Guardian of the temple

Berjis Desai

His father was a sort of don in a South Gujarat town, who had a Robin Hood approach to wealth. The poor and the oppressed swore by him. Although a practicing Zoroastrian, he maintained the dargah (tomb) of a local Muslim pir (saint). No destitute returned unsatisfied from his open house. Bizarre stories abounded about his occult powers. When dim bulbs were lit at twilight in ramshackle homes, residents shut their doors as soon as a hag appeared, allegedly a proponent of witchcraft. Fed up with this daily regimen of collective fear, one evening the don rushed out and grabbed the creature, bundled her in a gunnysack and tossed her before the trucks on the highway. Those were amoral times and few believed in the niceties of Anglo Saxon jurisprudence. One day he received an anonymous midnight call that there was to be a revenue raid the next morning. The don acted swiftly and the raiding party returned empty handed. However, after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, he narrowly averted preventive detention. The don expected help from his smartest son, who was then an undergraduate. 
The boy doted on his father and had imbibed his secular beliefs. His maternal grandfather was a devotee of the famed Sufi saint of Nagpur, Tajuddin Baba, who had given him an amulet for protection. The dying grandfather entrusted the amulet to the boy. The boy did not approve of his father’s line of business. He left home in a huff and stayed at his estranged maternal uncle’s home in Bombay, where he attended college and played cricket.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


One Saturday evening, when the lad returned after playing cricket, the uncle would not open the door. This was not unusual, given the proclivities of the uncle for gay encounters. Finally, the door opened, and out walked a burly six foot Pathan, which also was not unusual. However, the lad’s eagle eye noticed the trail of blood behind the exiting Pathan who warned the lad not to interfere lest he be harmed. In response, the boy lunged at the Pathan who attacked the boy with a rampuri (a deadly assault knife). The knife hit the amulet worn by the boy whose sharp reflexes, honed by playing club level cricket, made him, in a split second, pick a cricket stump which penetrated the assailant’s eye. The impact was so hard that the Pathan’s brain tissue was later found on the stump end.
The assistant police commissioner (also a Parsi, and having a controversial reputation) surveyed the scene of crime; the highly mangled body of the uncle with most of his fingers severed, lying alongside the profusely bleeding Pathan, and ordered his constables to arrest the unperturbed lad. Ultimately, of course, our hero received a police gallantry award and trained for active police service. The Pathan was sentenced to life imprisonment, after struggling for his life in the hospital. The Pathan threatened revenge during his trial and the lad was trained to operate fire arms; and ever since then, proudly carried a Smith and Wesson strapped to his ankle. He spurned the offer of a police posting though.
Sounds like in the films, they said; and sure enough the handsome lad (with his chocolate hero looks) told to learn Urdu and practice Hindi, underwent a successful screen test and was cast as a hero with the well-known Bollywood actress, Sarika, in a Basu Chatterjee film. He was already then smitten by his first cousin, a stunner; she saw his photo with Sarika in the Filmfare cine magazine. Make a choice, he was sternly told by his fiancée. Sarika lost. A fairy tale marriage followed. 
After the father’s death, the family was reduced to modest means. Except for the couple, the others remained in Gujarat, whom the former had to partially support. Along with their only son, the working class couple moved into a nondescript building as tenants of a trust, which had been formed to provide maintenance to an agiary next door in Central Bombay. This agiary enthrones a powerful holy fire. However, like many others in Bombay, its finances were negligible; the upkeep left much to be desired. Geriatric trustees, a few from the founder’s family, had no energy to revive its pristine glory. The bells ringing in the five gahs stirred our couple. The close connect with the Padshah Saheb made them teary eyed. Not a day passed when the pair did not worship Him, unless they were out of town. With the limited means at his disposal, our hero began to mend matters. The agiary looked cleaner and brighter and perkier. 
Soon he was appointed a trustee, and then managing trustee, of the agiary trust. Now he had the authority to bring about a transformation. This fire temple zealously follows tarikat (ritualistic sacrosanctity) which demands much from the boiwalas (mobeds tending the fire round the clock) in terms of ensuring parhejgari (purity of ceremonies and processes). Without proper living quarters, the mobeds were reluctant to stay overnight. The new trustee cajoled donors to construct the accommodation. With his unrelenting powers of persuasion, he convinced Parsi and non-Parsi service providers to provide facilities free or at concessional rates. His nearly full-time attention to the agiary caused his small business to suffer. He could not care less. From restoring the antique glass containers holding the divo to more spacious chairs to seat aged devotees, ensuring the purity of the sandalwood, shining new utensils for ceremonial rituals and restoring the portrait of the Prophet, every minute detail was attended to.
None had paid attention to the assets of the fire temple trust which included a couple of tenanted buildings, a shop and huge tracts of land. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, and the objections of his more conservative co-trustees (though fortunately all had faith in his integrity), he managed to commercially exploit some of these assets and the agiary soon had a robust corpus.
His burning commitment led him to adopt unique methods to secure the fire temple. At times, he bullied his co-trustees into accepting his proposals. If intruders and trespassers proved difficult to negotiate with, out came the shining Smith and Wesson on the table. Better not trifle with this mad bawaji, they said. The couple’s devotion, which outwardly seemed fanatical and obsessive, arose out of unlimited love for the enthroned presence, akin to the bhakti (devotional) tradition of the Hindus. At times of confusion and crisis (like when their only son survived unscathed a near fatal motorcar accident), they conducted a dialog with Him and received guidance. You may dismiss it as hallucination or term it a cosmic connect. 
They borrowed money to purchase their near dilapidated building bristling with tenants, so that the sanctity of the King next door was not breached, and they remained within the aura of the fire. Years later, they received many a lucrative offer from builders to demolish and reconstruct an office complex or a mall or a cosmopolitan residential building. Their resources were then greatly strained due to expenses on the extended family back in the home town. It would have been perfectly legal and ethical for them to have accepted these proposals. They mulled over the matter and were not comfortable with non-Parsi users in such close vicinity of the Holy Fire. For once, He tested them and provided no easy answer. Finally, they decided that as and when they could, they would themselves reconstruct a Parsi-only building, even though it meant a loss of crores. 
Despite their obvious orthodox leanings, these guardians of the temple remained secular. They respected other faiths too. The lady, a gifted healer, counselled many from all communities, without charging a penny. They lived a spartan life with minimal needs. They eschewed the temptation to encash an asset worth crores. The rules of karma rewarded them in their son who bloomed into a prominent lawyer. He who guards the Supreme Protector is a true soldier of the faith.

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