I only recently got back into reading young adult fiction. That I hadn’t read much teen fiction after I turned fifteen isn’t a lie – and it wasn’t only because I discovered the world of romance and women’s fiction.
The truth was: I did not see myself on the page.
I am an Indian Zoroastrian (a Parsi) by birth. Zoroastrianism is an old monotheistic religion, going back thousands of years to ancient Iran.
That there were no Parsis depicted in Western fiction or Hollywood was unsurprising to me (no, Persis Khambatta as Lieutenant Ilia in “Star Trek” doesn’t count), but I was disappointed when even India failed to provide me with any real role models.
Parsis are known in India for their contributions to the community. Google “Tata” or “Homi Bhabha” and you’ll see what I mean. But, in mainstream Bollywood, apart from rare movies like “Khatta Meetha,” Parsis were rarely depicted, unless it was to provide comic relief – a stereotypical man who wore glasses, a black pheto on his head, drove a vintage Maruti and spoke horrible Hindi peppered with the Gujarati word “dikra” (child).
When I turned 15, I came across my first Parsi writer. Her name was Bapsi Sidhwa and she wrote a novel called The Ice Candy Man, which Indo-Canadian director, Deepa Mehta turned into a movie called “Earth,” starring Aamir Khan and Nandita Das. The novel was more important to me than the movie because it was told from the perspective of a young Parsi girl in Pakistan who witnessed the events of the bloody partition in the 1940s.
I clung to Bapsi Sidhwa like a lifeline, but it wasn’t until I turned 16 and immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia that I finally found Rohinton Mistry and Thrity Umrigar – Indian immigrants to Canada and the US, who wrote about Parsis in Bombay. As strange as it seemed to me that these Parsis had somehow found an audience in North America, it also made me feel hopeful.
I used to write short stories back then, my longest work a serial romance featuring a pair of Muslim protagonists, published in a youth magazine in Dubai. But I had never written about Parsis before.
It wasn’t until I graduated from university that I began another short story – this one with a Parsi protagonist – a character who was my complete opposite in every way, whose voice came to me as naturally as breathing.
Over the course of ten years, the story went through countless revisions and rejections before it finally became my first novel.
Living with a marginalized identity often means having to live in a mode of constant translation. There is always a fear that no one is going to understand you. That you are writing for a niche. Or that you are just too different to be understood.
I was five when someone first asked me what my religion was. By the time I was fifteen, I avoided answering the question altogether, frustrated by the puzzled smiles or questions like “What?” when I told people I was Zoroastrian.
Yet, where speech failed me in real life, in writing, hope has emerged again. When I wrote, I was able to depict a clearer form of myself. English had always been my favourite subject at school and writing allowed me to engage with the language on a deeper level. I played with sentences, clarifying things here and there, sometimes slyly working in a Parsi-Gujarati pun.
Writing, I found, was an enjoyable and fulfilling way of translating my reality to others who did not know me or who did not grow up as a Parsi in Saudi Arabia.
I started writing Qala Academy for the teenage me. But eventually it also became a book for others. To showcase the people I knew and grew up with – a middle-class Saudi Arabia that till date remains largely unexplored by mainstream literature.
I write, ultimately, to connect with readers – to show them who I really am – and the moments I do have done a great deal to make up for all the frustration I faced as a teen.
There will come a time when it will happen again. Someone will ask me: What is a Parsi?
I will pick up my pen and write: Let me tell you, dikra.