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A Quotient of Sweetness


South Asian Zoroastrian Migration Stories
By Sharmeen Mehri |
MARCH 9, 2022
My parents’ engagement in Karachi, December 1980.
Migration stories hold a strong mythic and ancestral connection for Zoroastrians. In my case, their meaning is also personal. Like other Irani Zoroastrians in the 1960s, my Babo’s family migrated to Pakistan from Iran when he was a young boy. I know that he worked at a tea shop, became fluent in Urdu, and was part of the Iranian Zoroastrian community in Karachi, but I regret that I know little about his journey to Pakistan. He disliked talking about his migration experience, and did not share details about the struggles of adjusting to his new home. When he died suddenly in 2019 during the airspace restrictions between India and Pakistan, I was not able to reach home in time for his funeral. Ours was a difficult and strange goodbye. It was only when the airspace opened up that I could come home and hear stories about my dad’s life from his friends. They shared funny and serious moments from their conversations in the tea shop. Sometimes they provided fragmented details of how my father helped other migrants from Iran who came to him seeking shelter and a temporary home before eventually migrating to Europe and North America.

“Adoption” and “assimilation” are recurrent themes in the migratory lives and stories of Zoroastrians such as my father. These themes are reflected in texts as old as the 1599 CE Qissa-i-Sanjan.1 One of the common Parsi anecdotes of “like sugar-in-milk,” is recorded in the “Story of Sanjan,” which says that the local ruler sent a glass full of milk to the Zoroastrian refugees to indicate that his kingdom would not accept immigrants. A Zoroastrian priest responded by putting sugar into the glass to emphasize that they would assimilate with the locals like sugar in milk. This story is often cited to suggest that Zoroastrians will only sweeten society, not change its essential qualities, and will seamlessly fit into the given social structure. However, in a period of increasing focus on identity, minority movements, and intersectional frictions, it is beneficial to reevaluate how Zoroastrians conform to the societies in which we find ourselves and to ask questions that challenge issues of belonging and allow us to reevaluate our position in the modern global diaspora. Only through tackling these issues can the traditions that unite us be sustained, or even changed, in order to incorporate the new ways we begin to define ourselves.
A digitized image of the Qiṣṣah-‘i Sanjān (Story of Sanjan) manuscript, by Bahman Kay Qubad, held by the British Library.
In honor of my father and other migrants who have struggled to find a home away from home, my Archival Creators project will preserve and document migration stories of Zoroastrian South Asians who migrated to the United States. This archival project, along with others, such as the Zoroastrian Association of Houston’s oral history interviews,2 will provide future generations of Zoroastrians a people’s history about their experiences of leaving home, the challenges of immigration, and efforts to create a sense of belonging in the U.S. This project will bring to light voices that have been underrepresented in the diaspora and represent the mass migration of Zoroastrians from South Asia to North America. In particular, the purpose of my project is to seek a variety of voices with an emphasis on women, sexual orientation, the Irani-Parsi divide, and to bring out both the tensions and unifying themes that color the Zoroastrian experience of migration to America. What and whom did they leave behind, and what do they miss? How would they describe their expressions of assimilating or not into the dominant culture? What does it mean for them to be a Zoroastrian in the United States?
My father in Karachi in his late 20’s.
Zoroastrians hold a peculiar space within the narratives of migration and globalization as our lived experience transcends the borders of nation-states. Our relationships are primarily forged through familial, religious, social, and economic ones as opposed to the national constructs that scholars like Benedict Anderson suggest have been the dominant mode of finding meaning in community. My oral history project will reinterpret this particular community and the triadic relationship of diasporic group, host, and home. The impact of diaspora and memory will also provide space for us Zoroastrians to reflect upon how our religious and social traditions are being reinvented overtime and globally. We are a strong, diverse community that has become part of the American landscape after and through generations of experiences of moving and migrating. Zoroastrian immigrants have built Dar-e mehr and other community centers across the United States. I will tell the story of a diasporic community, one that is rooted in the endeavor to establish home, secure those that foster our community, as well as to evolve our own sense of identity in order to incorporate those new and varied ways we have developed as a result of our migrations, and one that is rooted in making a home anywhere in the world.

1. The earliest record and account of the Zoroastrian migration from Iran and settlement in India written by a Zoroastrian priest, Bahman Kay Qubad of Navsari. The “Story of Sanjan” is a qissa or narrative poem and encapsulates the oral tradition.
2. https://txarchives.org/ricewrc/finding_aids/00820.xml

Sharmeen Mehri is a Pakistani international Ph.D. student in the English department at the University at Buffalo. Her project will seek to examine and preserve the migration experiences of Zoroastrian South Asians to the United States. With a specific focus on the narrative of assimilation or dissimilation, she will carry out and collect oral interviews to highlight an often-overlooked minority group in the South Asian diaspora. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).