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.


Hushtasp said...

Hello Ms Shernaaz Engineer
You are to be commended for having the courage to feature Mr. Khojeste P. Mistree on Parsi-Link. It has indeed been a very long time since a Parsi journalist has cared to shed light on the truth. The usual Parsi Press in Mumbai has had a very biased view point for a long time.
Hushtasp Bhumgara
Toronto Canada

Strider said...

Its refreshing to read something that rises above the cliche'd "change-progress-reform" rant, and culture-bashing that is so typical of most Parsi journos.

A voice of reason! Thanks Shernaaz, for an unbiased, lucid POV on the traditionalist school of thought.

Shernaaz Engineer, Mumbai, India said...

thank you for reading and taking the time out to share your views! the community needs more positivity and one hopes and prays the coming weeks help us come together again -- with a new BPP board to lead us wisely out of conflict and needless controversy.

Sheroo said...

Bouquets to you, dear Shernaaz! Your interview with Khojeste Mistree, and your very poignant observations and unbiased reporting was like a "breath of fresh air" after all the venomous & biased journalism (Parsi press mainly) that our community has been subjected to, for the longest time.
YOU have indeed displayed true courage and have restored our faith in genuine high quality journalism that serves to "inform" the masses rather than"manipulate" them! Way to go,we'd love to read more from you.
Sheroo Masani (

Khushroo said...

Dear Ms Shernaaz Engineer,

I have read with much interest and with a great sense of pride your interview with our religious scholar Mr. Khojeste Mistree. Khojestee's frank and candid answers are to be applauded. Khojeste has always been upright and firm in all his dealings with matters appertaining to religion and community affairs. His graceful demeanor and charismatic ways coupled with his vast knowledge on the Zoroastrian religion makes him an invaluable asset to our tiny community. A speaker par excellence Khojeste has enthralled audiences young and old where ever he has conducted seminars and lectures.. Over the past many decades Khojeste has done more than most for the upliftment of the poor within the community, the dissemination of religious education amongst the youth and the preservation and perpetuation of our religious customs and traditions.

Thank you so very much for showing true leadership and restoring some credibility to the journalistic profession by bringing out an unbiased interview on a phenomenal personality.

Khushroo Patel
Melbourne Australia

rustom said...

Shernaz, you have courage!!
But beware now you may just have alligned yourself against those who want to change zoroastrianism at any cost...and thus face their ire...
However their ire will be ignored by those whose aim if 'FOR Zoroastrianisnm'

My god what will the doctor, lawyer, pseudo editor and liar coloumnist who portray everything with a jaundice eye have to say for this!!

Shernaaz Engineer, Mumbai, India said...

i think we should always desist from getting personal. while a point of view is perfectly valid, attacking another person isnt. everybody is entitled to follow their own path. it is only when this jeopardises our faith that we must protest, not against the person, per se, but against the path he/she is pushing us into pursuing. every determined Zoroastian who stays steadfast to the faith is Ahura Mazda;s soldier -- and His army can never be vanquished. Amen.

shehzad irani said...

have been a reader to this Battle of the Panchayat since some time, and its nice to see atleast Khojeste's impartial voice is heard by someone, somewhere, beyond his usual group of devout uncle and aunties... and Kudos to you to print it. these days the yellow rags you have what is called as "parsi journalism" is a bad example for everybody, and a shame to our community, who gave the nation its first newspaper...

More than that i feel that the community owes TREMENDOUSLY to this gentleman who has done his every duty that one would expect from a person in his position and many times even more. It's sad, that the community penalizes him for being human, but overrides whatever SUPERHUMAN he and his family has done...

Neville said...

A good interview and as always Khojeste comes out as a reasonable man. My vote for him although I don’t always agree with him :-). I appreciate the work he does. I wish more religious scholars like Khojeste, Ramyar etc. would also be standing up for this election.
But beware 'Power corrupts and absolute Power corrupts absolutely' We will wait and watch.
All the best to whoever is elected, but don’t forget when Zoroastrian history is written it is these elected seven men/women who will either be praised or be held responsible for the fate of the Zoroastrian community in India. It’s a sword which will always hang on their heads.

Neville Pardiwalla

Strider said...

Your comment: "it is only when this jeopardises our faith that we must protest, not against the person..."

Wow! Exactly what I have been yelling out forever. Being a tolerant community, we respect everyone's right to their beliefs (however warped they may be), as long as they do not foist their ethos/self-interests down our collective throats in the form of mindless iconoclastic "change".

Thanks for the lucid, unconventional perspective. Its good to know there are still independent thinkers not infected by the conformist, slave-to-fashion, tradition-bashing bug.

Neville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neville said...

Please excuse my english it was too early in the morning and I was just waking up :-).

Maybe being too tolerant is our problem, where we let everything slide by with our 'Aeema su thayu' attitude.
Maybe we need to talibanise our religion a bit

VIRAF said...

Hi Shernaaz,

That was a good interview. So were the ones that you did on some of the other candidates.

Unlike the Parsi Press, which is one - sided as far as support is concerned, you have been seen as a free & fair jounalist in the build up to these elections. However, I heard today that you have asked the Parsis to vote for WAPIZ in these elections, to save the religion. I hope that is not true, as then you get branded also.


Viraf Deboo - PUNE.

Shernaaz Engineer, Mumbai, India said...

dear viraf,

thanks a lot for your valuable comments. however, i must clarify that i have NOT asked anybody to vote for WAPIZ. yes, i have urged all right-thinking parsis to vote only for people who unconditionally support the faith, which i believe is the need of the hour, as without our faith we will not be who we are.

i don't think conversion or cremation is the route to our salvation. however, this is a personal point of view and there is no compulsion upon anyone to agree! voters are free to choose who they will, although i do appeal that we can stand by the glorious Zoroastrian faith and vote in Trustees who respect and rever the religion, without wanting to change it as per the whims of vested interests, when our High Priests are urging against such ill-conceived tinkering.

i trust you will understand.

warm regards,

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