Sam Bulsara: Retrospective on 10th World Zoroastrian Congress 2013


January 2, 2014

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10th World Zoroastrian Congress,
Mumbai, December, 2013


38 hours of speeches and discussions, 45 sessions, 121 speakers, and I have just 20 minutes to wrap-it-up. So, at best what I can give you is my personal take on the key messages and what impressed me and what did not.

The new NSCI auditorium was impressive and a bit intriguing, given the dark setting that prevailed when we all entered on Friday morning. But I realised soon, that was only to highlight the stunning and majestic back-drop that emerged as the lights came on. The inaugural session refrain seemed to be Gandhi’s quote of “numbers beneath contempt, but contribution beyond compare. Whilst the latter made us all feel good, we now need to resolve to adopt an action plan to correct the numbers, however evasive , the solution may appear today.

Lord Karan Billimoria’s historical and religious perspective impressed me, so did his facility of the English language. He made us feel good by highlighting that the Cyrus Cylinder was so much more than the Magna Carta which the Brits go on and on about. I got a good lesson in history; also told me how much more is required than mere marketing skill to successfully sell Beer in the UK market! I look forward to reading the book on Gathas by Pilloo Junglewala to better understand our religion. I cringe at hearing him recall Narayan Murthy’s comment “I have never met a bad Parsee”. I say cringe because unless all of us in this room take a pledge to consciously and demonstrably act with honesty and integrity, I doubt if Narayan Murthy’s successors will, with the same conviction be able to say that to my daughters. It was heartening to know from him that all the 3 Indian MPs in UK Parliament are Parsees and even more heartening to hear from the President of India that as many as 3 of the 25 honoured by NDTV this month, were Parsees.

Nadir Godrej, described as an unassuming genius by his friend Maneck Davar lightened up the mood for all of us in his inimitable verse, taking us through the life of Parsees in the familiar environs of Bombay.

A very important session of the Congress was on Affirming our identity and had a galaxy of speakers from around the world- India, UK, USA, Canada and Middle East.

Dorab recalled Prince Philip’s comment about the Parsees, saying 150 years is peanuts, you should be around for 2000 years. Dorab, next time you meet the Prince you must ask him for some tips on HOW?!
Rohinton Rivetna outlined a wonderful construct on what constitutes identity, identified 10 characteristics and in his assessment gave us a 5 on 10, which means we have collectively destroyed half our identity and therefore equity. I noticed that he gave us a ‘0’ on ’10’ on sartorial identity and he is so right – in the heartland of Zoroastrianism, only 15 men turned up for the inaugural session in our Parsee Dagli, despite the organisers’ not so gentle nudge.

The Iranian point of view was unique, but not surprising- If you all are thinking about identity, please think about where you came from. Pack your bags for a trip to Iran, ladies and gentlemen. Meher Behsania the very efficient organiser who unwittingly put pressure on the organisers of this Congress to match Dubai’s efficiency and pizzaz reminded us that if we focused on being better than the best, then problems of Identity will not arise.

Dinshaw Mehta representing the largest population reminded us that BPP is the landlord for 4,500 flats, but rued the fact that given the current circumstances there can be no common global identity. He wanted to know why ZTFE had switched sides from BPP to FEZANA? But alas, the answer was not forthcoming. Frank, Honest and Upfront in Dorab’s view was Ketayun, the Chairperson of Liberal FEZANA. Ketayun also said that we need to innovate and she is so right, because we need to be less dogmatic at a time when we find ourselves on sinking sands. Our Wise President too hinted at this when he said, the community must handle its “numbers issue” pragmatically and sensitively. In the Natak last night our MC made us hilariously but tellingly count that out of 100 Parsees, we are left with only two and a half to procreate and how much can they!

Canada seemed the most aggressive and now with 40 mobeds wanted to take on Udvada and Navsari. Whilst advocating the “One Community Two Systems” Sarosh welcomed all inter-married and Reformist Parsis to Canada to continue following the faith and retain the right to choose their own disposal option.

ZTFE had a visual solution and said let’s make the Afferganyu with a big flame, the symbol of Zoroastrian identity and let’s invest in exhibitions to externally communicate the identity so that the outside world can recognize and identify us.

A discussion between these strong willed and articulate speakers could have taken the Congress discussion to a new height, but alas the influence of British trait of punctuality on Dorab came in the way and he terminated the session. He should have made the session eat into the over generous 2-hour lunch break; that would have given us more good food for thought.

Dadi Mistry’s sense was that there was underlying unrest amongst our Anjumans. I look forward to reading the book on Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw on his 100th birthday. We definitely need more young Parsees to take inspiration from his life, persona, presence and more importantly ready-wit and we got a sampling of that with young brides.

We reminded the President that we remain true to the commitment made 1300 years ago. The President threw caution to the wind and reminded us to address the issue of our dwindling numbers. We regaled the President with renditions by the Paramjyoti Coir and I hope he was suitably impressed by the piece inspired by our Ashemvohu.

Day 2
On Day 2 we began to get into the meat of the matter with the first session on practices in various parts of the globe and discordant notes began to surface. Whilst Ketayun and Bomi Patel of Fezana spoke in one voice and expressed a liberal disposition, though clarifying that we do not force conversion or encourage it, Perveen Mistry from Cananda struck a conservative note and urged everyone not to make changes to our time tested beliefs and practices because then our religion will be lost forever. Sarosh Maneckshaw from Houston highlighted the difference between Parsee identity and Zoroastrian identity and he too cautioned the North Americans about losing their Parsee identity. Parveez Varjavand of Iran reminded us about our origins in the Persian Gulf. Malcolm Deboo of UK told us how far back the Parsees arrived in UK, though subsequently we learnt that some Parsees from India had gone to China even before some others went to UK to settle. Pheroze Pestonji of Australia proudly told us that as many as 40% of Australian Parsees are entrepreneurs and they hope to learn from the mistakes made by North America and England since they are a recent Parsee lot from down- under. His flower bouquet analogy was beautiful and underlined that we must move collectively with a proper game plan or we will go NOWHERE.

Legal Eagle Darius Khambata, the Advocate/ Attorney General of Maharashtra with all the legal prowess at his command said that whilst most harp on the “word” or commitment we gave to the King when we landed in Gujarat, he emphasized that in fact there was “no word” that we would not accept others into our religion. He said caste and not religion is the reason for some of our misplaced beliefs and an exclusion based on caste would be immoral. To monopolize Zoroastrianism is to kill it, he said. He suggested- let our agiary open doors to all Zoroastrians and if that is not to be, let us open new agiaries that can accept ladies and children of mixed marriages. He argued, the term Parsee Zoroastrian comes from a trust deed and cannot become the basis for worship.

Khojeste Mistry came on a few hours later and chided us for being willing to listen to legal eagles on matters of religion rather than religious scholars. Contrary to what I was made to understand earlier, he also convincingly argued that the term Parsee includes all Zoroastrians from all around the world. How I wish, the Congress programme designers had the 2 of them face to face, at the same time in a debate followed by a panel discussion. It would have provided better fodder and perhaps more enlightenment to those sitting on the fence, like me.
May I suggest, although this is outside my brief, that the Congress committee hire the NSCI for another full day soon, for a free, fearless and open debate without rancour on this subject. More clarity can only emerge with a face to face discussion or dialogue rather than separate monologues. I often heard the refrain “to each his own” or “one community, multiple systems”. How many systems of religious beliefs and practices can we have for a community of 120,000 in a total population of 7 billion and what kind of identity will we seek to establish going into the future, if we follow a “Do what you like” policy. Such a policy cannot be a sustainable one and form the foundation for a religious order, my simple mind tells me.
Please see my blue print presented at the last Congress for my thoughts on this subject.

Burjor Antia felt the fire in our hearts is reducing and bemoaned the fact that so many of us are not wearing the sudra -kusti and avoiding rituals.
Roshan Rivetna took us through a fascinating and informative journey of our diaspora spread across the world. Whilst it was heartening to see that the population in UK and USA is going up, it does not make up for the decline in numbers in India and Pakistan, thus resulting in an overall decline.

ZYNG warned us that you try to police them, referring to the youth, you will loose them. Most delegates were impressed with Zyng’s achievements and as the latest Zyng calendar proves Parsees don’t only make good doctors and lawyers.

We recognized the formidable influence of Parsees in the area of media, adverting and cinema and felt the community should utilize the power of these new emerging disciplines for its identity and benefit.

The break out sessions on Day 2 covered a wide range of topics from preserving culture and role of charity, to problems of differently abled & aged people and how to write a will that provided rich and varied fare, to meet the special interests and concerns of a diverse audience.

Day 3

We started Day 3 hearing the disturbing news that there are 700 deaths for every 100 births in our community in Mumbai. The reasons were predictable – Late Marriages, Few Children, no children and more importantly attitudinal reasons. Dr. Nozer Sheriyar debunked these reasons.

Amongst scientific talks on reasons for non-fertility, I was surprised to hear Dr. Dadachanji say “One of the reasons is non-consummation”. Dinshaw Mehta asked for suggestions from the audience that the BPP can act on; whilst none were forthcoming I hope some will send some innovative ideas over to him at BPP.

Dr. Rusi Soonavala, everybody’s favourite gynaec, especially of Parsi women went one rung higher up the popularity charts, if that was at all possible, telling us that genetically, females seem stronger of the species. He reminded everyone that friends and holidays can bring about happiness, which is more important than wealth for well-being. In strong contrast to Dr. Soonavala’s genteel and friendly disposition and simple advice, Dr. Farokh Udwadia gave us a very learned and educative discourse on human life and developments in the medical world. I was surprised to hear from a Doctor of his eminence that prayer can heal because prayer affects the mind and mind affects the body. As he celebrated modern medical developments, he rued the arrival of machines, commercialisation and institutionalisation in the medical world. I still remember the strong and bold message he left us with at the Dubai Congress; For God’s sake, Parsees eat a little less, but it appears that we have not paid heed to his advice, going by the plateful of foods I saw at lunch and dinner times!

Bergis Desai struck a chord with the audience when he spoke on Parsee Philanthropy Management. He pulled no punches and appeared critical of Parsee Charities in general and the BPP in particular. He said our Trustees are too old, consider the Trusts as their backyard and trusteeship a privilege rather than a responsibility or a duty. Accountability was poor, and financial management of Trust wealth was not prudent. The secretariats of the trusts were poorly paid and incapable. Mercifully he said beneficiaries too should share the blame. From the questions and comments that came in fast and furious, the BPP Trustees at their next meeting must reflect on what their electorate is telling them. Probably they are not communicating enough with their electorate. Perhaps detail minutes of each Trust meeting must be put up on the Trust website for the community to see what their elected representatives are doing.

For those who missed the opportunity to go to Dubai in 70s or 80s and make big bucks, Meher Bhesania is giving us another opportunity towards end of next year, to see what new business opportunities are emerging in Dubai, over the next decade.

It was thoughtful of the organisers to include a session on Sports. We got a wonderful glimpse of the products of Return to Roots programme, an Iranian expert’s world view on the Shahnameh and developments in New Zealand, Pakistan and at WZCC and Zwin.

Day 4

Day 4, we saw Parsee Leaders from the business world and it was heartening to hear that Parsee entrepreneurship is not dead. I liked Yazdi Tantra’s advice to jump in because like a tea bag, the flavour will come out only then.

Air Chief Marshall Fali Major reminded us that we are Indians before we are Parsees and assured us that we can sleep in peace because of our secure borders.

It’s really time we sat up and did something about our numbers. It would appear that the Government of India is more concerned than we are. Shame on us! It was heartening to hear our minorities Minister promise to look into the new direct tax code that will adversely affect our Parsee Charities.

Our two Dasturji Sahebs gave us a fascinating account of Udwada in the Past and Today. They must speak more often to the community as a whole and we must give them a platform to do so. At one time it used to be said: “Parsee thy name is Charity” – I hope it soon does not become “Parsee they name is controversy”.

The FEZANA and ZTFE presentations should provide inspiration to various Panchayats in India and we should send them all a copy.

I would say the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress was a huge success. The subjects covered were vast and varied, the speakers were articulate and subject matter experts and we have begun to debate subjects of great importance to us and we must continue. I would have preferred more discussion and debate rather than monologues and would have liked more Mumbai Parsees to attend given the huge auditorium we had at our disposal. We must find a way to shake off the apathy of Mumbai Parsees in matters of our religion and community and seek inspiration from UK and USA. Be the change you want to see! See you in Singapore, till then wear your sudreh and kusti, keep the faith and keep the fires in your heart and belly, burning!

Unfortunately, Mr. Sam Balsara could not comment on the interesting session on re-development and housing, since he was busy preparing for this talk.
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