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New beginnings

Seldom have so many major community developments taken place in such a short span of time. The members of the Ripon Club abjectly consented on December 19, 2017 to let their managing committee negotiate the best terms possible to prevent eviction of the 133-year-old institution from the premises. That same evening, the trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) debated whether to permit the Parsi Press to attend the Global Working Group meet to be held the next day at the Banaji Atash Behram Hall. The BPP chairman opposed the presence of the Press but his five co-trustees overruled his objection. This was the first GWG meeting at which the Press was present (see "Global guardians" pg 38). Three days later the Iranshah Udvada Utsav was held from December 23 to 25 in the south Gujarat Parsi mecca. And on Christmas day in Poona, the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism achieved its long sought dream of a prayer hall with a dadgah fire that admits people of all faiths.

Thus 2018 appears set for a good start. While controversies will continue to abound, some concrete developments for the better have taken place. The inauguration of Asha Vahishta, The Zoroastrian Centre in Poona, was a clear victory for the liberal movement and especially the Wadia brothers, Kerssie and Vispy who slogged to raise the two-storey edifice (see "An open house," pg 54). The Centre should also mollify the traditionalists who have long taunted the reformists to create their own institutions and not tamper with the existing ones.

In 2005, an apartment in Colaba loaned for use as a prayer hall by intermarried Zoroastrians and others was the first step in this direction. After that closed down due to Rent Act issues, the next institution was the Prayer Hall at Worli set up over two years ago for those who opted for alternative means of disposal for the dead. In 2016, around 15% of Parsis opted for cremation. In 2017 the figure dropped to around 12%. Prior to the Worli facility, the percentage hovered around six. The Prayer Hall lessened pressure on the dakhmenashini system and may have marginally reduced the stench that emanates from rotting corpses.

But it also means that the 55 or so acres of the Doongerwadi complex with 11 bunglis is grossly underutilized. Less than two bodies a day are consigned to the Towers of Silence; after the funerary paidust prayer, the remaining ceremonies are largely held in fire temples, close to the residence of the deceased. This is understandable as commuting in Bombay has become an expensive, lengthy, tiring and tedious exercise. The BPP, while being stuck with unused bunglis, still has to pay salaries to pallbearers, helpers, gardeners and security staff. The deficit for Doongerwadi is said to be three to four crore rupees (USD 472,850 to 630,467) annually. As the BPP accounts are not made public, the actual figure is not known. The Bombay Municipal Corporation pays for the cost of running the crematorium though the staff for the Prayer Hall are paid by the Parsi trust that manages the Prayer Hall.

Had the BPP compromised and let a separate bungli be constructed, even on the adjoining Ambavadi plot, the vast lands would have been put to greater use and community funds would not have been diverted elsewhere. But sadly, religious sentiments and hubris hold sway over reason and common sense.

The adherence to rigid beliefs often results in community funds being diverted to futile litigation. The ban on the two priests at Doongerwadi and two agiaries managed by the BPP is a classic case of stubbornness and ego overriding good sense. The only "crime" the duo committed was to recite the Zoroastrian last rites for those opting for alternate means of disposal, namely cremation. The meaningless case energerized the plaintiffs, Jamsheed Kanga and Homi Khusrokhan to set up the Prayer Hall at Worli. Had the BPP taken a pragmatic view of the sentiments of a minority, the split and expenditure could have been avoided.

Bombay has around 50 fire temples, nearly all of them with declining footfalls. The long queues that one would witness outside Aslaji Agiary on each Meher roz and especially on Meher roz and Meher mah have long disappeared. If the liberals build one more fire temple that would mean even fewer visitors to the other agiaries. Plus community funds would be utilized for the new institution. Poona has three fire temples for a Parsi population under 4,000. The Zoroastrian Centre is the fourth. The community’s supply of funds is not limitless. The BPP scheme to subsidize practicing priests has ceased to function due to a paucity of funds and the third child subsidy is often delayed.

As the percentage of the intermarried increase and the general Parsi population declines, any fire temple open to all will gain at the expense of the others. Some Parsis may cease to visit the local agiaries altogether. Who wants to worship at an institution which bars family members from being present?

One reason why the young shun mobedi is because of the sheer tedium of the job. How does a priest while away his time if there are no worshippers in the precincts? Who can he talk to? Where is the scope for emotional, religious or intellectual discourse? Many of the fire temples are dreary and depressing. Everything is shuttered to prevent the gaze of non-Parsis. But this also restricts the view looking out.

At the Ripon Club, the landlords, the N. M. Wadia Trust, appear to have the upper hand with the Maharashtra Rent Act presumably denying protection to social clubs. In the past the Club trustees and managing committee have acted in a high-handed manner, refusing to pay higher outgoings, as the Trust had rented premises to a bank, and the taxes were raised. In order to settle the suit, the landlord asked the Club to surrender the fourth floor noting it was not being much used. But by that logic all Parsi institutions would have to give up property, including Doongerwadi, the fire temples and even the baug venues that are booked for only around 60 days out of 365 for celebratory functions.

The Trust and the Club have to find a practical and fair solution, with neither party losing face. The Club is the only such institution in the prime Fountain area where Parsis can become members at a nominal cost. At other cosmopolitan clubs, membership is closed and if opened, the admission fees may cross a crore of rupees (USD 157,616).

While new Parsi institutions are being formed, old ones are facing an uphill battle for survival. Somehow a formula has to be evolved so all adapt and survive.





Villoo Poonawalla