An Indulgent Minority

R.J. Manecksha


This discourse is entitled “An Indulgent Minority” simply because the Parsees are a relatively unknown race even to some communities among which they live. Because of their very limited numbers in Malaysia, the Parsees are compliant and therefore indulgent to the society in which they live. It was only through a lapse in the communities general affiable nature that one Jal Manecksha, my uncle, took to political controversy and was nominated to the State Council of Perak in the early 1950’s, appointed a Justice of the Peace and in 1959 became a Dato.

Unlike most migrants who marched into foreign countries and continued application of their piety and custom in transparent display in the midst of the indigenous people, the Parsees were reticent due to their tiny numbers. One could say they slipped into territories quietly and unobstrusively and whatever they accomplished was with minimal fuss.

In order to better appreciate this singular behaviour, it is necessary to be instructed in the history and religion of the Parsees.

The Parsees are an ancient people who find their origin in what is today parts of Iran and Azabaijan. They are members of the Indo-European family known as the Aryans. They are Zorastrians, meaning they are followers of the Prophet Zoraster. A brief silhouette of the religion will be submitted upon later.

They are mentioned in the Old Testament for their benevolence to Israel. Cyrus, King of Persia, liberated the Jews and repatriated the captives from Babylon to Israel to rebuild the Second Temple of Soloman. Darius and Xerxes similarly assisted the Jews in the Diaspora with building material, authority, safe passage and soldiers to return to their home land to build their temples and practice their religion.

But the Persian Empire, which once held sway as feuded overlord of Hellenic territories and even Egypt, was subsequently subjugated by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. Alexander had conquered Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenids, the dynasty that ruled Persia from 559 to 330 B.C. The Empire never regained the power it once wielded or its old luster.

The date of Zoraster’s birth cannot be ascertained with any certainty. It is believed that he was born about 630 BC. Although raised in an age of polytheism, his teachings were conspicuously monotheism. The Greeks regarded him a philosopher, mathematician, astrologer or magician. Jews and Christians regard him as an astrologer, magician, prophet or arch heretic. Zoroaster taught that there was only one God, Ahura Mazda and that life in the physical world was a battle between good and evil. From this teaching followed the edict of Cyprus, King of Persia, proclaiming equality for all his subjects.

But for about 4 centuries after Alexander’s conquest, Persia was to an extent Hellenized and the religion neglected. A revival only came about during the time of the Parthian Empire which saw its demise in 224 AD and the birth of the Sasanian dynasty. It was at this time that Zorastrianism became the official religion of Persia. The Avesta, the original scriptural work, in the form of the ancient Persian language, was compiled and edited and finally became accepted as the orthodox text. This text is sacred as it forms the religious and ethical literature of the Parsees.

The priesthood is hereditary and fire is regarded as purifying and sacred and is the symbol of order and justice. The fire in the temples is fed with sandalwood and cedar by priests with intonations of words of praise in the ancient Avestan language.

Following the Arab invasion of Persia in the 7th century there was mass conversion to Islam but Zorastrianism was tolerated to a certain extent for about three centuries. But between the 9th and 10th centuries, religious persecution forced group of Zorastrians to sail to India where they settled in that area today known as Mumbai. They were referred to by the local population as Parsees from the word “Pars” or Persians.

Today there are about 140,000 Parsees throughout the world and the community remains tiny simply because to become a Parsee one must be born of a Parsee father. There cannot be a conversion to Zorastrianism. These tenats did not provide for desired integration with the local population but strangely did not lead to discord either. The immigrants flourished in commerce and as artisans.

The establishment of trading centers by the East India Company in India and elsewhere provided the community the option of leaving the country to seek fortune elsewhere. British commercial and judicial intervention from China to South East Asia, South Africa and East Africa precipitated the setting up of small communities and sometime of only one family of Parsees in the persuit of wealth in those territories.

One such Parsee merchant was Manecksha Mistry. He was born in Bombay, India, in 1885. When he was about 20 years old he took the first of several step out of India until he finally settled in Taiping where he passed away in 1932.

He first set up business in Batavia, Dutch East Indies, trading in jewellery and silver ware which he imported from the United Kingdom. But life was difficult, especially with a wife and two daughters to support. The spread of British maritime empire to South East Asia and the prominence of the Straits Settlement, which was a Crown Colony, as a commercial centre was the attraction which motivated him to leave Batavia and set up business in Penang.

He purchased a bungalow in Macalister Road (address unknown) and dealt in the merchandise of jewellery and silver ware. He kept a fairly low profile and it is unknown whether he was socially active but it is known that he did join a Lodge of Freemasons to which he was devoted.

As a merchant he prospered sufficiently to be able to purchase rubber estates near Taiping and as rubber tapping was an activity that required employment of labour and personal supervision, he left

Penang and settled finally in Taiping where he became sufficiently well entranched to have a road named after him.

His tenure in Penang was for about 5 years. Most likely he and his immediate family of wife and 2 daughters comprised the only Parsee family in Penang at that time.

At about the time Manecksha Mistry left Penang, another Parsee was about to embark on a journey that was to take him into a leper asylum in Penang as a healer.

Dr. Homi Mehta graduated from the King Edward VII School of Medicine, Singapore, in 1912. He was born in Rangoon after which the family moved to Singapore. Dr. Mehta joined the Straits Settlements Medical Services as Assistant Surgeon on 1st January, 1913. In October, 1915, he was transferred to Province Wellesley. In the service of the Crown transfers are not an option and 1928 he was sent to the Dindings as Deputy Medical Officer to supervise anti-malarial health care. His industry and dedication in anti-malarial work earned him the award of a medal from the Crown.

On 2nd July, 1936, he came to Penang on a new posting as Senior Deputy Medical Officer in charge of the Leper Asylum in Pulau Jerjak. Simultaneous with that duty he was also placed in charge of quarantine facilities on the island of Penang. The responsibilities of the latter duty entailed further engagement of keeping a check on all vessels entering the southern territory of Penang, air crafts landing at the airport as well as flying boats of the Imperial Airways landing off Glugor on the seas.

Throughout the war he was in charge of the Leper Asylum and dedicated himself to the inmates, much to the annoyance of the Japanese administration, for his tenacity and stubbonness in extracting food and basic medical supplies for the residents from the invaders.

After the Japanese Occupation Dr. Mehta worked at the General Hospital, Penang, until his retirement on 4th June, 1947.

Dr. Mehta thereafter continued in private medical practice in Bukit Mertajam and passed away in January, 1963, at the age of 77.

For many years he resided at 459 Burma Road, Penang.

It cannot be gainsaid that Dr. Mehta was a dedicated professional with a deep concern for the leper. Even after his retirement from government service he was in correspondence with centers overseas dealing in the treatment of lepersory as is evident from a letter dated 3rd May, 1957, from the Indian Association of Leprologists, School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, discussing the treatment of lepers.

The fact that Dr. Mehta’s death was reported in two newspapers is a testimony of the mans industry and dedication in his profession which was well publicized and appreciated.

Manecksha Mistry and Dr. Mehta, two Parsees wayfarers, made homes in Penang, the first innocuously and for a short time, the other a consummate doctor larger than life.