Now it’s time, for all Parsis to pray.
To Dadaji and fervently say;
“On our knees, to THEE we implore,
Please do not wipe us off the floor”
The Parsis are dying out. This people of western India, originally from Iran and famous for their role in trade, science, and industry, may disappear by mid-century, having already fallen from 114,890 in 1941 to 69,001 in 2011. Deaths outnumber births by a ratio of almost three to one.
What has caused this calamity? War? Disease? Natural disaster?
None of the above. There just aren’t enough babies. By 1980-82 the Parsi fertility rate had slumped to 1.12 children per woman—a seemingly rock-bottom figure. By 2001 it was 0.89. Today, very few women are of reproductive age. Only one family out of nine has a child below the age of 10 (D’Silva, 2013).
Things have not always been so. Parsi fertility fell below the level of two children per woman only in the 1960s. At the time, the decline seemed normal: with modernization, more children live to adulthood, so fewer need to be born. Yet the fertility rate continued to fall and fall. Clearly, there were other reasons for the decline.
One reason is a steady ratcheting upward of what it means to be “ready for marriage.” For today’s Parsi, you’re “ready” when you have a university degree, hold a good, stable job, and can buy a home of your own. That means being in your 30s, when fertility is already declining. Another reason is that 30% of the community never marries (Brara, 2013). Some men complain it’s impossible to jump through all the hoops that marriage seems to dictate. Parsi women are described as having unrealistic expectations and being too high-maintenance, with the result that a growing number of Parsi men marry outside their community. Others just prefer the single lifestyle.
Behind these specific reasons lie a broader reason: Westernization. More than a century ago, the Parsis enthusiastically adopted Western values: emancipation of the individual, submission to the expectations of the market economy and, conversely, a gradual loss of collective goals and priorities. This was the road to wealth, and that part of the bargain has been honored. The Parsis did become much wealthier, but at a price—the gradual disintegration of the family and other traditional supports for group survival. The “bargain” looks more and more Faustian.
The Parsis are not alone
Other peoples have gone down the same road. The first were those of Northwest Europe, who seem to have a longstanding tendency toward greater individualism and weaker kinship (Hartman, 2004; Macfarlane, 1978; Seccombe, 1992). They were thus better positioned to free themselves from the constraints of kinship and organize their social and economic relations differently, along the lines of what would become the market economy. With the end of the Dark Ages, Northwest Europeans began to follow this trajectory of cultural evolution, advancing farther and farther in the direction of liberalism, mercantilism, and personal autonomy. The benefits were impressive—in a few centuries, they went from being semi-barbarians on the fringes of civilization to becoming lords of the earth. And this huge increase in geopolitical power was matched by huge increases in wealth and scientific knowledge. The benefits were so impressive that few people thought about the costs, or the final end point—complete social atomization.
Other peoples looked on, with admiration. Westernization seemed to be the secret to success. In the 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews embraced it with the fervor of the newly converted, using Yiddishkeit as a vehicle to spread the ideals of the Enlightenment—progress, freedom, and personal autonomy. The Japanese converted during the Meiji Restoration, turned away during the 1930s, and finished the job under American tutelage. In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution began as an effort of accelerated Westernization, which later reversed course under the pressures of autarky and fear of the West. In the 1990s, with the end of communism, the West once more became the model to be followed.
Today, non-Orthodox American Jews have a fertility rate of only 1.3 children per woman. Similar baby busts have played out elsewhere, especially where collectivism has rapidly given way to individualism: Japan, Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy … Modern Western culture is toxic for family formation in most societies, but its effects seem to be more toxic in some than in others.
Sad but inevitable, you say? Only if you think Western modernity is inevitable. In recent years, both Israel and Russia have dramatically reversed their fertility declines, while continuing to be modern societies (Goldman, 2013; Karlin, 2014). Cash inducements have been one factor. But the really key changes lie in the realm of culture and ideology, particularly in the effort to strike a new balance between the individual and the collectivity. And by the collectivity, I don’t mean the artificial structures of State, ideology, and corporate loyalty. I mean the natural ones of family, kith and kin, and ethny. This will be the basis for postmodern traditionalism, including that part of the world where Western modernity began.
Is there hope for the Parsis?
But what about the Parsis? For now, the priority is to buy time. The Indian government, to its credit, has embarked on an ambitious project to raise Parsi fertility through in vitro fertilization and through incentives for people to marry earlier. In the words of the minister for minority affairs, K. Rahman Khan: “This is a small step to pay our debt to the Parsi community for their contribution to the country. We cannot afford to lose this community” (D’Silva, 2013).
Reversing the fertility decline will be like steering the Titanic away from the iceberg. There is a lot of momentum behind the current downward trend. Moreover, any successful reversal will require not only financial incentives but also changes to the broader cultural and ideological environment, which lies mostly outside India and is centered in the Western world. Russia and Israel are large enough to sustain their own cultures, but this is not the case with the Parsis. Unless they want to be like the Amish or the Hassidic Jews, by blocking out modern Western culture as much as possible, they will have to find some other way.
If there is one.
Brara, S. (2013). While there’s still time, The Hindu, October 17 http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/while-theres-still-time/article5240683.ece
D’Silva, J. (2013). Can India save its Parsi community with assisted reproduction? BMJ, 347:f7530 http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f7530.full?ijkey=vwHjjYILTGR9EDf&keytype=ref
Goldman, D.P. (2013). Israel’s demographic miracle, InFocus Quarterly, 7 (spring)http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/4058/israel-demographic-miracle
Hartman, M.S. (2004). The Household and the Making of History. A Subversive View of the Western Past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://books.google.ca/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=Ynta0T8XCXgC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=%22household+and+the+making+of+history%22&ots=RKOGFT0iX3&sig=yJCKWta8-HpHsyfn1eLaCmbe26A
Karlin, A. (2014). The “normalization” of Russia’s demographics, The Unz Review, November 25 https://www.unz.com/akarlin/normalization-of-russias-demographics/
Macfarlane, A. (1978). The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition, Oxford: Blackwell
Parsinustan-ne Kahanis. (Stories from Parsi homeland) https://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB0QFjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fzoroastriansnet.files.wordpress.com%2F2012%2F11%2Fvignettes-from-parsi-history-prospect-what-if.doc&ei=Dm_KVLCiLpKvyQSY7oGYCg&usg=AFQjCNEep6ipJOFicQXSgHBu7hdb6cz0QA
Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe, London: Verso. http://books.google.ca/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=MiTxtZI-pzUC&oi=fnd&pg=PP13&ots=E-rMsM8u-P&sig=ifA6uDqYFLomOGQwyBfNfrDKTpw#v=onepage&q&f=false