SHERNAAZ ENGINEER's blog on the Parsi community

Monday, September 29, 2008

Khojeste Mistree: Keeping the Faith

It must take some courage to be Khojeste Mistree! For years he has been relentlessly reviled and rebuked – yet has stood steadfast to the principles of the faith, without fear or favour.

His scholarship is astounding, his erudition inspiring, and he is arguably the Brand Ambassador for the Zoroastrian faith today, both nationally and internationally. Yet, there is a section that tears him down, without understanding or appreciating the vital role he is playing in bridging the past with the present, and the future, so we don’t repeat history’s mistake of losing what we have – under siege, from within and without.

Marginalised and misunderstood, even his detractors will concede he deserves a fair hearing…

Why is religion so important in these elections?
Our identity and religion are linked. Hence, religion becomes an important ingredient of our identity – and vice versa. At this juncture, the community has the opportunity to endorse the two once and for all, because without our religion we will lose our identity.

What are the key issues?
Since the past seven years the community has been convulsed over Dokhmenashini. Yet, despite everything negative printed and propagated against it, 96.25 per cent of Parsis/Irani Zarathushtis still opt for it. This has surprised the reformist element. The other hot potato is conversion. An impression of gender inequity has been created. However, we have a 100-year tradition of accepting the progeny of intermarried men, because we follow a patrilinear pattern (incidentally, I haven’t created it so I wonder why people hold it against me!). The Jews, on the other hand, who are also a minority, wrestled with similar issues and allowed only the girls’ children into their fold (and not the boys’ –until this day) because they follow a matrilinear system. You can either follow one or the other.

How did your journey into Zoroastrian scholarship start?
I gave up my CA practice in England, even as I was being offered a partnership in the firm, which was unusual for an Asian in those days. I went, instead, to Oxford to study our religion academically and from an intellectual point of view. I went through the whole gamut of our theology, ancient language, history and other facets that facilitated a better understanding. With this background I had the vision of making Zoroastrianism more accessible to my community, so I came to India to share the beauty and greatness of our faith. I thought to myself – how best can I do this? The answer was through education. So Shernaz Panthaky and I set up Zoroastrian Studies (ZS) in 1979 – with the intention of disseminating religious knowledge in a modern way. Let me add, my vision for the community is not only religious.

What else is on your agenda?
Through ZS, very early on, I realised that while we’re a wealthy community, there are pockets of poverty that need continued social welfare. For years I have been going to poor Parsi homes in Mumbai, Surat, Navsari and across Gujarat – stressing the core ZS belief that the haves must help the have-nots. Poverty alleviation remains an issue for us.

Another ongoing issue is raising the level of education in Parsi schools. Here, again, I’ve been working for decades, creating awareness for a better type of education for our poorer Parsi children.

Why did you start WAPIZ?
I found that although I was working diligently in the area of religious education for years, on important issues appertaining to the community my voice was one in the wilderness. Seven years ago, the Doongerwadi came into the eye of a storm, with some very rich and influential Parsis claiming it was a health hazard. In order to intellectually combat the misinformation, I realised I needed a platform – or else the community’s boat would sink. That is when WAPIZ was formed. We were successful in preventing a ‘Cremate ni Bunglee’ from being given even then.

We also opposed the formation of a World ‘Zoroastrian’ body, from which the ‘Parsi/Irani’ nomenclature had been dropped. Again, we democratically fought it by being nominated through smaller anjumans so we could attend Federation meetings. The reformists came without being affiliated to any place, as representatives of Mumbai. If we tried to do the same thing, we were debarred! So we had to get smaller anjumans to nominate us and at the Federation meeting, by a 90 per cent majority, we were able to defeat the move to join a World Body where the definition of ‘Zoroastrian’ was unacceptable to the community.

With WAPIZ, we are thinking of the wellbeing of the community not just for today or tomorrow, but for a long time to come.

Why are you so controversial?
I have been relentlessly battered by a very biased Parsi press, which is controlled by rich and radical ‘reformist’ groups. It suits them to build me as a figure of hate, to continually attack me, my wife, children, and even my late parents. These are people with vested interests. To them, being traditional is like being from the Taliban. Tomorrow, if I sang the reformist tune, I would be their darling beyond anybody’s belief! But I have to sleep with my conscience, and for the last 30 years have worked without compromising our religion in any way. Why do the learned High Priests support WAPIZ completely? It is because ours is the view of religious scholarship, of tradition, of following the right Zoroastrian path. Is that a crime?

Why is your WAPIZ page so strident?
Maybe we’re human, and after years of swallowing untruths told about us we are retaliating and telling our side of the story, sharing with the community what we think they also need to know. Maybe if the Parsi press started giving us a fair deal, things could change.

How will you coalesce with a mixed BPP board?
One will always work from the position of consensus, unless people want to do things that are ethically or religiously wrong. I’m only too happy to work together to bring about a better quality of life for the community, to initiate welfare, education and youth activities, religious education, and whatever else is in the best interest of the community.

Why does the WAPIZ panel have only four candidates?
Because we realise the community does not want any one group to dominate the Punchayet. And we respect that. We are four individuals who have like-minded goals and beliefs. We are not divergent in any way – on our panel you will not find someone claiming to be traditional, someone claiming to be reformist (although no one is claiming that any longer!).

We have a track record through WAPIZ that proves our credentials. We are telling the truth – if we say we are here to preserve the religion, you can check our record and see we have never done anything against the faith. We have never supported conversion or cremation or anything that goes against the learned High Priests’ valued guidance. We are not claiming to do anything we have not already done.

Dinshaw Mehta is in an alliance with you?
Yes, WAPIZ endorses Dinshaw Mehta because we require a sense of continuity in the BPP.

People feel you are hypocritical…
In my personal life, I have not violated even the tiniest bit of tradition. I practice what I preach. Yes, my brother has married out. I couldn’t stop him. My nephews do visit agiaries – thanks to a legal judgement given before my birth! I have never stopped children of intermarried men from availing of their rights – although personally I prefer both boys and girls marrying within the community to preserve our unique racial and religious profile. My mother was cremated as she expired in the US. It was my brother’s decision – I didn’t attend her funeral. Her prayers were said as per the custom laid down for all Parsis expiring abroad, where Dokhmenashini isn’t available. I have neither made any religious rules, nor broken them.

It’s alleged you’re in the “business of religion”…
I want to tell our youngsters, please stop studying and wasting your time! Join me instead, there’s big money to be made! (He says in jest).

The truth is I’ve invested a lot of my own money into what I do. I’m a person of independent means, and it’s nobody’s business how I live. But I must clarify, I have never asked for first class tickets or fat fees in advance for a lecture. Today, if I were a top lawyer, doctor, or accountant, I could do this and would even be admired for it! But a religious scholar isn’t allowed such privileges. Anyway, I have neither expected nor asked for them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

JIMMY MISTRY: “I’m not eyeing the BPP with ambition”

Jimmy Mistry should have had an identity crisis by now, because he’s so many different things to so many people. To some he is the flashy guy who flaunts his fancy cars and goes over-the-top with his extravagance! To others he is a bawa Barack, the youthful agent of change, who organises friendship rallies and Gary Lawyer dinner-and-dance nights at the Dadar Gymkhana (like he has this Sunday).

Still others see him as a spendthrift and allege he is sometimes in financial straits. Yet, for many, he is a philanthropist who has dug into his pockets time and again, to support a slew of causes adopted under the umbrella of his Parsi Resource Group (PRG), where many volunteers come forward to work with him for the uplift of the community.

Will the real Jimmy Mistry please stand up! Well, the only way, is to let him have his say…

Why do you want to become a BPP Trustee?
I desperately want to bring change into the community. Let us understand one thing. I don’t need the BPP to get anything going for me. I have too much going for me already, whether it is on the work front or with PRG. But given my ability to drive things to a logical conclusion, I can shake, rattle, roll, push and even kick people into action, in order to make things happen. It doesn’t make sense for me to put my time into it otherwise. I intend to take over certain things and make them happen, and move in with my infrastructure if necessary to ensure that this gets done.

Any specific plans?
A cashless medical scheme across the community would be the first. According to my research, there are 50,000 plus Parsis in Mumbai. Let us assume 1000 or even 2000 of them need housing, this means barely 10 per cent of the community has a housing problem. Then why is it that housing takes up 90 per cent of our energy! My focus would be to improve the living conditions of those who have been housed.

How do you intend doing it?
As I see it, the community has three big challenges. Ninety per cent have a roof over their heads. But medical expenses are a big issue. As parents grow older, their life’s savings get spent on hospitalisation and often their children also have to dip into their savings. For the past three years, I have been paying out of my own pocket for cashless medical insurance for mobeds, their wives and children. Countless mobeds have benefited from this. It is well known that in a group policy the premium comes down by 40 per cent. So the whole community can come under this umbrella. Those who can afford will pay their own premium, and for those who cannot we’ll pitch in. I wish to bring out a certified list of poor Parsis in Mumbai, where the collective family income is less than Rs. 15,000, which will be verified by the baug committees for authenticity. Once we have that data, we will look out for donors to subsidise these families.

The next challenge is education and jobs for our youth. I am very serious about getting Minority Status for the community and Dr. Mehroo Bengalee has recommended my name to the Maharashtra Chief Minister for appointment to the State Minorities Commission. I want to hold a referendum on our Minority Status issue, so that when we take our petition to Delhi some Parsis don’t stand up and say we don’t need this. It is my intention to go in for Minority Status within a year’s time.

The third challenge is retaining Parsi property within the community. I opposed the proposal to turn the Cama Athornan Madressa into an international school because I believe community property has to be used for community purposes.

There’s a great fear of letting a builder into the BPP…
I know. But you require a builder if you want to solve the massive housing issues that keep arising. Who better than a builder to help with municipal laws, government permissions, repairs, and so on? I am developing a township in Indore right now that is the size of Dadar Parsi Colony and Matunga put together. Let me bring that expertise in. And I repeat, no Parsi property will ever go into the hands of a non-Parsi as far as I am around. Besides, I will be with six other Trustees, so it is not as though I can do what I like at the BPP.

Your own building in Dadar, Della Tower, is mired in controversy.
Yes, there was litigation, protests and petitions, but the courts dismissed them. Let someone come forward and prove there is one thing wrong with what I have done. I have re-housed all the old tenants, ensured that the ‘Parsi-only’ covenant status has been kept, when I could have had it annulled and sold the flats at far higher rates to non-Parsis, if my intentions were not on track. And I am creating a 9000-square feet Zoroastrian exhibition centre that will tell our story to the younger generation. I have also spent Rs. six crore on the Persian elevation of the building to assert our pride in our roots and culture. I want this building to be a symbolic masterpiece for the Parsi community. I have recently acquired an old Kutchi building at Wadala, where the covenant status had lapsed. I have restored the covenant to ‘Parsi-only’.

Why are you spending so much on your campaign?
I am grateful to God for blessing me with abundance and am only doing my best to reach out to the community that is spread all over Mumbai. How else do I connect with them, unless I organise election meetings? Please also realise that such a lot of ill has been spoken about me that I need a fair chance to counter it. Also, it’s a fact that I pull in large crowds, so I have to ensure people can hear and see – hence the lights, the projection screens, the stage. When I do something, it has to be up to a certain standard. Do I have a choice about not spending? But it’s true that because of me the others have ended up spending more than they would have. My brochures and hoardings are slick – I like doing things well!

Are you in alliance with any group?
Not at all – my campaign is going so well it speaks for itself. I see myself as the bridge that will connect everyone. Let’s face it, we’re going to get WAPIZ, AFP and independents into the BPP. I can talk straight and won’t be cowed down, and can be the connecting point between the others.

Will you be able to get along well within the BPP?
When you are on the job, you do it and move on. If you cannot do it, you shouldn’t be there. It’s time we had a professional work culture within the BPP, starting with the Trustees.

Where do you stand on religious issues?
I am completely orthodox and do not support any change within the religion. We have no right to change anything that has been part of our religion and rituals for hundreds of years. I am totally opposed to a ‘Cremate Ni Bunglee’ at Doongerwadi. Those who want to opt for alternate systems of disposal should buy their own piece of land and construct their own ‘bunglees’ or prayers halls. This cannot happen inside Doogerwadi or any of our agiaries. They must also arrange for their own priests, and not expect any of our priests to oblige.

Whatever anybody may say, through PRG I head the largest mobed’s association in the world today, and I have not tried to change a thing because I claim no understanding of our religion, only a great love for it. Whether it is conversion or anything else, things must continue as they are. Because one small change results in a string of changes – and the repercussions come much later.

Are you all set for Trusteeship?
I’m not eyeing the BPP with ambition. I believe I am destined to bring change into the community. Just give me one year – and see the difference I make. Despite all my professional achievements, what brings me real pride and joy is when I see myself doing something for my community.

NADIR MODI: Nobody can ‘Remote Control’ me

Nadir Modi, well-known legal eagle, and has been assiduously involved with community activities for aeons. He is certainly no stranger to anyone even remotely connected with Parsi matters, although he has preferred to shun the spotlight.

A man of his eminence could have been nominated to the Punchayet, instead of being put through the rigours of an election, with all its attending accusations, apprehensions, and ill will. But life is a great leveller, indeed justly so, and if there is anything these testing times are teaching the community it is that everybody is equal before an electorate, freshly fuelled by the adrenalin of Universal Adult Franchise.

So Nadir Modi steps into the dock and agrees to talk, in what is, admittedly, a very rare interview…

Q. What is the crucial need of the hour for the community?
A. The strategic need is both quantitative and qualitative uplift. The problem of declining numbers needs to be addressed. As there is a quantitative decline, the qualitative part also suffers since the number of Parsis who can be up there in different streams, whether it is the Services, the private sector, or different professions, also suffers. This is a problem that will require the help of many experts, in many areas, to redress. That it has been done in the past, history affirms. Of course, it would be a slow growth programme.

Q. What is the main issue?
A. The problem with our community is that a lot of young people confess that if they could have found a suitable life mate from within the community, they would not have married out. It is for similar reasons that many remain unmarried.

Years ago, Professor Sheriar and I were teaching at the Jai Hind College. We were in our early twenties and our Principal was a great admirer of the legendary Jamshed Mehta of Karachi. He allowed us to start the Young Collegians Zoroastrian Association (YCZA), with members from all other colleges. Those days, students had more time and we, being younger, were more in tune with their aims. The organisation grew automatically. We started with nothing but the desire to come together. We found that the community had a warm heart and wanted to help young people. We approached Sir Homi Mody who, at his age, used to avoid functions, but he came and boosted our association. Adi Marazban came, and so did Bobby Taleyarkhan. We used to organise talks, picnics, bhel and sail parties around the harbour, Udvada and Navsari trips and lots of hikes. We had a series of events called ‘Free Fridays’. It was largely left to the students to manage, and as they came together, had fun, argued, and formed friendships, many fell in love and got married. There is a mile-long list of Parsi couples who emerged out of the YCZA!

None of this happened by design. I have come to the conclusion that people do not marry to increase the numbers of the community. They marry because Mother Nature prompts them to mate. I have encountered countless grown up people being overcome with emotion and weeping because their son or daughter has married outside the community. The truth is young people want to be left alone. Most would keep older people at bay! This is the reason we seldom see young faces at community functions, because the young seek out the young. What we need is to set up the infrastructure where they feel they are ruling the roost, and not set it up in a ham-handed way. In each baug or colony, if we can provide that infrastructure, enthuse young leaders, then Mother Nature would do her work!

What is happening now with inter-communal marriages is that Mother Nature is once again doing her work. There was a time when every tenth person in Mumbai was a Parsi – this is certified by the Census of the late 18th or early 19th century. Young Parsis no longer meet so many other young Parsis today, and in most cases it is just a lack of contact.

Q. Was it difficult to reconcile to your children marrying out of the community?
A. One can reconcile to just about anything in life… these are painful areas to recount and recollect.

Q. What would be your priority upon assuming Trusteeship?
A. I would not like to assume anything, least of all winning the election! But given the chance I would like to see unity. If, as Trustees, we can work like friends, then even if we disagree we would carry no animus. We could, perhaps, occasionally give into each other.

Q. What about the differences, which seem irreconcilable?
A. Where are there? Let us run through them… Regarding the crematorium at Doongerwadi, I can say in capital letters: NO. It only brings home the necessity for increased communication within the community. There is an originating summons pending in the Bombay High Court, filed by Jamsheed Kanga, Dr. Aspi Golwalla and Homi Khusrokhan, raising two questions: Firstly, does the Doongerwadi trust deed enjoin the Trustees to give the bunglees for the last rites of persons opting for alternate methods of disposal, and, secondly, if it does not enjoin this does it allow it?

You may wonder why the Trust deed does not speak clearly in the first place. The fact is it was written in a different age, and the language can now be reinterpreted.

Q. The community would like to know your opinion.
A. Trustees cannot have personal opinions. Technically, they are caretakers and not owners of the Trusts they oversee, and they are bound by the Trust Deed. My personal opinion is that we must obey the law, as we are a law abiding community.

But having stayed at Doongerwadi for four days when both my parents passed away, I can say that it is, for Parsis, a God-blessed place. It is so beautiful and soothing, with Nature’s healing touch that you fall “half in love with easeful death” (as Keats wrote).

Any kind of disposal of a dead body necessarily has its emotional overtones. But contrary to what people say about Doongerwadi being a health hazard, I have seen reports of the WHO stating that cadavers not brought in touch with the water don’t show signs of spreading disease.

Of course, people object to there being a slight smell at times, but what happens when you drive past Sassoon Dock! You cannot change the system just because of a slight smell. And there is little doubt that when Doogerwadi was set up, it was not contemplated for anything other than Dokhmenashini. Also, I have friends who stay near Chandanwadi and the black smoke that comes into their homes is a real problem.

Q. Where do you stand on ‘acceptance’ or conversion?
A. To my mind it is an invitation to disaster. It creates hostility and is harmful in the extreme. The 1909 judgement defines who a Parsi is, and that legally sanctioned definition is accepted today.

Q. Your leadership of the Athornan Mandal is under cloud because of your litigation against a priest.
A. That is a professional matter. I take up the brief of anyone who comes to me.

Q. Is there no moral obligation to protect a priest, as head of the Mandal?
A. I am morally obliged to not just protect but even help a priest, and I have spoken with him several times in my office. The present Trustees decided not to have the Panthanky system and offered this priest the Manager’s post instead. He declined and decided to fight in court. I think it is now more of a legal question than a moral one.

Q. There are apprehensions that the promoters of your panel could influence you with their radical views.
A. If they think they can they are mistaken. Whatever be their values, they are their own. I have not sold my soul or mortgaged my mind. I am not a pliant person – not a yes man. Nobody can remote control me.

Q. Will you have the time?
A. One always makes time for what one wants to do.

Q. And this is what you really want to do?
A. I have readily agreed, but not hungrily agreed. I would be very careful of anybody who is hungry for the office. One has offered, and one believes in a Greater Will. We are all subservient to that Will.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Importance of being Dinshaw Mehta!

Dinshaw Mehta is in the eye of a storm. Conversely, there are those who insist that Dinshaw Mehta is ‘the storm’! He is a volley of unstoppable energy that has turned the otherwise placid Punchayet upside-down and inside-out. He has his hecklers, vocal and voluble ones, but he also has his supporters – from amongst the rank and file of the community, all the way up to the High Priests – who see him as an approachable, earnest and incredibly hard working Trustee who has, over his past two terms in office, consistently delivered, despite the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t campaign against him.

He is standing for elections again. And the din of his detractors is deafening. Are they merely a bunch of empty vessels making noise? Or is there smoke behind the ire of their fire? Either way, it’s only fair Dinshawji has his say.

Q. Is there life beyond housing at the BPP?
It’s a huge priority, but not the only one. Today we have about 900 persons on the waiting list and from amongst them about 700 are genuine and we must provide them with homes. But, apart from them, I would like our housing schemes to also include a lot more Parsis who live outside the baugs. I believe bringing them into the fold will greatly enhance community life. One in five marriages is an inter-caste one, and that isn’t good for us. Parsis must marry within the community, and living within the Baug culture encourages intermingling. Navroze Baug is the best example of the maximum number of Parsi weddings taking place within a baug. I would like to see this happen across baugs and would love to bring many more Parsis into our baugs through redevelopment, since that is now an option open to us.

However, I am totally against the sale of Parsi properties and opposed the proposal to sell the Parsi Lying-in hospital, the Marazban Sanitorium in Lonavala, and so on. Neither do we need the so-called builder lobby to step in. The Punchayet is fully capable of developing its own properties and retaining them within the community.

Q. More construction/allotment means more controversies for you?
A. Let people say what they want to. There are always disgruntled elements, although I try to help as many people as I can. It is now being alleged that only my friends get flats, in which case half the community could be called my friends since I have helped so many people! Take the case of Maneck Davar – he has paid the Punchayet well above the offer we had at the time, and this is known those making false allegations. He was given the flat with the consent of all the other Trustees, so why am I being blamed?

Q. Why are you being blamed?
A. It’s pure slander and personal victimisation, as I have fallen out with my one time friend and business partner, who is himself taking an active interest in Parsi politics. Ideologically, we fell apart when he started demanding a crematorium at the Doongerwadi. When virtually the entire community opposed it, he came back with the innocent proposal of a ‘cremate ni bungli’ at Doongarwadi, where prayers could be said for those opting for alternate methods of disposal. I was open to it, until he revealed that his intent was to get a toe-hold into Doongerwadi through the ‘cremate ni bungli’ and eventually bring a crematorium in.

I was alarmed, as this is certainly not in the interest of our community. He has very radical views about ‘acceptance’, ‘conversion’ and ‘cosmopolitan agiaries’, which I cannot subscribe to. He is now seeking to be the king-maker of the community and I am paying the price for blocking his path. In religious matters I believe we need to go by the guidance of our High Priests.

(Mr. Mehta elaborated further upon the above the above at his public meeting at Godrej Baug, and sought to clarify that the many allegations against him are baseless and motivated).

Q. Your Co-Trustees have also not found it easy to work with you?
A. That’s untrue. We may disagree on policy issues, but all decisions, especially flat allotments, are taken jointly by all of us.

Q. Another allegation is irregularities at the time of flat allotments/sale…
All payments are made by cheque to the Punchayet, although at times we do get brokers involved. Say someone comes to sell his flat, claiming he has an offer for just thirty lakhs. In reality, he may have an offer for forty. So we ask a broker to get a few more clients and bids, in order to assess the right market price. Brokers sometimes lie and ask for a couple of lakhs in cash, saying the Trustees are asking for it. When this comes to light, we blacklist the broker.

Q. What about the Doongerwadi hoardings issue?
A. In 2000 the late Siloo Kavarana came up with a suggestion to generate revenue for the Doongerwadi through hoardings. When all the Trustees agreed, in 2001 we got five contractors to bid and were offered between Rs. 600 to Rs. 850 per square foot. Tony Lewis was the highest bidder. Then Anahita Pundole went on her crusade and everything went into limbo. Meanwhile, Doongerwadi was declared a heritage precinct. We finally got back to all the original bidders, asking them to get both Heritage and BMC sanctions and revert if they were interested. This was in 2006, and only Lewis managed it. He was awarded the contract at Rs. 1200 per square foot, with a 10 per cent escalation every year. Anahita Pundole agitated again and we made it clear to Lewis that not a single tree was to be cut or we would cancel his contract. We did that, when he started cutting some trees, and that is where the matter stands.

Q. How will you get along with your co-Trustees this time?
A. I’m very comfortable with most of the candidates. I have known Nadir Modi and Noshir Dadrawalla for years. There should be no problem. I would be really happy to work with WAPIZ. Rustom Tirandaz has been a former colleague; Arnavaz Mistry is a social worker. There are many other good people.

Q. Is the acrimony getting to you?
A. At every election there is acrimony. If I show you the cuttings of the 2001 elections you’ll see it was much the same. Only those who are attacking me now were supporting me then!

Q. What else is on your agenda?
A. We have to look after our poor more effectively by bringing all the Trusts together and ensuring that piecemeal doles are consolidated into a substantial sum. We have to encourage marriages within the community and preserve our religion. And we need to increase the BPP corpus.

Q. Your family background is in politics?
A. My late father, brother and sister have all been Corporators from the same seat since 1965. We have never lost an election. Almost always, the contesting candidates have lost their deposits! There must be something good my family has done to get this sort of adulation from the area we represent. In 1981, when I decided against opting for mainstream politics, but got into Parsi politics instead, my father wondered whether it was a wise decision! But I had already made up my mind.

Election imbroglio

As the elections get more feverish, in the onslaught of over-reactions, there are unintended casualties. One such involves a prestigious community institution for which we have the highest regard, a hospital that is impeccably run in the service of Parsis.

A senior representative of the hospital wishes to clarify (read previous post for details) that the authorities had not intended to influence doctors into supporting a particular panel. As it turns out, a petition in support of the panel was made available to doctors willing to sign it “of their own accord”. Hence, there should be no discord! If some doctors did not share this perception, there could have been a misunderstanding.

While signature campaigns have their pitfalls, we hope the matter rests, and the management can continue with their sterling social service.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Oh Doctor, You're in Trouble!

With regard to the support that a certain high profile panel of contestants is claiming from leading doctors within the community, it has been brought to notice that some top doctors, whose names are cited, are feeling rather slighted.

Privately, they have expressed disapproval over the manner in which they were tacitly coerced into putting their signatures on the campaign by bigwigs associated with the hospital where they are all empanelled.

They feel there was no need for them to be dragged into a political dilemma by publicly making them endorse a particular panel, when there are good candidates across the board. So, why did they put their signatures? A couple of them confessed that to not conform would be to recklessly ruffle the feathers of the big birds.

Which reminds us of a witty ditty, suitably modified: “Oh Doctor, you’re in trouble. Well, goodness gracious me. For every time a certain man is standing next to thee... A flush comes to the face and the pulse begins to race. It goes BPP/BPP, BPP/BPP, BPP/BPP boom!”

This brings us to another question: what sort of panel would need the ‘support’ of so many top, multi-disciplinary doctors? Certainly not a very healthy one!

However, this is said in lighter vein. What appears unhealthy are only the tactics, which are not necessarily perpetrated personally by the candidates of the said panel.

New Trustees Need: Time, Talent, & Tenacity to Preserve our Tenets

Finally, we come down to the quintessential question that justifies life’s journey: how much time do we have?

This is being asked over and over again in the context of the various candidates and their ability to commit themselves to the onerous task of Trusteeship. While it’s true that some people appear way too over-committed to be able to spare the time needed to attend to a large Trust like the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, and its many attending and ongoing issues, it’s ultimately up to each individual to be able to deliver – and there’s no prescribed formula for time management.

Some very successful people effectively subscribe to the adage: the more you do, the more you can do. Their energy, acumen, and ability to multi-task efficiently, is inspiring, and there’s no reason to assume they will not give off their best once they have committed themselves to something.

On the other hand, we get fliers slid under our door almost every day from some very well-intentioned candidates, claiming to have the time – but to what avail? Especially since these candidates haven’t the experience or ability to give leadership at the apex level, which the BPP really needs.

Ultimately, it’s a balance of time, talent, temperament, the tenacity to hold steadfast on to our traditions, and the temerity to take on those who mischievously undermine time-honoured tenets for vested interests, that will define the next Trustees of the BPP.

Let us, together, determine who these seven worthies will be. In the coming weeks, this column will bring you interviews with leading players – one-on-one conversations, frank, forthright and fearless – that will enable us to objectively make up our minds.

Cast your vote online

For the first time in the history of the community there is a live, online opinion poll where you can vote for your preference for the Trustee of the Bombay Parsee Panchayet (BPP).

Click on to view the candidates, their manifestoes/profiles (where available), and then cast your vote online.

Your voice is important and should be heard. Cast your vote in large numbers and contribute to the process!

Please also feel free to pass this on to your friends and relatives who would be interested.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Let’s Stop This Trustee Bashing

It’s unbecoming of an enlightened community like ours, that such humungous hatred has, in recent times, been hurled at the Trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), now in their last days in office.

Not just unbecoming but ironic too, because the most virulent and vocal of BPP bashers are today among the very people who are trying every trick in the trade to step into the shoes they have so savagely stomped upon!

But the outgoing Trustees of the BPP must have some merit, and you don’t have to believe everything you are led to, even if it comes via a so-called “shocking video film” that, not surprisingly, thrashes the Trustees (calling them “small men with no heart”) and, then, surprisingly, sidles up to two of them for support!

Lest the community forgets, it is these Trustees we have turned to over the past several years and, human lapses notwithstanding, they are, individually and collectively, men of stature, although we may not have agreed with them on everything.

The least we can do is give them a fitting farewell with a kind word for all that has been done. At least a lot hasn’t been undone, as could well be the case with some of the newcomers.

Strident campaigning is one thing, diligent delivery quite another. Blaming one’s predecessors is a tempting ploy for electioneering, but it can also be a pitfall when performance doesn’t match promise. Anyone who has any experience of working as a Trustee will affirm that it is essentially a thankless task!

More so since our community is plagued with a feed-off-the-BPP syndrome. Almost from birth, every Mumbai Parsi believes it is the BPP’s bounden duty to house him, educate him, support him, sponsor him, and then some! Anything that goes wrong in a Parsi’s life is eventually blamed on the BPP. This has to stop.

The BPP is here to facilitate the community, not to spoon feed it. Parsis have to take the onus of their lives in their own hands and stop playing the blame game, fuelled by those who ostensibly hate the BPP, but inherently harbour the ambition of being at its helm themselves!

Meanwhile, our final felicitations to Minoo Shroff, Burjor Antia, Dinshaw Tamboly, Dadi Engineer, Dinshaw Mehta and Maneck Engineer, for negotiating rocky seas, and occasionally rocking each other’s boat – but hanging in there through hell and high water, anyway!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

AFP’s 8 x 7

Will AFP’s date with fate be blighted by its 8? Arguably, its panel is glittering and glamorous and almost intimidating in its invincibility. But is too much of a good thing really not such a good thing, after all?

With just seven seats for Trusteeship at the BPP, community members are asking several questions after the rather late inclusion of Munchi Cama as the eighth worthy on the AFP panel. The most poignant one is: who do we drop? Up until this point, the AFP had been pressing for its entire panel to be propelled into the Punchayet but now, perforce, one person will have to be pitch forked out of the party.

Would the AFP like to tell the community who that person should be? Should we eliminate at random, or in tandem?

In any case, the buzz is that somebody could be backing out. After all, Homi Khusrokhan reportedly did, and rather late in the day we’re told, which is when Dr. Katy Dinshaw was quickly brought in. Well, as the AFP plays musical chairs with its panel, unseating someone will be inevitable.

Minority Matters

Dr. Syrus Darvish Irani, a General Medical Practitioner from Mahim, who is contesting the BPP elections, points out some interesting facts in his manifesto, which should set the community thinking.

Until the 1980’s there were five reserved seats for Parsi/Irani youth at Walchand Engineering College, Sangli. Today’s scenario: Hardly any reserved seats available in professional colleges.

He adds, “In the 1990s I tried my level best to impress upon the community to intervene in the Supreme Court regarding reservations for Parsis. However, none ventured into it. The theme was ‘we Parsees do not need reservations’. After that, I personally met the then Chairman of the Minority Commission, who advised me to come through the Punchayet and stake my claim of 2% reservation for Parsi/Irani youth in professional colleges. During that period, the Mandal Commission was the only way to intervene in the Supreme Court; but I failed to gain momentum.”

He further points out: According to the 2001 census (Government of India): 0.0069% of the total population is Parsi – 69,601; 13.4% of the total population is Muslim – 151 million; 2.34% of the total population is Christian – 24 million.

“Currently there are reservations for all other minorities, including Muslims and Christians, in professional colleges, but none for Parsis and Iranis.”

We wonder what Dr. Syrus Darvish Irani’s chances are at the BPP polls, but we hope he pursues his plan for procuring Minority Status nonetheless, along with several other contestants who have also put in on their manifestoes, whether they too win or not.

Some issues ought to be beyond winning/losing. And securing education opportunities for our largely marginalised Parsi/Irani kids needs to be unanimously high on everybody’s priority list. In these over-competitive times, where admissions close at well over 90 per cent for all professional courses, we are highly disadvantaged being so small in number, with quotas and reservations abounding for most others.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

WAPIZ must strengthen its wicket, with a United-7 ticket

It is our contention that the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) seems to be underselling itself with just four nominations. Since they, too, are presenting a panel, shouldn’t have computed a complete one? Leaving three gaps in the grid isn’t entirely sound.

Their appeal that the community can fill them in with “like minded” candidates is a bit of a riddle. Like-mindedness with WAPIZ can be a bit daunting, as many are found wanting! Perhaps WAPIZ should identify who they consider compatible and make the election maze a tad easier to navigate.

Khojeste Mistry was questioned about this at a campaign meeting. He was of the belief that the four panellists WAPIZ has put out are a cohesive group, sharing the same vision and mission, and he hopes all four could get elected to the BPP so that they could then be in a majority. Beyond that, the community is free to pick its other three, said he, pushing the “like minded” pitch yet again to ensure a common ground within the BPP among the final seven trustees.

But in this election, with so many differing ideologies, and strong contenders who stand for them, it seems unlikely that any one point of view will hold complete sway over the BPP. It will have to be an amalgam of ideas, aspirants and issues.

It is in WAPIZ’s interests to align with three others and present a United-7 to community, so that they can then steer their team into the Punchayet more effectively. Failing which, one sees a lot of cross-voting happening and WAPIZ’s four may or may not score.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why I’m writing Parsi-Link

If you are a Parsi, you are probably aware that the community, in the throes of election politics, is in turmoil. Much of what is appearing in print right now is motivated, vitiated with personal vendetta and invariably paid for by one or another organisation, or individual, vying for Trusteeship.

It has come to such a pass that there is virtually no freedom of the press within the community, no independent voice, no democratic dialogue that is the very basis of informed and expedient opinion-making.

Cutting loose from the clutter of name-calling, BPP bashing, attacking individuals and playing the partisan game, Parsi-Link is a platform that offers a level playing field, as there is no official/unofficial agenda and no affiliation whatsoever with any of the contesting groups or individuals.

While it’s inevitable that opinions will be expressed, frankly and freely, and may or may not find favour depending upon the persuasion of the person perusing this page, this is not a commercial venture and nothing that appears here, not a word, will have been paid for by any group or individual directly or indirectly connected with the elections. It becomes necessary to state this loud and clear as extremely partisan posturing is being passed for editorial comment in recent times.

Readers are more than welcome to share their points of view, since we believe that together we can come to a better understanding of what best serves our interests – and decide upon the people who will represent us in the Punchayet effectively to administer this.

We need to rationalise without rancour, explore with exploding and, finally, shortlist without short changing the community and its future generations. By judiciously bestowing the benefit of benevolent and diligent Trusteeship upon the apex organisation, we will fulfil our tryst with destiny.

This is a unique opportunity for us, many of us first-time voters under the Universal Adult Franchise scheme, to choose all seven Trustees simultaneously. Let us not waste a single vote.

So, who’s on your wish list? Do write in with your comments and tell me what you think of the current pre-election imbroglio, the candidates, and the key issues we need to be focusing upon. This is the time to get together purposefully and do our bit to elect the right people to lead us.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Who Wants to Be a Parsi Punchayet Trustee!

This is a historic moment for the Parsi community. For the first time ever, through the newly formalised Universal Adult Franchise scheme, community members will be able to vote for the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) elections commencing October 4 onwards.

What is also unique is that all seven trustees will be elected simultaneously. Previously, every time a seat or two fell vacant upon expiry of a term (or a Trustee), elections for just that seat (or two) would be held via a closed system that did permit the participation of the entire community.

This time its all seven seats at one go and the entire community (or at least those adult voters who have registered) can step out and stamp their favourites on the ballot sheets. While various luminaries, and some not quite so luminous folk, have offered their services for the top tickets in the community’s apex organisation, much mayhem ensues.

Apart from a lot of independent candidates, two dominant groups, the traditionalists and the reformists, are fighting each other in a bloody war of words, values, and vituperation. The valour is missing, or at least misplaced. While some guys have some growing up to do, the community has important issues at hand. Although all the candidates are promising to resolve them almost effortlessly, it’s pertinent to point the predominant ones out:

1. FLAME OF FAITH: Why did the Parsis come to India? A sense of history is crucial in these times of instant self-gratification. We fled Persia because of the threat to our religion and undertook an arduous journey with only one intention – to preserve the faith, with which our identity is inextricably linked. Once in India, previous generations, full of illustrious achievers, stuck steadfast to religious principles, without cutting corners for convenience or political connivance. Today, we need Trustees who genuinely appreciate and abide by the doctrines of the faith and, in matters of dispute, do not discount the counsel of our learned High Priests. The Catholics don’t pooh-pooh the Pope, the Hindus don’t slight their Shankaracharyas, nor do the Muslims marginalise their mullahs. But some haughty Parsis heckle the High Priests and, surely, our Trustees shouldn't be from their ranks?

2. IT’S MONEY, HONEY: This seems to be an election based on money power. Pages are being bought in publications and, in some cases, publications are being bought over entirely (although surreptitiously) to advertise not so much the ideology of the controlling group, but to malign rivals. This is certainly a first. So are flashy campaign meetings with refreshment boxes, glib power point presentations, huge billboards, glossy pamphlets and video shows, being held all over with staggering frequency. While this may be a casualty of contemporary commercialisation, it’s interesting to see who is financing whom, and why. Let us scratch the surface and uncover who the key financiers are, because they could control the candidates they are fielding, like the infamous remote control! And in cases where individuals are self-funding to the extent of spending crores on their campaign, the community is wondering why?

3. WHAT’S ON THE AGENDA: On the face of it everybody, no matter what their persuasion, reformist or traditional, is claiming the same manifesto. They all want to preserve the religion, resolve the housing crisis, look after the aged, and generally wave their magic wands and turn the Punchayet pumpkin into a fantasy carriage that can fly us to the moon! But before we go over it in ecstasy, let us put promises aside and check the track record of each candidate. What have they done for the community in the past, how well have they served the faith, and have they kept the faith at all? There’s a lot of big talk. How many can walk the talk?

4. MORAL OF THE STORY: Ethics are a clincher. Being a small community, it’s not difficult to discover the ethical core of each candidate. Whether its financial dealings, spiritual and religious leanings, or behavioural gleanings, we need to create an ethical scorecard for each and segregate those who top from those who flop.

5. CO-OPERATIVE EFFORT: The Punchayet cannot be the exclusive preserve of any one group, much as they may want it. Those who are excessively groupie and cannot collaborate for the larger interest of the community will be a liability. If there’s one thing our current BPP Trustees were unanimous about, it was that there was nothing they were ever unanimous about! The ability to rise above infighting is essential.

As we get into the coming weeks more ideas will emerge, more insights accrue. But there are certain fundamentals we cannot compromise upon in our quest for the Super Seven. Is the Parsi community up to the challenge? You bet! Surviving and thriving despite the odds is, like longevity, in our bawa genes.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Know Your Candidates

The BPP’s yet to release a formal list of candidates for the elections. A preliminary telephone call to a senior office bearer revealed a reluctance to share it at this point as the date for withdrawals is September 18. Thereafter, the final list will be available.

In the interim, it’s in the interest of all to know who the players are. While some are high profile and extremely well-publicised, others are less known. Since our intention is to play fair, we present as comprehensive a list as we could compile. But it is by no means conclusive. So those who may have been omitted by default can contact us and we will subsequently rectify their non-inclusion.

Munchi Cama
Noshir Dadrawala
Soli Dastur
Dr. Ketayun Dinshaw
Maneck Engineer
Byram Jeejeebhoy
Keki Mistry
Nadir Modi

Shirin Choksey
Yezdi Desai
Bomi Kavina
Khojeste Mistree

Phiroze Amroliwalla
Tehmtan Dumasia
Urvax Dhanda
Darayus Kabraji
Viraf Kapadia
Dinshaw Mehta
Framroze Mirza
Arnavaz Mistry
Jimmy Mistry
Tehmasp Mogul
Farrokh Munsiff
Danesh Nejadkay
Yezdi Panthaky
Cyrus Patel
Rustom Tirandaz
Dr. Kuresh Zorabi

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Crux of Zoroastrianism

Many non-Parsis often wonder what the crux of Zoroastrianism, the religion we Parsis owe our allegiance and existence to, is. As revealed by the Prophet Zarathushtra, or Spitama Asho Zarthost Sahib, as we call him, it is the divine triumvirate of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.

There it is – as simple as that! But to live by it is a challenge.

The mind is where it all begins. Hence, it’s imperative that it be kept clear of unnecessary clutter, negativity, jealousy, hatred, pride, and their ominous ilk. Prayer, and the power of positive thinking, can keep the mind on course at all times, and that is the key to living a balanced life.

Next in the Zoroastrian triumvirate comes Good Words, because words have power – and what you say can manifest into your reality. So unless you have something good to say, refrain from doing so for words, like arrows, once expelled cannot be retracted. Words can devastate and divide even the closest relationships, and they are an external manifestation of one’s inner state. So if the mind is attuned to piety, as the Prophet Zarathusthra ordains, words must follow in the same vein.

Finally, everything comes to naught without Good Deeds. All the best intentions in the world are useless unless followed up with timely and effective action. Zoroastrianism is a faith that stresses greatly upon “doing”. You are not required to sit in prayer or penance for hours on end. But if you go out and actually help someone or do a good deed, it is a prayer in action.

There is yet another potent force that epitomises the Zoroastrian faith: Fire. However, the Parsis have wrongly been called “fire worshippers”. In reality, the holy fire is an embodiment of the Almighty. It bestows its radiance and munificence upon a Zoroastrian seeker, illuminating his/her path through life. The Zoroastrian religion does not demand too much from its followers. All you need to do is stay on the right path and be a righteous soul, living by the Truth to the best of your ability.

Values are placed at a premium on the Parsi list of priorities. Integrity, grace, goodness, generosity, and decorum are inculcated from early on, and it’s hoped most Parsis would abide by them through their lives.

Of course, times have changed and so has the community. Many would bemoan the loss of values in society overall, and amongst Parsis as well. But, by and large, there’s still the sense of standing by the right thing. And that is what has kept the community going all these years. And will see us through the testing times we are navigating right now.

India’s Parsis: What Makes Them Special?

What is it that keeps the Parsis of India going, so many years after they migrated to the country? Quite simply: Faith and Values, which are the twin cornerstones of their survival down the years.

As most would know, Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest revealed religion. Exactly how far back it dates is open to speculation. But it certainly goes back thousands of years. Through all these years, the Zoroastrians have kept the flame of faith burning with admirable devotion, although without any unnecessary aggression.

The Parsis who came to India as migrant from Persia, gave a covenant to the Rana of Gujarat when they landed at Sanjan over a thousand years ago, promising they would never permit conversion. The Rana was concerned that the ‘foreigners’ from Persia would convert his flock to another faith.

That promise has been kept to this day and the Parsis have more or less kept to themselves in matters religious, but when it comes to contributing to Indian society they have not shied away in any which way.

From establishing schools, hospitals, and institutions of all kinds, to bequeathing their wealth to a host of cosmopolitan, charitable causes, as well as community projects, they have kept adding to the rich lustre of Indian public life, like the proverbial sugar-in-the-milk.

Some of the country’s most illustrious sons and daughters have been Parsis. Be it in politics, medicine, law, the media, business and enterprise, entertainment, or social work, there has been a legion of legendary Parsis who have performed, and continue to, brilliantly and to the best of their ability.

Inborn in the Parsi ethos is a sense of goodwill for others, and this has stood the community in good stead. Never anti-national, disruptive or divisive, the Parsis have only sought to enrich India, the country they came to and today unequivocally consider home, having left Persia with absolutely nothing centuries ago.

And it is to India’s eternal credit that she has assimilated the Parsis, who have heaped their gratitude and talents upon her in double measure with their sparkling contribution.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Parsi Politics: Desperate Times

With the elections oncoming, dishing the dirt on one probable Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) candidate after another seems to be the community’s pass time. As the date draws closer, and the contest gets more capricious, the daggers, which are already drawn, will dig in deeper still – and the wounds will be more vicious.

Even the US Presidential elections, keenly as they are being contested around contentious causes, appear like a gentle garden party compared to our street-fight style of ballot battling.

What a pity, isn’t it? Increasingly, one is becoming disappointed by our lack of grace. For years, one has held on, steadfast to the notion of all we stand for – integrity, impeccable public conduct, personal decorum, a value-based upbringing that isn’t violated by opportunism, and respect for others.

All of that seems to have been subverted in the past few years as a slew of Acrimonious Acronyms slug it out for power. Whether it’s AZA, WAPIZ, ARZ, BPP, AIMZ, PRG, WZO, AFP, and whatever else, all of them have been embroiled in petty politicking and desperately trying to outmanoeuvre each other, whilst simultaneously attempting to manipulate the community into supporting their ideology and actions.

The result is the Parsis are today so fractured, so faction-ridden, so frayed that we have lost the very essence of who we are. And each of the Acrimonious Acronyms has played its part in the process. In trying to grab their slice of the community cake, all they have left are crumbs.

Average Parsis are not concerned with the perennial warring between groups. While ideologies can be debated and points of view countered, petty personal attacks are pointless. They only sully the ethos and atmosphere of the community, filling minds with mistrust and hearts with misgiving.

Today, there’s not a single leader, or possible leader, amongst Parsis, who has not been shred to shards. Nobody trusts anybody any more, least of all if the person is standing for elections. Attacks are launched, fast and furious. This leaves the community confused, cantankerous and crushed. After all, if you cannot trust anybody to lead you, what purpose are the forthcoming elections going to serve?

As it is, nobody gets along with anyone. If the final Parsi Punchayet Board is going to be a coalition, with differing ideologies and personal egos pulling in very contrary directions, with the Trustees themselves having been discredited by their detractors, what are we thrusting the apex organisation of the community into – irretraceable chaos?

Perhaps, all those who are whipping up passions like egg whites in a badly set soufflĂ© need to understand that we’re all falling flat. What we need, more than ever before, is cooperation and communion. Differing points of view have their place, but not at the cost of our unity.

Mutual respect will have to replace rancour and disruptive rivalry. There are far too many issues we need to focus on for our very survival as a community today, and these are far more crucial than our differences. We need Trustees who understand this, and inspire faith in the community that they can collaborate effectively. We can sometimes agree to disagree. But to be disagreeably disagreeable all the time is defeating.

May the coming months bring us the unity we so desperately need, and the leadership to take us ahead.

(This post first appeared in Jam-e-Jamshed)