First Person

India’s Parsis grapple with tradition

“It is not hidden, but it is so seamless that it goes unnoticed. That reflects how the Parsi community has quietly sunken into the societal fabric of India over the past 1,500 years,” said the 74-year-old Cyrus Dajee, talking about the Parsi Colony — a bunch of buildings owned by the Parsis in Dadar, Mumbai. Unlike the other Parsi Colonies in this coastal city, it is not bound by a wall or fence that would isolate it from its surroundings.

The corners of his starched white kurta flapped in the moist evening breeze, a black oval cap sat comfortably on his head. He spoke with ease and confidence, even though age had made his voice slightly shaky. Wielding his walking stick was his favourite distraction, I noticed.

It was 2013 and I was strolling in a garden in the Dadar Parsi Colony, when Dajee approached me and struck up a conversation. We just sat on a nondescript bench in the middle of the worn-down park. When asked for details about his religious community, he said, “I am a nobody; there are those who run the religious bodies, ask them.”

But, in time, he went on to tell me all about it anyway.

“Don’t you think we only talk about the glorious past of the Parsis?” I asked. “We rarely talk about the turbulence that the community is going through.”

“Well, you certainly haven’t spent enough time in a Parsi household, then!” he smiled. “All we talk about over dinner is the decadence in the present generation.”

When I said turbulence, I didn’t mean that the young were at fault, I pointed out. But, Dajee didn’t seem to concur. “When we were young, Zoroastrianism meant something to us — a religion, a way of life,” he began his long monologue. “Today, the religion and its practices are lost,” he shook his head disapprovingly.

According to several accounts, the Parsis first came to the subcontinent from Persia in the eighth or 10th century, in order to avoid persecution by the Arabs who were conquering that country.

After all,” he waved his hand at no particular thing, “religion is only one of the identities of a person, isn’t it? My granddaughter is a professional, she is a confident global citizen who also happens to be a Parsi,” he said.

The Parsis follow Zorastrianism, a religion based on the teachings of Zoroaster. According to the 2001 census, there were a little less than 70,000 Parsis in the India. More than half of them, about 45,000, live in Mumbai. And about one third of those live in the upmarket Dadar Parsi Colony.

Even though Dajee began his monologue with the rehearsed contempt for the younger generation of the faith, his views on the problems Parsis face, gradually became more nuanced.

Any community that imposes rigid rules on its people relentlessly is walking straight into its end days, he said. “Remember,” he continued, “the Zoroastrians came from the Iran of yesteryear where the pressure to convert to Islam was really intense. Therefore, the Parsis began to marry within the community. I think when they arrived on the shores of India, they were scared of the caste system in this country. They feared the upper castes would not let them be one of them, and they didn’t want to be relegated to the lower castes. So, they were left with no option but to continue their tradition of endogamy.”

I nodded at his complex historic reasoning. “But, why should the young girls of today be forced to marry within the dwindling community?” he asked rhetorically. When a woman marries outside the community, her children are not considered Parsi.

Advertisements run by Parsi organisations such as the one on the left returns to the original legend of the raja of Sanjan and Parsi elders to encourage procreation.  Cartoonist Hemant Morparia  takes a dig at the campaign through a drawing published in the Mumbai Mirror on November 14, 2014 (above)
Advertisements run by Parsi organisations such as the one on the left returns to the original legend of the raja of Sanjan and Parsi elders to encourage procreation. Cartoonist Hemant Morparia takes a dig at the campaign through a drawing published in the Mumbai Mirror on November 14, 2014 (above)

Dajee’s granddaughter is 28 and works as a business analyst at a technology firm. While Dajee would love to see her married off to a Parsi following all the religious ceremonies, the way he and his wife of 50 years did, he understands that there might not be a suitable match for his outgoing, intelligent granddaughter within his small community.

“After all,” he waved his hand at no particular thing, “religion is only one of the identities of a person, isn’t it? My granddaughter is a professional, she is a confident global citizen who also happens to be a Parsi,” he said.

Such lucidity of thought is absolutely uncommon even in majority communities in the country. Whatever happened to the young generation bashing he began with, I asked teasingly. “Well, we are unhappy at the way things are, but I love my granddaughter too much to let my obsessions with religion affect her,” he said

Newspapers have reported that women in the Parsi community have been under pressure to bear more children so as to increase their numbers. Some Parsi organisations have also announced SOPs (standard operating procedures) such as subsidising visits to fertility doctors and providing for larger homes to accommodate bigger families.

But the community is one of the richest and highly educated in India. Therefore, women in the community tend to marry while in their early or mid-thirties, after the passing of some crucial fertile years. Also, most Parsi women are professionals, making it very tough for them to have many children.

Dajee has four sons. His wife used to teach at a local school in Dadar before she retired. “It was easier back then,” he said. “Neither of us worked too much,” he laughs. He was an employee at the state excise department and retired 14 years ago.

Since then, he walks around in the tiny park at dusk every day. I found my daughter-in-law in this park, he proclaims happily. Dajee was walking one evening when he bumped into his old-time friend who had come down from Gujarat. A few months later, Dajee’s oldest son married his friend’s daughter.

It is only Dajee’s oldest son who has married a Parsi woman. The others have married out of the community. But, Dajee insists that it is not why his oldest daughter-in-law has been his favourite. “She is simply a nice woman, the daughter I never had.” he said.

It is almost 7pm and Dajee gets up to leave. “We have dinner together every night,” he says. It is the only ritual he doesn’t miss. It is the only ritual that has been the same for all of his adult life. It is the only ritual he would fight to keep intact.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd , 2015


The drawing room in Jaun’s ancestral home in Amroha. — Photos by Imran Ahmad
The drawing room in Jaun’s ancestral home in Amroha. — Photos by Imran Ahmad

In the 19th Century, the residents of Old Delhi (or Shahjahanabad), who were contemporaries of Ghalib and Zouq, stood nonchalantly in street corners to share and appreciate their poetry. With chai in one hand and chillum in the other, they chattered away into the evening enjoying the way the words of poetry hung amidst the slight winter winds.

Two centuries later, the city has changed unrecognisably, but poetry lovers still meet at street corners to discuss Urdu poetry over innumerable cups of tea and cigarettes.

It was at one such informal poetry meet of four friends, in Central Delhi, that a friend casually recited:

Hai muhabbat hayat ki lazzat

Warna kuch lazzat-i-hayat nahin

Kya ijaazat hai, ek baat kahoon?

Wo … magar khair, koi baat nahin

“Kya baat hai!” we exclaimed in chorus! The innocent question in the third line of the qataa and its dejected but quick withdrawal caught our attention. Thus, our introduction to Jaun Elia was brief, but compelling; enough to form a life-long bond.

There is no poetry lovers’ gathering where Jaun Eliya is not discussed over cups of tea

Hungrily, we rummaged through the internet to search and savour his couplets, we shared them eagerly with each other every day. Within in no time, we began to idolise him.

 — Photos by Imran Ahmad
— Photos by Imran Ahmad

Several months of hasty hunting for his published works came to naught. Just as we were about to give up, a small shop in a cramped street of Chandni Chowk proved to be a beacon of light. We bought five of his titles and managed to read through them in record time.

The titles of his books — Gumaan,Lekin, Shayad, Ya’ani and Goya — rife with uncertainty and insecurity, are nothing like the poems inside. Few poems in those books reflect ambiguity, and most are assured in their cynicism, clear in their sarcasm and composed in their melancholy.

The greatest draw towards Jaun’s poetry was his inimitable style which is a drastic departure from the traditional Urdu poetry of Ghalib, Meer and Zouk to Faraz and Faiz. His poetry seemed bereft of the self pity that is abundant in the traditional Urdu poetry. His idea of romance was that it is merciless and passionate at the same time, as exemplified by this couplet:

Nayi ek khwahish rachayee jaa rahi hai

Teri furqat manayee jaa rahi hai

The idea of bemoaning an indifferent beloved, something that has become a defining character of popular Urdu poetry, has been turned on its head in many of Jaun’s couplets.

Dil ne wafa ke naam par kaar-i-wafa nahi kiya

Khud ko halak kar diya khud ko fida nahi kiya

Jane teri nahi ke saath kitne hi jabr the ke the

Maine tere lehaz mein tera kaha nahi kiya

For Jaun, life was a bigger misery than unrequited love. One can’t help but wonder if he was the aloof lover that many traditional Urdu couplets admonish.

These enticing and fresh ideas made us curious about the man, his thoughts, his beliefs and his life. He died on the November 8, 2002, about four years before we accidentally discovered his seminal work and therefore meeting the man will remain an unfulfilled dream. We decided, however, that we would explore his ancestral home and speak to the relatives he left behind in India before he migrated to Karachi in 1957.

Hopping into a car, ignoring the chill of a January morning, we sped towards Amroha — 150 kilometres southeast of Delhi. Going past the joyous mustard fields we reached a decrepit town, with fervour in our hearts, like devoted pilgrims.

“Jaun Sahib did come to India a few times after he moved,” said Ali, the person who takes care of the ancestral home of Jaun Elia and Kamal Amrohvi, the acclaimed filmmaker of Pakeezah fame. The two cousins shared a great equation, according to several people of the household.

While the rooms on the ground floor are museum-like with items that were used by Kamal Amrohvi’s family, those on the first floor accommodate guests. Standing in the courtyard, gazing at the shy blue skies, we thought of Jaun’s childhood days spent running through this very space and his youthful days spent here reciting his soulful poetry.

While we drank our cups of tea, Jaun’s nieces and nephews scrambled through their memories to find the slantest of references to him. From several testimonies, we found that one common thread in his life was despair at not being able to find his ideal partner. We didn’t need to go to Amroha to understand that; his poetry is full of such despondency.

Gawai kiski tamanna me zindagi mein ne

Wo kaun hai jise dekha nahi kabhi mein ne

Ehd-i-rafaaqat theek hai lekin, mujhko aisa lagta hai,

Tum to mere saath rahoge, mein tanha reh jaon ga …

After returning from Amroha, we spent several evenings raising a toast to the man and his spirit. An essential element of many of our parties still remains the few YouTube recordings of Jaun reciting his own poetry. Drunk on misery and dejection, Jaun sways as he recites his poems in a mushaira, just a few years before his death. The malnourished-looking almond shaped face is covered by black sun glasses that efficiently hide his sad eyes.

“Charasazon ki charasazi se …”, he says in his sorrow-laden voice, and pushes his shoulder-length hair behind his ear. “Dard badnam to nahin hoga …”, he completes a misra.

Calling the attention of his fellow poets on the stage, he continues, tears rolling down his eyes,

“Haan dawa do, magar ye batla do, mujhe araam to nahin hoga …”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014


Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed in Zindagi Gulzar Hai
Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed in Zindagi Gulzar Hai

It was a certain Khan Chacha, whom we never met, who used to stroll into Rainbow Centre near Empress Market in Karachi, Pakistan, to buy the bulky VHS tapes of Dhoop Kinare, Ankahee and Tanhayiyaan, back in the 1990s.

These would then reach my uncle who worked in a state-run hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He would feast on Haseena Moin’s poetry in prose, Shahnaz Sheikh’s enticing smile and Marina Khan’s playful conduct.

Once every several years, he would return to India with his prized collection of PTV’s brilliant dramas and excitedly share them with us.

Sadly, we were still very young to enjoy them. We had to wait until Chad Hurley and Steve Chen invented YouTube, and the shows were uploaded in full on the video sharing website. And even then, the internet speed kept us wanting an uninterrupted experience. I once watched a one-hour episode of Waaris over two days owing to a slow connection.

Pakistani television dramas from the ’80s are like a fresh breeze in the jungle of mediocre Indian television soaps!

Therefore, it amazes me to switch on the television now and see highly acclaimed dramas from across the border in the comfort of my living room. Zee TV’s new channel, Zindagi, brings us in India a choicest collection of Pakistani dramas.

1.) Jamshed Ansari and Behroze Subzwari in Tanhayiyaan (2.) Behroze and Qazi Wajid (3.) Badar Khalil and Rahat Kazmi in Dhoop Kinare
1.) Jamshed Ansari and Behroze Subzwari in Tanhayiyaan (2.) Behroze and Qazi Wajid (3.) Badar Khalil and Rahat Kazmi in Dhoop Kinare

Two things, however, have remained unchanged over the past three decades. One is the exceptional quality of the dramas. The second is the bewilderment that Indians face when they see the similarity between Pakistani society and theirs.

Let me start with the first. Our generation of the late 1980s never really enjoyed good television in India.

By the time we grew up, the satellite boom had hit the television industry and TRP-hungry channels had started replicating formulae that were “tested”. As a result, we switched on the television to find sobbing daughters-in-law, despotic mothers-in-law and muffled yet loving husbands.

A certain section of the youth felt estranged from Indian serials on television and shifted to the easily-available American soaps.

It took YouTube and torrents to bring classic Indian and Pakistani shows to the youth. The skilful scripts, superior acting and great direction of the older Pakistani dramas (of the ’80s) began to seem unique in the sea of formulaic serials on television. I would contend that it is still the same. Some Pakistani shows bring a fresh breeze in the jungle of mediocre Indian television soaps.

Secondly, both India and Pakistan have raised an invisible iron curtain between them when it comes to exchange of cultural ideas. Way back in the ’80s, newspapers and magazines that carried stories from Pakistan to an Indian audience spoke largely about Ziaul Haq’s regime and Islamisation.

It came as a pleasurable jolt to Indian viewers to see a Pakistani drama set in 1987, in Karachi, where a young doctor cuts her hair very short, romances an older man and talks boldly about women’s rights with her male colleagues in the hospital. Dhoop Kinare might as well be set in urbane Bombay of those times.

The situation is exactly the same today. Unless one seeks out online publications from Pakistan, the mainstream media only gives a sustained coverage of the political turmoil in Pakistan, its relations with India and the fragile situation in Afghanistan. We rarely ever understand the life of an average Pakistani.

When we saw a modern yet conservative Zaroon in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, it sure felt like many Indian men. In this age where women are no longer reliant on their partners for their basic necessities and carve identities of their own, the men in the subcontinent are growing equally liberal and conservative at the same time. Similarly, for someone who only gets to read about the diktats of the Pakistani Taliban on its women, it is a nice surprise to see a liberal, strong-willed character that Sanam Saeed plays in the drama.

To see that the Pakistani society, culture, food and language are so similar to certain parts of India still baffles some Indians, especially of the younger generation who are only familiar with Pakistan through their textbooks.

Here’s hoping that the entry of Pakistan’s best television serials into India would bring about much-needed changes to the Indian television scene as well.

Shows like Kitni Girhein Baaki Hain which are captivating the imagination of several Indians can prove to Indian producers that they could make money even if they step out of the boundaries of a formula story. Also, our audience is equally appreciative of subtlety and sensitivity. We do not need brazen speech and in-your-face emotions to enjoy a TV serial.

Some of the Pakistani shows have new, amazing camera angles, extreme close-up shots, very shallow depth of field (blurring the background while bringing sharp focus on one person) andare presumably shot with a HD SLR camera. This adds a unique look and feel to the shows. Such changes in the technical aspects should also encourage Indian producers to boldly move away from the garish make-up, boring mid-shots and blaring background music of most of their soaps.

Observing the overwhelming response to good television shows from Pakistan makes me want to believe that it is only a matter of time before Indian producers come up with consistent, good programming.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 14th, 2014

Poetry… and a Poet

It was 10 minutes to 10 on a clear Sunday morning. I sat on the sun-drenched lawns of Hotel Crowne Plaza, Bangalore, looking forward to a morning of poetry on the last day of the Bangalore Literature Festival.

Enjoying the breeze on my face, I began reading while waiting for the poets to come on the stageAbruptly, I saw a flash of white in front of my eyes, and looked up. Even before I could adjust my vision, Gulzar sahab sat beside me, reproaching a bunch of people who wanted to accord him a special seat by the stage. “ Mujhe akela chhod deejiye ,” said the baritone. “I am fine here.” For those initial few seconds, I am not sure what happened. Perhaps my eager heart stopped beating. Perhaps a shy smile escaped through my parted lips.

His trademark starched white kurtacomplemented his shiny golden joothi . As he lowered himself on the chair, I sprang up to stand. ‘Aaj kal paaon zameen par nahi padte mere…’ his song filled my ears. Returning his smile, I sat down gingerly, unsure of what to do. Gulzar sahab was the man who had shaped my idea of romance. His words were my company on many a lonely night. And most of all, he effortlessly expressed my repressed thoughts and proclaimed them to the world. And here he was, sitting beside me, a serene smile on his face.

Before I sorted out my thoughts, a swarm of people engulfed him and he got busy signing books, posing for pictures and nodding at the compliments being liberally showered on him. The din, strangely, didn’t disturb me. If it was a film sequence, I would have sung ‘ye lamha filhaal jee lene de’.

But reality didn’t stop me from scanning his personality with my eyes — polite, considerate and fiercely individualistic. He asked for the mob around him to dissipate, as four poets took their seats on the stage. He wanted to listen to the poems and he requested them to return after the session was over. That was that. They were all gone. Now, it was just a besotted me, a beaming Gulzar sahab and blissful poetry.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, began reciting in Bangla. Gulzar sahab , who is fluent in Bangla, seemed to enjoy its intricacies. I waited patiently for her to read its English translation. Next, the Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi took the microphone. For the next 15 minutes, Gulzar sahab and I blurted out spontaneouswah wah and kya baat hai almost in unison. Just as Vajpeyi was about to finish, Gulzar sahab asked him to repeat the last few lines. When the poet complied, I felt Gulzar sahab jump out of his chair in appreciation. The passion of poetry is so potent that it can make you forget who you are and where you are. Then K. Satchidanandan, the Malayali poet, held our attention with a few of his poems before leaving the stage.

“I request the moderator, Mamta Sagar to recite her poetry,” Gulzar sahab shouted from where he sat. Slightly shy and taken aback at the beckoning, Kannada poet Mamta Sagar took the audience by storm when she began dramatic recitations of her poems on rain and sea. Gulzar sahab visibly enjoyed this, even though he didn’t understand the language. “She is brilliant, isn’t she?” he asked me, after Sagar read out the English translations. I nodded, thankful that people like him inhabit this earth, who understand (and generously contribute to) the value of poetry in a world overwhelmed by commerce.

At the end of the session, when Gulzar sahab rose to leave, I knew this was an experience I would cherish for years to come. A voice within told me that I knew this grey-haired man in big spectacles that made his eyes look smaller than they are. I didn’t need his picture or autograph or to shake his hand. I took back his voice in my ears, his face in my eyes and his memory in mine.

Published in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 6th, 2013

Faith, Loss, Luck and Tragedy at the Kumbh Mela


An aerial view of Kumbh Nagari, a cluster of makeshift tents erected for the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

An aerial view of Kumbh Nagari, a cluster of makeshift tents erected for the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.Credit Courtesy of Raksha Kumar

ALLAHABAD, Uttar Pradesh—The sun rose on Leader Road, Allahabad, which leads to Allahabad Junction Railway Station, warming up a chilly Monday morning. Several local men had already begun to prepare generous shares of potato curry and puristo offer to Kumbh Mela pilgrims free of cost. As I stood at the corner of the street holding an early morning newspaper that reported on the stampede that had killed 36 people the previous night, a short, frail woman meekly approached me.

“How many are dead?” she asked, almost in a whisper. I told her that the paper was reporting 41, and she gasped and began to speak fast in Braj Bhasha, a dialect of Hindi that is spoken in western Uttar Pradesh. After asking her to repeat herself several times, I finally understood that she had been separated from her two children and her grandchildren for more than 24 hours. All that she had was a small cloth bag containing a sari and a torn piece of paper with her son’s mobile number on it. She was concerned about the safety of her family.

Speaking to her son on my phone, I learned that the family was safe and had left long ago. In fact, their train had already reached Agra, close to their home in Mathura.

As I accompanied the woman to the station to help her board the train to Mathura, several others who were stranded surrounded me began asking for train arrival and departure information. Most were on the wrong platforms and waiting for trains that were delayed by several hours or possibly even canceled. Distressed men looked for the women of their family, woman mourned lost toddlers and the elderly tried to cling to people from their village because their immediate families were nowhere in sight.

No matter whether they’ve come by air, rail or bus to the area, most pilgrims travel the final kilometers to Kumbh Nagari, the makeshift megacity that hosts the festival, largely by foot. On the day there was a stampede at the railway station, I arrived at 8 a.m. at the entrance to the Kali Marg, which is on the east side of Kumbh Nagari, and encountered a surreal sight – an ocean of humanity. An aerial view wouldn’t have shown a single inch of land on that street. Each one of the pilgrims was going to the Sangam, a confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati rivers, to take a dip on the day of Mauni Amavasya.

Mauni Amavasya is considered to be the biggest of the seven royal bathing days during the 55-day religious congregation that ends March 10. On this day, devotees maintain a maun vrat (silence), which is a particularly important aspect of spiritual discipline. It symbolizes a state of oneness with the self, and the initiation of an inner dialogue.

This Mauni Amavasya was especially important as the planets line up in such an auspicious manner only once every 144 years. Crowds were estimated to be three times the usual size on a shahi snan, or on any other royal bathing days. The more religious ones paced silently and conveyed messages to each other in sign language. Most of the others did not keep a vow of silence, but taking the holy dip on that day was of paramount importance to them.

After several minutes of being pulled along by the crowds toward the Sangam, I dragged myself out of the unending flow of people, sensing the danger of a stampede. Later, I learned there had indeed been a stampede on the very same spot on Kali Marg, which killed four. That tragedy would be overshadowed by the larger one several hours later at the railway station.

Apparently, 25,000 police and security forces, 250 doctors, 100 ambulances, five bomb squads and 200 police boats were insufficient to ensure the smooth functioning of the festival.

Stampedes have become an accepted part of the Kumbh Mela. They claimed seven lives during the 2010 Kumbh Mela, 39 in 2003 and in the worst Kumbh stampede since India’s independence, about 1,000 died in 1954.

This doesn’t stop an increasing number of people from swarming to the event. About 100 million people are expected to attend this year, almost a 30 percent increase from the last Kumbh at Haridwar.

That may seem like a huge number, but as one suave-looking devotee told me when I was at the railway station, “that is still less than 2 percent of the Indian population.”

Those that attend are privileged, she said. “The others are plain unlucky.”


Published in The New York Times, February 14th 2013