No solutions at Mumbai Zoroastrian Congress

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Asks head priest of Udvada ‘Iranshah’, after 1,250-strong Congress discussed mixed marriages, among other things.We came, we met, we ate, we discussed and then we left. Where are the solutions, asked Dastur Khurshed Dastoor. The head priest of the Udvada ‘Iranshah’ sat in the front row listening intently to every session of the 10th Congress, which concluded on Monday night, the action moving from the venue of the NSCI to the Turf Club for a grand patra nu bhonu, the traditional banana leaf dinner.The vada dasturji’s simple white cotton paghdi was in contrast to its impressive stiff, shiny black speckled namesake borne by Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman and lavish sponsor of the 1,250 delegates Congress. 

This benefactor considered the four day event “hugely successful” because it “went through smoothly in spite of apprehensions that there would be several controversies’.

Asked about those elusive solutions, he passed on the hope to the next WZC at Singapore, four years hence. But Dr Poonawalla fully deserved the standing ovation he received for his sagacity in handling issues and egos. No small credit either to the indefatigable convenor, Manek Davar who worked all the diplomatic channels to resuscitate an event that had threatened to be declared “dead on arrival”.

Actually the Congress deserves more than the negative back-pat of not disintegrating in verbal fisticuffs or even taking off at all considering the ugly schism between the trustees of its organisers ( sic) the Bombay Parsee Punchayet. There was apositive upside.

“The elephant in the room”, intermarriage, wasn’t acknowledged in the programme, yet it was allowed to lumber into full view in session after session. Mixed marriages and the exclusion of the children of only Parsi mothers is the community’s most fissiparous obsession, but never in the recollectable past has one seen the same graciousness to allow the other side an uninterrupted hearing. Those in support were tumultuous in their applause; the other side was refreshingly non-raucous in its disapproval. Parsi civility was regained at the 10th Congress in Mumbai, site of its most shameful mauling.

The latest census has reportedly reiterated the 10% decline of Parsis in India every decade. According to those close to the counting, it is now 61,000. Worldwide, it is in the region of 111,000, the rise in numbers in the UK (5,000) and North America (20,847) unable to buoy up optimism when the home countries are going under so desperately; Pakistan now has a mere 1,529 ( a figure surely outdated even as it is toted). Strangely, you do see a Parsi anywhere in the world you travel.

Roshan Rivetna’s charts informed us that even the Seychelles had 21 Parsis. At the WZC, Bangladesh’s sole Parsi was represented; and she’s married to a local Muslim so Mumbai’s orthodoxy wouldn’t count her.

The Congress happily made no such distinction. It couldn’t, considering the “diluted” identity of the Diaspora. Standing out as much as the woman Iranian priest Nashin (nee) Jehangiri in her flowing white robes, hat and scarf was Noriko Katsuki of Tokyo’s Chuo University with no Zoroastrian connection other than academic.

Indeed identity was the strongest force of the WZC, and the weakest link in the “homogeneous” illusion. It lay at the core of the “narrow and deep” arguments of the exclusivist orthodoxy vs the “shallow and wide” premise of the progressives who want a more inclusive approach.

It was at the heart of the increasing belief in the Diaspora that it is okay to sacrifice Parsi ethnicity so as allow the more important Zoroastrian religion not just to survive but flourish. Darius Khambatta, Advocate General of Maharashtra, presented a persuasive case to show that it is near heresy to keep anyone out of Zoroastrianism, and by extension our fire temples; an argument countered by the unbendingly zealous Khojastee Mistree.

Alas, these are dialogues of the deaf, and Sam Bulsara in his summing up made the valid point that the WZC should have allowed these entrenched positions to come together in a debate; alas it kept them safely corraled in separate discussions.

Identity-demography informed the panels on late marriage and fertility by Dr Rusi Soonawala and sociologists; Dr Farokh Udwadia warned that if the stagnant gene pool wasn’t refreshed, it was doomed.

His other exhortation to Parsis to eat more wisely and not so well was clearly disregarded by the loaded plates at lunch and dinner. That was certainly not an inbred spread, Indigo laying on “clams, squid and shrimps in lime broth” along with the “salli-chicken”. Every meal included gluten-free dishes, but we didn’t notice desserts for the diabetic.

Co-chairman Nadir Godrej had penned one of his astutely delightful trademark poems for his welcome address, and Keki Daruwala recited his starker ones at the launch of his book, Fire Altar.

Vada Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor presented the prosaic reality of so-called “defenders of the religion” subverting all attempt to preserve its most sacred seat, Udvada; his emotional presentation while releasing the evocative book of photographs on this place of pilgrimage left the audience stunned.

And in a prolonged moment of chilling prophecy, the cawing of an insistent crow accompanied Daruwala’s reading out his lines on “we thinning Parsis/thinning into thin air”.

Till then, hopefully, the Parsis will follow the advice of Lord Karan Billimoria at the opening and continue to “punch above their weight”.

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