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Shrinking Together 

Richmond-area Zoroastrians, a tiny pocket of a beleaguered faith, try to hold onto their culture.

That’s not easy, given that Mohta and fellow Zoroastrians are trying to keep their ways in a country where most people don’t even know what Zoroastrians are, and where media, for their part, often misrepresent the group, repeatedly — and erroneously — saying that its practitioners are fire worshippers. To add to the challenge, Zoroastrians are already a beleaguered minority in the world. There are only about 100,000 left, and the group’s dismally low birth rate is exacerbated by religious elders in Bombay who haven’t recognized children born of intermarriage. Still, in recent months, those high priests have accepted cases in which the fathers are Zoroastrians. In this uneasy clash between ancient and modern ways, there’s no sign that the shrinking trend will reverse soon, least of all in Richmond, where Zoroastrians number just 35.

It’s a daunting situation for a faith that has survived so much for so long. Founded by an Iranian prophet named Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), who denounced his countrymen’s polytheism and bloody sacrifices, the religion says that there’s only one god, Ahura Mazda, or Wise Lord. Some 500 years before Christianity’s birth, Zoroastrianism became the state religion of Persia, but in later years, Islamic conquest and forced conversion to Islam prompted Zoroastrians to flee Iran by the boatload and settle in Bombay, where they became known as Parsis (the Persians). But as lore has it, the start wasn’t easy; before they could undock, a Hindu ruler sent them a full cup of milk, to say, essentially, that there was no room for them. The Zoroastrians returned the milk with a pinch of sugar in it, to imply that they would sweeten the land without disturbing it. In Bombay, they created a Zoroastrian center where they never proselytized, never allowed intermarriage, and where they found a homeland and enriched the lives of others. Indeed, along with leading contributions to industry, Parsis founded India’s first cancer hospital.

On these shores, many Americans would likely recognize some of the most famous Zoroastrians of recent times: Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the rock band Queen; the symphony conductor Zubin Mehta; and the writer Rohinton Mistry, whose novel, “A Fine Balance,” was an Oprah book club selection a few years back. And for Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians have a unique place in their histories: Some historians theorize that the three wise men in Jesus’ stable were Zoroastrians, and King Cyrus, a Zoroastrian, helped build the Jews’ second temple in Jerusalem.

In Richmond, Parsis like Mohta are proud of this heritage, and in recent years, Mohta has worked hard to ensure that the local group remembers and celebrates its roots. “We try to keep the group together,” he says, “no matter what.” For his part, Mohta, a 38-year-old father of two, organizes monthly gatherings for fellow Zoroastrians.

“He’s probably one of the first ones to get everyone together,” says Zeeba Blankley, a Parsi and a microbiologist in her 50s who lives in Richmond.

But whether in India, where Parsis number just 90,000 in a country of 1 billion people, or in North America, where about 20,000 have joined the tide of other Indians who have immigrated in the past three decades, Parsis face a gnawing question. They’re one of the most industrious, accomplished groups in the world, but in recent decades, their embrace of modernity has produced a stark drop in births and much intermarriage. Already in India, the numbers are discouraging: In the second most populated country in the world, Parsis are the only group in danger of extinction; 1,000 of them die each year, while only 300 to 400 are born.

Many of the issues facing the Parsis of India are felt even more so in Richmond, Mohta says. Indeed, on a recent Sunday, as he gathered with fellow Zoroastrians in Prince George County to celebrate their new year, the issue of demographics came up.

“There are no totally Parsi kids here,” says Mohta, as he watches his two boys, Cyrus and Eric, whose mother is a Catholic Filipino, play badminton nearby, on a lawn overlooking the Appomattox River. “We have some people who can’t intermarry,” he says. “To me, I always had an open mind; I married outside.” Many of the Parsis at this gathering have intermarried, too, but like some other families here, Mohta and his wife agreed to raise the children as Zoroastrians. And whenever Mohta and his sons go to India, he makes sure that his sons visit the fire temples of his faith. Fire symbolizes the inner spiritual flame that burns in a person.

“I’m very proud to say that my oldest boy follows more rigorously than I do,” Mohta says. His son Eric underwent the navjote, an initiation ceremony into the faith when he was 9 years old. Like his father, Eric also wears the sudreh, a sacred shirt and cord.

As Mohta speaks with a group of Parsis during the gathering, an old friend of his from Bombay walks up. He is Homiyar N. Choksi, 40, who has worked as a chemist in Richmond for nine years. A few years ago, Choksi went back to Bombay for a few weeks to see his family for the first time in 14 years. At his family’s suggestion, he also went looking for a Parsi bride. “Bright, funny, great sense of humor,” is how he describes the woman whom he met and corresponded with over the next two years, before they became engaged and subsequently married there. But now, a backlog in immigration is holding up his 34-year-old wife’s application to move to America.

“Uncle Sam is preventing the increase of the Parsi community,” jokes Dr. Faruk Presswalla, a former medical examiner for New Jersey and Virginia who just moved to Chester.

But Choksi’s optimistic. He’s building a house, and waiting for the day his wife finally gets here. “We’re going on with our lives,” he says.

The same goes for other Zoroastrians at the event this day; none is ready to cave into demographic despair. “We are going to survive,” says Framroze K. Patel, 68, former president of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. “We have survived for 3,500 years.”

As for Mohta, he says that the number of Parsis in Richmond used to be so low that he had to go to Washington for any religious and social functions. Now, what may seem small for outsiders, isn’t for him. The community, he says, is growing, and will continue, he says, “if we keep ourselves together.” S

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