Of greater import

If one followed community developments on social media, the image that appears would be of a divided, disgruntled and dispirited people. The opening of a new dadgah in Dadar is termed a “Bollywood film set,” the fire in the new dadgah in Poona has been likened to a campfire, the dadgah in New Bombay is termed “cosmopolitan,” the Congress in Perth is dismissed as a mockery of the religion, infested by rootless and radical anti-Parsis. A seminar to enlighten mobeds on how to use social media to reach out to the community is decried as endangering priesthood.

Even if social media does not reflect reality, the medium can be a powerful tool to influence people’s thinking and outlook. The outcome of the last presidential elections in the USA was influenced by foreign, often hostile powers, plying half truths and lies. Fox News and others in the USA portray President Donald Trump in a favorable light while CNN, The New York Times, etc are critical of his antics. So whether “news” on social media or print is disseminated by individuals or media professionals, the message conveyed depends on the person/organization’s outlook and values.

The public outpouring over the Metro tunnels was initiated largely by traditionalists and fanned by social media. Whether one was based in Bombay, Hyderabad or the USA, one could make one’s presence felt on a sensitive but geographically distant issue. The opponents of the alignment of the transit system did not harp only on vibrations and cosmic forces surrounding the two fire temples. This would have been dismissed as fanciful and quixotic. Instead, the rallying cry was “religion in danger.” The two atash behrams were threatened by an external force and had to be saved. The Metro passing under their portals would not only annihilate the religious sanctity of the institutions but result in their physical ruin. Like Samson bringing down the temple of Dagon, the underground railway would destroy the two aged structures.

While the vibrations caused by the Metro do pose a threat to the old structures in the Girgaum area, the authorities state they are taking precautions.. In the case of the Petit Library in the Fort area, the Bombay High Court (BHC) earlier had instructed the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited to ensure the safety of the Gothic structure. Perhaps the agitation should have focused more on this wider based aspect.

Both fire temples are located in the congested heart of the city. The Wadia Atash Behram is situated at the junction of two major city roads, with cars, buses, vendors, pedestrians and myriads of commuters hurrying by. The Anjuman Atash Behram stands cheek by jowl with other residential/commercial structures, on one of which is affixed a large hoarding perpendicular to the fire temple. According to one amateur city historian, when the Marine Lines station was first proposed less than a kilometer away, community members objected. The project went ahead anyway. Parsiana has not been able to verify the authenticity of the information, but it is not inconceivable.

Even the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) which for once took a rational view of the Metro project, had to join the bandwagon and support the agitation. Both the two major candidates for the July 1, 2018 BPP trusteeship election were present at the public meeting called to oppose the Metro alignment. The BHC gave a sympathetic hearing and has stayed work at the site. Religious sentiment has to be given its due in a democracy. But in the meantime, an important city transit system that would offer relief to millions of harried commuters is partly delayed. Nine to 10 people die everyday on the existing, antiquated, overcrowded Bombay suburban network.

What helped turned the tide in favor of the traditionalists were two liberals-turned-varying-hues-of-conservatism. Hyderabad-Secunderabad based blogger and trustee of the local anjuman in the twin cities, Jehangir Bisney added his considerable social media skills to the struggle, and lawyer and columnist Berjis Desai brought his legal expertise to the court petition along with counsel Zerick Dastur. Without the judicial intervention, the agitation in all likelihood would have petered out. The intervention of the two, one-time liberals indicated the movement was broader based then initially assumed.

A constructive and logical follow up on this crusade would be to examine how to increase the footfalls to the fire temples. According to one estimate, of the 50 fire temples in Bombay, 22% are usually devoid of worshippers. For the rest of India, the figure is 64% (see “Looking at a logo,” pg 26). Have we not been told that the Doongaji Agiary in Bharuch goes an entire year without a single devotee visiting? Yet people objected to shifting the fire, firstly to Godrej Baug and subsequently to New Bombay. The fire still languishes in the south Gujarat town.

In Bombay, people objected to a non-Parsi domestic employee sitting on the open verandah of the forsaken Godavara Agiary in the Fort area while her elderly Parsi employer went inside to pray. Was the caregiver expected to stand on the pavement in the hot sun or the rains? And if the employee took umbrage and refused to accompany her elderly patron, how would the unfortunate woman manage to visit any house of worship?

In New York, the local Zoroastrians struggled to raise money for their Dar-e-Mehr, one of the most elaborate in the West. On a Sunday in June when Parsiana visited the center, certificates were being handed out to children who had completed various grades in the religious classes taught by volunteers. One of the main teachers and past Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York president Lovji Cama explained how they were running out of classrooms in the spacious building. Even the center’s board of directors were meeting in the library so their room could be used for classes that day. Farrokh Patel who runs a successful swimming pool liners and covers manufacturing company, recalled how the Zoroastrians had to struggle to raise USD 5,000,000 (around Rs 40 crores) to construct the 22,000 sq ft structure in Suffern, New York, about an hour’s drive from New York City.

In the United Kingdom, the World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO) has a place of its own after several decades. When Parsiana visited the structure which was formerly a school, renovations were going on. WZO president Sammy Bhiwandiwalla showed us around the premises, noting that as and when funds are available, features will be upgraded and added. But his main concern after putting in all the resources and efforts is whether the center would be adequately utilized.

Preserving our existing structures or adding new ones such as in Poona, New Bombay, New York or Middlesex is important. But ensuring they are utilized is of far greater import.




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