Honk Honk to Udvada
Of all of the minorities in this country, where even the minorities are masses, we Parsis must be the smallest. There were never any more than a few thousand of us to begin with, and now, outside of Bombay (which we more or less made, even if the Marathas won’t allow for it now) and the towns of coastal Gujarat, where we first arrived all those centuries ago, we don’t even get up to a hundred in any place. A family emigrating to New York or Toronto, a nasty car accident, two women marrying outside the faith – such events require that the demographic sums for us be done all over again. Up in Delhi, a single man and his dog would constitute a Parsi mob. At our very own weddings and Navjotes, we’re outnumbered by non-Parsi spouses, children, retainers, waiters – by the rest of Indian civilization, each person perfectly programmed to proliferate. Somehow we have managed to content ourselves with daily infusions of fried eggs, when the rest of India likes them fertilized. Just by leaving Bombay for San Francisco on Monday night, I was probably tilting the scales somewhere – possibly more Parsi men in Bombay would now be gay than not, or would live with their mothers than not.
Never a great patron of the faith, I’d always stood, from the time I arrived awkwardly into adulthood, at a goodly remove from the institutions and festive occasions of our community. Later, psychoanalysis estranged me further from groupthink. It annoyed me that because of our declining numbers the elders of the faith always kept insisting we had to all hold together. Under all the doomsday bluster, they seemed to love the fact that there was a crisis and that they were in charge of rules, prescriptions, remedies. In my head, I was a Billimoria first and a Bombayite second, a Parsi fourth. Fifth if you ask what’s third.
Except for today. For one day in my life, for the cause of romantic concord and pioneer-like progress with another, I’d cheerfully submitted to being a Parsi first, keeping up his place in the trail leading towards the Great Mountain of the tribe. The Bombay–Ahmedabad highway was a honking, trilling, swaying parade of Parsis headed to Udvada, perhaps the longest continuous line my people had formed since we’d arrived in India deep in the mists of time and been led single file before the king of Gujarat to argue for our fitness and plead for his mercy. Every car that overtook Zelda (I wasn’t going to be driving at the same speed as some of these jokers) was manned by a beaked nose; at the windows matriarchs and their daughters-in-law fanned themselves with copies of Jam-e-Jamshed and fair, rosy-cheeked children chirped and sang; on the windscreens were Bombay Parsi Punchayet stickers and the odd one for the radical group ARZ (Association for the Reform of Zoroastrianism). On this one day we pleasure-loving Parsis were laying siege to the state of Gujarat, that joyless place of prohibition, vegetarianism, thrift, riots and stepwells. The men were being encouraged to race one another; cutting in and out, they shouted friendly jibes at every positional gain. On a day like this, in a caravanserai like this, my Parsiness was the face of me.
An even prouder Parsi sat next to me: Zahra Irani, in a modest yet sexy black-and-white salwar kameez, her hair covered by an improvised black dupatta-chador, her face flushed with a contagious pleasure and excitement. And on this strangest and most thrilling of dates we had, for better or for worse, a consignment of Parsi cargo to deliver to Udvada. In the back seat, Zahra’s uncle Sheriyar now moved his substantial frame from one window to the other and, in emphatic Gujarati, declared, ‘If I’d been driving, we’d have reached Udvada by now. One hundred per cent sure, dikra, else my balls are fluorescent pink.’
Zahra gave a tinkling laugh and said in her delicious American-accented Gujarati, ‘Come on, Uncle! There’s only two kinds of people in the world who’re always sure of themselves: the true believer and the back-seat driver.’
‘What? Don’t you remember when I drove you all to Udvada when you were a teenager? Out of Bombay like this and into Udvada like that, just like how babies leave the womb and pop into life. And that was on the old, bad road, before the highway was built.’
‘Yes, yes, sure. But that was then. You’re old now.’
‘If I’m old, so is Mr Billimoria here. Take it or leave it.’
‘OK, so you’re both young.’
A couple of hours into our acquaintance, I was beginning to see the competitive side of Uncle Sheriyar. When I’d met him at seven that morning, he’d seemed a mild old coot, reticent, courteous, his English a strange piece of patchwork, just like the Indian mind, his prosperous stomach the sign both of advancing age and the success of his many businesses and projects (among them a bakery in Ghatkopar and a piggery in Karjat, I was told). Only a certain gleam in his eyes, I saw now, gave away the story of what kind of soul he really was. It was the gleam of life, of competitive life, the wish to be the wind that blows through the trees, that sets the pace of the game. I met Zahra and him downstairs and was ready to leave, but Uncle Sheriyar had wanted to take a leak in advance of our long journey, so I gave him the keys to my apartment while Zahra and I waited downstairs. We were a bit formal with one another, because it was the first time we were in the presence of something like family.
‘So?’ I said finally, pinching her arm. ‘Does Uncle Sheriyar know about me?’
‘What are we, teenagers?’ said Zahra. ‘Of course he does. In fact he’s probably gone up as much to take a look at your property as to pee.’
‘What’re you saying!’
Zahra giggled. ‘Let him be. He’s sweet. Actually, Uncle Sheriyar is a remarkable man. Do you know, even before he opens his eyes in the morning, he says his prayers and does his stretches in bed, with his eyes still shut. And then he goes down to feed the stray dogs of the neighbourhood, and on the way back he brings up a pile of mail, because he’s also the treasurer of the housing society, and he’s on the mailing list of every expo and exhibition in Bombay, from furniture to heavy goods to electronics, but it’s like an hour before he gets down to reading it, because he asks anyone he meets in the lift how they’re doing, and then he gets stuck with listening to all their troubles. He’s a bit like you in that way, only he does it all for free. He has more fingers than the world has pies . . . he’s like . . . like a Ravana of the fingers. You know, Farhad, he’s the most religious and at the same time the most worldly person I know. That’s why he likes to know what a man is made of. I’m sure he’ll be very impressed by your place.’
‘Hey, is a man to be sized up by his apartment? The real goods are down here.’
‘You’re so right, honey, the real goods are down here, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot.’ Zahra cuffed me on the thigh. ‘But we won’t be getting to inspect them any time soon, unless we can find someplace private in the crowds of Udvada. Though I don’t see why they’d have any trouble with us doing it out in the open, seeing as they’re always kicking up such a fuss about generating more Parsis. Hey, you’re so shy! You’re turning red already. Come on, Dr Billimoria. Doesn’t your friend Sigmund Freud say that sex is all in human affairs and everything else is a . . . what’s the word? Oof, not sunscreen. A smokescreen?’
‘Yes. But Freud never came to India. Here, I think we take food over sex any day.’
‘You’re so funny. Don’t tell me your ex-wife didn’t appreciate the bits of you hidden from the rest of the world. You know, you’re quite a big size. Definitely in the top five percentile. Didn’t she like that?’
‘Uh, she . . . we didn’t chat like that . . .’
‘If she didn’t, she was a fool. Do you still have a picture of her in your wallet?’
‘No, I never did. Why do you ask?’
‘Just wanted to see what she looked like.’
Uncle Sheriyar appeared again, whirling my keyring around on his forefinger like Arjuna used to do with his sudarshan chakra in the Mahabharat television series. Winking at me, he said to Zahra in Gujarati, ‘It’s a really nice place. At least twelve crores at today’s rates. You’ve found a nice plump goose, kiddo. And in just ten days in Bombay.’
‘Oh, Uncle, you’re embarrassing Dr Billimoria with your street language. He’s not that sort of man, you know. He’s cultured, civilized. A gentleman.’
‘What do you mean, not that sort of man? There’s only one kind of man, else he’s not a man at all.’
‘Uncle, you’ve got to thank your lucky stars that you were young in the middle of the twentieth century and that Auntie fell in love with you, because with your attitudes, any girl in the twenty-first century would run miles from you.’
‘Poof! I wish I’d been born in the twenty-first century. It’s the perfect century for me. When I went to America last year for three weeks, I joined a salsa class and all the women became friends with me on Facebook and now they want to come and see me in Bombay. I tell them that I’d love it, but the only thing is that your Auntie wouldn’t exactly be thrilled.’
‘Where is Auntie?’ I said as I started the car up, sensing that only one person could rein in this most deceptively macho of Parsis.
‘Auntie has a cousin visiting from Iran and they’re spending some time together, so she couldn’t make it,’ explained Zahra.
As we hit the main road, a long arm came out from the back seat and tooted the car horn, and Uncle’s voice boomed in my ear, ‘Udvada, Udvada, the sacred fire of the Iranshah! Let’s go with the flow, singing ho ho ho, honking and honking, bonking and bonking.’
After a while, I saw that my own high spirits from the last couple of days couldn’t compete with Uncle’s. And perhaps I became a bit tetchy, especially since we had Zahra for an audience and it was clear she really loved her uncle. I tried to remind myself that I had Zahra all to myself in San Francisco from next week, while Uncle was left behind in Bombay, expending his energies on his bakeries and piggeries and distant Facebook friends. As clouds obscure the sun to the world, so Uncle was passing momentarily between Zahra and me. Besides, this morning my mind had been taken hold of a meditative mood – not exactly like the Buddha under the banyan tree at Bodh Gaya, but close – now that only one evening lay between me and the end of my life in Bombay.
I’d woken up at five, even before my alarm clock had sounded. In the pearly light of dawn, all the remaining objects of my fairly bare, goodbye-to-Bombay room – chairs, cabinets, vases, lamps – resonated with a mysterious charge and opened the door to both memories and resentments. I lay there, blown back and forth across my life, thinking of things I wished I’d said but now it was too late, watching a parade of spirits pass by, and wishing I hadn’t done some of the things I’d done, such as allowing Anna to exercise such power of definition of what my faults were, or for that matter eating that chocolate croissant last night, as it would have tasted fantastically comforting right then. A little bit of doubt came seeping into my grand plans, because, when all was said and done, my Bombay life was real and my American one still just a heap of wishes and desires.
‘There’s a McDonalds drive-in coming up ahead in a minute or two,’ boomed Uncle. ‘Let’s stop there a moment for a pee and a cold coffee. It’ll wake me up. I’m feeling a bit short on energy today.’
‘Yes, I was kind of thinking you’re not your usual self today,’ said Zahra. ‘But it’s fine. It’s age, Uncle. You mustn’t worry about it. It happens to me too some days.’
‘Does it happen to you too?’ Uncle asked me.
‘Uh, I feel fine actually.’
‘That’s good. You’ll need all your energy to keep pace with this girl here. I’m warning you from before only.’
As I cut to the left Uncle added, ‘Actually, there’s also a second reason I want to stop here. One of the girls who works here is really cute. She really likes me too. Maybe she’s on duty this morning.’
‘Oh, Uncle, you’re such a Casanova! I knew there was something fishy about all of this.’
‘Wait, wait, there’s also a third reason. Next to the drive-in, there’s also an emu farm. For more than a year now I’ve been keeping a watch on the baby birds on my Udvada trips, just to see how fast they grow. Pigs aren’t doing so well these days. Apparently emus are going to be the next hot thing in meat. And there’s nothing in any holy books about not eating emus either, the way it is with pigs.’
‘Yes, emus weren’t around when all these rules were being written, while pigs were probably rolling in the mud right before the eyes of those to whom revelation appeared at the top of a mountain – or in a haze of hash,’ I said wittily.
‘Uncle, what a character you are. Keeping a watch on the emus, for heaven’s sake!’
Uncle chortled, captivated by the force of his own reflections – and perhaps indeed reflection, for he was combing his hair using my rear-view mirror. ‘There are three of them. I’ve given them all names. Cyrus, Aspi and Benaifar. You’ll see them in a minute. Wait, no one pay the bill but Sheriyar Irani.’
I wondered what the most un-Farhadian experience of the week just past had been, out of a bouquet of many: finding myself in bed with Zahra or standing now just off the Bombay–Ahmedabad highway, drinking cold coffee and watching a bunch of disgruntled emus saunter across a large, bare, grain-strewn enclosure while Uncle Sheriyar told us all about fat and protein content in emu meat, the growth cycle of the birds, the average production cost of a kilo of emu as compared to chicken and the PR work that would have to be done if emu was to become ‘the next chicken’ by the year 2018. Finally even Zahra tired of the birds, and said that it was hot and we should get back on the road.
‘Sure, sure,’ said Uncle Sheriyar. He pointed a beringed forefinger at me. ‘Coming for a pee?’
‘Uh . . . OK.’
We trooped over to the urinals, where we found numerous other specimens of Indian masculinity relieving themselves and cackling to one another across the stalls about cocks and cunts, a habit that has always disgusted me. The only places free were adjacent to one another. We each took one, fiddled with our trousers and, to use a Sheriyarian phrase, went with the flow.
How susceptible is the human mind to the language and world view of another!
‘So?’ said Uncle Sheriyar in a meaningful way, looking at me over the granite partition.
‘Do you want to marry her, or what?’
‘Marry who? Zahra? But sir, we’ve just got to know each other this week.’
‘When I was young, people got to know each other after they’d gotten married. In such matters, son, faith counts for everything, doubt counts for nothing. Don’t waste any time. She’s quite a catch, I’m telling you, not that I need to, as any man can see that for himself, else he’s not a man but a mouse. And to tell you the truth, there’s not a lot of women who are free at her age and yours. If you delay, bawa, someone else will pop the question first, and you’ll have to settle for some peroxide blonde from Miami with two children, four parrots and a mortgage.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. But I still haven’t moved to San Francisco, and it also depends on what she wants, and what her own plans are . . .’
‘All that’s beside the point. Women make new plans every day of their life. That’s how they stay young, because they surprise themselves every day with a new plan. With them it’s very simple. You’ve got to get them into a corner and ask them, “So, yes or no? Coming with me, or not?” They need to be led, else they get all confused, and then they send that confusion right back at you. Then you get confused too, and decide to call it “respect”.’
‘These are very interesting ideas. But . . . I’m sure there’s many different ways of reaching the same goal, and what works in your view, Uncle, might not work for me.’
‘You could be right. There are all sorts of newfangled theories about romance in the air these days, which weren’t there in the times when I did my best work. All I’m saying is, you’ve already done half the work in a few days. You’re getting a second chance in life for free, right at your front door. Why not finish off the job? Or are you just after a tumble in the hay, and then in America its blondes and redheads?’
‘I really don’t think we know each other well enough to be discussing matters in this sort of tone.’
‘OK, OK, enough of all this girl stuff. It’s a holiday, let’s be gay.’
‘Let’s be gay,’ I agreed.
‘Shall I drive?’ said Uncle Sheriyar on the way back to the car. ‘That way we’ll get there faster.’
‘If you don’t mind, I’ll keep at the wheel.’
‘OK, hero,’ said Uncle, and threw himself with a resigned air into the back seat. ‘Kiddo, listen, it’s decided. The next time you come to India, you’ll find me in the emu business. There’s a charisma about these birds that pigs just don’t have, no matter how much they wiggle their snouts and go oink oink. Separately, I’m also thinking if they could be made to fight. Like cockfights. Imagine a big crowd coming together on Marine Drive or Azad Maidan for the big match between Sheriyar Irani’s big emu, Cyrus, and Amitabh Bachchan’s big emu, Abhishek.’
‘Oh Uncle, it’s such a historical day,’ said Zahra. ‘The eight hundredth anniversary of our arrival in India after we faced so much persecution in Iran, and we’re going to such a big bash, and all you can think about is emus. What will Dr Billimoria think of our family?’
‘What? Eight hundredth?’ exclaimed Uncle. ‘Silly child, what world are you living in? You just chopped a few hundred years off our history, the way that lady Bobbitt chopped off her husband’s dipstick. Darling, this is the one thousand two hundred and ninetieth anniversary of the arrival of us Zoroastrians in India, God be praised.’
‘Oh my God, how silly of me! My hair stylist said she thought it was eight hundred and I believed her. Next I’ll be saying I’m twenty years old. Isn’t time strange, Uncle? Here in our own world we miss a human being by a moment and our whole lives take a different turn’ – Zahra looked at me meaningfully – ‘but back in those far places you can miss by five hundred years and no one says a thing, and then all sorts of people believe that. History’s just a story, that’s what it is, I’ve realized.’
‘Yes, twelve hundred and ninety years is how long the sacred fire of the Iranshah has been burning in the Great Temple of Udvada,’ I chimed in, trying to keep my end up.
‘What, is that what you think? Bawa, what kind of Parsi are you? The sacred fire hasn’t been at Udvada much more than a couple of hundred years. Do you think we had it easy, just setting up a sacred fire at the first nice spot we found in this new country and then putting our feet up for the rest of time? That’s the Parsis of today, engineering their own extinction by the day, refusing to marry in their own community, or to produce two children a pair if they do – two point three actually, because that’s the effective replacement rate. But not that lot, the founding fathers, the keepers of the flame. Whenever they sensed danger, they ran for their lives, and everywhere they took the sacred fire with them. First Sanjan, then the Bahrot caves, then the Vansda forests, then to Navsari in the fifteenth century, then to Surat for a bit, then back to Navsari, then out to Valsad. And then finally, the fire was brought to Udvada in 1742, and there it’s stayed for 270 years now. If I live to see the three hundredthsalgireh of the sacred flame at Udvada in 2042, I’ll know I’m specially blessed by God. Know your history, children, know your history. Without history, man is but a condom, unrolled onto someone else’s pole, but with it, he’s the real thing, all swollen with pride, with energy, with willpower.’
‘Oh Uncle, you say such wonderful and such filthy things at the same time.’
‘What’s filthy about sex? Man’s generative power is to the secular world what the sacred fire is to religion. The ink of humanity comes from man, kiddo. A woman may bear a child, but she’s the postman, not the letter writer. You – Farhad! Tell me, is there anything filthy about what I said about man and history?’
‘No . . . not at all.’
‘Then repeat it like a mantra, three times over, saying wee willie winkie in the middle each time.’
Zahra burst into laughter and said, ‘I forbid you to horse around with my boyfriend like that.’
‘Honk, honk, then bonk, bonk, all the way to Udvada!’ Uncle responded, leaning across and tooting my horn a couple of times.
‘Why do I feel I’m lower than the two of you?’ said Zahra.
‘Darling, don’t take my words to heart so much,’ said Uncle. ‘A woman can easily be the equal of man if she wants. Remember, I said can be, not is.’
‘I don’t mean it that way, Uncle. I mean for real. This side of the car is sinking. Guys, we have a flat tyre!’
‘What? No!’ I groaned.
‘I don’t feel a flat at all,’ said Uncle.
‘Farhad, just pull over. Uncle, will you be a sweetie pie and hop out and check the tyre beneath me?’
‘Sure thing. But if there’s nothing wrong with it, you have to buy me an ice cream in Udvada for the trouble, or send me a girl from San Francisco.’
Uncle jumped out of the car, then his head disappeared beneath Zahra’s window.
‘Farhad!’ whispered Zahra, squeezing my hand. ‘I’m sorry if he’s troubling you. Isn’t he?’
‘Well . . . a bit,’ I conceded, to the beat of Uncle vigorously kicking Zelda’s tyre. ‘But it’s OK.’
‘I’m sorry I brought him along. But he doesn’t mean any harm at the end of the day. He’s just high-spirited and maybe a bit competitive. And we won’t have him around for much longer. At Udvada he’ll join up with his old pals and one of them will probably take him home. Soon it’ll be just the two of us again, and I know we’re going to have so much fun.’
The sun came out above my day, again, and I said, ‘OK, no worries. I’m cool with it.’
Uncle opened the back door again and announced, ‘I knew it. It’s a false pregnancy. The party can go on without fear – or speed. Driving so slowly, and stopping every five minutes, it’s a wonder we’re not going backwards towards Bombay as the world turns on its axis. Only one force is responsible for this miracle, and that’s the sacred fire of the Iranshah.’
‘I’m looking forward to visiting the Fire Temple after so many years, sure,’ said Zahra. ‘But Uncle, I must tell you, what I’m looking forward to most is the chief speaker.’
‘And who might that be?’ Uncle and I spoke at the same time, only Uncle’s tone insinuated that it should’ve been him.
‘Narendra Modi! The Chief Minister of Gujarat. It said so in the paper this morning.’
‘What! Doomsday is upon us. How could they have invited a non-Parsi to lead the function?’
‘Oh Uncle, don’t be so narrow-minded. He’s the Chief Minister of this state after all. And let’s not forget, one of the most powerful men in this country. If he’s on our side, it’s great for us. Everywhere else Indians are longing for someone like him to come and straighten out their lives, to change the image that people around the world have of us Indians. Here’s a man who could become Prime Minister of India in 2014, and today we get to see him right in front of us in the flesh, speaking about Parsi culture, Parsi dreams.’
‘Here’s a man who doesn’t exactly have the best record when it comes to minorities, wouldn’t you say?’ I asked, with the delicacy that is my hallmark.
From the back seat Uncle ventured, ‘I wouldn’t trust him with a single emu of mine. Because he’s someone who wants all birds to be chickens.’
‘Oh, all those riots and stuff from ten years ago. Guys, how long can we be stuck in the past?’ said Zahra. ‘If all these crazy Gujarati people run around intent on killing one another, how’s a single man to stop them without killing a few as well? Let’s look at the big picture too, else we’re being as narrow-minded as the person we accuse of being the same. Roads, electricity, infrastructure, jobs, business development, no corruption – these aren’t things for majorities and minorities, they’re the tide that lifts all the fish . . . or boats or whatever it is. If we keep arguing about all these things, when will we ever get anything done? What this country needs for a while is a dictator, then we can go back to being a democracy. I’ve been doing a lot of reading up on this man. He’s the one for the future, there’s no question about it.’
‘I don’t know what it is with you girls,’ sighed Uncle. ‘You’re all in love with him. It’s time that the vote for women was taken back.’
‘What for? We women like the look of a man who knows what he wants and sets out to get it. And it’s sexy that sometimes he talks about his chest size. Why should only women have numbered chests? If we’re never perfect unless we have a 36-inch chest, we’d like a man with a 56-inch one. But let’s put it this way. I might have some business with Mr Modi, just like you did with your emus.’
‘What, my niece and Narendra Modi as business partners?’
‘Think about it. Here I am, Zahra Irani, a few months away from putting all my life’s savings into this yoga school. And he’s the one prominent politician who’s really and publicly into yoga, while everyone else never talks about it because they think it has some link to right-wing Hindu politics. Do you know, last year when he had a brainstorming camp for all the bureaucrats in the state, he made them wake up in the morning and all do yoga with him. No fussing over whether it was Hindu, or non-Hindu, or all that nonsense that makes us all live in mental ghettos. No one was allowed to miss it. Either you do yoga, or off you go back home . . . and probably miss your next promotion. Someone in my yoga group forwarded me some pictures of the camp on email. Everyone around Mr Modi, poor things, looked like they had concrete in their limbs and would rather be asleep in their beds, but he was wearing a black tracksuit and sneakers and doing all these awesome poses, and really looking kind of sexy.
‘Uncle, if I could just find a way of getting through to him today and telling him about my school in Frisco, maybe, who knows, he’d agree to become my brand ambassador. I know that he wants to reach out to America, and he must have felt so terrible when the States wouldn’t give him a visa. Even just a personal message from his office for my website would just be so cool. I could send it out to the local press and it’d make for such a great PR push. And that way I’ll be able to sweep up all the Indians in San Francisco when my business is new, and then all their friends and then friends of friends, who wouldn’t be Indian, and then the whole world’s at my door. And then in turn maybe we could raise some funds for 2014. After all, he’ll need cash if he wants to run for Prime Minister in the next elections. See? It’s win-win on both sides.
Zahra’s plans reverberated around Zelda’s four northbound walls, wowing her and me with an entrepreneurial energy and DIY drive the likes of which we’d never seen before. I knew that I’d certainly never plotted anything like this to widen the reach of my own practice. Perhaps it was because I came from a class that was born to privilege and therefore to a kind of haughty detachment. A place was waiting for me in Bombay and in the world, and all I had to do was paddle a bit downstream, filling out the opportunities laid out for me, to be ready to claim it. My first clients were friends of my family and from the families of those I’d been to school with. People came to me: those I met at dinner parties, weddings, conferences; I never chased them, and perhaps that was why I was so self-conscious about pursuing women in Bombay too. I was not a designer brand or a bar of soap; any attempt to peddle myself would be unrefined, and contrary to the discreet, sophisticated superiority I projected to my clients within the cool, book-lined, elegantly furnished rooms in a grand old building on Kemp’s Corner, a climate that, being the opposite of Bombay’s and more generally India’s, allowed for a Western point of view down upon the tropical problems of those worlds. But now that I was going out west, perhaps I’d need a calling card and connections that defined me more clearly as a mind who brought something Indian towards a recalibration of a Western perspective, or who offered a glimpse of home to the Indians of the diaspora who couldn’t trust the mind-workers of their countries with details of their private worlds, their culture-specific crises. That new me could learn something from Zahra’s strategic ambition, midlife energy and lack of inhibition, while showing it things that it did not know and offering a yang to its yin. Together we could do things that neither of us could manage singly. Visions of adventures under the sun and moon of America and Zahra floated before me and my blood tingled as I did a daring overtake, bypassing two cars and all of my old life; I longed to have Zahra’s weight upon me and her face close to mine as she narrated her plans while I stroked her back.
‘ . . . think it’s a waste of time, but I’ll see who I can get to help you,’ I heard Uncle Sheriyar saying. ‘Look, brother, we’re in Udvada!’
And so we were. Twelve hundred and ninety years after they first arrived on these shores seeking refuge, and having settled into the Indian way and then spread their wings again in the vast plain of history that lay between that moment and the present, Zoroastrians from neighbouring parts and from all around the globe had packed themselves tightly this afternoon into the streets and slopes of this tiny town falling away down into the sea and into the past, the cars bumping, jostling and tooting into the temporary parking lot on the open land behind the dilapidated villas and the museum, the families trooping in clusters towards the rows of tents in which were exhibited the banners, works and wares of the thousand endeavours into which we had managed to pour our entrepreneurial, eccentric and charitable hearts. I was glad to been able to grace this occasion (as my late mother would have put it) before making good my escape from community and country, as the traveller of days past took a dip in the waters of a holy river before he left his native place on a journey from which he had no assurance of returning. Once again, Zahra’s benevolent influence was providing bridges between the chasms of my past, present and future. I would have liked to wander with her around the stalls, to disappear into the milling crowds bumping hip to hip, but Uncle Sheriyar, leading the way, had already found the schedule for the day posted on a board and announced that the commemoration ceremony had already begun in the main tent and that, if the Parsis were keeping punctual time (as, uniquely on the subcontinent, they have the reputation of doing), then the chief guest’s speech to the assembly had probably already begun.
‘Wow, look at how many people are spilling out of the grand shamiana. I think your darling NaMo has begun his speech. Yes, that’s his voice for sure. I know it from TV.’
‘Oh, let’s hurry! Uncle, this is the first political speech I’ve ever heard live. Farhad, what about you?’
‘There he is!’
‘Yes that’s him.’
‘It’s so strange to see a famous man in the flesh, isn’t it? It’s almost a surprise to find out that he’s for real.’
‘Look, kiddo, there are my pals, all standing together. Let’s go stand next to them and they’ll tell us what’s happened so far. Who knows, the Vada Dasturji has just announced the first Parsi mission to the moon, and Mr Modi has been forced to say he’ll pay for it.’
We edged up to the group of stout, elderly Parsi men standing right at the back of the crowd, their trousers belted up high above their ample backsides, craning their necks to hear the chunky Chief Minister’s speech and prattling sotto voce into one another’s ears in the usual way of the Indian crowd, never able to watch anything in silence for more than a few seconds before wanting to share its own reactions with the nearest ear at hand. As a way of silently announcing his arrival, Uncle Sheriyar pinched one on the waist, kneed a second right behind the knee, kissed a third one’s bald spot, and poked the fourth in the ribs with his elbow. They all pantomimed reactions of extreme surprise and alarm to see him, then cackled and made room for us three to fit in.
‘Guys, my lovely niece, Zahra,’ said Uncle in a low voice. ‘And this is Farhad, the lucky man to whom she has given everything but her heart.’
‘All right, what’s going on? What’s our noble warrior with the 56-inch chest saying?’
‘Oh, he’s doing a fantastic job of buttering them all up. They’re all eating out of his hands now. Listen!’
Far away, on a grand stage festooned with banners and populated by blabbers, the familiar figure of the Chief Minister of Gujarat stood facing the audience in a grey short-sleeved kurta and pyjamas, a cream shawl folded into a reverse dupatta drawing two parallel lines of felicitation down his frame. The booming voice that had captivated and, by all accounts, inflamed millions was droning in Gujarati:
‘In the whole of this country, brothers and sisters, is there any community such as the Parsis? A community always smiling and teaching others to smile, that wants no special privileges from the government, that doesn’t even want an election ticket. This shows their love is without preconditions, without expectations – in other words, the purest kind of love. How did the Parsis come to be like this? There must be some great tradition alive in you that makes it possible, isn’t it or not, brothers and sisters? There must be some sanskar that makes you like this. And it is my good fortune that the fruits of these virtues have been showered here, on the blessed soil of Gujarat.’
‘He can talk, I’ll grant him that,’ said Uncle Sheriyar to one of his pals.
‘Brothers and sisters,’ Narendra Modi continued, ‘some of you say that, by agreeing to be here today amidst you in this holy hour of your happiness, I honour you, I pay tribute to your contribution to the state that I run. I have even heard some of you say, in your generosity, that I do you an honour by coming here today. But I can’t bring myself to agree with your line of thinking. Why, if I come here, it is for the pursuit of my own selfish interests. After all, I’m a human being too. Thinking about my self-interest comes naturally to me. And in coming here today, my self-interest lies in seeking out . . .’
‘Dhansak?’ said some wag a few feet away from us.
‘. . . the blessings of the grand SHREEJI PAK IRANSHAH OF UDVADA,’ boomed Modi. Wild cheers and whistles broke out, whether to acknowledge the speaker, the subject, the coming together of both or from the human instinct to seek the herd, I couldn’t say, I who was content just to take the scene in. ‘I hope that, with the goodwill nurtured for me in your hearts acting as the intermediary between myself and your sacred fire, the Shreeji Pak Iranshah will bestow its abundant blessings upon me from this day on and I will become an immeasurably richer man.’
We all huddled closer as more people, drawn in by the crowd’s sound, pressed in behind us. Uncle Sheriyar broke away from us and pushed his way forward, repeating the words, ‘Make way, make way, every hair of this body is a sword.’
As Zahra cut in ahead of me, her hands tying her hair deftly up into a knot, standing on tiptoe to see better, my gaze slipped away involuntarily from the figure on whom all eyes were focused to the privileged one available more or less to it alone. With a sudden sensual arousal generated by the incongruous circumstances of the public occasion in which our feet were planted, almost holding my breath, conscious of my downcast gaze among so many upraised ones, one that carried the sense of being both guilty and vividly free, I studied a small patch of skin at the base of Zahra’s neck, the top of her back, given a sudden autonomy and prominence by the black frames of hair and clothing, one that, belonging to the beautiful face just around the corner from it that would be unable to ever see it as I could, seemed to emanate a charge that was just as loud and clear as that of the Chief Minister of Gujarat, that asked to be possessed and defended, and that delivered into me suddenly, before my mind could break it down, that almost impossible thing that all of us seek, few of us reach: the sense of being alive in one’s body and in the present moment, and of seeing the way forward into a life perpetually animated by that feeling, never again to descend down into the lower reaches of inertia and confusion. My gooseflesh made me lift a forefinger to touch Zahra’s neck, when a muscle there suddenly throbbed, as if shy of my approach. The thought dropped into my head as if from God via Uncle Sheriyar: if we were married, I would be able to gaze at Zahra like this every day. A second later, the crowd rippled with more applause, and I heard my excited lover deliver a shrill, piercing whistle.
I left the sensual world of skin and returned to the social world of speech. Mr Modi had warmed to his task. Now he repeatedly wiped his brow with a folded handkerchief, and his hands no longer buttressed his points with polite chest-level gestures but soared up above him as if he was the bright flame of the Iranshah personified, rooted to the ground but always leaping skywards. I caught the words ‘Yehudi samaj’, and was forced to grudgingly accept the versatile intellectual range of a man who, at a forum as parochial as this, could get us Parsis to think something as distant as Jewish society. Next he’d be getting the crowd to take out a collection for the Nuer tribe of the Amazon rain forest, or suggesting that we get together to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I began to see Zahra’s point about India – not that I was invested in India any more, but perhaps this gave me the distance required for a detached consideration of the subject – needing an ambitious new statesman such as Modi for a new time in its history. Back on the glowing train of rhetoric on which all around me were travelling, I heard Mr Modi’s impassioned voice taking the oration up to its peak:
‘My friends, in thinking about the circumstances in which you first arrived in India, trying to keep your sacred flame alive from the persecution of Islam in your native Persia, I am led to a comparison of your community with the Jews. How so? For hundreds and thousands of years, the Jewish people wandered around the world, guests everywhere, at home nowhere. Neither land nor nation, friends, no physical place to call their own, their only safe possession their religion and their tradition. Round and round the world they wandered, broken up into fragments, preyed upon, always on the defensive. But throughout history, when one Jew met another somewhere in the world, he’d say to the other, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
‘Next year in Jerusalem, my friends, next year in Jerusalem! For two and a half thousand years, with the fire of the believing heart, next year in Jerusalem! Here the world was trying to extinguish the very spark of life beating in their hearts, but their minds soared far above in a different realm, thinking of the homeland owed to their faith. And finally, in the twentieth century, we have seen that the Jews have been able to realize their dream of possessing Jerusalem.’
The crowd applauded politely.
‘And today I confess to you something which I have never spoken about before. I dream of the day when you Parsis will come together and, possessed by the spirit of your sacred fire, carry its light back to Iran. Aim for Iran, my friends, aim for Iran! The state of Gujarat and the people of Gujarat are always behind you.’
Up in the front rows, there was even wilder applause, and some people jumped up and began to shout ‘Iran, Iran!’ as if the job could be done in the next half hour if we only could aim the guided missiles in the right direction.
Close to us, I heard a voice bellow like a clap of thunder, ‘So he wants to pack us all back to Iran, and get rid of us over here. I’ll take a good lunch over this speech any day!’
It was Uncle Sheriyar. ‘Come, my friends, let’s vote with our feet,’ he instructed, turning on his heel, red with anger. ‘Let’s not lend our ears to any more of this nonsense when there’s such fantastic dhansak, patra ni macchi, jardaloo boti and caramel custard waiting for us just outside. I’m done with humouring this joker.’
‘Uncle, Uncle, please calm down,’ cried Zahra, making her way forward through the crowd.
‘What calm down? You calm up,’ roared Uncle, with a perfectly lucid incoherence. ‘Who here wants to migrate back to Iran and face a new Holocaust? Raise your hands. I’ll pay for your tickets. Let’s all either head for Iran right away, or head for lunch, but let’s not stand here any more.’
Disconcerted, everyone began to mumble and shake their heads, before Uncle’s friends took up his refrain, joking and cackling and dissolving the tension. Between them, they guided a hundred or so people out of the shamiana towards the lunch tent.
As we made our exit, Uncle Sheriyar turned back towards the Chief Minister of Gujarat and cried out again. ‘Let’s take Gujarat first. Then we’ll head to Iran!’ ■
Photograph courtesy of Matt Werner