A navar in Navsari

Berjis Desai

On May 27, 1964, when Jawaharlal Nehru breathed his last, a procession wound its way to Navsari’s Seervai Vad from the most ancient agiary in India, the Vadi Daremeher, in Dastur Vad. As the priests dodged fresh cow dung, the few juddins respectfully stood aside to let the old mobeds pass, casting curious glances at a child mobed sandwiched between the older ones, wrapped in a shawl much larger than his puny shoulders, carrying a miniature bull headed mace called gurz, to be found on the walls of our fire temples. The mace had been used with great effect by the healer Emperor Shah Faridoon to vanquish the evil Zohak, and then by the samurai of the faith like Rustom, the name also given to the little navario.
A year earlier, Rustom had been tutored by the angelic principal of the Dadar Athornan Madressa, also named Rustomji, to learn several of the 72 Has from the Yasna by rote, which the young lad had recited in a pre-puberty castrato voice that morning before family and friends assembled in the agiary. His grandfather had had to memorize all 72. His father had skipped the navar ceremony, so Rustom had to become an ordained priest, otherwise the family would lose the right said to be available only to 10% of Parsis to become a priest.

   Illustration by Farzana Cooper


When he landed from Bombay, Rustom was rushed to meet a stern looking priest who would lead the navar ceremony and test his memory retention of the prayers. "Hajun to nadi ma chhè (still floundering),” the priest remarked contemptuously. The priest’s little son trotted up and asked, "Pappa, ék pawli aapo (give me a quarter of a rupee)!” His father dished out a 25 paise coin and asked, "Su karsé tu paisa nu (What will you do with the money)?  "Kèk khaavas (Eat a cake),” answered the grinning child.
The next day, Rustom had to strip and jump over nine stones arranged in a row in a sand house while a priest gave him nirang to apply and drink. Senior priests purifying themselves had to undergo the same ritual, hydrocele notwithstanding. He was then ushered into a dark, dingy hall with no electricity, his dwelling for two periods of nine nights each; akin to Franciscan monks practicing seclusion and prayer. No touching anyone, water only for drinking but no brushing of teeth, pods of soft clay served as tissue paper (sometimes they were not so soft), prayers in four out of the five gahs (Ushen mercifully excluded) called farajiyaat meaning mandatory, as against spontaneous. But then what spontaneity could one expect of a 10-year-old child? He enjoyed not brushing his teeth after dinner but wanted desperately to bathe in the May Navsari heat. A rotund mobed warmed water by placing a brass pot near the fire lit on the afarganyu, fire vase, and flung it over the boys every alternate day while good humoredly showering them with choice abuse about maternal grandmothers and severed body parts cooked with potatoes.
Tea in a stainless steel karasyo with a savory breakfast item was sent to the agiary from his uncle’s home in Seervai Vad, as also lunch and an early dinner. Although he was supposed to remain light and eat a spartan diet, he was loaded with goodies like tiny brain cutlets and bhakras fried in ghee. He dreaded going to the toilet and for the rest of his life never forgot those clay pods used for cleansing. At the end of the first nine-day purification period, he did not smell very nice to his visiting grandmother who had sponsored the navar’s initiation.
Rustom though must have been impressed by the young handsome and bearded Ervad Firoze Kotwal (later Dastur and Dr), who strode like a colossus amongst other puny mobeds perfunctorily undergoing a naahn. One old fellow with a pronounced lisp, entertained the navar candidates every night with profane limericks which this publication will not be able to print even 57 years later. Rustom received no religious education but did become aware of biology. Of course, all this was out of earshot of Kotwal, a strict disciplinarian, who would emerge later as a leading Zoroastrian scholar. It was a pity that no one thought of asking him to tutor the boys. But then this is to be expected in the last days of Rome.
To Rustom’s surprise, the no touch rule was brazenly flouted by candidates wrestling and playing kabaddi. The clay pods were used as missiles to bring down low hanging mangoes from a large tree in the open air toilet (a grass collection basket underneath). The fruit often fell on wrong spots but were nevertheless consumed after peeling the skin with a smuggled blade.
After the 18 days of seclusion in pious thought (bawdy limericks and colorful abuse to be ignored), Rustom underwent the six-day gewra period where most of the rigid rules were relaxed as he was shifted to a room on the first floor with beds and a toilet supplied with water. This room overlooked the bedroom of a neighboring house occupied by a newlywed couple. One of the boys developed high fever and had to be attended to by his parents and a doctor, even though it was taboo to do so. Rustom missed the daily launch of a rocket by an obese priest (who was a part-time caterer at weddings and invariably ran out of food and then abused the diners for being gluttonous) by placing his joda (a pointed toe shoe) on his hirsute sucked-in stomach and then propelled into the air by forcefully exhaling while the candidates piously applauded. During this period, Rustom had to eat only one meal before sunset to practice self-denial, control of hunger and subjugating other baser passions from his impressionable mind.
Post the navar ceremony, young Rustom underwent the postgraduation ceremony of maratab for another nine days of a repeat performance. Lo and behold! He was now a fully ordained Zoroastrian priest at the age of 10, licenced to perform navjotes, marry and bless a couple and explain the marriage vows to them, as well as recite the geh sarna prayer at funerals.

Berjis Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, occasionally practices law.