Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Day 02 at the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress 2013

Day 02 of the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress started bright and early at the NSCI complex in Worli, Mumbai.

About half of the 1250 delegates were at their seats when the first panel sat down to listen in on the panel discussion on how Zoroastrians practise their faith in the Diaspora.

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Dorab Mistry the moderator asked all the participants to be respectful of each others view. It’s then I realized that this would be an interesting session with the proverbial “fireworks” that everyone wanted to see.

Pervin Mistry the first speaker represents the orthodox traditional camp of the Parsi Zarathustis. She made a few statements that were opinions delivered as if they were facts. Her claim that the way Zoroastrianism is being practised in the world diaspora today will lead to is extinction, has no facts to substantiate it. Mrs. Mistry resorted to a very theological approach in her talk and frankly lost the audience who are not all students of religion.

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Katayun Kapadia, FEZANA President was her usual lucid self as she laid out the practices followed by the largest diaspora, the one in North America. Associations flourish with the rituals and ceremonies. North American mobeds have the choice to choose who they perform ceremonies for. There is total autonomy for individual associations and that extends to individuals. Katayun also made a very valid observation that the Zarathushti diaspora needs new role models. With due respect to the Tatas Bhabhas and Engineers; they do not resonate in the same way with the youth of today in the diaspora. With the population demographics coming up later, Katayun observed that by 2050 there will be more Zoroastrians in North America, than in India.

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Bomi Patel spoke about some of the other initiatives that FEZANA follows.

Sarosh Maneckshaw of Houston, USA gave a vague presentation on how the religion is practised in the diaspora with some very large generalizations about the community in the entire continent of North America. He qouted Prof. Hinells saying that the Parsis wanted to be liked by the British and they wanted to be like the British. Of course….after all it’s aapri Rani; right ? 🙂

Parviz Varjavand represented the Iranian perspective on the panel. He said that there was the same confusion amongst the Iranians about what path to follow for the future. However he saw optimism in the future.

Malcolm Deboo gave us a History 101 of the ZTFE and the Zoroastrians in the UK….again ! One of his claims that the first Zoroastrian to come to the UK was in 1726 begs the question…..how do you prove such facts ? Or do you just dish them out and not worry about backing them up?

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Firoz Rustomji of Perth, Australia was called upon to inform the audience about the practises in Australia. He made a presentation that waxed eloquence on Western Australia and Perth, and how it was the best place in Australia. This would have been a good spiel at a Pan Australia event, and not the World Congress. He also dissed the North American Zarathustis by calling them “loaded”…with money I guess. And then in true Bawaji style with no pretense of political correctness in a public forum, he cracked a blonde joke. At least the heat of Perth hadnt sapped that bawa gene off Firoz ! 🙂

Sadly what has now become a repetitive element at this Congress is that panel discussions turn rogue and panelists just talk about what they want and not what is being discussed. And the moderators are mostly helpless. I am not sure where the breakdown in communication lies. But surely the moderator would have communicated to the speakers, the general gist of the topic being discussed.

The real discussions should have focused on religion and ethnicity. These are not synonymous or interchangeable. Zoroastrian religion will survive somehow even without the Parsis. But the Parsis may not survive. And that would be a massive loss of ethnicity….culture, customs, food, literature, music….life !! Why is no one discussing this.

The next session saw a lecture by Darius Khambatta. He made an excellent case on how we need to change with the times. Very eloquently he walked the audience through ancient Persia right to the issues of today. His comments on the repercussions of the Justice Davar and Beamon judgements from a century ago, and the resulting lacunae a century later was sadly very true.

Darius compares the Parsi status quo today to the decline of the Mughal Empire. I wonder who he has in mind to play Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh…from amongst the BPP trustees 🙂

He ended by appealing to the BPP to either open the doors to the Fire Temples to one and all, or allocate some funds so that new ones can be built for those who want to follow a new path of Zoroastrianism. Amidst massive applause from a section of the crowd, it also provided the first booing of the Congress where a gentleman got up frustrated, and booed and walked out, only to be then booed at by another lady. What fun !! 🙂

This was followed by a session on ZYNG: Zoroastrian Youth of the Next Generation, the youth wing of BPP. They took the audience on a journey of their inception and activities of the last few years. Ironically all the three presenters were guys, and the women leadership of ZYNG was absent. They addressed the touchy hot topic of intermarriage stating for the record that they encourage people to marry within the community, at the same do not tell people what they should not do. The achievements of ZYNG are notable in their short history. However in a very ad hoc format of presentation, it was more like a yearly status report they would provide to their AGM and not to an audience who was probably hearing about them for the first time. What I would have loved to hear was their means and methods leading to their successes. Sadly that was missing.

The next panel discussion was the first cohesive one of the Congress. A discussion ensued on the contribution of Parsis in the world of Media, Advertising and Cinema. Sam Bulsara suggested that the Parsis need a brand manager who would look after the brand PARSI that has been built up over centuries. He cautioned the community that it only takes one evil deed to overturn 100 good ones and therefore we all should be careful of what our actions will result in for ourselves and our community, before doing them. Bachi Karkaria urged Parsi to de-caricature ourselves. She lamented that we dont have to be seen as the motorcycle loving, gara wearing, eccentric people all the time in the media, which is the case in the present time. Maneck Daver feels that the President of India addressed our Congress because of the brand “Parsi” that our forefathers have built.

After another hearty lunch, the Panel on Philanthropy met up. Dinshaw Tamboly the powerhouse administrator of WZO and a giant amongst trust management in India spoke about the complete lack of collaboration of the various trusts, even after numerous efforts to bring them all to the table and create a modern clearing house for the dispensing of aid. What was also evident is that the diaspora is as active in philanthropy as the motherland.

The stage was then set for Khojeste Mistree, a BPP Trustee and a leading scholar of the religion to take the stage and talk about the Zarathushti Legacy.

Khojeste extolled that the religion is for the Iranians only. And akin to the 12 tribes of Israel, there were the 2 tribes of Persia/Iran….the Parsis and the Irani Zarathostis. They were the only true followers of the Prophet and the religion. And because of that, no non-Iranians have been able to sustain the religion over extended periods of time. As a side tidbit he reminded the audience of some of the advances in architecture that the Persians made all those centuries ago. The first free standing dome was built by the Parthain Persians in Firuzabad and not as usually claimed by the Islamic architects in the centuries to follow.

Khojeste urged the audience to remain true to the Parsi-panu as the only way to keep the faith intact and save it from becoming extinct. In his usual excellent oratory Khojeste said that religion cannot be left to the legal eagles to tell us what it should be. That should be left to the religious scholars. Khojeste Mistree fired a concluding  and parting salvo to the audience asking those who want to reform the religion to go forth and build their fire temples and their own institutions. The Parsis will support them but they need to go forth and do their own thing

In a breakout session Yuhan Vevaina, the Zoroastrian scholar at Stanford and a good friend raised the very grave issue of the lack of scholarship in the religion at the University level, worldwide. He raised the issue of lesser scholars at top notch universities doing high level research in the field of Persian studies. He urged the powers that be to look into establishing chairs at Ivy League caliber universities. When prodded regarding the costs, his estimate was that a 5 million USD endowment at an Ivy League school would lead to the establishment of a chair.

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The last session of the day dealt with the population demographic studies by Roshan Rivetna. She walked the audience through the process of collecting numbers of the Zoroastrian populations from all parts of the world had various colleagues including Dolly Dastoor walk the audience through the process of how the census was conducted.

The evening entertainment by Shiamak Davar’s troupe was top-notch and brought to an end a long day at the Congress.

The individual speeches and lectures today raised the tempo of the Congress. Sadly the panel discussions left a lot to be desired.

As an aside, one issue that went totally unreported was the tweets by the President of Iran congratulating the Congress organizers. This surely has to be a first by the leader of an Islamic state.

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The above are just a few highlights and observations and not intended to serve as a chronological log of events.