August 17, 2012

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Festivities | History

We join BACHI KARKARIA as she wishes members of her Parsi community a Happy Navroz and takes us through a typical Parsi New Year celebration in Mumbai and Kolkata


The Parsis celebrated their New Year yesterday, and I hope you didn’t go around brightly wishing them ‘Happy Pateti’. That would have meant you wished them ‘Happy Sinning’. The correct greeting is Happy Navroz or better Navroz Mubarak or Saal Mubarak. Elementary, my dear Wandrewalla, ‘Nav-Roz’ quite simply translates into ‘New Day’. Pateti falls the previous day, and is set aside to pray for atonement of the sins of the ending year. But, don’t worry, you will not suffer in the Zoroastrian equivalent of hell, or the worse fate of never again being invited to a lavish home-cooked meal.

Article published in the Speaking Tree

Navroz Comes Again
Even if you were guilty of the social gaffe of ‘Happy Pateti’, no worries. Many Parsis, themselves are ignorant of the distinction, and I found myself officiously correcting my own hamdin, or co-religionists. You can’t blame them because for many, ‘Navroz’, is the festival which falls on March 21, and whose authorised greeting is also Navroz Mubarak. This one is dedicated to the legendary Persian King Jamshyd — the reason why it is called Jamshed-i-Navroz, not, as you might again have mistakenly thought Jamshedji Navroz. It has nothing to do with the almost as legendary founder of the House of Tata.
I’m sorry to be such a schoolmarm when I should still be basking in the bonhomie and burps of Navroz festivities. Our community may be dwindling to a degree that has warranted intervention and the allotment of funds from the Planning Commission itself, but our appetite for celebration is in no danger of diminishing.
As always, we woke up to a morning fragrant with the spider-lily garlands on the door and festive vermicelli sev being fried in ghee before being simmered in syrup. The children were more excited by their ritual bath with milk and rose petals and a complete set of new clothes. Then we made our way to the fire temple. In the community hub of Mumbai, there was barely standing room at the tastefully beautified Rustomframna agiari in the Dadar Parsi Colony. And in the city’s most sacred Wadiaji’s atash behram, you had to wait your turn to kneel and touch your head in obeisance at the marble ubar of the sanctum sanctorum where the fire blazed in the huge gleaming urn.
Kissi-koti In Kolkata
It’s never easy to pray seriously on Navroz day. Distractions come in the gaily dressed stream of worshippers and in the constant ‘kissi-koti’, the embrace of greeting. In the Calcutta community, where I grew up, it was even more difficult to concentrate as almost everyone knew everyone. We numbered 1,200 then; alas, it’s now down to 549.
Sadder still is the demise of one of the two agiaris of Calcutta. Though the Banaji ni agiari was smaller than the Mehta ni agiari, it was closer to our family heart — and home. In fact our rambling 120-year-old house shared a wall with it. On its other flank was an identical house occupied by one branch of the Banaji family which owned the fire temple, and whose depleted fortunes and burgeoning feuds ultimately led to my beloved agiari’s closure.

Floral Rituals
But in that happier time, it was an extension of our life. We played in its compound as small children, mandatorily bowed at its fire on birthdays, and popped in for a quick supplication during exams. But, for me, the most special time was the near-mystic period which led up to Pateti and Navroz — the five days of Muktad prayers, which extend into the following five-day Gathas. I became more conscious of the ritual significance of this sacred calendar space as I grew older, but as a wide-eyed child, the atmosphere, heady with the segueing scents of roses and tuberoses, sandalwood and incense, turned the agiari into the nearest thing to paradise. I would be drawn inexorably to it in the late evenings after homework.
I would race through the dimly lit compound and skid to a halt at the base of the sweep of the marble staircase that led up to the agiari proper. Here, the mali would sit weaving a floral web using the iron gate as a frame, his flying fingers moving like a shuttle through the fragrant loom. Inside, the muktad ambience was created by the cram of little tables with shining silver and german-silver vases stuffed with flowers, bowls of charged water, and food. It was a gleaming oasis in the cavernous and carpeted main hall, with its smoke-darkened walls on which hung sombre oil portraits of bemedalled Banaji worthies.
The word ‘muktad’ comes courtesy our 1,000-year-old Indian heritage, telescoping the Sanskrit mukta atma, liberated soul. The Pahalvi Persian original is Farvardegan, which means days of nourishment. Both refer to the belief that in these 10 days, the souls of the departed take a break from their cosmic cleansing process, and descend to earth in the company of highly evolved entities. Families propitiate them by praying at those specially set up tables. The air is so charged you can almost hear the whoosh of angels’ wings.
The solemn muktad continues through the next five days dedicated to the joyous five Gathas. From the Persian-Sanskrit root Ga, the word refers to the songs composed by Zarathushtra himself after, as belief has it, direct communion with Ahura Mazda, God. Earlier, the muktad continued for another eight days after Navroz; shortage of priests and rising costs have curtailed these prayers to the dead to just 10 days.
Food, Fun And Pateti
After the Gathas, comes Pateti, the day of atonement, followed by Navroz and its unwalled celebration. We bring in the new year with prayer, yes, but, more so with the fun and food which we hope will mark it. The family lunch features the auspicious but simple dal-chawal with the spicy fish patiyo. Lavish dinner is with the extended family or at a community get-together. On the festive menu is a slapstick play, the cornier the better.
Call it blasphemy if you like, but I always maintain that to Zarathushtra’s core mantra of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds, we Parsis have added a generous serving of the Good Life. Even if we do stagger into extinction, it will be with a full belly and a full-throated belly laugh.