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.