SHERNAAZ ENGINEER's blog on the Parsi community

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Birthday – 150-years-old today!

The Sorabji Thoothi Agiary was built in 1859 and is recently renovated with painstaking care

People have birthdays, and places do too. Sacrosanct places that are awash with a vibrancy which the passing years just cannot wear away – and sustain us with a grace that gets more generous as time goes by.

For many Parsis, one such sanctuary for the soul is the Sorabji Thoothi Agiary at Walkeshwar, which turns 150-years-old today.

What a beautiful and bountiful bastion of faith this is, with its blessed well skirting the shimmering rim of Mumbai’s Queen’s Necklace, and sanctified by the waters of the Arabian Sea.

The Thoothi Agiary was recently renovated by the generous endeavours of the Bapuna siblings, and it’s mobed, Ervad Kersi Gonda, the righteous priest who has devotedly tended to the Holy Fire for close to a quarter of a century, affirms that countless faithful folk have had their wishes fulfilled down the years, following the timeless tenets of the Zoroastrian faith without compromise or controversy.

It is his fervent wish on the occasion of the 150th birthday of the Agiary that the Parsi community should preserve, protect and prudently propagate its unique legacy, without falling prey to petty and pernicious politicking, or rushing recklessly into reform, so that the flame of our faith continues to burn bright forever.

This brings us to another haloed precinct of the Parsi faith, the Banaji Limji Agiary at Fort, which celebrates its 300th anniversary on April 24. Three awesome centuries of nurturing, inspiring, blessing and bestowing its boons upon generation after generation of Parsis!

These two ancient, sacred fires should, fittingly, be the beacon of hope that brings all of us out of the dark alley of despondency… and the self-destructive dramatics that could well bring the curtains down on us. Unless we, like our forefathers, stay unwaveringly devoted to the very reason why they fled Iran and came to India: to preserve our fires and our faith.

The old style of the Thoothi Agiary has been maintained throughout the renovation

The prayer hall at Thoothi Agiary, with portraits of our illustrious forefathers, none of who ever advocated radical reform as the solution for our survival!

The wishing well at Thoothi Agiary. Devotees affirm it has wish-bestowing powers, and its right by the sea

Inside the Thoothi Agiary, where the flame of our faith has bestowed its boons for 150 years... and many more to follow!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Armaity Tirandaz: A well-earned victory

The winner takes it all! Initially shy, Armaity came into her own on the campaign trail with force and felicity. Picture by Hoshang Nekoo

Armaity Rustom Tirandaz is the newly-elected Trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP), having won the recent election that was necessitated by the untimely demise of her late husband, Rustom.

For the largely peace-loving Parsi community of Mumbai, it is fitting that a gentle and competent person like her has been installed at the apex institution, hopefully bringing to an end weeks of vicious acrimony and some really “yellow-yellow dirty fellow” journalism!

The manner in which the death of a little girl was twisted into an election gimmick, to disgrace and defame the sitting BPP Trustees, many of them supporters of Mrs. Tirandaz’s candidature, with a view to jeopardising her chances, has all come to naught. The community has proved, yet again, that it wishes to abide by decorum and tradition, and will put in place Trustees who will not compromise upon either.

Despite relentless and ruthless attempts to browbeat the electorate through slander, scandal-mongering and the surreptitious camouflaging of an unholy agenda (by some vested interests out to hijack its peace and preservation), the Paris community has yet again prudently picked out the right person who will best serve its larger interests.

This, of course, doesn’t go down too well with certain people, who keep rearing their obdurate heads. But, perhaps, they need to heed the message behind the mandate: that these are the Trustees the community has selected and elected. And while defeat may be a devastating thing, there is also something called accepting it gracefully.

Congratulations to Armaity Tirandaz, and...

To her wonderful family who has stood by her at a time when they were overcoming the anguish of losing their patriarch, putting aside much personal pain to don the mantle of public service...

To the many people who campaigned for her with great grit and gumption...

To all the sitting Trustees of the BPP because they now have their ‘Super Seven’ Board back in full strength, and can put skirmishes aside to start afresh and live up to the faith the community has vested in them...

And to those Parsis who, in the silence of their souls, time and again, find the strength to come out and do the right thing, despite the cacophony of these very conflicted times.

With Jimmy Mistry, who stood by her despite many other defectors in Dadar, post Rustom's demise

With elder son, Faredoon, on the night she won the election! Photo by Viraf Hansotia

First Wives Club! Pansy Dinshaw Mehta, Delna Jimmy Mistry, Firoza Khojeste Mistree and Anahita Yazdi Desai (not in pic) were rock-solid in their support

Victory is finally here for Armaity and her team! Rustom's soul will rejoice... this is his victory too!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I will never let the community down: Armaity Rustom Tirandaz

With her poignant grace in the face of enormous personal grief, and her spunky determination to give the community her best, Armaity Rustom Tirandaz is a profile in courage.

While unbiased voters will judge her on her merits, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest and best names in the community have come forward to endorse her candidature: Farrokh Kavarana of Tatas, eminent lawyer Homi Ranina, former Chairman of the Central Bank of India, Homai Daruwalla – and many more. Worthy individuals, who could be (and perhaps should) be Trustees of the BPP in their own right – yet they have stepped forward to stress that she is the right choice.

If one pauses to think – and think one must before one votes – it stands to reason that people of such unblemished stature would only commend a credible candidate to the community.

Yet a perception has been created that Armaity Rustom Tirandaz is, at best, a sympathy seeker. However, in the course of this interview, she comes across as calm and competent, and she does not play on sentiment. Her resume is robust. And while it’s true that being the wife of Rustom Tirandaz cannot be counted upon as a qualification for Trusteeship – neither should it be deemed a disqualification.

Over to the lady, then, as we seek to clarify some preconceptions – and clear many misconceptions…

What does one call you – Rabri Devi (as you have recently been rechristened) or Armaity Rustom Tirandaz?
I was born Armaity Karani and, by marriage, became Armaity Rustom Tirandaz. I cannot be anyone but myself! While I yearn, strive and struggle to fill my Rustom’s shoes, I certainly cannot wear anyone else’s but my own.

Ideologically, where do you stand on crucial community issues?
I have no qualms confessing that I’m a traditionalist. However, this does not mean there should be no progress for the betterment of the community. I’m all for change – but not when it comes to our religious tenets, which are time-honoured and must be treasured. I am totally against cremation – no Cremate ni Bungli and no four-day prayers for those opting for cremation. Neither do I advocate intermarriage – I had told my children a long time ago that whenever they married, it should be within the community. Intermarried Zoroastrian women know from the start that they need to make a choice between their spouse and their religion – and they make it willingly, so why raise a fuss later?

It’s being suggested that you have almost been coerced into contesting this election, propped up by people who want to use you as a puppet?
There is a two-letter word in the English language, which is not unknown to me – ‘NO’. If I were not keen, or if I felt I was not qualified to rise to the challenge of Trusteeship, I would have said no. As I have in the past. Let me explain…

When Rustom was in politics, and he was a Corporator for 17 years, our ward changed its ‘complexion’ many times. At one point it became a Woman’s Ward, and at that time Rustom was very keen for me to contest since it was a ward where we had worked very hard and were very well respected. But I said no. I refused. Nobody, not even my husband, could push me into doing something I did not believe in doing.

This time, when I was asked, I consulted my conscience and after due consideration I accepted because I believe I can contribute meaningfully.

Yet it is feared that you will be a ‘rubber stamp’ to Dinshaw Mehta…
I want to ask, why only Dinshaw Mehta? There are six other Trustees who have as much say over everything that happens at the BPP. Will I be a rubber stamp to them all? Rustom’s colleagues are well aware that I’m the sort of person who will not let anything get past if it goes against my grain. I’m perceptive enough to know my priorities, and principled enough to stand by them. Ultimately, I’m answerable not to any individual but to my conscience and my community – I will never let them down.

How does it feel when you’re called “just a housewife”?
It feels wonderful! I’m proud of the title, and so are most housewives, because it connotes love, sacrifice, a capacity for sharing and caring and creating something strong, vibrant and wonderful: A happy family. The same values that I brought to my family are the ones I will bring to the BPP and to the community. Women are natural negotiators, but they know where to draw the line and will let no harm come to those they care for. I’m sure the community will appreciate these values.

But you are more than a housewife…
I’m a qualified Physiotherapist from KEM Hospital, and I have been associated with several social causes for many years. I have never spoken about them, because it seems strange to do so. However, since I have been asked I will confess that I have worked with the Jai Vakeel School for the handicapped for over 13 years, the Dadar Blind School, The Sakarbai Petit Hospital for animals for the last 18 years, the Bandra Hospice for the terminally ill for over 10 years, the Shelter for Girls in Distress, and so on. I have also been shoulder-to-shoulder with Rustom since the start of his political career in 1970, and while I have been actively involved in public life, I have not been very much in the public eye.

Your critics say we need professionals in the BPP…
Am I not a professional? And what ‘profession’ do you need to serve the BPP? You can outsource many things, but not the spirit of service, the integrity to uphold the right values, and the determination to do your best by your community. I bring all of this with me, in addition to my academic qualifications.

As a front-running candidate for Trusteeship, what is your vision for the Parsi community?
I think we should do as much as we can to alleviate the suffering of our poor. We need to arrive at how many people live below the poverty line, and set into place special schemes to help them. The Merit Rating for Housing needs to be followed diligently, and those deserving a house must get one. We need to work on many fronts to ensure that our youth get all the opportunities they can. Above all, my vision for the community is one of unity. I have redefined ‘Community’ as ‘Kom ni Unity’. I will do everything to heal the rift that divides us. Rustom was an expert at diffusing tense situations – he would come up with something so witty that it would smoothen frayed nerves fast enough! I may not have his talent, but I’m prepared to try.

His victory in the October elections was, perhaps, the only genuine moral victory any candidate could claim. Rustom Tirandaz won with virtually no budget, no publicity, no hate speeches, no lavish banquets…
Yes, he won solely on the strength of the love, admiration and faith the community had in him. When he wanted to contest, we were all trying to dissuade him. But he had full faith that he would win thanks to Universal Adult Franchise. He believed the community would recognise the hard work he’d put in. He kept telling us, this is my last chance. Let me go ahead and contest my last election…

How has the experience of your maiden campaign been?
It has been heart warming. I’m grateful for all the support I’ve been getting. Although initially shy of public speaking, I seem to have overcome that and feel empowered to be able to offer myself in service. Seeing the crowd response has been emotionally uplifting.

Are you a practicing Zoroastrian? The Parsi Press reported you were a Theosophist…
Theosophy is not a religion – it’s a philosophy. Of course I am a practicing Zoroastrian, what else can I be?

Would you abide by the guidance of the High Priests on matters of religion?
Yes. The High Priests have a deep understanding of the faith and the best interests of the community at heart.

Since this is your first election, and you’ve put so much at stake in terms of personal commitment, what will happen if you lose?
I would not consider myself a loser – I would still continue to perpetuate Rustom’s legacy and vision because I understand it and I believe in it. However, as a lone individual I may not be able to succeed to the extent that I could if I were part of an organisation like the BPP, which is deeply committed to social welfare.

Let me stress, this election is not about power or fame or position. Because should I win, I know I will not be able to take sole credit for it. It will not be my victory, it will also be Rustom’s victory – a victory for the service he rendered, and for the service I will be able to render, to the community.

I have no connection with AZA: MANECK ENGINEER

Maneck Engineer, BPP Candidate, says he will never contest again if he loses this election

Maneck Engineer is no stranger to the Parsi Zoroastrian community in Mumbai. As a former Trustee of the BPP, and a reputed professional, his soft spoken and down-to-earth demeanour has always been appreciated. Despite having lost the last election in October, he has bravely flung himself into the fray again. Predictably, several dormant controversies have clambered out of the closet. However, it needs to be acknowledged that this is an election where ideology matters as much as ability.

Today the community is split ideologically. In a nutshell, what do you stand for?
I stand for change, without infringing upon our traditions and culture. The world is changing and we have to accept some changes. We don’t dress today the way we did 100 years ago – but that hasn’t affected our traditions.

Have you abandoned the AFP banner this time – or is it the other way around?
The AFP was only a temporary arrangement. We came together to fight the October election so that a group of seven like-minded people could get elected and work harmoniously. Unfortunately, only one person got through.

Was that a huge disappointment?
Of course… definitely.

When people are elected as Trustees should they work unitedly for the community, or continue their factional fights?
I think there should be no politics in a Trust body. Factional fighting should cease. But, then, there are differences even within a family.

Do you think the courts are an appropriate forum to sort out the community’s differences?
We should not go to the courts and we should not create tamashas on TV. People are laughing at us. We should sit around together and resolve our differences. I’m prepared to try and bring about reconciliation.

You resigned citing irreconcilable differences with Dinshaw Mehta. How will you work harmoniously with him if elected?
I have no problems. I have known Dinshaw for 30 years, and we have still not had a box fight! For the sake of the community I’m willing to sit down with him… I am sure he will also give in.

As a prominent candidate in this election, what is your mission for the Parsi community?
The bogey of housing has to be resolved. It will take 3-5 years to remove the list if we categorise people properly. Many people are offered homes in the Western suburbs – but they refuse to move there. So just building in the suburbs isn’t enough.

The younger generation is migrating. If you go through the statistics you will see that the Parsi population between 25-40 years is almost missing in India. For instance, both my daughters are in Australia. The younger generation wants to keep out of ‘bawaji’ politics, and many don’t get a good quality of life with independent housing in India. If we don’t look after their needs more will go away. I believe Parsis can survive (as we have for 1400 years) and keep our identity, traditions and culture only if we live in Mumbai/India. If young Parsis from abroad want to come back, we have to encourage that… the BPP should say here is a house.

Could you enumerate upon your achievements during your last term as Trustee…
A new layout was drawn up for Neville Baug at Nirlon, and a building was put up. I am proud to say that Neville Baug is coming up as a really nice colony. I was also responsible for the solar panels and the greening at Doongerwadi. When I joined there were only 5 solars, but today there are 12 and all are working effectively – we had to modify and tropicalise them. I also worked on the 45-year old Kapadia Building at A.H. Wadia Baug. They had written it off, but we repaired it and today the tenants are happy. Redevelopment has to be done judiciously. Often repairing is a better option.

You stand by Dokhmenishini and the Doongerwadi?
I’m not against Doogerwadi; I’m in favour of it. But because of the vultures becoming extinct we had to go in for solar panels, which are working very well. I’m totally against cremation. At the same time, if it’s somebody’s wish I cannot stop them. I’m not in favour of conversion either.

You call yourself traditional and say you stand by Dokhmenishini. Yet you did not sign the affidavit against the Cremate-ni-bungli?
I wasn’t in India at the time, and since I’d missed the discussions on the subject I decided to abstain from signing either for or against it.

So are you for or against it?
I am totally against a Cremate-ni-bungli at Doongerwadi. It would be against the settlors’ wishes. But we could have one at another location.

You may not be aware, but earlier we had bunglis at various locations across Mumbai. I have lived at Cusrow Baug since my first birthday, and we had one there. When my grandfather died, he was taken there and the prayers commenced. The body was later consigned at Doongerwadi. Likewise, there were other bunglis. We could consider giving one to those who wish to opt for cremation. After all, we cannot stop anybody. Why bring about a split in the community – why come in the way?

How much reverence do you give to the views of the High Priests? Or do you, like some, believe the Parsis should pretty much do as they please?
No, I don’t believe that. But the priests should be united – they need to resolve their differences amongst themselves. There should be a Dasturan Dastur, like the Pope, and they should speak only in one voice.

But we don’t have a Papal tradition, and our High Priests have been virtually unanimous on key issues…
You are right. They should have a say in religious matters. They are highly educated and understand their responsibilities.

The BPP is a hotbed of politics – now more than ever before. What motivates you to stick your head into the crossfire?
I have a burning desire to serve my community. These are the few years at the end of my life when I can serve. I began my association with the BPP back in the CER days with (late) Siloo Kavarana. It has been an interesting tryst, I have enjoyed it! I don’t like to malign, and only retaliate when I am compelled. I had supported the candidature of (late) Rustom Tirandaz – I think it was in the 1995/96 elections. I helped him win. But in the next elections I stood against him because I felt he had joined hands with Dinshaw.

You are professionally associated with Godrej. It's felt that some members of the family influence you in the context of the pro-reform agenda?
No, my bosses have never tried to influence me in any way. They will never interfere.

It's also said that Smita (Godrej) Crishna, who is associated with the Association for Inter Married Zoroastrians (AIMZ), exerts influence over you in matters concerning inter-married Parsi women?
She may discuss matters with me… it’s not that she influences me.

Do you support navjotes for children of inter-married Parsi women?
I wouldn’t like to comment on that.

Your friend (and former colleague) Kersi Randeria and his AZA are filing numerous cases, running aggressive election campaigns… all of which must cost a lot of money. Who is funding AZA?
I have no idea. Probably Kersi is using his own money. Let me be frank, I don’t know. Kersi has taken this cause to his heart. But there may also be some others involved… I don’t know. I am not in close touch with Kersi, no matter what Dinshaw says. We meet sometimes. But very often I don’t even know what affidavits or cases they file. I have no connection with that organisation (AZA). In fact, Bergis (Desai) was much closer to Dinshaw than to me. We don’t know why they suddenly split up…

Any parting thoughts?
We need harmony in the community. The youth are important; they are the real wealth of the community… not our lands or assets. The BPP should have specialised committees on every subject, with just one or two Trustees connected with each committee, and there should be a budget for everything with proper management.

What happens if you lose the election?
I’ll forget about it and never contest again. I think ours is one of the finest communities and we can survive only if we help ourselves. By bickering we will not achieve anything, expect destroying ourselves. We have survived for 1400 years and we will survive till the end of time… I’m sure. I’m not a religious scholar, but from what I’ve read we once ruled half the world. We may be on the top again some day.

What will take us there?
Behramshah Varzavand, perhaps.

Anything can happen! We must have faith in our religion and in ourselves.

Here’s wishing you the best, Mr. Engineer…

BPP Election Commences on April 4, 2009

Rustom Tirandaz’s untimely demise has necessitated another election, and the four candidates in the fray are as follows:

Armaity Rustom Tirandaz
Maneck H. Engineer
Tehemton Dumasia
Ervad Adi Govadia

The polling schedule is as under:

April 4 – Bharucha Baug, Andheri
April 5 – Cusrow Baug, Colaba
April 11 – Khareghat Colony, Hughes Road
April 12 – Parsi Colony, Dadar
April 19 – Rustom Baug, Byculla