Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Report: 4th World Zoroastrian Youth Congress

Back to the future? this oxymoron was the tag line, the usp for the 4th World Zoroastrian Congress at Ballarat this Australian summer. I was there. And I went back to the future.

When I heard the theme of the Congress the first time, it didn’t make sense to my logical mind. But then I figured that the organisers probably had their story behind the theme. Organisers of big events are generally above average thinkers; they must’ve thought about this. So I decided to go see for myself what these above average thinkers had in store for the likes of me? young, progressive but also struggling to create a balance, vocal and always ready for a good time. Frankly, though my dad’s gonna butcher me for this, I also decided to go to the congress so I get a chance to see Australia. I gave him the sales pitch about religious congress and before I knew it I was on the bus to Ballarat.

The congress started as all events where strangers are thrown together start. Curious looks, whispers among groupies, everyone checking everybody else out and cursory polite conversations with the occasional joke thrown in, hoping it’d be funny and the 1st impression would be good. A complete and wonderfully successful divergence from the last day when we all said goodbye? for the moment.

I’ve never attended a congress such as this before. Oh hell, I’ve never attended anything communal or religious ever. So I didn’t know what to expect. I was not disappointed. The organisers and the poor poor volunteers (the congress was work for them!) did a superb job as a whole. First and foremost, full marks for the choice of place. The University of Ballarat was beautiful in all aspects. The events planned for the congress sounded like fun and most of those that happened, were fun. Considering that a bunch of 300 semi-lazy, unsupervised 15-25 year olds with a full holiday mind-set were necessary for the success of any of the events planned, there were bound to be delays, super glitches and cancellations. I’m sure a lot of the guys rued the cancelled zoro-olympics, but I do believe the football at the beach compensated beautifully.

The perpetually hungry crowds were fed well too. Though I expect a lot of opposition to that view of mine. Too spicy, too dry, too Australian??a colossal task and a fine balance to achieve, considering the myriad types of people participating. I enjoyed it all. Thank You Chef Farhad Billimoria and all the others who helped you give us wonderful meals. Thank you also the people who sponsored our various meals including the Trust Funds of Europe for the lovely lagan nu bhonu. Only the patra and raspberry were missing.

The other aspect of the congress, the religious, was enlightening, to say the least. We had powerhouses of knowledge to teach us and guide us and answer our quirky 21st century questions. I have never been in the presence of a true scholar and I must say, James Russel blew us all away. To call him an intellectual is to state the in-your-face obvious. A scholar and professor of Armenian Studies at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University and an encyclopaedia on Zoroastrianism. Only if I were eloquent enough to describe the man and his knowledge! Khojeste Mistry is legendary for his knowledge and needs no introduction. Dasturji Ramyar Karanjia is the most pleasant man one can meet and a genius in his own right. These men took us in out and around the whole spectrum of Zoroastrianism. I learnt things I didn’t know existed in our religion. And like fathers they told us and explained and reasoned with our unreasonableness. And trust me, we were insatiable. The interactive sessions, impromptu or planned were packed and devoid of a single dull moment except for “what’s the religious take on organ donation” being asked for the umpteenth time.

Which brings me to why I’m writing. The congress opened my eyes. To more than I have even realised. I saw my religion living, breathing, struggling, thriving like I never imagined. I’ll be honest, as a parsi in Mumbai, I live in my own cocoon. I never did Zoroastrian studies, don’t participate in religious thingies and only recently made parsi friends. And its not just me who’s disconnected from the community, the religion. Mumbai, or Bombay?.. is the unofficial Parsi capital of the world. Everyone has been or has someone from Mumbai (so the humour and customs are spot on familiar!). But the concentration itself is our downfall the way I see it. We take the religion and the Zoroastrian way of life for granted and how! We have our agiaries, our baugs and our Ava Yazads at Marine Drive. But we also have our elders giving up on some of us, my peers aspiring for the western life, shunning and even worse, being embarrassed about the religion and wearing the soar with their sari. We don’t get surprised at mixed marriages and some of us even justify them. Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t speak for the whole community. There are many in Mumbai who’s zeal and commitment is exemplary. The people I talk of are only a considerable slice of the pie that is Zoroastrians in Mumbai. So when I heard met Hormazd and Nazneen, an aussie and a kiwi respectively a married couple living in Brisbane, I was happily surprised. Surprised that they took the trouble to find and marry within the fold inspite of all the multi cultural influence they surely must have in their lives. The Zoroastrians living all over the world take the extra step, endeavour and succeed in upholding, enhancing and living their cultural identity.

I saw teenagers who’d probably never seen Mumbai walk around in their sadra and kushti and abuse like only a Zoroastrian can. I saw the boys from all over the world act like the complete junglis that the baug boys of Mumbai are legendary for. I cracked parsi jokes that sidneysiders laughed at. And I conversed in gujarati with everyone. I saw the familiar in the unfamiliar. We all had one identity and one hope for all our collective futures. We were all proud and even arrogant about our heritage. We knew and were repeatedly told that we had the most glorious heritage to back us up as we forge ahead into the future. We all had that inherent common thread of identity. I saw among peers from round the world the same zeal, hope and commitment to the religion and culture that I feel I possess. I saw potential that was stunning. Young boys and girls capable enough to be exceptional world citizens, like our celebrated fore-fathers. We have what it takes, and we will take ourselves into the future riding on the past. My determination for a great future for me and my kind has grown stronger and my faith has been reaffirmed. As I said earlier, I went back to the future in those 7 days at Ballarat and understood what the organisers tried to get across. And its only looking better now.

I’m glad the congress happened and I’m even gladder I went. It is said that a mind that is stretched with new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. I believe that more so now.

Image Courtesy Shehzaad Irani, Kainaz Dastoor and myself.


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