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Heads on high

Modesty is seldom a virtue among those in public life. But even hardened cynics like us were taken aback when our high profile columnists Alamai Putla, Aflatoon Sabi and Letap Bhaukhao walked into our office with an unusual request. Since everyone was building gargantuan statues why not the Parsis? they inquired.

Whose statue did they intend to put up? we inquired patiently. Our office had been flooded with requests/demands for large Parsi statues. "We can’t put up a statue of the Prophet because that would amount to idol worship. As it is our fire temples are full of portraits of the Prophet and other worthies but according to our traditions, no images or idols are permitted, only the fire. So we can’t compound the transgressions," we explained.

Our second standard query was: How will you fund it? The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) doesn’t have enough money to even pay for McDonald’s burgers at their weekly meetings. They order cutting chai and brun maska from the local bhat on a cash basis. When the BPP instructed the delegates to the usual two-day Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India biannual meetings (held once every two years instead of twice a year) to bring their own lunchbox/tiffin and contribute for the customary Saturday night dinner, they all balked and refused to attend. So there was no question of funding a statue. One would need around Rs 3,500 crores (USD 500,000,000) for a respectable statue.

"We could try crowdfunding," suggested Aflatoon. "When we wanted to hold a khushali nu jashan for Alamai on being the oldest Parsi woman passing her HSC (Higher Secondary Certificate) exams (scoring 44%, with a distinction in moral science and needlework) this March, we managed to raise enough money for the chasni but we didn’t have enough for the priests. So we made Letap recite the Ashem Vohu several times since he knows that by heart and I garlanded Alamai."

We congratulated Alamai on her academic achievement but pointed out that if they couldn’t raise enough money for a jashan, how could they raise half a billion dollars for a statue that would serve little purpose other than providing a perch for pigeons?

"The trouble with you journalists," said Alamai in exasperation, "is that you think small and traditional. When we talk about statues people only think of statues of men. Why not women? In an age of #MeToo, an appeal for a woman’s statue could raise a billion dollars. And when we use Chinese steel we can cut the cost by half."

She had a point. "A statue of a woman is a worthy idea," we observed. "But the woman should not be aged between10 and 50."

"Agreed," said Alamai. "We don’t want to idolize women who are impure in any way. The government of India would also disapprove."

"Where will you place the statue?" we inquired. "The Arabian Sea has been taken and all the available islands and hill tops have been booked for idols of our great Indian male patriots."

"We thought of that too," said Letap. "As our population dwindles, several of our baugs will be depleted. Rather than house non-Parsis, we could demolish the buildings and erect the statues."

"Statues?" we asked, bewildered. "You said statue."

"Yes, yes," but we could add two more. Since we don’t have three women who would merit a statue, we could reserve two for men."

"True, there are so many deserving men," we modestly concurred. "But tell us honestly, does any woman merit a statue? Publicly Parsiana espouses the cause of women but strictly between us, does any Parsi woman even remotely deserve a statue? At the most one could place a small pencil sketch in some forlorn corner of a dadgah."

"Since when has merit been the criteria for erecting statues?" Alamai questioned. The traditional Alamai believed in brute force and the threat of violence to win us over to her point of view (she is the protege of a former BPP chairman) but here she was actually engaging in an intellectual discussion. As part of her HSC syllabus she had read a few pages on logic and philosophy.

"OK," we conceded. "Let’s put merit aside, whose statues do you propose putting up?"

There was an awkward moment of silence. The trio cast their eyes down at our Minton tiled, office floor. Then they gazed up at the peeling paint on our high ceiling.

"O Khodai!" we exclaimed as realization dawned. "You want your statues put up." They had not been motivated by any higher calling or desire to recognize the great deeds of Parsis, past or present. It was all ego and me, me, me.

"You realize there will be great opposition to your proposal, especially from people who feel they or their ancestors are more deserving of recognition. And then there will be those know-it-all activists who feel the money should be spent instead to encourage women to produce more children or to learn knitting or prepare malido, to be better and more obedient housewives.

The BPP also requires funds to file more cases and pay their lawyers, if they win cases. And the present Doongerwadi deficit is expected to go up from last year’s four-and-a-half crore rupees.

We faced a moral dilemma, we confided to the trio. Do we support our loyal columnists or do we give countenance to popular sentiment that opposes frittering away scarce resources on extravagant, ego fuelled, grand gestures?

"We fully understand your predicament," said Letap, the most intellectual of the three (he had actually read an entire book once, Why Parsis are the greatest by noted writer Jamshedji Janeeta, Parsipanu Publishers, 1942 reprinted in 2002 by the Make Parsis Great Again Trust Funds). "But there must be a way to resolve the great emotional conflict you are faced with now. How can we help you to come to terms with the issue?"

Another awkward silence ensued. The editorial department personnel cast their eyes down at the tiled floor and gazed up at the ceiling.

"Done!" exclaimed Alamai. "Two statues for us and one for you. Yours will be somewhere in the Western Ghats. You’ll have to arrange for environmental clearances, etc. We don’t want to be bothered by leopard-loving, tree hugging, Parsi environmentalists. Is it a deal?"

"Only if all the statues are of the same height," we replied.

"Ok but the height includes the pugree," qualified Alamai. With her mathabanoo that meant her head would be higher than the other two. Still it’s a small price to pay to maintain women’s dignity.

(Tenders will be invited shortly. First preference to Parsi statue makers. At Parsiana it’s always, "Community First.")


Villoo Poonawalla