The Avatars

Berjis Desai

Three decades ago, outside the Gateway of India pier, a crowd of men and women wearing uniform clothes, wait expectantly, on a full moon night, to board a local cruise boat, to celebrate the birthday of one of the Avatars. Unfazed by the curious glances of the onlookers, they all wear a badge depicting a cobra hood protectively covering their beaming Masters. Finally, the Avatars emerge out of a Maruti Zen car.  The bawaji sports long hair and a lush beard, dyed jet black. With twinkling eyes and a robust build, he is not a bad-looking fellow. The maiji, older than him, by a decade at least, has simple looks. Both these practising Parsi Zoroastrians wear crowns. He wears a sky blue kurta, presumably over his sudreh-kusti, a sequined shawl in gold is draped over his shoulders and three fingers of his right hand are laden with large, gold and silver snake rings. She is dressed in a shiny polyester maroon maxi, and some exotic trinkets and rings. She carries a handbag studded with what looks like rubies. Some haandas (louts) from Cusrow Baug loudly pass lewd and unprintable comments. Neither the Avatars nor their devotees are provoked.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


They regally make their way through their devotees and board the boat, where a makeshift stage has been erected with two ornate gold-plated thrones. Behind the thrones is the huge multi-headed cobra cut out. They carefully position themselves on their royal seats so that the electronically operated spinning cardboard chakras just above their heads look like halos. Two purple colored velvet umbrellas rotate constantly.
Both were born to lower, middle class Parsi parents and earlier stayed in Parsi baugs. She worked as a junior clerk in the railway’s district controller of stores at Mahalaxmi. He too did some odd jobs, including manning the counter of an Irani eatery, after his matriculation from a Parsi charity school.  Before you commit the sacrilege of thinking that they are television actors in a spoof on some mythological tale, we must hasten to inform that both of them claim to be Avatars. He is the Serpent God; she is the Serpent Goddess. Born with a divine mission to bring salvation to countless millions.
Neither speaks much. Neither has written any spiritual treatise. However, just a glimpse of these divinities is  a guarantee for nirvana, claim thousands of their devotees, mostly non-Parsis, who don identical maroon colored Parsi topis (skull caps), a maroon colored tie (even in sweltering heat) and a shiny badge portraying the Divine Serpent Avatars sitting under that famous cobra hood. The women wear colorful saris with their heads covered. Whenever the MC (Master of Ceremonies) chants their divine names and hails them as Param Poojaniya Sri Nagaputra Yogiraj and Nagaputri Yogini (most revered celestial beings), the devotes reverentially bow and repeat their Parsi names, in hushed, admiring tones. Two middle-aged Parsi ladies recite the Yatha Ahu Vairyo, and then extol their divine qualities, in heavily accented Parsi colony Hindi. No one laughs or sniggers.
The Avatars have set up a public religious trust registered with the Charity Commissioner of Maharashtra at Bombay. Their website proclaims their loving message to humanity — follow the religion in which you are born but respect all other religions (the orthodox line, even though the orthodox call them a hoax). The Yogini, when she was young and healthy, often led her Parsi devotees to pay homage at Iranshah, Udvada. On Fravardin mah, Fravardin roz, the group visited the dakhmas at doongerwadi, to offer humbandagi (group prayers) until one (then) rough neck trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet threatened to manhandle them for doing dhootam dhaatam (hocus pocus), causing the alarmed Yogini and her group to hastily retreat in waiting taxis, nervously clutching the long cucumbers they had brought to place outside the dakhmas for propitiating the souls of the departed. We do not know whether she hissed at the trustee.
Nowadays, their birthday celebrations are jolly affairs. The devotees, mostly from economically weaker sections, wait well past midnight, softly singing bhajans, without any chattering. Two black bikes pilot a Maruti Swift at 1:30 a.m., from which the Serpent Avatars gently slither out, amidst the hushed audience. Their beatific smiles make most misty eyed. The MC reminds the audience of the countless medical cures which the Yogini has silently carried out; the miraculous disappearance of financial distress and the advent of prosperity for those who are fortunate to catch their divine gaze. Full page advertisements in newspapers preach their message and mission for all of humanity. Recently, a prominent Maharashtra political leader inaugurated a road in Malad named after the Yogiraj, who now sports a snow white beard; and the Yogini, in her late 70s, looks distinctly glum and uncomfortable sitting on her throne, as if she is fighting a bout of indigestion after a heavy meal. She appears tired after nurturing this franchise for over half a century. Charlatans can never last that long, contend their loyal admirers. Indeed, like Coca Cola, these two appear to be the real thing.
The divinities are shielded from prying, cynical media. They give no interviews and little is known about their personal lives. Earlier they resided together in a Parsi colony flat; now in a fancy apartment of a leading Parsi builder. The Yogiraj is my ‘spiritual son,’ says the Yogini. Being Serpent Avatars, they are naturally incredibly fond of snakes, particularly, the most auspicious cobra [their trust has registered a trade name called, "the Device of the Cobira” (not Cobra) with the Bombay Trade Marks Registry]. Devotees claim to have seen the revered reptiles at their home in the Parsi baug, as they prostrate themselves before the Manifestations, by lying flat on the ground. Apparently, their neighbors and the landlord trusts did not take very kindly to the unusual pets. But then, ordinary earthlings can hardly be expected to tolerate living divinity amidst their midst. The Avatars, like Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, may well poignantly ask, "O God, that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O lord, how long?”

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