Cowsie, the friendly ghost

Berjis Desai

Somewhere outside the small dakhma in Doongerwadi, there is a platform, upon which none dare sleep at night. Late Dervish Irani, the uncrowned king of the pallbearers, who devoted his life preserving Doongerwadi, was the only one to do so. Anyone else was flung from it with great force and suffered severe fright. We have corroborated this story from Irani himself and other staff at the Towers of Silence.
The Grand Paradi buildings and a row of bungalows overlook the Bombay dakhmas. Crows and kites deposit remains plucked from the undisposed bodies lying in the dakhmas. Decades ago, when we were on the editorial staff of the Mumbai Samachar, an enraged resident had complained that when he was having breakfast on his balcony, his eggs Florentine were garnished with a Parsi index finger. The then trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) had dismissed the story as poppycock. Be as it may, some bizzare suicides of such a disproportionately high number happened from the Grand Paradi buildings that they could not be dismissed as coincidence. About 12 years ago, we were deliberating on purchasing one of the Grand Paradi bungalows which garden has a common boundary with the Doongerwadi lands. We were surveying the garden, just after sunset, with a pleasant February breeze blowing, when most of us experienced a distinctly eerie feeling. Of course, it can be dismissed as conditioning, though one of us observed that she could smell death in the air.

 Illustration by Mickey Patel


We spent most of our summer vacations in the mohallas of Navsari (then still retaining their Parsi character). Power supply was weak and yellow bulbs shed their light dimly. After dinner, we were compelled to make our way alone to the bedroom on the upper floors. As you lay on the four poster bed with the machhar daani (mosquito net), fat lizards perched on the walls eyed you warily. The coconut trees in the backyard cast strange shadows on the wall. Some hungry dog cried plaintively. Blessed with a fertile imagination, we slept transfixed on the bed, fervently hoping for our stentorian grandmother’s entry into the bedroom. If we dared to express fear of the unknown, she admonished us by stating that "Parsi koi daharo bi bhoot nahin thay (there are no Parsi ghosts).” Little consolation, we muttered to ourselves, what about the non-Parsi ghosts whose existence she was implicitly confirming.
If you did your kusti before going to bed and recited "Srosh asho, tagi, tan-farman, shekaftzin, zin-awazar, salare damane Ahura Mazda berasad,” no ghostly fear could haunt you at night, advised our granduncle, who was an Ilm-e-Khshnoomist. Years later, we must admit that this incantation does ensure that there are no nightmares. Though one such evening in Navsari, we saw, at the window of the house across, an old Parsi gentleman, whom we had never seen before, giving us a sweet smile. We must have been all of eight years. After dinner, we narrated this to our grandaunts and uncles, who froze in silence. We could not understand the conspiratorial whispers that followed. Years later, our grandaunt on her death bed, told us that her uncle had lost his young wife, a six-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son in the 1935 Quetta earthquake. Overwhelmed with grief, he committed suicide, from the same window where we had seen him, about 25 years before our sighting. Uncle Cowsie adored children, our grandaunt said.
Zoroastrian cosmology does not countenance poltergeists, ghosts that make strange noises and cause objects to move. The geh sarna (funeral) prayers, when intoned with concentration and sonorously, are designed to wipe all earthly memories and connections of the soul. Pregnant women are forbidden from attending as they are known to miscarry. Coupled with the equally potent Srosh prayers, the soul loses any incentive to haunt. This belief is quite firmly embedded in the collective consciousness, as evidenced by this bizarre incident, a century ago in the dakhma of either Navsari or Surat. The body of an old lady, consigned to the dakhma after geh sarna, stirred, sat up and asked for water. Elders and priests were hastily summoned to deal with the situation, caused by some quack who had certified her dead. Once the geh sarna is completed, the body cannot be brought back, was the verdict. How the verdict was implemented is too sordid to record.
Although traditionalists do not interpret Zoroastrianism as believing in reincarnation, they do emphasize the continued existence of the soul and its journey till the final Day of Judgement (like all other religions ‘of the book’). During muktad, the souls of the departed are supposed to be pleased with the flowers, sandalwood and frankincense offered to them, as also with those, on earth, who lovingly remember them in prayers. There is no evidence though to suggest that the aroma of chicken drumsticks and crisp bhakras placed in the stum ceremony can still entice the soul of Sorabji who gorged every alternate day at the Kentucky Fried chicken outlet, when alive.
The poltergeist phenomena of moving objects, unexplained sounds and smells, troublesome spirits and apparitions are to be distinguished from rare appearances by spiritually advanced souls or angels or what is termed in Theosophical literature as the "deva Kingdom,” to help a human being in distress. In some of our agiaries and atash behrams, several attending priests have testified to the presence of a guardian angel, clad in all white, sailing through the corridors of the fire temple, as if keeping vigil.
The protection of prayers will not be fully effective, unless the body is consigned to the dakhma, say the orthodox. The consecration rituals of the dakhma create an electro-magnetic field through an elaborately constructed circuit to ensure that no dark forces tinker with a Zoroastrian soul until the dawn of the fourth day from death when it crosses the famous Chinvat bridge and enters the Great Beyond.
Geh sarna for those who are cremated is therefore no insurance against the deceased turning into a spook. The hard core contend that a Parsi is risking much by refusing the sanctum of the dakhma. On the contrary, snorts the liberal, rotting undisposed bodies are more susceptible to spiritual abuse. A crematorium in the dakhma to take benefit of the circuit can resolve the issue for both sides. In the meanwhile, we will continue to believe in the comforting thought that Parsis don’t become bhoots though a Bhoot can be a Parsi (decades ago, there was a famous wedding caterer called Kaikhushru Bhoot who provided his services at our navjote).

Berjis M. Desai, senior partner of J. Sagar Associates, advocates and solicitors, is a writer and community activist.