On Keeping Quiet: Shirley in Mumbai

Shirley with her dog inside the Cusrow Baug colony
Shirley with her dog inside the Cusrow Baug colony

By Rosalie Murphy

MUMBAI — Shirley teaches outdoor yoga every morning at 8:30 a.m. and walks her dog several miles every night. It wouldn’t be a special routine except that she does it in the middle of Colaba, a crowded, wealthy neighborhood in South Mumbai. Shirley lives in the Cusrow Baug Parsi Colony. They also have access to gardens, playgrounds, a gym, a community pavilion and controlled, heavily subsidized rents – amenities Mumbai’s chaotic streets don’t offer.

Parsis are descended from Iranian Zoroastrians, who moved from Persia to India around 800 AD. There are still 50,000 of them in Mumbai. Part of that group fills 500 flats in Cusrow Baug. Shirley grew up just outside the colony, then married a Parsi man and moved in. They’ve since divorced, but now their daughter is 14.

The colony is very safe, but its insular social network frustrates Shirley. She wants her daughter to be free-thinking and to choose her own faith, whether it’s Zoroastrianism or not.

“People here never see life on the outside. They don’t have friends outside. When they travel, they don’t meet local people, they just go with each other. They don’t grow,” she said.

“Parsi” is an ethno-religious indicator exclusive to India. A person can be a Zoroastrian and not a Parsi, but not vice versa. But Shirley thinks Parsi might lose its Zoroastrian element soon. Parsi children have an initiation ceremony at age seven, but Jabawadi believes they rarely study their faith’s scholars. The community’s faith feels incomplete to her. She doesn’t practice anymore.

“Most people around here don’t even know why they do what they do. They just do it because their families do it. I don’t think that’s good,” Shirley said.

Whatever people practice privately, Shirley said religious festivals and temple visits unite the community. People worry when she doesn’t participate. And so she keeps her agnosticism a secret, which means she has few close friends inside the colony.

“I’m kind of on my own here,” she said.

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