britain was playing in that game, I can’t guarantee we would all have been backing the same team.

Sources

Central Intelligence Agency. “Country Comparison: Railways.” cia.gov, n.d. Web. 4 March 2010.

Clarke, Noshir. Personal Interview. 4 Mar. 2010.

Luhrmann, T.M. The Good Parsi, Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.

Palsetia, Jesse S. The Parsis of India, Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2001. Print.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “Sassanian Dynasty.” Encyclopedia Iranica Online, 1 March 2005. Web. 19 February 2010.

Sportsbeat & News Associates. “Amy Williams praises cutting edge technology after Olympic gold.” morethanthegames.com, 4 March 2010. Web. 4 March 2010

Image via Dinodia

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