My music teacher in my Christian school had a favourite Bible verse. It went something like “trust in the Lord with all your heart, never rely on what you think you know, remember the Lord in everything you do, and he’ll show you the right way”. Or something like that. It made a lasting impression. Mostly, because it was such a puzzle. I mean, how were you supposed to live your life without relying on what you think you know?
I got a similar feeling when I saw the new set of Jiyo Parsi print ads – a demand for the suspension of disbelief. In a rare feat, the ads manages to be sexist, clannish, misogynistic and classist all at once.
These new ads are part of a government aided campaign to increase the numbers of the dwindling Parsi population in India, which is currently at around 69,000, and which faced an alarming 18 percent decline between 2001 and 2016. The first set of Jiyo Parsi ads, released in 2013, asked you (if you were Parsi) to be responsible and not use a condom tonight for the sake of the future of the Parsi community.
The second phase of the campaign attempts to shift the motivation for having kids from the good of the community to the individual, and basically asks you to forget everything you thought you knew about responsible adulthood in favour of becoming a Parsi-baby-making machine, for your own sake.
You get the feeling that any woman who trusted in Jiyo Parsi with all her heart instead of relying on what she thought she knew was good for her would look back in thirty years at her life and pinpoint this very moment as the one where it all started going horribly wrong.
The first ad, for example, shows a glum-looking woman staring into the distance, accompanied by a checklist of her goals and expectations from life: a car, a flat and a salary of over Rs 1 lakh a month. Goals, which Jiyo Parsi instructs her to junk, because, and I quote, “wait to check all the boxes and you may check into an old-age home. Alone.” Another ad quotes a person saying kids cost money, to which Jiyo Parsi responds with all the confidence and imagination of a schoolyard bully with, “what if your parents had said that?” It then tells you to go ahead and have a bunch of babies you can’t afford, because they’ll bring in money to the family at some unknown point in the future. Basically, combine the worst planning and the worst motivation to have kids, and you’ve got yourself a Jiyo Parsi ad. The ads also operate on the assumption that you’re terribly insecure as an adult and constantly in need of some form of validation, which Jiyo Parsi promises you can have — as long as you have babies right now.
For all its confidence, the ads have quite a bit of internal contradiction. Take this one, in which they show a mother and child. The copy says thankfully, she didn’t listen to people who told her that marrying and having kids early was regressive, and then says there’ll always be people telling you that living a normal life is regressive. Which seems to be kind of the driving force of Jiyo Parsi, which repeatedly tells you that it’s “cool”, progressive and necessary to stop living life the way you’re living it, and to immediately make babies you can’t afford. At the same time Jiyo Parsi would like to peddle you elements of a familiar urban, aspirational cool that all FMCG products sell. One ad warns you that you’ll feel bad about watching theatre performances alone, while one actually tells you that if you want a puppy, you should have a baby as well because that’s the “cooler thing to do”.
Another ad tells you that you needn’t move out of your home when you get married, and your parents don’t have to move out either, and you should instead make peace and live all together (and then have babies). On the other hand, the same campaign tells women that you should want to live with your in-laws after marriage, because you’ll miss your son when he grows up and moves out. It’s not a logical leap and hardly the most convincing rhetoric to get people to have babies, but then again, the makers of these ads are not really operating on a truth-and-logic mode.
Take the next. It features a man (named Homiyar Sachinwalla) sitting on a chair facing a wall for no discernible reason. The text says, you’ll inherit your family home when your parents die, your servant will inherit it when you do. Forget the blatancy of the scare-mongering, isn’t it kind of hilarious that this is the scare they want to monger? Parsi inheritance laws aren’t my particular field of expertise, but even I feel certain that the line of ascendancy doesn’t go from father to son to “servant”, and is it really so bleak and scary if does? Is there nothing on earth that will inspire young Parsis to copulate more than the prospect of sharing their property and wealth with people who work for them?
It’s said that part of the reason why the Parsi community is so embattled in India has to do with community elders pushing for maintaining the racial purity, high rates of inter-marriage within the community, and the strict (and sexist) laws that regulate who really is a Parsi (the children of mixed-marriages are only considered Parsi if their father is). If reports are saying that the Parsi community needs to shake off its ideas of racial purity and bring “fresh blood” into the gene pool, it might be a good idea not to release loaded ads that suggest you should panic if someone outside your immediate family inherits your family property.
If you aren’t Parsi, perhaps the ads will only strike you as remotely comic. Or not. Plenty of people are outraged at the ads for a range of reasons. Hilariously, historian and blogger Simin Patel said to The Hindu on 11 August that she was super enraged by these ads but forgot to criticise them because they came out on the day of Eunice D’Souza’s death, so she had better things to think about. Others point out that it’s irresponsible to be encouraging Indians to have more kids when we’re already in the midst of a massive over-population problem, that such a campaign would be considered reprehensible if directed at any other community or conceptualised in any other country, while others say it’s ridiculous to paint single elderly people as sad, depressed and lonely, which the campaign insists on doing over and over again.
Raj Nair, CEO of Madison BMB, the agency behind this astonishing campaign, says that this second phase is a new rendition of the earlier, “deliberately tongue-in-cheek” ads, and that they wanted to focus on relevant and meaningful issues, such as “togetherness” and “that there is no positive outcome to choosing to be alone.”
I don’t know about you but this clumsy attempt at eugenics brainwashing is making me want to get into an ad-war and release my own campaign. It will instruct young Parsi men and women to use condoms as they please, do whatever they want with their privates and their careers, and make a small attempt at explaining the difference between babies and puppies. All will be well. Jio Happy.
Co-published with Firstpost