Rayomand Coins

The answers lie here

Jamshedi Navroz this March 21 was a momentous day for more reasons than one. Firstly the North American Zoroastrians inaugurated an Atash Kadeh in Houston, Texas, the money for which had been very kindly donated by Shernaz and Feroze Bhandara. The celebrations were spread over four days from March 21 to 24 and included the performance of a vendidad ceremony.

Over the past 40 years the Zoroastrians in the USA and Canada have built over a dozen community centers, a remarkable feat for a small group of migrants who landed on the New World’s shores with nothing but an education and a set of skills. No doubt they initially got financial assistance from wealthy Iranian Zoroastrians, many of whom fled Iran following the 1979 revolution. The Iranians said they were repaying their debt to the Indian Zoroastrians who assisted them over the years, especially when they faced discrimination and poverty in Iran. But now in North America the fund-raising is more broad based, with major benefactors assisting.

Realizing the import of the Houston event, Parsiana requested New Jersey based journalist Porus Cooper who retired from the prestigious The Philadelphia Enquirer as an assistant editor on the foreign/national desk if he would cover the event for us. He not only accommodated our request but refused any payment for the considerable amount of work put in. A Houston couple, Manek and Khushrav Nariman not only hosted Cooper for the duration of his stay but also drove him from, and to, the airport and as well as to various events. The couple’s hosting was in addition to Khushrav heading the Atash Kadeh committee and Manek being "an active and enthusiastic supporter."

Cooper, originally from Malcolm Baug in Jogeshwari, who studied business journalism as a Knight-Bagehot Fellow of Columbia University, had also covered the inauguration of the Arbab Rustam Guiv Dar-e-Mehr in New York, again refusing payment.

But even in Bombay there was cause for celebration when a jashan was performed at the newly restored N. M. Petit Fasli Atash Kadeh at Churchgate. Perhaps the largest agiary in India and certainly the tallest fire temple, the once proud monument stood in need of a makeover. The various terraces/levels resulted in leakage at several places (see, "Reverentially restored," Parsiana, March 7, 2019). The trustees raised the funds over time, personally overseeing the repairs. Trustee Khodadad Irani said the garden beautification was to begin.

Around 50 devotees attended the mid-morning prayer of whom only one wore a dagli, while only two ladies were in saris. In contrast, at the Houston events, there were many dressed in the traditional garments or at least wearing white. And people here claim the Zoroastrians abroad don’t observe the tarikats (rituals)! The Fasli trustees were hopeful the restorations would draw more devotees. But with the community numbers shrinking, that hope may not be fulfilled.

Asha Vahishta The Zoroastrian Centre in Poona and the community centers in North America draw individuals and families because there is no bar on non-Parsis entering. With 40 percent in Bombay marrying outside the faith, how many families would go to a place of worship that prohibits entry to non-Parsi spouses and the children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis? Only the Delhi fire temple officially admits Zoroastrians, without the prefix Parsi. The board outside the Fasli Atash Kadeh states entry "strictly restricted" to Parsi Zoroastrians. No trustee of any fire temple in India wants to upset the status quo, yet almost all bemoan the lack of devotees.

On Parsiana’s Facebook page Ardeshir Damania commented, "While agiaries in Bombay and India are closing due to shift in populations, new dar-e-mehers are being opened in North America. That is good!" While an Aresh Gutta stated, "We in Mississauga (Canada) are also coming up with an Atash Kadeh soon."

Some pointed out the irony of the Houston center being inaugurated at the same time Hong Kong based philanthropists Pervin and Jal Shroff were withdrawing their offer to fund the new cosmopolitan hospital at The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital (PGH) to be run by the Gurgaon based Medanta Group. The Shroffs, however have said they were open to other suggestions to assist the PGH, the majority of whose patients are free or subsidized.

"As Houston progressively inaugurated a new institution, the Parsis of Bombay ensure we pave the path to closing down one," wrote Bombay Parsi Punchayet trustee Noshir Dadrawala.

What makes the approach of the Zoroastrians in North America so different from those in India? For one, discrimination on the grounds of race, color or sex is illegal in the USA and Canada. Even if the Parsis wanted to restrict entry to ethnic Parsi Zoroastrians as some do, that would be violative of the laws of the land. In India, discrimination is endemic and institutionalized. Even when the discrimination is barred by the courts of law or legislation, there is opposition.

Witness the turmoil and unrest that followed the Supreme Court decision to strike down the age restriction for women to enter the Sabarimala Temple in South India. So far only two women between the ages of 10 and 50 have reportedly gained entry. All the others have been illegally and physically prevented. While the state government has supported admission, several central government ministers have opposed the entry.

In such an environment it is not surprising that Parsis not only observe racial and gender discrimination, but revel in it. While every other country supported a world Zoroastrian body, the Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India was the only one to oppose it. They wanted racial purity.

If our numbers were large enough and a substantial number of people were debarred entry and participation, one could carry on. But when our fire temples are devoid of worshippers, our hospital beds and dharamshalas are empty, perhaps we should take a leaf from our once Parsi-only schools that all became cosmopolitan rather than close their portals. The Fasli calendar came into being to introduce some rationality in the dates. Spring is a good time to start the New Year. Perhaps this year we could adopt more such reforms.

It is not only to the West that we have to look for answers. We can learn from the lessons at home as well.


Villoo Poonawalla