Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Time for a poor Parsi?

One of the things that I have always been very proud of, is that I have friends from many cultures and nationalities, and when they are not friends, I can at least refer to them as people that I know well. I once had Kenyan coffee with a Nigerian. I have shaken hands with a gentleman who called himself an Eskimo by heritage, and once, I sat next to a Mongolian gentleman from Cuba, on a flight to Germany.

Last week, while I was trying to think of a community in India that I don't have friends or acquaintances from, I suddenly came across a newspaper story about Parsis. The Parsis, who arrived in India from Persia a few centuries ago, due to the persecution of Zoroastrians there, have perhaps given more to India than any other community has, on a per capita basis. By and large, the Parsis are an extremely prosperous group of people, who have worked very hard to build a reputation for themselves over centuries.

The news story was about "poor Parsis". Not many people in India can come up with a sentence which has these two words together. Apparently, the Parsis have many charitable properties in Bombay, that they can rent at a subsidized rate, provided, they can prove that they are poor. So, from time to time, people calculate the "poverty line" for Parsis, and this year, it happens to be an income of rupees 90,000 per month. That is about a thousand and a half dollars a month in a country like India, where, for comparison, a senior bureaucrat in Delhi makes about the same.

Naturally, the first thought that came to my mind was about how many Parsis I know.

Strangely, I don't have any Parsi friends -- not even people that I can call friends of friends. Of friends. But then, many years ago, in the land of the free, I was  interviewed for a job by a Parsi gentleman. Since the engineering group that I had talked to, had only one person from India, after my interview, they had asked him to take me out for lunch. And over lunch, we got talking, about things from India.

Like most Indians, who had spent decades outside of Des, this gentleman got very nostalgic very soon. He told me about his college days in Bombay, and about an old bollywood movie that he had watched after "bunking" college, that I hadn't even heard of -- Satta Bazaar. And then, he had explained to me what Satta was, and how bookies made millions by betting on everything you can find in a farm, including the farm itself.

He had explained to me that in the land of betting, the stronger guy has less money tied to him. So, if you are betting on a guy who has a sure-shot chance of winning, for every hundred bucks you bet on him, you will probably get fifty, or even twenty five. However, if you choose to bet on the weaker horse, with all the odds stacked up on its rickety back, and, in case it wins -- you will make out like a bandit. You will probably make a couple of thousand bucks by betting a hundred. Not bad, really.

I remember ending the conversation with a direct question about what my chances of getting the job were. I had a great interview, and I knew that they were looking for someone with my background.

"For you my friend, for every hundred bucks I bet, I will probably get ten!" That is how my Parsi interviewer had given me hope, for a job that I finally didn't take. But, the entire thought of being the winning horse, was not an entirely unwelcome one.

India, is still trying to choose its candidates for the presidential election. And every Indian, can tell you about a candidate or two that they think should be president. Since India is a parliamentary democracy, the president is a ceremonial figurehead, who is not even directly elected by the people. So, I was surprised that people around me have been really excited about who the next president should be. And then, I found another news story about the Satta Bazaar, where each of the presidential candidates now have a certain number of rupees attached to their names -- for every hundred you are willing to put up. I also found that India's incumbent finance minister, who is the favored candidate, will fetch you much less than hundred. Not that I am betting.

If you live in India, I am sure that someone or the other must have told you about their favorite candidate in the last few weeks, or they may even have asked you about yours. So, when a friend recently asked me the question, I had an answer ready.

"I think India's next president should be a Parsi, and preferably, a poor one."

While my friend looked at me quizzically, I rambled on.

"You know, we have had presidents from all sorts of communities before, but never a Parsi. So, why not?  As you know, India's growth story is coming to an end, people need a change. And, they need a new constitutional head who represents that change. May be, the poor Parsi that we pick will be a person from a business background, and inspire the rest of us."

"Got any names?" asked my friend, who was looking bored already.

"How about Ratan Tata? He is retiring from his current position at the helm of the Tata empire. He made India proud with the nano. And, during the terrorist attack in Mumbai, when most politicians had disappeared from public view, Mr. Tata stood bravely in front of the burning Taj -- with a promise to resurrect it as soon as the fires were put out. And he did. Plus, I have heard that he lives frugally, so he is a poor Parsi."

My friend, who has been tracking the politics of electing a figurehead quite closely, said, "Desi, you have lost it. Completely. Do you know that even if a majority of politicians came around to the idea of electing Mr. Tata, he would refuse to contest. In case you don't know, he is a very private person."

And then, he asked me a question related to the Satta Bazaar, since I had told him the story about my Parsi interviewer, "Desi, if you were to go and bet a hundred bucks on the most favored candidate today, how much do you think you will get?"

"Twenty, may be?" I said casually.

"And how much will you get for Ratan Tata?"

"I don't know, but I have a feeling that it will be pretty high."

"How high? For your poor Parsi candidate, Desi?"

And suddenly, it came to me. In a flash. And then, with a wide grin on my face, I told him.

"Ninety thousand rupees. For a poor Parsi."


  1. desi babu ji - leave ratan tata alone. he has already done enuf for your des.

  2. Desi Babu,

    Parsis hold such smart people like you in great respect and lovingly call you Ghelsappaaa!


  3. Words to be read and digested...