The high priest

Berjis Desai

1907. As Tata Steel began to manufacture steel, and in Surat, the Indian National Congress split into moderates and radicals, a momentous priestly change of guard occurred. A most illustrious Zoroastrian High Priest, who had occupied the dasturi (seat of divine authority) for 34 years, suddenly passed away at 50. His son, only 13, had the white cotton pichhori (white belt/girdle) bestowed upon him at his father’s uthamna. His dasturi was the most ancient and he was primus inter pares (first amongst equals) amongst the other high priests of India. In 1578, its first occupant, as an emissary to the court of a secular minded Mughal emperor, had demonstrated the powerful mantric force of Avestan prayers. If Zoroastrians canonized, he would surely have been a saint. Such solemn history did not seem to overawe the young High Priest.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Years later, an august mijlas (gathering) awaited his entry and was instantly electrified as he smilingly took the pride of place. For the next 53 years that he would occupy the dasturi, he remained an immaculate dresser. Starched jama (priestly gown), the famous pichhori stylishly held over his right wrist, shining black jora (pointed black flat shoes), slightly angular pugree denoting his exalted status, but unlike other high priests, no embroidered shawl around his shoulders. He was not exactly good looking but had presence, poise and personality. The sacerdotal regalia transformed him further.
He was rather short with languid, kind eyes and a face which endeared at first sight. He was accomplished in breathing techniques (imparted those days to young priests in training) to recite the Avestan mantras with the correct emphasis, pronunciation and pause, while ensuring speedy delivery. The vibrations, which the mathravani then produced, created an effect on various planes of existence. These techniques also made him a lucid speaker.
Educated in a Deolali boarding school, he was fluent in English, Gujarati and Hindi. He mesmerized the parish with his discourses. Each listener believed that he was directly looking into his eyes. In private, he was soft-spoken, as most compassionate people are. He was humble and proud of his material poverty. At a public function, he memorably said: "Our poverty is our kingdom. This white pichhori is the symbol of frugality. It is this frugality and poverty, which we consider our highest honor.” However, he was also a man of style and charm. Within years of his investiture, he was, by a mile, the most popular and beloved of the high priests of his time.
An enterprising kaajwali (matchmaker) found him a suitable but much younger bride. Plumpishly pretty and well versed as a goraani (a priest’s wife). He was an incurable romantic. The couple was love locked at first sight and remained so, until he breathed his last. They enjoyed the peculiar bonding of childless couples. Almost conspiratorial. Passionate even in the later years.
He loved Hindustani classical music, and particularly, the thumri, derived from the verb, thumakna meaning to take dancing steps so as to make ankle bells tinkle. Immersed in humming a thumri, he merrily walked in the narrow mohollas, giving a beatific smile to all. He was passionate about attending concerts of Hindustani classical music in Surat, Baroda and Bombay. Sitting in the front row, eyes half shut, lost in Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of the Kirana gharana, or Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana. As the masters excelled, he loudly exclaimed, "Wah! Wah!”
At home, the couple listened to an old Murphy radio or wound up a HMV gramophone which manually played vinyl records (a collector’s item today). He was ecstatic listening to Gauhar Jaan, famed singer and dancer from Calcutta, singing thumri, dadra, kajri and tarana (Indian musical forms). She was one of the first to record music on 78 rpm records in India. Her untimely death in 1930 made Dasturji inconsolable. Tears ran down his cheeks as he listened to her famous song — Ras ké bharé toré nain, méré dard-é-jigar (your enchanting eyes, my heartbreaker). He equally enjoyed Begum Akhtar and countless others.
While he was proficient in the inner liturgical ceremonies, he was not a fanatic for rituals or doctrinal purity or tarikat. Nor was he a scholar of the religion. Indeed, he was fluent in Persian like many Parsis of his time. He performed his ceremonial duties and loved his music. He was interested in other religions. Sufis and sadhus often dialogued with him. He did not believe in an exclusive God.
Those were puritanical times. A ghazal reciting and sunglass wearing Vada Dasturji driving a third hand hatchback was quite an anachronism. The neurotic town was hard-core orthodox. His fascination with other faiths did not amuse them. While they did not go so far as to allege that he was flirting with extra-religious worship, they were singularly displeased with his free-flowing ways. However, such was his popularity and charm amongst the community that none dared to publicly criticize him during his long tenure of over a half century. In anjuman matters, he was a master of consensus and compromise. At heart, he remained a democrat and a people’s person.
He passed away rather suddenly before attaining the biblical mark of three score and ten. In keeping with tradition, he had adopted a child from his sister’s family to be his heir. His heir, a good and honest man in the conformist mold, had an uneventful tenure of nearly 50 years, before dying, also issueless.
The stylish High Priest had no savings. His widow survived by selling the few guineas they possessed and had to subsist with the meager help from the anjuman which was not too fond of her. The Dasturan was lonely and forlorn; sitting glumly at dusk on the patio of their once bustling household. Whispers grew about her entertaining sadhus. There were some ugly mutterings about tantric rites. None was there to defend her. Cobwebs gathered on the HMV gramophone and rats chewed the wiring of the Murphy radio. The vinyl records developed cracks and scratches. As life slowly ebbed out of her, no Gauhar Jaan sang the thumri, and no dancing footsteps were heard which could make ankle bells tinkle.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.