Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Day 03: 11th World Zoroastrian Congress 2018 Perth Australia

The last day of the Congress dawned bright and sunny on a Perth winter Sunday. After the previous night’s River Cruise, the participants were raring to get on with the program. The morning saw renditions of some new songs by Mani Rao.

The first morning session had eminent archeologist Allison Betts who spoke about the work she has been doing in Central Asia. She raised some very relevant questions about preservation of Zoroastrian sites and from there in what we learn about our history and where we came from.

This was followed by another media rich presentation by documentary filmmaker David Adams. He shared video footage from his travels in Afghanistan, Iran and other surrounding areas, and showed glimpses of archeological and historical sites where Zoroastrianism and other civilizations thrived.

The next session saw Dinshaw Tamboly speak about the amazing work done by his organization the World Zoroastrian Organization Trust Funds in the villages of Gujarat and other parts of India. Dinshawji thanked the amazing donors without who’s support none of the work would be possible. A short movie showed the impact of his work in the village of Zavda. The movie showed how the village of Zavda was transformed through the work of WZOTF and how the youth there are now entrepreneurs in their own right, starting businesses.

The next session saw Sam Balsara, the Chairman of Madison World and arguably India’s leading adman present his vision of how marketing and media can be used to enhance the image of the Zoroastrian community, not just in India but all over the world. He renewed his call for having a brand manager/ambassador for the community.Sam stressed on the need to protect, nurture and further ehance the goodwill and brand equity of the Parsi community in India. He expressed concern that the qualities of integrity, entrepreneurship, moral and ethical behavior that was a hallmark of all Parsis was eroding and we needed to make efforts to stop this decline.

Awat Darya from Kurdistan made a speech in Kurdish, highlighting the work she has been doing in local communities around Sulemanya.

Behram Pastakia of Washington D.C.  moderated a power packed panel of leaders of the various global bodies that all meet under the aegis of the Global Working Group (GWG). Neville Shroff, President of the Incorporated Zoroastrian Charities of Hong Kong Canton and Macao; who also serves at the non-executive Chair of the GWG explained the genesis of the GWG and the role it plays in providing a platform for collaboration among the various diaspora organizations. Homi D. Gandhi the president of FEZANA showcased the work of FEZANA through a 6 minute video. Viraf Mehta, a Trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayet spoke about the role and work of the BPP in Mumbai. Malcolm Deboo briefed the audience about the work of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe and the activities of ZTFE at the Zoroastrian House in London. Firoz Pestonji informed the audience about some of the challenges and opportunities in the establishment of a federation in Australia and potentially expanding it to the entire Pacific Rim, encompassing Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand. The moderator Behram Pastakia emphasized the need for a Pacific Rim Federation to aid the North American one (FEZANA) at the United Nation as a combined global voice representing Zoroastrians at the global stage. Edul Daver the Global Chair of the WZCC spoke about the role his organization is playing in pushing entrepreneurship and business ideals among the youth and in general, by working with various organizations like the WZOTF in providing seed capital and mentorship in business.

All the panelists agreed that such clear communication and collaboration among the elected leaders of the various Zoroastrian bodies all over the world was necessary to sustain and grow the community all over the globe.

In other sessions Rohinton Rivetna of Chicago USA, and founding President of FEZANA, spoke on Zorastrians as Bridge-Builders in the interfaith world and Malcolm Deboo, President ZTFE, from U.K. paid tribute to the Zoroastrians who made sacrifices and contributed to Great Britain in the First World War.

Sam Balsara led a thought provoking panel on Zoroastrian business and encouraging entrepreneurship. The panelists included Edul Daver, President of WZCC and a leading businessman and entreprenur in his own right. He spoke about leveraged buyouts and how he put in place business practises that helped sustain true employee empowerment within his large organization. Neville Shroff who heads a large multi-generation family business spoke about the early years when his father started trading and the setbacks he suffered and the tenacity and passion by which they rebounded and continue to thrive in a very competitive market. He brought forth some of the challenges of a family run business. Firoz Pestonji spoke of his varied journey from Jhansi India to Perth Australia and how at every turn when he faced a challenge, he flipped it into an opportunity. He spoke of the early struggles as an immigrant in Perth and how those struggles made him even stronger in his resolve to succeed and come out at the top. The fourth and youngest panelist Jehaan Kotwal, in his early 20’s; spoke about taking his family’s trucking business and turning it on its head to increase growth; introduce new technology and ideas and make a mark for himself and his company in the very competitive and tight-margin world of commercial trucking. All the panelists endorsed a common view of being open to taking risks; not fearing failure and the role their own families have played in helping them succeed.

In a breakout session eminent breast cancer specialist Dr. Farhad Contractor of Los Angeles spoke about the issues of breast cancer and its prevalence in Zoroastrian women.

Farrokh Mistree of Oklahoma, USA led a very interesting youth panel on the topic of “2 Models, 2 Paths, 1 Community”. Farrokh had in the months leading up to the Congress worked with 4 youth.. Kayras Irani of Vancouver, Canada; Zenia Sunavala of Houston; Dr. Delara Javat of Perth and Hanoz Kapadia of Perth to come up with a series of discussions on the issues pertaining to religion and youth today.

Jehaan Kotwal, the International Youth Director of WZCC and Xerxes Dastur, India Director at WZCC India put together a fantastic speed networking event for the youth. Nearly 75 youth gathered for a one hour session where they had the opportunity to interact with others; and identify opportunities that they could both tap into…and offer their expertise to…with other youth who are on similar business/professional tracks. The session was fun, interactive and superbly run by Jehaan. A lot of the youth later said that these are the type of sessions that they find very encouraging at Congresses. A note of it was made by Parshan Khosravi, the Chair of the 7th World Zoroastrian Youth Congress in Los Angeles, next year in July 2019.

Parshan along with Kayras Irani made a powerful presentation on the upcoming 7th World Zoroastrian Youth Congress next year. Under the mentorship of Katayun Kapadia, past President of FEZANA and its current Congress Committee Co-chair, Parshan and Kayras laid out the salient features of the Congress and what delegates can expect. They also announced an pre-early-bird registration option for those in the room.

Rohinton Rivetna of Chicago, and founding FEZANA President shared some of the successes and challenges representing Zoroastrians in the Interfaith world and the role Zoroastrians play in being bridge-builders in this realm.

Malcolm Deboo, the President of ZTFE remembered the Zarathushtis who sacrificed and contributed to Great Britain and the Empire in the First World War.

This was followed by Xerxes Dastur who took centerstage and made a very compelling and passionate case for Entrepreneurship not only in India where he is based but globally. He laid out some of the challenges and constraints and also shared avenues and opportunities for folks to get involved and become entrepreneurs and start businesses. Xerxes spoke about some of the new initiatives he has led at WZCC India and how he feels that those in his generation need to step up into leadership roles in the community, both in Mumbai and globally and continue to build on the good work done by the past generations of community leaders.

Eminent neurosurgeon Dr. Keki Turel was the last speaker of the formal part of the Congress. He gave a fascinating presentation titled “Enigmatic Brain – Order and Disorder”. He shared some of his success stories and also the challenges he faces everyday as he sees patients with all sorts of injuries. He emphasized the role of physical and mental strength to perform long surgeries and be prepared for the unknown in his line of work.

The evening Gala began with the World Zoroastrian Awards ceremony. The call for awards were put out by the  Global Working Group Awards Committee headed by Meher Bhesania of Dubai.

The awards were presented to Zarathushtis for their achievements in various categories. Meher emphasized that even though one awardee was picked per category; in reality every nominee was a winner and it was a testament of the strength of achievement in our community as could be seen by the achievements of the nominees.

The following were the winners in the various categories

  • Zoroastrian Award: Dinshaw Tamboly
  • Community Service Award: Meher Medora
  • Science (Medicine) Award: Dr.Keki Turel
  • Social Entrepreneur: Khushroo Poacha
  • Woman of Distinction: Pheroza Godrej
  • Outstanding Young Zoroastrian: Ziba Colah

A special award for Outstanding Service to the Zoroastrian Community was presented to Dr.Esfandiar Ekhtiyari, the first Zoroastrian Member of Parliament in Iran, who has been elected three times since the Iranian revolution.

Louisa Woods a world renowned Salsa dancer used the medium of dance to explain some of the routines of life.

The handing over of the ceremonial torch to the hosts of the 12th World Zoroastrian Congress took place. Homi Gandhi President FEZANA and Astad J. Clubwala President ZAGNY accepted the torch from Firoz Pestonji, the chair of the 11th WZC. The 12th WZC is slated to be held in the summer of 2022 and shall be hosted by ZAGNY a member association of FEZANA in New York City. The New York hosts showed a teaser video of what to expect in 2022. Both Homi and Astad welcomed those present to re-convene in New York in four years in larger numbers.

In his concluding speech Firoz Pestonji shared the triumphs, joys as also the pitfalls and learning experiences that he and his team went through in their two and a half journey to make the Congress possible. Firoz thanked his entire Team Australia of volunteers who helped pull out all the stops to make this event a success. Firoz thanked the major donors both individuals and institutional ones like the Incorporated Zoroastrian Charities of Hong Kong Canton and Macao who have consistently supported Congresses worldwide.

Neville Shroff, the non-exec Chair of the GWG proposed a vote of thanks to the Chair of 11th WZC and the entire organizing team for a fantastic job done in pulling off this monumental event.

Some concluding thoughts:

It was TOTALLY Worth Going to Perth. No….seriously It was !

This was the first World Congress in the age of social media overdrive. While this allowed the sharing of pictures and videos in real time, it also enabled the reach of the Congress all over the world, and many who could not be there in person still got a continuous stream of updates.

The emphasis and focus on business, entrepreneurship, networking and professional tie-ups was off the charts. In a communication with Edul Daver, Global President of the World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce; it was hoped that a legacy of this Congress would be the formation of a solid foundation and WZCC chapters in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and other cities.

The number of youth, as a percentage of the total attendees was probably the highest in any World Congress. This is a very welcome change. Most of the youth were attending a Congress of this type for the first time. And from conversations with a lot of them; they seemed to have a great time.

The youth took initiatives at myriad levels, some of which are worth highlighting.

Farzana Khambatta, daughter of the Chair; is a mom to two young kids herself. She was one of the main organizers of the Congress. In speaking with Farzana, she mentioned the countless hours that went into planning the Congress, all while juggling a home and two very young kids. Not only that; but she was one of the four MC’s right through the Congress. In many ways she is the poster child for the young Zoroastrians of today. Confident, passionate, grounded, and having been raised with a sense of responsibility to comunity, religion and the need to do something bigger than just one self.

Jehaan Kotwal, the very first youth International Director on WZCC’s board carries the burden of youth empowerment on his shoulders. And he took it square on. Participating as a panelist, organizing interactive networking sessions and in general galvanizing the youth to get involved, was observed by one and all. The WZCC Board is doing it right with empowering youth even within its organizational structure.

Merzi Mody, a youth from Sydney Australia rented a very large home close to the venue. And then put out a clarion call to all the youth attending the Congress to come and share the house and live under one roof. 12 youth from all parts of the world landed up staying there, and from what I heard….had an amazing time bonding. That shows entrepreneurship on the part of Merzi to make this happen, without anyone asking. This spirit needs to be harnessed and nurtured.

The last day’s program of the Congress was really packed and it didnt help that some speakers went overboard with complete disregard of the ramifications that would have on the overall program. It was also very strange that speakers who spoke fluent English chose to speak in their native languages, even though the entire audience understood English. I am not sure what the reason was; but its something that organizers should discuss with speakers. Having a live translator on the stage means that every speaker needs double the time.

Social media can be a uniting medium; but it also showed its bad side by the few messages that were floated by those who were not even attending the Congress and had factually wrong information. While this did not dishearten the Congress organizers, it left a lot of attendees including myself wondering how some fellow Zarathushtis could spread such lies and how they had stopped using their own good mind when they did so.

At the end of the Congress, I am sure there were a few tears in the eyes of the organizers. As they all go back to their daily lives, they will cope with the withdrawl symptoms that come about after being involved in putting together something so monumental. My hope and prayers are that this is the turning point that galvanizes the small Perth Zarathushti community to greater heights as they continue in their quest to build their new Dar-E-Mehr. From the local attendees at the Congress, one got a sense of a young diverse and thriving community and may this Congress be the catalyst for all these young parents, and their kids to take things to the next level.

From now on Perth will be counted amongst the leading diasporic Zarathushti communities, no longer an outpost for Zarathushtis in Australia; but a shining beacon of what can be achieved when one single individual has a crazy whacky idea to bring the Congress to his hometown and then pull it off with aplomb.

To all the new friends I had a chance to make, and to the old ones who I got a chance to meet; I cherish those moments. Till we all meet…..in 2022….in my own New York…..adios.

Over the next week we will continue with a series of observations on why it was Totally Worth Going To Perth.

We apologize for the delay in getting this last day’s report out. With a crazy travel schedule; it took a while to finish this.