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.