Everyday Parsi: Homi Gandhi


August 8, 2020

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Our third author in the Everyday Parsi 2020 is Homi D. Gandhi

Homi writes…

When I was a child, Muktaad prayers at the Gandhi household on the Gandhi Street of Parsiwad, Fort, Bharuch had a special significance, as it was one of the few Parsi homes hosting the 18-day Fasli Muktaad at home. Although I had participated in the rituals, I was very young and unaware of their significance.

Sometime in February 1946, my Bapaiji (paternal grandmother) confided in me that our community handyman, Dadi, was going to whitewash the whole kitchen area to get it ready for the March Muktaad. “This Muktaad is special because it will be for Gool too”, she explained. Bapaiji asked me not to go into the kitchen and play around with Dadi’s limestone powder boxes.
The mention of Gool brought back memories I had not thought of for almost 8-9 months. Gool, my elder sister, my only playmate in those early years, had passed away in June of the prior year due to diphtheria which developed after her tonsils were removed. When we had stopped our daily visits to the hospital in Mumbai at that time, I threw tantrums to visit her and was repeatedly told that as she had gone to a faraway garden of flowers and could no longer be visited.

Our kitchen – a rectangle room of about 25’ X 15’ – comprised of a cooking area, a prayer area and a “tanka” (well). Our kitchen’s cooking hearth worked on burning wood and coal, leaving soot on the walls and the need for annual whitewashing to make the kitchen pristine for the Muktaad. The rainwater harvested in the tanka was our main water source as we did not have water piped into the home. It was deep and wide underground, so if there was a famine, we could carry on to the next monsoon season, if we used our water resources sparingly.

The prayer area was demarcated by colored marble tiles, with knaves on 2 outer sides to display the boundary. As we used to have regular prayers at home on holy days like Parabs, Ghahambars, Hormuzd and Behram Roj and on birthdays, we maintained the sanctity of that area by never going there for any reason other than to clean or pray. Over twenty-five photographs of our dear departed family members in different sized frames were hanging in that area, along with a picture of Zarathustra. For the first time, in March 1946, Gool’s photograph was also hanging there, next to my grandfather’s.
During Muktaad, we had three or four marble topped tables, on which we laid out a couple of khumchas, each with 4-5 silver vases engraved with the names of the people in who’s memory they had been consecrated. Every morning, fresh, fragrant flowers -usually roses or tuberoses – were put in those vases. Prayers were performed with change of each geh and the fire in the prayer area burned almost continuously. For Usheen geh, our mobed Darashaw would arrive just after midnight. Even as smoke filled our home from time to time, it was predominantly engulfed with the fragrance of sandalwood, loban and fresh flowers.

As this was the only location of Fasli Muktaad in our area, many Parsis attended the prayers with us, usually around the time the geh would change during the day. The evening prayers were for the most part attended by us, including 10 kids from my Fuiji’s (paternal aunt) family, and some neighboring kids. After the mobed had prayed, we would all recite the Kushti prayers, Sarosh Baj and Namaskar Muktadno in unison. After that, we would all sit down in a line on the sadri (mat) on the floor and the elder children would serve us our meals on the dry patra plate (no paper or plastic plates). After dinner, we would sing a couple of Monajats before dispersing for the night. We always ended with “Khudavind Khavind”, Bapaiji’s favorite Monajat.

Let me share a few words about my Bapaiji. She was a woman with a small physical stature (she probably weighed no more than 100 lbs. at any time in her life), always wore a white cotton ijar with a top blouse that had removable gold buttons. I never saw her walking upright as she had broken her thigh bone many years before I was born. As there were no walkers or other equipment, she would move in the house by holding on to furniture. Her world revolved around 2 houses, mine and my fuijis which was about 200 feet away. Our household helpers would carry her in an armchair from one house to another periodically. She loved each one of her grandchildren and offered good advice in a very gentle, respectful voice.

On the last Gatha day, there would be a jashan with four mobeds praying. A large number of neighbors and other children would congregate in the main room outside and also offer their prayers. Some of them will bring offerings of fruits, flowers, sandalwood and loban and sometimes, cooked meals, which we all relished sharing afterwards.
After I understood the significance of Muktaad after Gool’s first Muktaad, I slowly got involved in more activities in subsequent years. Eventually, I took my father’s place as the dependable man to get the fresh flowers and fruits each day of Muktaad at the all-important, appropriate discounts.

In early 1950, Bapaiji decided to curtail our Muktaad days to 10, ending on the fifth Gatha day, as she had decided to celebrate my Navjote on Dae-pa din roj. She was getting old and frail and passed away peacefully at home in early January 1951. This was my first time witnessing the death of a loved one. We had a special relationship and I mourned her loss at each day through all the prayers. When the question of hosting 1951 Fasli Muktaad came up, my dad wanted to stop it, but my mom and fuiji wanted to host it for at least one more year at home in honor of Bapaiji. The women prevailed and we hosted the 1951 Fasli Muktaad at home. I missed Bapaiji at this Muktaad, but I also felt her blessings.

In 1951, a new tradition began. In addition to the Fasli Muktaad, we also hosted the Shehenshai Muktaad in August at our new family Mobed Jehangirji’s home. Jehangirji also encouraged my dad to continue the tradition of hosting a jashan on the last Gatha day during the Usheen Geh at Homawala Agiary. The Shehenshai Muktaad lasted for 18 days too at that time, but the process of attending the prayers had changed. We would mostly visit Jehangirji’s home for the Muktaad prayers in the evening as the mornings were busy with bazaar, work and school. An added attraction was dinner at Jehangirji’s place. On Shahenshahi new year day, we would visit all seven agiaries of Bharuch and assemble at fuiji’s place for prayers. After dhandaar and patio lunch, we would play our favorite songs on “His Master’s Voice” phonograph and the day would end in one of the two cinema halls of Bharuch.

My maternal grandfather passed away in Bombay in January 1953. My Mamaiji (maternal grandmother) and Mamas (maternal uncles) decided to hold the Uthamna and all subsequent prayer services in Bharuch in Mamaiji’s family Agiary (Doongaji Agiary) in Parsiwad, Out Fort, about 3/4 miles away from our home. As my Mom could not handle daily visits due to her physical condition, this additional job was added to my daily routine. In 1953, my mother’s family (the Postwalas) visited Bharuch for the Muktaad days and so my time was split between 2 places that year. In 1956, these prayers shifted to Bombay as the Mobed attending the prayers was not doing well and his son started doing them in Dadiseth Agiary from that year onwards. When I moved to Bombay in 1957 to study at Sydenham College, I attended the Muktaad prayers there.

After moving to England in 1961, I recall Mrs. Moos and Mrs. Wardon cleaning the khumchas, fruits and flowers before the muktaad prayers at the Zoroastrian House in London. Ervad Dr. Sorabji Kutar would perform the prayers in his clear melodious voice, a profound experience that created a desire in me for the first time to understand the prayers, many of which I knew by heart. Many discussions would follow during the car ride back home with Shirinbanu and Sorabji and their family, deepening my understanding of our prayers and rituals.

I attended the prayers regularly and then celebrated the new year at a very formal reception and dinner at Kensington Palace Hotel. My great uncle would make sure that I was with him for that function, sometimes with cousins and friends in tow. After the new year, many young Parsi boys and girls used to visit the Brookwood cemetery on or before Farvardian day and clean up the area around all Parsi monuments. We would offer our payers before returning home.

During my first tour of North America from London in 1967, we were in Montreal during the Muktaad days. And so, I opened up the local telephone directory to find Parsis to connect with. Two names popped up – Homi Daruwalla and Jehan Bagli. There was no organizational set up at that time, no prayers, but both families invited us to their homes, and we celebrated those Gatha and new year days together.

When my family and I emigrated to New York in 1981, we became members of ZAGNY. It wasn’t until the 1990s, that, our ZAGNY community decided to host Muktaad prayers on one of the Gatha days on a weekend before celebrating the New Year day with fanfare. It would be another decade before the ZAGNY community would mark four Gatha days of the Muktaad with different members hosting the prayers in their homes in various parts of the tri-state area that ZAGNY serves, and a day of prayers on a weekend at the Dar-e-Mehr.

But in other places in the US, muktaad was marked for more days. During a work visit to Chicago in August 1998, I met Ervad Arda-e-Viraf Minocherhomjee, who invited me for the first Gatha prayers that evening at the Chicago Dar-e-Mehr. There were a lot of young Mobeds participating in the prayers and ending the day with a communal meal.  I was quite impressed that Chicago community was performing prayers for all 5 Gatha days and I attended them on most of these days.

After my wife, Villy’s, passing away on July 15, 2000, my mother-in-law, Nargis Mehta, invited us to join the family in India for the muktaad. My son, Navroz, and I visited Bangalore and attended the Agiary where a stalwart mobed, Nadirshah Unwala, was performing the daily Muktaad prayers. He had invited help from outside, and I was surprised to find that our Bharuch mobed Jehangirji Dastur’s grandson had come to Bangalore from Surat to help Nadirshah. What a coincidence! After having the muktaad prayed in a Pune Agiary for two more years, Nargis suggested that we continue to pray at home.

So after returning back to the USA, I asked our ZAGNY Ervad Pervez Patel the significance of Muktaad prayers at home. Ervad Pervez responded that prayers at any place at any time is rewarding for your own soul! And then I recollected my earlier conversation with Professor Kaikhosrov Irani a few years ago. When Villy realized that her end was approaching, she asked me to inquire from Kaikhosrov the appropriate mode of body disposal. During our conversation I also asked Kaikhosrov about his views on after-death ceremonies. He replied, “Homi, after-death ceremonies after first 4 days of death are for the people left behind”. So I started visiting Villy’s grave in Washington Cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey with flowers, Gatha prayer book, and a folding chair on Gatha days for a number of years and started reciting appropriate Gatha. One day I thought of learning the meaning of those prayers and that began my reading and reviewing many translations of Gatha prayers.

My muktaad memories began in my family’s kitchen in Bharuch, and this year will likely continue from home as well. The pandemic has brought me full circle.

Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, Homi D Gandhi retired from active corporate life after working for 20 years in public accounting over 4 continents and for 25 years in market regulation at the NYSE & FINRA. President of ZAGNY (2002-2008) and President of FEZANA (2016-2020), Homi has represented Zoroastrian community in Interfaith Activities at many national and global events and was the first Main Representative of FEZANA NGO at the UN. Currently, Homi is Co-President on the World Council of Religions for Peace International. Homi also Co-Chairs Zarathushti Entrepreneurship Development Foundation (ZEDF).

In recognition of his community service, Homi was awarded Temple of Understanding’s Interfaith Visionary Award (2010) and Sikh Community’s “1GOD1Humanity” Accolade (2019). He was also honored to ring the New York Stock Exchange Opening Bell (2004) in recognition of his significant service to the community.