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Helping ourselves, helping others

When trying to find solutions to community issues, it’s beneficial to look around to see what others are doing, both in India and abroad. In "Cemeteries are changing" (Events and Personalities, Parsiana, December 7, 2017), we wrote about the cemeteries in Australia holding events to draw crowds to their vast grounds. These final resting places of the dead are usually visited only when a dear one expires or on the anniversary of a death or some other solemn occasion. The rest of the time these vast expanses of real estate are unutilized.

The Rookwood cemetery in Sydney comprises 780 acres, 14 times the size of Doongerwadi. Almost a million people have been either buried or cremated in the 150-year-old final resting place. The monuments on the grounds include Chinese, Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish and Islamic memorials. There are Catholic and Anglican chapels, a Greek Orthodox chapel and a Chinese temple, notes Wikipedia. Members of different faiths and different modes of disposal exist in harmony side by side.

"To commemorate Rookwood’s 150 years ‘live jazz music, grave digging demonstrations and face paintings for children,’ were featured," noted Agence France-Presse.

One visitor commented on the new approach, "You’ve got to come with a different mentality here and think: Wow, this isn’t like a creepy, dead man’s land. It’s nice, it’s a cheery place. And it’s just a joy to be here, bizzare as it seems."

Closer to home, the eight-acre South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta celebrated its 250th anniversary by holding a western musical concert on January 6, 2018. A quartet accompanied by a pianist played compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Freidric Handel, notes of January 8.

The Hindu of January 4, 2018 in an article titled "It’s Bach to the cemetery for a musical feast in Calcutta," quoted Ranajoy Bose, the organizer of the concert: "This is a strange cemetery. For instance, there are no crosses here. Instead, the tomb designs carry the architectural imprint of many civilizations, including Greek, Roman, Turkish and Mughal influences, and some are even shaped liked Hindu temples. We would like school children to know something about these eclectic designs created by Indian masons, besides some Western classical music."

States livemint "The aim of the initiative by the Christian Burial Board, a statutory body which runs five cemeteries in Calcutta, was to connect with the city’s elite and diplomats and create awareness about what perhaps is the oldest British colonial burial ground... (where) the last burial took place in 1931, (and) stands out for its diversity of architecture." The Board is a nongovernmental body and depends on funds "from charities and on cash flow from active cemeteries," states the website. The Board spends around Rs 15 lakhs a year on upkeep.

Similarly, the defunct Parsi anjuman cemeteries that dot the Indian landscape also serve as important historic landmarks. Often, they may be the only evidence of a Parsi presence in many parts of the country. Most of them are neglected or encroached upon after the exit or demise of the last community member. One reader of Parsiana, on learning about the defunct cemetery in Dharwar, offered to finance the transformation of the grounds into a garden. The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India at one time contemplated selling the aramgah along with some valuable adjoining real estate. The income from the sale is to be spent on litigating against Parsi women who marry non-Parsis and their offspring.

In Bombay, the Bhandup Hindu Smashan Bhoomi sells for Rs 2,950 a kit containing 38 items required for performing the last rites, states the Hindustan Times of January 15. The kit is available at "50 puja stores, ambulance service providers across Bombay and New Bombay including the crematoriums at Chandanwadi and Antop Hill," mentions the report.

"Most crematoriums only provide wood. Our idea is to help families bid goodbye to the departed in a dignified and stress-free manner," says Nitesh Mehta. He along with his cousin Hiten Dhruv came up with the idea two years ago, after the hunt for Gangajal for a friend’s funeral took them a whole evening.

"Many Hindus prefer not to use plastic or metal to carry the dead, so the main item in the box is a six-foot long collapsible bamboo stretcher. ‘It can carry a person weighing up to 150 kg, and is assembled in segments," said Mehta. "We also met with a number of priests to ensure the box didn’t miss anything vital. Each item is labeled in English and Hindi."

The Times of India (TOI) of January 12 talks of a Syrian Christian Church in the suburb of Mulund that offers freshly made food free of cost to the indigent. The Church has installed a new refrigerator in which food is packed in foil containers with the expiry date mentioned and a microwave oven in which a security guard warms the food for the recipients. "One hundred and fifty odd Malayali families of the North Bombay Mar Thomas Church have been rolling extra rotis or packing upma left over from breakfast to deposit in the fridge," notes the daily. Some parishioners prepare sandwiches, idlis or puran polis.

"The Bible says Christ fed the poor and asked his disciples to do so. I feel guilty when food is wasted at home, so it is best to divert it to needy people. Even on a regular day, it takes no effort to prepare a few extra rotis or sabzi (vegetables)," says volunteer Mary Varghese who contributes food regularly.

TOI adds: "Bangalore pioneered this concept in 2016 when the Rotary Bangalore Brigades installed a ‘Fridge of Kindness’ in restaurants. Since then Jaipur has also adapted the idea."

In Nagpur, Khushroo Poacha initiated the Seva Kitchen program where volunteers cook meals in their homes and provide them to caregivers in public and private hospitals in six cities ("Cooking for carers," Parsiana, July 21, 2016). An equal number of well-wishers provide snacks in refrigerators called Neki ka pitara (goodness box) placed at 11 locations, including three schools for children from disadvantaged families.

Poacha is planning to make pyramid shaped mini versions of Neki ka pitara which charity-minded individuals can install outside their homes and neighborhoods. An app is also available to guide people how to start Seva Kitchen in their vicinities.

Some churches leave cradles outside their premises so unwanted babies can be deposited there instead of being abandoned in some forlorn place or killed.

There is so much we can emulate from our sister communities and fellow Parsis, so much more we can do to assist others. If our priests and others undertook some of these activities, their lives and those of the trustees and worshippers would be more meaningful and fulfilling.



Villoo Poonawalla