MUMBAI: Sam Vesuna was 19 when he became a pallbearer at the Parsi Towers of Silence at Malabar Hill. Today, bodies laid to rest in the roofless towers putrefy below solar panels, but at that time, hungry birds of prey still slouched along their stone walls.
“When I first saw vultures tearing into human flesh, I was terrified of being attacked,” Vesuna recalls. But back in 1996, the young Parsi had little choice. He was a school dropout, living in a Santacruz slum with a young wife to support.
Like all 18 khandias (Parsi pallbearers), currently working at the 355-year-old Doongerwadi or Towers of Silence, Vesuna eventually got habituated to the gory sights and nauseating odours. But not to his “untouchable” status.
Last week, the 35-strong Doongerwadi staff, including its pallbearers, hearse drivers, and funeral hall cleaners, joined the rest of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s (BPP) Class IV workers in a peaceful protest for salary hikes and benefits. But unlike sweepers and gardeners, the khandias and nussesalars (pallbearers who enter the tower) must also contend with being shunned for handling corpses by fellow Zoroastrians. A minuscule community, numbering just 69,000 in Mumbai, which is often lauded for its progressive outlook. In the past, khandias were asked to drink from a separate ‘matka’ at work. Today, some Parsis still dislike them living in community ‘baugs’. Khandias must also undergo a ritual purification before entering fire temples unless they slip in without revealing their occupation. Shaarookh Wadia, who has been working at the Doongerwadi for 13 years, recalls having to hold a pouch wide open so a pious Parsi could tip him without bodily contact. And when he left his job at the Ratan Tata Institute and joined the Doongerwadi for higher wages, his Parsi wife left him. “I have no contact with my son,” he confides. “My wife tells people I’m dead.”
For now, the agitation is restricted to workers wearing red union caps to draw attention to their demands for accident life insurance, pensions and accommodation. The khandias have more specific demands including a higher per person stipend for cleaning the three dokhmas or towers. During these annual cleanings, Wadia says khandias trawl through the remains of about 700 corpses per tower – 3-5 new bodies come in every day – while fighting off clouds of mosquitoes and falling prey to skin infections. They allege their attire and cleaning equipment is of poor quality but BPP chairman, Dinshaw Mehta, contests this claim. “They have good-quality masks and gloves but don’t wear them,” he says.
On Tuesday, the BPP, which is the city’s biggest private landlord, agreed on a 7% counter offer to the 57-65% wage hike demanded by the workers. Dhunji Naterwalla, the general secretary of a local workers’ union, Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha, says this “marginal increase” isn’t acceptable and the agitation will continue until a new agreement is “signed and sealed”. The peaceful protest may even escalate into a strike. The khandias unanimously credit the union for empowering them. Before it existed, they say they were paid a pittance, worked around the clock and had few benefits.
When Pervez Wadia became a khandia 30 years ago, he was making Rs 600 per month. After three decades of service, he claims to make just over Rs 20,000. Today, a starting salary is about Rs 12,000 per month though khandias can earn more for overtime and dokhma cleanings. Plus the job comes with free living quarters within the Doongerwadi or highly-subsidized accommodation elsewhere – a boon for those living in slums. The community is usually associated with industrialists and philanthropists but small-town Parsi boys, with little education, are lured by the money. Many initially worked at fire temples but switched over for a higher pay to better support their families.
Though a few khandias have married into broadminded Parsi families – some community members do treat them with respect – most are forced to marry outside the faith. Finding a match for their children is also challenging. Noshir Rasaldar’s son, who is a gym trainer, has been dating a Parsi girl for two years but her family continues to object to his father’s occupation. Most pallbearers want their children to take up another profession. Today, the BPP subsidizes their education but old-timer Vesuna, whose elder son is studying civil engineering, recalls having to approach rich Parsis for help. “They’d say, ‘No because if we educate your sons, who will do this work,'” he says.
Social ostracisation isn’t condoned by the scriptures but Avestan scholar, Ervad Parvez Bajan, explains that since corpses are covered in bacteria, khandias are expected to keep their distance. But once they have a bath, they are free to mingle with others. This separates the practice from untouchability. “There’s no shame. It’s a pious duty,” he says. “The community has wrong notions about these people doing menial work.” In smaller towns, relatives turn pallbearers when family members die. Parsiana editor, Jehangir Patel, believes Parsis should return to this system to demolish existing stigmas and keep track of how the dokhmas are functioning.
When scavenger birds are plentiful, this 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian tradition of disposing the dead is both swift and environmentally sound. But in the late ’90s, vultures disappeared because of urbanization and other causes. Later, solar panels were installed but khandias say they do a half-baked job leaving the body to decompose over many days. Pallbearer Noshire Patrawala likens these remains to “soggy bread”. “When we go to drag the body, a hand or a leg comes off,” he says. It’s for this reason that today, many Parsis opt for cremation.