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The highs and lows

The community’s penchant for controversy is never ending. As a result Parsis have been featured prominently in the mainstream news media in the last two weeks of October. Firstly, there is the crucial case of former Valsad resident Goolrookh Gupta which is due for hearing before a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of India this month. Then, the reduction of the no-fly zone over Bombay’s Doongerwadi and the underground Metro whose construction allegedly threatens the foundations of heritage structures and the religious sanctity of fire temples and a well (see "Metro moves," pg 56) has added fuel to the fire.

Two television panel discussions dealt with the rights of Parsi women to marry persons of their choice while continuing to practice their faith, unhampered by community patriarchs. Gupta’s lawyer sister Shiraz Patodia featured along with Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) chairman Yazdi Desai and five others on the Mirror Now (MN) panel on October 18 while Gupta featured along with The Parsee Voice editor Hanoz Mistry, blogger Jehangir Bisney and others on NDTV on October 24. Journalists Bachi Karkaria and Sanaya Dalal, and lawyer Geeta Luthra featured on both panels.

While the women knew how to use the electronic medium to advantage, the three men floundered. Desai had a wooden expression throughout and spoke softly, sometimes inaudibly. He kept referring to Parsi "personal law" to justify the community’s ill treatment of women. The panelists were puzzled by his reference as there is no personal law except the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act and a section applicable to Parsis under the Indian Succession Act. Desai also kept repeatedly emphasizing the need to follow the diktats of the six high priests, while there are only five. At one point the MN anchor/moderator Faye D’Souza somewhat unfairly berated him for being rude to his female co-panelists. Desai’s response was inaudible.

Mistry tried to defend the discrimination against women who marry out by offering esoteric explanations which were inappropriate for a television panel format where a participant can barely manage a minute of uninterrupted speech. Bisney also started to read the definition of a Parsi as enunciated by the Bombay High Court justice Dinshaw Davar, before the anchor Ankita Mukherji cut him off.

The MN discussion which went on for over an hour was livelier than the half hour NDTV program. But one point came across: television is about sound bites and drama, not facts. Enlightenment is unlikely to be achieved. D’Souza bemoaned that Gupta was not allowed by the Valsad Parsi Anjuman to perform the funeral rites for her parents who reside in that south Gujarat town. But both her parents, Adi and Dina Contractor, are very much alive. The anchor talked about Gupta being ex-communicated even though prior to the show a researcher for the program had been told there is no excommunication in Zoroastrianism. Once a navjote ceremony is performed, they are Zoroastrians for life unless they themselves renounce the religion.

Regarding reducing the no-fly zone around Doongerwadi, the BPP has, according to the Mumbai Mirror (MM) of October 30 requested the Airports Authority of India "to make a slight modification in the flight path of landing and departing aircraft at the upcoming airport at Navi Mumbai (New Bombay)." The daily also quotes a letter written by Desai to the city collector stating, "the extent of prohibition in the area included within a radius of one mile will be absolute... this is a very sensitive matter...and impinges on (the Parsis’) religious sentiments." The BPP, according to the MM, has also "shot down another proposal of the Maharashtra Airport Development Company to reduce the limits of its no-fly zone in the Towers of Silence from one nautical mile to 500 m to provide helicopter facilities to Malabar Hill residents during disaster and emergency situations." The authorities are unaware that among Parsis the top priority is accorded to the dead, not the living.

Aside from changing flight paths, some Parsis also want the Metro tunnel realigned so that vibrations from the construction and running of trains do not affect religious structures en route. Also there is a fear the proximity of the subways "will break the sacred fire’s contact with earth," Pervez Cooper, vice president of the Clean Heritage Colaba Residents Association told the Hindustan Times (October 28, 2017). "If the Metro passes under the (Seth Hormasji Bomanji Wadia) Atash Behram, the place will lose its sanctity," Cooper avers. But Kala Ghoda Association chairman Maneck Davar, after discussion with the director-projects of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited told Parsiana the Wadia kebla is around 25 ft away from the Metro tunnels.

Cooper led a delegation of Parsis who met Shiv Sena (SS) leader Uddhav Thackeray to lobby for realignment. The group was minus any BPP trustees or high priests but their absence would not have made a difference: the SS is at loggerheads with their governing alliance partners, the Bharatiya Janata Party that has a larger number of seats.

Structional engineer Jamshed Sukhadwalla who has been spearheading the movement to save the Bhikha Behram Well and the fire temples wants the Metro to entirely avoid Jagannath Shankar Sheth Road on which stands the Zarthoshti Anjuman and Wadia Atash Behrams, according to a report in mid-day (October 28, 2017). "Most of the buildings on this stretch are dilapidated. How will they withstand the vibrations during the second piling and boring of the tunnel?" he queries.

The daily quotes Desai as countering, "We can’t take on the cause of the entire road...We are interested only in preserving the sanctity of the (Wadia) Atash Behram."

It is ironic that a community that is regarded by many as the builders of Bombay should now be opposing any major efforts to improve the lives of the 21 million residents of this crowded, baleful metropolis. Perhaps, for once, harking back to past traditions may not be a bad idea.

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very time my copy of Parsiana arrives in the mail I look at the postage and wonder why my misguided brother spends Rs. 100 to air mail me a Rs.50 magazine. But then I turn to Burjis Desai’s column and I silently thank my older brother. However, Desai has been on a sabbatical, so I have go to other areas of Parsiana, namely the death and birth notices. We are shrinking----no real discovery---even the Government of India recognizes that.. <br><br>But, why? We are spending more and more effort, money and time on crazy stuff and ignoring the sensible. Some might even accuse us of trying to become extinct. A small listing of crazy stuff:<br><br>A few months ago there was a battle to limit where a couple of Parsi priests could perform basic ceremonies---. It made lawyers rich, to the tune of 3 crore I seem to recall. What did it accomplish?<br><br>Recently, the focus has shifted to Parsi women who marry non-Parsi men. The current trend (in some locations, at least) is to declare that they are no longer Parsis. . Marriage can certainly change a persons attitudes about life’s priorities, but does not involuntarily alter religious beliefs. Kicking these women out is not only crue and mean but reduces the number of Parsi families and is counter-productive. The resulting battles will also sow bitterness, and, of course make lawyers rich. That raises the subject of Parsi men who marry non-Parsi women? Oh, yes. Diminished brains and expanded prostates to borrow from Desai again.<br><br>The attitude that non-Parsis may not even enter our places of worship needs to be addressed. My Grandfather, Shapoorjee Ghandhi built the fire temple in Allahabad. (My cousin Darius had a little discussion of it recently in Parsiana.) There is a marble plaque at the entrance which gives a short history and politely says non-Parsis stay out -- in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu. Grandpa Shapoorjee was very conservative and would probably be rolling over in his grave if he read this. But Shapoorjee was also pragmatic and had changed to match the environment----he would grumble and then ------. <br><br><br>These suggestions are not new. The pat answer to always is “purity and over quantity”. DNA studies covered in Parsiana (see I read more than Desai!) indicate that current Parsis are a result of much blending between Persian and Gujarati ancestors (with many of our super-grandmothers being Gujarati women). So, the concept of Parsi purity is fool-hardy, indeed crazy to even expect any thing else over so many generations. <br><br>But, Burjis Desai returns this week and I will get off the soap box.<br><br>Burzoe K Ghandhi
- Burzoe K Ghandhi
- 16-Nov-2017


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