Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I: Davier

In 1989, I went on a camp with my Boy Scouts troop to Davier, a coastal village on the border of Gujarat with Maharashtra. Davier was one of the many villages in Gujarat where Parsis had settled down in substantial numbers and established community institutions like agiaries (fire-temples) and dokhmas (Towers of Silence). Ours being a troop consisting entirely of Parsis, one of our activities was a visit to the agiary. It wasn’t the first time I was going there. I had come before in 1982, again on a camp that also included a visit to the agiary. But this time, it was a different experience. Instead of leaving our offerings of sandalwood at the door of the keblah (the sanctum sanctorum which only the officiating priest could enter), we entered the keblah itself and placed our offerings directly on the fire. I felt a little uncomfortable doing it; entering the keblah had always been a taboo. But Farhan, a fellow Scout whose family also owned the property where we were camping and therefore kept coming to Davier often, informed me that this had become the practice here ever since the agiary had been left without a priest to look after it. Not wanting the holy fire to die out, a resident (among the handful left) had taken the responsibility on himself to keep it burning. And since he couldn’t afford to give the fire his undivided attention like a priest would, others too could offer sandalwood directly to the fire.

Off and on, over the years, I would read similar stories being reported in Parsi publications. Of agiaries in Fort, Bombay, languishing because the Parsi populations they catered to over the years had moved out to the suburbs, and whose only patrons now were a few office-goers. Of Parsi Anjumans in small towns across the country advertising for priests to keep their fires and little flocks of devotees going. Of a fire being shifted from an agiary in a village near Navsari called Tavri, where there were no Parsis left any more, to Napean Sea Road in Bombay where a new Parsi colony, complete with a new agiary, had been constructed. And over the years, I would also read articles about us Parsis in national and international newspapers. In each succeeding one, their estimate of the number of faithful left in India would decrease.

When the time came for me to begin work on my video documentary, I agonized over what I wanted to make it on, and reached two conclusions. One, it had to be something I had a personal stake in. And two, I wanted to document something that had not been documented before in any media. Not finding an issue I believed in intensely and passionately, I realized that the only personal connection I had was with my identity – my community, the Parsis. It was a cause I had believed in fervently in my childhood years – the greatness of the Parsis of old (and therefore, mine), their pioneering spirit, their generous acts of charity, their contribution to the growth of Bombay – a fervour that over the years had lessened considerably as I became able to see the warts as well (the emphasis on the glorious past at the cost of the present, the Anglophilia that led to the denial of Indian-ness in dress and language, the lack of ambition among the youth….). It still, however, was the only issue I had some vague concern about.

While thinking about which issues about the community I could address with my documentary, it struck me that a question which was on most Parsi minds in Bombay: “What will happen to us in the future when our numbers will be greatly reduced?” could be answered by the present in places like Davier. Davier and other villages in Gujarat being out of reach for geographical reasons due to constraints imposed on me by the norms laid down by the Institute for the exercise, I identified a few places near Pune where the situation would be similar to Davier – Solapur, Satara, Ahmednagar. Their appearance in Parsi surnames – Sholapurwalla, Satarawalla, Nagarwalla – and the presence of agiaries and Anjumans there convinced me there would have been many Parsis there, once upon a time. Unfortunately they too were a good 120 to 250 km away from Pune, and I was about to give up on the idea when I discovered that Daund, a railway junction an hour’s train ride away from Pune was called Dhond during the Raj. Dhond – Dhondy. I made the connection with the familiar Parsi surname and put my bets on Daund. It was probably because of its importance as a railway junction that Parsis had come to settle there (a lot of Parsis from my grandfather’s and his father’s generation were employed in the railways, from whence they proudly bore surnames like Driver, Guard and Engineer), and now with the decline of the Railways as an occupation of choice among the Parsis, there would be very few Parsis left there. And it was close enough to Pune to be able to stretch the norms a little bit. I was sure I would find what I wanted in Daund.

However, my efforts drew a blank. People I spoke to told me there was no record of an agiary in Daund, or even an Anjuman. No one knew if there were any Parsis left there. The only thing I could do was make a trip and find out for myself. And it could happen that I would find none there. As it was, Daund too was not within the norms and I would need a convincing argument to shoot there. After giving it great thought, I decided to make the documentary on another thought that had struck me around the same time – the little-known poverty among a significant number of Parsis.

Empty Sanitoria, Hajira Belt (c) UNESCO-Parzor

II: Nairobi

But this subject stayed with me. I was aware there were Parsis who had settled down in East Africa (among other ports both east and west of India) at the turn of the 20th century, and so when I got the opportunity to travel to Nairobi on an exchange visit, I hoped to be able to meet some of them. I had already initiated contact with Thrity, a Parsi girl in Nairobi, through the Internet, and one day, walking along Moi Avenue, a name of a shop caught my eye. J. Rustomji, it said.

Inside the shop, I met Ratan Rustomji. Ratan was old, probably in his seventies or even older. His father had come to Africa from Surat and started the shop. Ratan was born in Nairobi and had never been to India. His family had moved to UK, to Canada, but he had stayed back. He told me that there were around 700 Parsis in Nairobi at the time of Kenyan independence, but now they numbered only 20 or so, the youngest among them 60 years old. He estimated there were a few more in Mombasa, and hardly one or two in Dar-es-salaam, Zanzibar and Kampala. They used to have an agiary in Zanzibar, a club in Nairobi, a dharamsala (rest-house) in Mombasa, but all were gone now. Just the cemeteries remained.

Ratan was wrong about one thing. The youngest Parsi in Nairobi wasn’t 60, she was 30. Thrity was born in Mombasa. From her father’s side, the family has been in East Africa for generations. Her mother came here after marriage from Bombay. Thrity came to Nairobi to study and work. But she didn’t mix much with the Parsis here, she told me, though her parents had a few family friends among them. They wouldn’t like her mixing with blacks, wouldn’t like the hours she keeps, so she stayed away from them. Thrity was looking to marry. There was not much chance of finding a Parsi mate in Africa. There was one in Mombasa her parents were keen she marry but he was about 10 years older. Her options were to marry out of the community, or to marry abroad. Though she didn’t say it, I figured the first option wasn’t open to her. Marrying abroad on the other hand would mean leaving her parents alone here. Meanwhile her career was doing well, and she dreamt of being the CEO of the company where she works.

Deserted mansion decaying in Adajan village (c) UNESCO-Parzor

III: Satara

Back in India, I got busy with other workshops and exercises, and this stayed off my mind for a while. But as things got quieter and I found myself with nothing much to do, I decided to explore the subject further. Armed with the addresses of the agiary and the Anjuman in Satara that I found in an old directory of Parsis in Pune (along with the address and telephone number of almost every Parsi in Pune, it also listed the addresses of every Parsi agiary, dharamsala and Anjuman in the world), I took an ST bus one Sunday morning and set off.

The Satara agiary was easy enough to find. Even without the two plaster afargans (holy fires) adorning the gate, it had the unmistakable air of a small village agiary, with a red tiled roof and a staircase of a few steps leading to a small porch. The agiary was locked though. But tucked away beside it, amidst the trees that covered it was a small house, probably the living quarters for the priest. I knocked on the door and was welcomed in by Yazdi Tarapore.

The room inside was simply furnished. A few chairs, a table, a TV. Yazdi Tarapore too was as unassuming as the room. A simple man in his mid-forties, he was simply dressed in a shirt and trousers and prayer cap. A very ordinary man, you wouldn’t give him a second glance if you passed him on the road, his only arresting feature a nervous tic that manifested itself as a constant wink. He wasn’t from Satara though and he wasn’t a priest. He was a para-mobed, a non-priest trained in some of the duties of a priest to meet the shortage of priests in the community, and his job was to tend the fire here because no priest was ready to leave his comfortable life in Bombay and come down to dry, dusty, hot, sleepy Satara.

Yazdi seemed starved of company, and was eager to talk. Not many Parsis passed this way. In fact, there were hardly any left in Satara. Just two families – the Coopers, who owned a foundry and other businesses, and the Satarawallas, who were builders. Yazdi was employed by the Coopers to look after the fire and attend to other religious ceremonies. They visited the agiary a few times a month, the Satarawallas hardly ever due to an enmity with the Coopers. There were many Parsis here once upon a time, he told me, that’s what he’d been told. The whole street used to be full of houses belonging to Parsis, and the agiary was almost a hundred years old. There was a dokhma too, but it was lying disused now. In case of a death, the body was taken to Poona instead.

Yazdi came from Tarapore, a coastal village like Davier, north of Bombay. He didn’t complete his studies, and worked on fruit orchards owned by Irani farmers in Dahanu and Bordi. He also used to help out at the agiary in Tarapore, and that was how he came to be a para-mobed. He tells me the situation was the same in Tarapore. Hardly anyone was left there, everyone had moved to Bombay or elsewhere.

After we talked a while, Yazdi suggested we visit the agiary. He unlocked the door, and while I performed my kusti prayers, he changed into his white robes. The transformation was startling, Yazdi was a changed man. He had lost his ordinariness, and had acquired a new-found dignity. It was not the dignity that the robes conferred on whoever wore them, for I had seen many priests in my life, including high priests with long flowing white beards, none of whom had had this effect on me. This was something different, something difficult to describe in words. And when he entered the keblah and started praying, it was with the utmost dedication, each word enunciated with great devotion that filled one’s soul and moved one’s heart.

Back in his civvies, Yazdi was again his unassuming self. He talked about the little things in life that bogged him down. He would have liked to do some work to fill his time, his duties at the agiary did not take much of his time. He has asked the Coopers to give him some work at their factory, but he knew it wouldn’t be possible. He could see that the locals had great regard and respect for him due to his position as the sole Parsi priest, the pujari as they called him, and out of deference to that position, a regular job was out of the question. But he had started planting pomegranate trees on the agiary estate using drip irrigation, putting his earlier knowledge from the Irani orchards in Dahanu to good use.

More than anything else, Yazdi told me, he would like to get married and have a companion. He had made many efforts, but they had all been unfruitful. No one was ready to share with him his simple life in Satara. He knew that nobody from a city would like living in Satara, but even those from the villages wanted a more vibrant life. There was someone here in Satara who indicated she liked him. But there was nothing he could do about it because she was not a Parsi. He knew it was the trend these days to marry outside the community, he called it ‘mix masala’, so it might have been forgivable for him to do so in these liberal times. And yet it was unforgivable, given his position as care-taker of the holy fire.

And I began to understand that though he came to Satara only for a job, somewhere down the line, his work had become important to him, it imparted to his life a much-needed meaning. And maybe that was what gave him the dignity when he put on those white robes and recited his prayers. I left Satara, but the image of Yazdi and his overwhelming presence in his priestly robes and the effect of his carefully-recited words refused to leave me.

Parsi mansion in ruins, Tarapore

IV: Taking stock

After Satara, I once again got involved with other things, and other thoughts begain to occupy my mind about what to make for my diploma film. This subject, to me, was a film to be made after I finished the course. And so I began thinking about other options. One, a retelling of Farrukh Dhondy’s ‘Poona Company’ since it is set in those parts of Pune that I have explored a lot for people and locations, costumes and properties for earlier films. But I had to give that up, not only because I couldn’t obtain the author’s permission, but also because it appeared more and more to me to be a subject for a full-length feature film. Two, a personal comment on the state of the community as I saw it. But I couldn’t put a finger on what exactly what I wanted to say, and so had to abandon it. Three, a film on the Bohris, a community that fascinated me because of their similarities and differences with the Parsis. But I needed to find out more about their way of life, their culture, their issues and problems, and I just did not have enough time for that.

I also began thinking about the form of the film. I reflected that my interests tended more towards documentary and realism, and since the footage wasn’t enough to shoot a documentary, I thought of making a quasi-documentary, a documentary that’s made like it were a fiction film. I also thought of putting together a cinematic essay, but I was unable to define exactly what it would be.

With nothing really materializing into a script, I also thought of making a film that had no connection with Parsis, but again I was unable to come up with a subject that was a personal concern. And making a film just for the sake of making one was something I didn’t want to do, earlier experiences and results not being enjoyable. I thought about not making a diploma film than make one I was not interested in.

And then one day, I suddenly realized that the subject for the diploma film had been with me all along and that the constraints for the diploma film provided me with the perfect opportunity to make it. A radius of 200 km would not include the villages of Gujarat where the Parsis originally settled, but it would cover a large number of places in Maharashtra where Parsis had moved to later. Luckily for me, I found a really good reference book in Marzban Giara’s ‘Global Directory of Parsi Fire Temples’ which in addition to listing every existing agiary in the world (and those which had ceased to exist as well), gave details about where they were, how to get there, who was the panthaki (the priest in charge), what community facilities were available (like dokhmas and dharamsalas) and how many Parsis were left. In addition to Satara, Solapur and Ahmednagar, I now had Kalyan, Uran, Devlali, Igatpuri, Lonavala, Panchgani, Tarapore, Dahanu and Bordi. (Daund, though, was not mentioned.) And so, I began to research in earnest.

Inside the ruined mansion, Tarapore

V: Ahmednagar

My first stop was Ahmednagar. The agiary, again, was locked. The chasniwala (an agiary labourer) was working in the garden, and seeing me, went to fetch the key. I looked around the complex meanwhile. In addition to the agiary building, there was a community hall. Above that, there were rooms, probably the dharamsala, and behind were houses where a few families stayed, including those of the chasniwala and the priest. As Fardun, the chasniwala, unlocked the agiary doors for me, he explained they kept them locked to prevent outsiders from entering when no one was around.

Fardun was not from Nagar. He had come here two years back from Navsari to work in the agiary. Neither was the priest, Freddy Randeria. He had come from Bombay a few years back. They weren’t able to give me much information other than that there were 40-50 Parsis left in Nagar, and directed me to the Nagarwallas who were the oldest Parsi family in Nagar.

I met Zavareh Nagarwalla at the site of his ancestral wine and cement business in what must be the heart of Nagar town. It was an old building, giving testimony to the fact that it houses an old business. Zavareh, though, was young. Thirty, married to a Punjabi girl from Nagar, and had a daughter. Our conversation kept getting interrupted as customers kept coming for cheap liquor, and Zavareh took time out to maintain the ledger and manage the cash-box. He told me the family business was the reason why he had opted to stay put in Nagar. He had been working in Pune for a short while earlier, but his father could not manage the business alone, and he decided to return. He spent most of his time at the shop, from afternoon to late night, though the business, he said, only brought him a small part of his income despite all the hours he spent here. Their main income now came from investments which he managed from a small office at home during the mornings. There wasn’t much to do in Ahmednagar for young people, he told me. There was a club in the Army cantonment, and twice a week they screened films, one in Hindi and one in English. That’s about all the entertainment there was.

Zavareh was a trustee of the Ahmednagar Parsi Anjuman. He told me there were about 10-12 Parsi families in Nagar, together they would be totalling around 70, everyone included. The Anjuman had enough money and could afford to keep two priests fulltime and a chasniwala. They had recently advertised for another priest. He told me his father would be the best person to talk to about the history of the Parsis of Nagar, but he was busy with something else right then. He told me I should visit Aurangabad too, there were a few Parsis there too, and asked if I would like to meet other Parsis till his father returned. And he sent me to meet the Daruwallas (name changed on request).

The Daruwallas lived in a dilapidated house amidst a predominantly Muslim locality. It was a huge property, where many used to stay earlier, but now it lay unused and almost in ruins only housing three people – Faredun Daruwalla, his wife Yasmin and his daughter Sanaya (names changed on request). Faredun’s parents had moved to Nagar from Mumbai. His father’s sister had married into the Irani family in Nagar, and his parents had followed her here. They still had a house in Mumbai. His son stayed there now. Faredun himself had been away from Nagar for a long time, working in shipyards in the Middle East. When things didn’t work out for him there, he chose to return to Nagar. Where else will you find a climate like this, he asked me. He now dealt in real estate in Nagar, and was building a house for himself. He was looking for a suitable buyer for the property he currently lived in.

Faredun and Yasmin would be somewhere in their forties, Sanaya in her early twenties. They told me their story. The property belonged to the Iranis. They were three brothers and had been engaged in various businesses. They had had a petrol pump, a hotel, a shop and a lot of property. Some of it they had been cheated out of by partners, some property had been encroached upon. Business had slumped after Independence as what once used to be the better part of town began to be encroached upon by Muslims, the hotel began to lose money and business soon ceased. Most of the family had migrated to Bombay and abroad in search of other opportunities, others had died, now they were the only ones who remained.

Faredun took me to the dokhma. It was a vast property, it had been donated to the Anjuman by a benefactor and they had just sold a part of it to raise money for the upkeep of the agiary. On part of the land they planned to construct buildings where people from Bombay and Poona in search of a better quality of life after retirement could shift into. He asked me if I thought people would be interested, he thought they would.

Faredun showed me around the dokhmas, there were four of them, three in ruins. The sole one standing too was about a 100-150 years old. There were no vultures any more, and so they had started a small burial-ground in the premises too, for those who wished to be buried. He told me they were a progressive Anjuman that way.

Back at Zavareh’s shop, I met Zavareh’s father Behram, or Billie as everyone who used to call him. He took me home, and on the way elaborated on his family history. His ancestor had come to Nagar from Surat in 1809, accompanying the British army as a supplier of soda-water. After the British took over the Ahmednagar Fort from the Dakhani rulers, he had set up his business here, and Billie told me proudly that they still did business under the same name, Cursetji Nusserwanji & Co.

The Nagarwallas used to be a big family, he told me. There was a time when a hundred of them were staying in the same house and eating from the same kitchen. But after that, branches of the family had squabbled among themselves, taken their shares and left for other cities. Their business had collapsed due to the infighting, and his grandfather, wanting to resurrect it, had bought the goodwill from the old partners and restarted it. During Prohibition, he had diversified into cement. He repeated the same thing Zavareh had told me; the businesses now brought him only a small part of his income.

A big problem Parsis were facing in Nagar because of their dwindling numbers, he told me, was encroachment of their property. His own land had been encroached upon, and he was now fighting that in court. He told me that he had been threatened by the encroachers. What will you do, they had told him, you Parsis are so few and we are so many. In fact, the police hadn’t been willing to register his complaint, they had been paid off by the encroachers and he had had to offer them a bigger sum of money than what they had been paid before his complaint was noted.

He told me the fear of having his land being encroached upon and taken over was what was forcing Faredun to stay put in his ruined house, even though his new house was ready. Faredun couldn’t move out till he found a buyer, for the moment he vacated his house, the encroachers would move in.

I asked him about the history of the Parsis in Ahmednagar. He told me that his wife had chronicled the history of each of the families here, but he was unable to find it. Still, there were a lot of Parsi businesses here, once upon a time. The Ahmednagar Power House was Parsi-owned before it became MSEB. It employed quite a number of Parsis. There were Parsis in other nearby towns and villages too, having their own businesses or working in the sugar factories.

Billie talked about the agiary in Ahmednagar. He told me that a community needs a place of worship to keep it going. And unfortunately, in most small towns, there was a shortage of priests and funds. Luckily, Ahmednagar didn’t have such a problem. The dokhma lands that they had sold recently would take care of the agiary for another 50 years at least. And they would be getting another priest soon. He told me of other Parsi communities in Maharashtra where there were agiaries but no priests to look after them. With two priests to look after the agiary here, one of them could function as a traveling priest, catering to other places a few hours’ journey away. That was his vision, but the other trustees didn’t agree with him. They would rather keep both priests to themselves.

Library in disuse, Tarapore

VI: Kalyan

I next visited Kalyan. The address I had said Parsi Gully, but all that remained of perhaps an entire street of Parsi houses, now a Muslim ghetto, was just the agiary complex – the agiary itself and three new buildings constructed by the Bhiwandiwalla Trust to house Parsis. The name of the trust sparked another thought. I had forgotten about Bhiwandi. Here was another place to explore.

The complex looked like an old-age home. In the courtyard, retired old men sat on benches and sunned themselves and chatted or just sat silently. I asked one of them, Mr. Patel, about the history of the Parsis of Kalyan. He told me that the best person to tell me about Kalyan was Homi Sethna whose family had been in Kalyan for generations. But Homi was away on work in Bombay, like the other younger residents of Kalyan. Still he could tell me a bit of the present. Half of the flats in these buildings were lying vacant; their owners had homes in Bombay too, and only visited sometimes. Some of the tenants were among Kalyan’s old inhabitants who had sold off their houses and shifted here, others were newer migrants from Bombay. Mr. Patel himself had moved from a chawl in Lower Parel in the seventies when the building came up. There were other Parsis in Kalyan too, people who had moved from Bombay to new housing complexes being constructed in Kalyan, where the rates were cheaper. There was a dokhma too in Kalyan, but it had been abandoned, people went to Bombay now. About Bhiwandi, he had no idea. Certainly there must have been Parsis there once given the name Bhiwandiwalla, but he didn’t know about now.

The priest at the agiary was of little help. He was new there and estimated there were about 40 Parsis in Kalyan. Beyond that, there was little information he could offer me and asked me to contact one of the trustees, Firoze Bharda, who lived in Bombay.

On a later trip to Bombay, I met Homi Sethna. Homi’s family had a house in Kalyan and a liquor business. But the usual family quarrels had put an end to it, and they shifted to the Bhiwandiwalla buildings when they came up. Homi now worked with the Bombay Parsi Panchayat as a custodian of their estates.

He told me that in Kalyan and around, in other far-flung suburbs of Bombay, there were about 200 Parsis. But in Kalyan itself, there were not many. Most were old residents, there were very few people who had moved to Kalyan in recent times. There were Parsis who had bought apartments in new complexes that were coming up, but those were for investment reasons with no intention to settle down there. The buildings next to the agiary had 65 flats, but many of remained locked, their tenants living in Bombay, some visiting on weekends, some not at all. About Bhiwandi, he didn’t have much idea. There must be one or two still there, he felt, but they too probably didn’t stay there, just visiting the property or business they owned there now and then.

I asked him if there were occasions for the 200-odd community members around Kalyan to come together. He replied that there used to be many gahambars (feasts) once upon a time, but in recent years, they’ve been few and far between – just 2 or 3 in the last few years. The trustees just weren’t interested.

Agiary, repainted and restarted, Tarapore

VII: Solapur

My next stop was Solapur. Solapur surprised me. I was expecting to see crowds, chaos, congestion, confusion after my experiences with Nagar and Kalyan; instead, I found wide roads, little traffic, planned houses and little noise. The thought struck me, this was how Pune must have been when it used to be called the pensioners’ paradise, though not climate-wise. Solapur was hot and sultry.

At the agiary (which was locked, this was becoming a familiar sight), I met the Dhabhar brothers, two old priests probably in their seventies. The younger of them spoke to me. His brother was the panthaki (the chief priest), he told me, theirs was a family panthak. Their father had been the panthaki before him, and his father before that. The fire here was a dadgah (a lesser fire) but they gave it the due of an adaran, performing the boi ceremony during all 5 stages of a day. Due to their advancing age and ill-health, they couldn’t perform other ceremonies, priests had to be called from other cities for them.

They lived in a ramshackle building opposite the agiary, the priests’ residential quarters. It was badly in need of repair, but the Anjuman didn’t have funds. Their room was holding up, but another one was in bad shape. The dharamsala, also in the agiary complex, was in a similar state, and had been shut down. One room was in an okay shape, and a cousin of theirs lived there. Solapur had a dohkma too, but that was now converted into an aramgah (a burial ground). To raise funds, the Anjuman had constructed shops on the boundary wall and let them out, but the rent hadn’t been raised in years, and a few shopkeepers had defaulted on that too.

There were many Parsis in Solapur once upon a time, the younger brother told me, working in the mills that used to dot Solapur and in the Railways. But when the mills started shutting down, opportunities in Solapur had dried up. About 70 Parsis remained now. Most of them were retired, a few were in business. I should meet Philly Lal, he told me. He owned a wine-shop near the agiary, and was also a trustee. He would be able to tell me more.

The agiary gardener who took me to the Lal house pointed out a shopping complex and told me the Lals used to own all that land once. A signboard announced Lal in big bold letters over a country liquor shop. Behind it was the Lal residence.

Philly Lal was 40 or so. He was married, his wife was Parsi. But she was not from Solapur, she came from Valsad in Gujarat. They had a son who was 13. His successful family business, he told me, was what made him stay back in Solapur. The wine shop was an ancestral occupation, and it enjoyed immense goodwill among the populace. He could, if he wanted to, transfer his license to Pune, and set up shop there, but he would then have to begin from scratch, probably in not so prime a locality. It didn’t make economic sense to shift just for a better lifestyle.

The biggest problem Parsis were having in Solapur was finding a mate for their young men. Girls just weren’t ready to move to Solapur, they preferred the ‘hi-fi’ life of Bombay and Poona instead. Philly told me of his cousin who was finding it especially hard to find a Parsi wife.

Another problem they had was a shortage of funds. The priests here had become old and couldn’t perform all the ceremonies the community required. Priests had to be called from Bombay or Poona for navjots, weddings, funerals or jashans. The Anjuman couldn’t afford to attract a full-time priest from Bombay. After all, they just couldn’t retire the two priests who had served them for so long, and would have to continue to provide for them, even if a new priest was brought in.

Most of the Parsis in Solapur were people retired from the mills or the railway. Some had their own houses, some stayed at an Anjuman Trust property called the Boyce Buildings. There were three families into business, the Lals themselves, the Iranis who ran Goodluck Stores and the Darukhanawalas who owned a petrol pump. I met Mr. Darukhanawala next at his petrol pump, Naval & Co. He was 70, his son helped him out with the business. And because of the business, he had never thought of moving out. He didn’t see much of a future for the community in Solapur. The retired people were carrying on on pensions or had started small businesses like a Xerox shop or ice-cream shop. It didn’t bring them much income, it was more of a way of spending their time. After they die, it would be just the three families in business that would remain.

It was late evening by the time I made my way to the Boyce buildings. It looked like any Parsi Trust building you find in Bombay or Poona, but for the absence of children playing in the compound. A power cut was on, and a veil of darkness was descending upon it. Outside the compound, a Parsi man sat at his ice-cream shop waiting for customers. I didn’t feel he would be able to add anything to what I already knew, it was the wrong time to meet people anyway, and I decided to go back to the railway station.

Tower of Silence in ruins, Tarapore

VIII: Daund

All this while, Daund had continued to play on my mind. Even if there was nobody there now, I hoped to meet somebody who had spent his life in Daund. In Nagar, Billie Nagarwalla had seemed abreast of community affairs in other small towns of Maharashtra and I had asked him if he knew there was still anybody left in Daund. He hadn’t thought so, but I thought of calling him up and finding out if he knew anybody who had stayed in Daund. I also remembered that Dr. Jabbar Patel hailed from Daund, he might be able to tell me about the Parsis there. Hopeful of Daund once more, I remembered that I had seen an address in Daund in the Poona Parsi Directory. I looked it up again. Abadan Irani, Honey Cottage, Daund, it said, and gave an office address as well: Bank of Maharashtra, Daund. On a whim, I checked for an online telephone directory for Daund and found one! I typed in Irani and got not one but two entries. Abadan Irani and Kekobad Irani. I had got lucky.

At Daund station, I called up the number I had for Abadan Irani. A Maharashtrian voice answered. Though the phone and flat belonged to Abadan Irani, he didn’t stay there, she told me, and I could find him at his mother’s house. Her number, incidentally turned out to be the same that I had for Kekobad Irani. When I called up, I found that Abadan had migrated to New Zealand and Kekobad was away in Pune for the day, and would return in the evening. I fixed up to meet Mrs. Irani at 5.

Having time to kill, I explored Daund. It looked like a Maharashtrian version of Malgudi to me, a village that had grown into a small town. I looked around for traces of Parsi life and culture – a shop, a house, a plaque – but could find nothing. There was a big railway settlement though of small, old-style houses. I assumed that most of the Parsis would be staying there.

Mrs. Irani’s house was new, and in a newer part of town, an extension that would have come up only in the last 20 years. It was a big house with a big yard of coconut trees. But one look at Mrs. Irani and you wouldn’t think her to be the mistress of the house. She was a wizened old lady, short and thin, dressed very simply. In a city like Bombay, I would have mistaken her to be one of those poor Parsis who were forced to beg outside the agiaries. She told me she was from Iran, and spoke in a mixture of broken Gujarati and Hindi with some words of Farsi thrown in too. She was born in Zainabad in Iran, and came to India to marry. Her husband’s family was from Shahabad, where they farmed the land they owned. She had moved to Daund only nine years back. Her son, Abadan, used to work in a bank here and had become friendly with a Parsi family here. He had arranged a match for his brother Kekobad with their daughter. Kekobad had built this house. Around the time of his marriage, her husband had died and she had moved here.

Kekobad didn’t stay here, he was only visiting for a month. He was an automobile engineer and had migrated to Canada. Before that, he was in the Gulf. Mrs. Irani stayed alone in the big house. She didn’t trust the locals and kept herself locked in. She was used to a life like this, she told me. In Shahabad, life was the same. Their fields were away in the jungle, and her dogs and chickens kept her company like here now. A servant came everyday; she was her only contact and brought her supplies. Her sons’ friends would greet her when they passed by, and she would greet them back. That was her social life.

I asked her about Shahabad. What was the situation of the Parsi community there now? There used to be Parsis in Shahabad and Wadi, she told me. They even had an aramgah there. But now there were very few left. Her brother-in-law’s son took care of their property there now. He was the only one left, she said. His family stayed in Bombay and he was waiting to sell off their property and join his family there.

I asked about her son’s in-laws. Did they still stay in Daund? No, she said, they had shifted to Pune four years back. Did she have their address? She didn’t but she knew they stayed in the new Parsi colony built next to the dokhmas. I could find them there. His name was Percy Driver. She was the only Parsi left in Daund.

On my return to Pune, I went to meet the Drivers. Percy Driver was in his sixties, his left side paralysed after a stroke. He had recovered enough though to move about in the house unaided, dragging the left half of his body with his right. Just gripping one end of his kusti with his left hand, he managed to tie it three times around his waist by using his right hand. He told me that he had been born in Daund. His father too had been in the railways, and also his grand-father who had been a fireman in Igatpuri. There were many Parsis here during his father’s time, all of them working for the railways. Most of them stayed in quarters provided by the railways, some of them like his father had built houses of their own. By the time he joined the railways as a driver and moved to Daund after an initial posting in Solapur though, there were very few left.

He had three daughters. All were married now, two of them in Canada and one in Poona who stayed in a neighbouring building. It was tough for them in their college days to commute to Poona or Solapur daily for their studies, but they had managed. They would keep suggesting the family move to Poona but they didn’t have the money for that. When he had got his first paralytic stroke, he had taken voluntary retirement though he had a few years left. Five years after that, he suffered a second stroke. They had to commute to Poona almost every other day for treatment, and that’s when they decided to move out. They applied for a house at the new colony being built, and when that came through, they shifted. He still kept the house in Daund though. His daughter went now and then to pay the taxes. It was a small house, it used to have a tiled roof which they had replaced with tin. It was in Shalimar Chowk. His aunt’s family owned houses next to it but they had sold it off. An apartment complex was coming upon it now.

I asked him about community life in Daund. He told me they didn’t have anything there. No agiary, no dokhma, they would have to come to Poona for all that. There was a burial ground for babies though. He didn’t know what had happened to that. There was a man who was taking care of it. He presumed that it had been disposed off now. His wife asked me if I knew Dr. Jabbar Patel, considering I was in films too. Her children had studied with him, she told me. As an afterthought, she asked if I had met Homi Dupetawala there. He was one Parsi who still lived in Daund, and happened to be a tenant of Dr. Patel. He found it cheaper to stay there, they told me, the rent was just 20 rupees a month. He used to work in the docks in Bombay, but after a few problems had returned to Daund. He lived in Shalimar Chowk too. I still had work left to do in Daund!

Renovated Dharamsala, Tarapore

IX: Uran

Next on my itinerary was Mora Bunder at Uran, a small fishing village across the harbour from Bombay. The agiary wasn’t far from the jetty, and as I walked towards it I saw a couple of houses that looked unmistakably Parsi. Again, I found the agiary locked. Going around to the back, in one of the buildings in the complex, I met Kersi Sui.

Kersi Sui was the only Parsi left in Uran. He looked after the agiary, though he was not a priest. He told me how he came about this. His parents had come to Uran from Navsari to manage the sanatorium in the agiary complex. The agiary fire was a dadgah, and therefore laymen could tend it too. So whenever the priest had to go to his home-town, he entrusted the fire in their care. The trustees didn’t have enough funds, and neither the Suis nor the priest drew much of a salary. When the priest quit, no one was ready to work for the pittance offered. Rather than let the fire die out, Kersi began to look after it.

It was quite a struggle, he told me. The original trustees couldn’t spare the time to manage the agiary and had handed over the trust to the trustee of the Bhiwandiwalla Trust who also managed the agiary in Kalyan. Kersi had gone to meet him to discuss the future of the agiary. He was told categorically by the Bhiwandiwallas that the original trustees had not left enough funds to look after the upkeep of the whole premises. But, at the very least, they would make sure of a regular supply of wood for the fire. After his death though, even that dried up, and Kersi had to put out constant appeals for funds to the Parsi public.

Kersi didn’t know much about the history of the Parsis in Uran. The agiary was a 100 years old, so around that time there must have been enough Parsis. He didn’t know what occupations they were involved in, they probably owned land here or were in the liquor trade. With World War II, the Government took over a lot of land to set up a naval station (the dokhma lands now belonged to the naval station), and Prohibition also would have wound up businesses. Land then was very cheap, and after moving to Bombay, the residents wouldn’t have thought twice about it, and the care-takers who had been entrusted to take care of the houses, slowly started grabbing them.

There were not many Parsis in Uran when Kersi was growing up (none of the original residents remained, just their houses remained vacant, slowly getting encroached one after the other). Most of them were those who were employed with Grindwell Norton in its factory next door. Norton used to be Parsi-owned, he told me, and had many Parsis in its employ. Now, the company was in Maharashtrian hands, and had just two Parsi employees in Uran. One of them stayed here, the other had moved to Vashi. Till a few years back, Kersi and his mother were the only permanent Parsi residents. Now after his mother’s death, he was the only one.

More than anything, Kersi bemoaned the loss of property through carelessness. None of the legal heirs to the Parsi properties here had papers to the houses. He claimed the navy was ready to hand over the dokhma if they could prove ownership. But no one knew where the original title deeds were. The agiary lands would have been encroached too if he hadn’t stayed around.

Kersi was 52, but looked 40. He used to run tuition classes for a living. Now he left it to others to manage, just going there in the evenings. He was married, but his family didn’t want to stay in Uran. They stayed at Vashi, with his wife’s parents. Now she wanted to move to Canada, he told me. I asked him if he decided to do that, what would the future of the agiary be? He wasn’t too worried about that. Someone from his family, one of his brothers, would pitch in. This was where they had grown up after all.

Locked-up Parsi mansion, Tarapore

X: Devlali & Igatpuri

I next visited Devlali. An old British cantonment, I hadn’t expected to find many Parsis there. But a visit to the agiary proved me wrong. The priest told me there were about 300-350 Parsis in Devlali and Nasik, split more or less equally between the two towns. The population too had remained more or less constant all these years. It would have been interesting to research more into this phenomenon, but since it wasn’t the story I was looking for this film, I left it for another day.

In Devlali, I also met Lt. Dinsha Bhadha, a young army lieutenant who was undergoing training at the Artillery Centre. Dinsha’s father was a Parsi, but his mother was Maharashtrian. Dinsha hailed from Belgaum, and told me I should visit it too. There was an agiary there, but very few Parsis were left there now. Most were middle-aged and unmarried. Anyway, not finding what I wanted in Devlali, I carried on to Igatpuri.

In Igatpuri, I didn’t find anything that I hadn’t encountered at other places. The priest’s wife, who I met at the agiary, told me there were hardly any Parsis left now. Just one or two Irani families, who ran the canteen at the railway station. People from Bombay had bought land here and built houses, which they visited sometimes. When she had newly married and come here, there were more. And her mother-in-law kept telling her about when Igatpuri was full of Parsis and Englishmen, because of the Railways.

Her husband was managing to pull the agiary along, she told me, though the dharamsala next door was being kept shut. She didn’t face any problem being a Parsi here. There was a water problem in Igatpuri, and she allowed them the use of water from the agiary well. People had respect for them and left them alone.

Parsi house of recent vintage, Tarapore

XI: Aurangabad

There was no agiary in Aurangabad, but I knew that Mehernaaz, someone I used to know in Bangalore, had married into a Parsi family in Aurangabad. I located her address from a friend and got in touch with her. Mehernaaz was in her late 20’s. She had come to Auranagabad seven years back. One of the few people who had bucked the trend of marrying into a small town from a big city, I asked her how she found the change. She replied she had got used to it now. You never like it, she told me, but after a while you don’t mind it.

She introduced me to her father-in-law. Firoze Nariman had a deep interest in community affairs and told me it was inevitable that Parsis would die out soon. He told me of a letter he had written to a Parsi magazine on the issue. It won’t be too long, he had written, before a tourist guide takes people around Kemps Corner in Bombay and points out the Towers of Silence, saying “Once upon a time there was a community called the Parsis.”

He told me that most of the Parsi settlers in the Deccan had come from Gujarat. They were mainly Government contractors, in service of the British, or of the local princes. Parsis were a submissive community, he elaborated, and made loyal employees. I asked him about his own family. He told me his father had settled down in Jalna from Navsari. His father had been posted there by the company he worked for. Following a disagreement, he quit and set up his own business. Firoze had expanded it later on and moved to Aurangabad in the 60’s, setting up an agency for Godrej.

I asked him about Jalna. What was the situation there? He told me Jalna used to be a much bigger town than Aurangabad. It was a trading center, and there used to be many Parsis there. The Jalnawallas used to be the biggest family there. There were more than a hundred of them staying together at one time, and the agiary in Jalna belonged to them. In fact, it was their private agiary, the entrance to it used to be from their home. The Jalnawalla family owned several cotton ginning mills in Jalna, Aurangabad and various nearby towns. But over time, they had dispersed to other cities and to other professions. Now, there were just two old ladies left in Jalna, both in their 80’s. The agiary had been long shut.

Mehernaaz later took me to meet the Printers. We met them at their old hotel, behind their petrol pump. Four Printers spread across two generations, Jangoo and his brother Rumi and their children Burzin and Sanaya, told me their story. Their father had come to Aurangabad from Gujarat (they did not remember which place) in 1907. Starting with a kerosene depot, he began dealing in petrol and started Aurangabad’s first petrol pump in the 1930’s (before that, he used to sell petrol in cans).

There were Parsi families in Aurangabad before them. The Davers must be the oldest ones. They had a contract with the British Government to transport post from Nandgaon to other places in the Deccan. There were no Davers in Aurangabad now. Their old bungalow was in ruins, and heirs were squabbling over the property.

There were about 50 Parsis in Aurangabad, the number had remained more or less constant all these years. Three families accounted for about half of them – the Printers, the Narimans and the Jalnawallas. As people left from Aurangabad, others had come in, from Jalna and other small towns in Maharashtra. There was a time, Rumi Printer told me, when you would find a Parsi family in smaller towns around Aurangabad. They owned cinema theatres and other small businesses. None were left now though.

They had a dokhma in Aurangabad, but no agiary. They had formed an association to manage the dokhma, but constant bickering had put an end to it. The dokhma wasn’t used now, they went to Poona for funeral ceremonies. The dokhma lands were now being encroached upon, but there was nothing the community could do about it because of lack of unity. That was also the reason they hardly met as a community on auspicious occasions.

The biggest problem they faced was the lack of an agiary, or to put it more accurately, a priest. Priests had to be called from Bombay and Poona to perform ceremonies, and they generally wanted to return as soon as possible. If the agiary in Jalna had still been functioning, they wouldn’t be having much of a problem.

Abandoned household well, Tarapore

XII: Tarapore

I got the most emphatic answer to what could be the future of the Parsis in India a hundred years hence in Tarapore. The agiary was freshly painted and the sounds of prayer emanated from its walls. But next to it a building was in ruins. Inside the agiary, the priest, Percy Bhadha, elaborated on the state of affairs. Percy had come to Tarapore 5 years back for the simple reason that he did not have a house to stay in Bombay. Tired of moving from sanatorium to sanatorium, he had taken up this opportunity. The chasniwala, Minoo, was here for similar reasons. He too didn’t have a place to stay in Bombay and had come 8 months back.

Percy told me the street the agiary stood in was called Parsi Wad. Once all the houses here were Parsi homes. Now, some buildings were in ruins. Some had been sold at cheap rates to local residents. And some had just been encroached upon and taken over. He told me about a building opposite the agiary. It had been allowed to fall in ruins. He didn’t know about the owner’s whereabouts. The Shiv Sena had claimed it for itself, painting its name on the façade. Next to the ruined house was a newly built wedding hall. He told me that the Parsi owners had sold it off at a cheap rate, and the enterprising buyer had constructed the hall. He was now earning handsome returns on the meagre investment. He told me of another house further down the street. The new buyer had divided it into four units and was renting them out at 700 a month. Why couldn’t the previous owners have shown such enterprise? He complained that Parsis were simply not interested in putting the property to good use, preferring to sell it off at cheap rates since it was already going waste. The houses around the agiary too had been sold off. At least, the owners should have had the sense to sell them to Parsis. How could there be an agiary with not a single Parsi house around?

There was a library, but there were no funds to maintain it. It had been lying shut for years, though it housed some very rare and valuable books. It was in danger of being encroached upon. Already some of the land belonging to the agiary was being claimed by someone else. They put up boards saying it was private property, but someone kept removing it. There was a dharamsala too which was now being repaired and renovated. It had an external toilet block, which was being replaced by attached toilets to attract weekend visitors from Bombay. Percy was in charge of the dharamsala as well and stayed there with his mother. He was not married.

There were dokhmas as well, he was told there were four, but he had only been able to see three. He didn’t know the whereabouts of the fourth one. All of them were lying in disrepair. They hadn’t used them for more than 30 years. He suggested I make a trip and take a look at them. They were about 2 km away from the village in the brush jungle.

I asked him about the current state of the community in Tarapore. He told me in Tarapore proper there was hardly anyone left. But there were Parsis, mainly Iranis, in other nearby towns and villages like Palghar, Boisar, Vangaon who owned vadis (orchards). But even they were not many. Not like Dahanu, which was a flourishing community of Irani chikoo farmers. He told me they had had a gahambar a month back to celebrate the anniversary of the dharamsala and 200 Parsis had turned up from the surrounding areas, some even from Bombay, to partake in the feast.

I asked him if he knew the history of the Parsi community here. He recommended I meet Dhunmai who was 80 years old, and the oldest living Parsi resident of Tarapore. She would be able to tell me lots. And in Bombay I could meet Palanji Dastur who was from Tarapore and used to serve as the agiary’s priest earlier. There was also Parzon Zend who was a trustee of the agiary, a young chap with a lot of enthusiasm to change the conditions in Tarapore. They would tell me more.

I asked about the present Parsi inhabitants. Was there anyone else I could meet? There was a Mr. Hiramanek, but he was a recent immigrant from Bombay who had set up home here after retirement. And there was Mehroo Tarapore. She used to live here, but all her daughters were married in Bombay, and she spent more time there now, visiting Tarapore a few days each month. The others were living on their farms some kilometers away.

I asked Percy about the general situation in Tarapore. He told me that though Boisar 7 km away had become urbanized, Tarapore was still very much a village, though it too was enjoying the fruits of modernisation. There was a fishing community, and the other major occupation was die-making and metal-cutting for the jewellery industry. That had caught on in a big way in recent years, and almost every house was a small-scale die-making unit. The local trains from Bombay were going to ply till Dahanu soon, and development would only increase, and property prices were likely to rise.

I next visited Dhunmai Tarapore. She was 80, unmarried. This was her father’s house, and she lived all alone. Her brothers had all moved out of Tarapore. Their children kept asking her to shift to Bombay and live with them, but she said she didn’t like Bombay and preferred to stay put in Tarapore. She had rented out part of the house to a local family for 600 a month. It took care of her needs, and they helped her out if needed.

The house was a two-storey structure, partitioned in two. She didn’t use the upper storey any more. The block next to her also belonged to relatives of theirs but they didn’t seem interested in its upkeep. Three years ago, there were floods in Tarapore, and an adivasi family had sought refuge on the porch next door. They hadn’t moved out after that. Probably her presence was what prevented them from encroaching upon the whole house. The house opposite hers lay empty too. The owners were in Bombay, and kept the house only as a symbol of their ancestors. They hardly ever visited it. Other Parsi houses in the mohalla were in a similar situation. They remained locked for years, their owners not caring for them. Then, villagers would use their porches for their purposes and end up taking over the property.

Dhunmai’s family had land a few miles away in the jungles near Dahanu. Most families owned land, she told me. The menfolk would be away four months of the year in the fields, the women and children would remain in Tarapore. But with the advent of the ‘land to the tiller’ movement, they had to give up most of their lands. Their land was in the hands of the adivasis now.

Dhunmai told me the decline of Tarapore started in the 1930’s. There were many Parsis then, but they slowly started leaving for Bombay. She had had six brothers and all but one had moved out.

I asked her how it was now. She was philosophical about it. She had lived her life now, and was only counting days. The villagers treated her with respect. She was in reasonably good health, though she couldn’t go out much because she feared collapsing in the middle of the road. Percy’s mother at the dharamsala often invited her over, but she couldn’t go much. Sometimes, Mehroo Tarapore visited her when she came to Tarapore. Nephews and nieces called from time to time, or she called them up. Sometimes they visited her for a day. She had left instructions with her tenants to contact the dharamsala if anything happened to her. They would contact her relatives. I asked her if she was able to go to the agiary. She pointed to her altar, where a small fire burnt in front of a picture of Zarathustra. Her agiary was right there.

She invited me to share her lunch. She still cooked by herself, and over lunch, she gossiped about Tarapore: about Minoo, the chasniwala, who was related to her (he had married her niece) and what a rogue he was; about Yazdi Tarapore who I had met earlier in Satara, who apparently had performed a navjot of a non-Parsi; about Phiroze Tarapore, who owned the house opposite hers and rarely visited it, who was also a Trustee of the agiary but was completely ineffective.

In the afternoon, I went to meet Mr. Hiramanek. His house was a new construction, in contrast to the old crumbling Parsi houses I had been seeing. Mr. Hiramanek was not an original Tarapore resident, but had moved here after retirement from Bombay. He told me he had always liked the village life. He had often come here in his youth with friends, they all had a liking for fresh toddy. So he had bought some land here and built a house. He spent most of his time here, but also made regular trips to Bombay. His wife continued to stay there with their daughter. Another daughter was in the US.

He didn’t know much about Tarapore’s history. He suggested I meet Mehroo Tarapore too, since I had already met with Dhunmai and Percy. He could also introduce me to a couple of his friends who owned vadis nearby, if I needed more information. I asked him how he spent his life here. He told me he had an interest in gardening, and otherwise watched TV. There wasn’t much else you could do here, but he didn’t want to do much else either. He was quite satisfied with this quiet, peaceful life.

Mehroo Tarapore’s house was a typical small village house, not like Dhunmai’s or Phiroze Tarapore’s which were big buildings that must have housed large land-owning families. Unfortunately for me, Mehroo wasn’t interested in talking to me. She reluctantly allowed me to take pictures of her house from outside, and I left, hoping to find her in a better mood on another visit.

By this time, I was convinced that Tarapore was the place where I wanted to shoot, no other place I had visited had had this impression on me, and I decided to go take a look at the dokhmas. It was a 2 km walk to the neighbouring village where the dokhmas were, and I almost got lost in a maze of jungle scrub and deserted fields, before I met a couple of farmers who put me back on the right track.

I first came across the ruins of a small dokhma. It was a small structure, similar in size to the dokhma I had seen in Nagar, much smaller than the dokhmas I had seen in Bombay. The structure was crumbling, there were huge cracks and gaps in the wall, and it had been completely overrun with scrub. A group of village boys were in the area hunting for rabbits. They told me there was another similar one in a clump of trees nearby, and a little further away there was a newer one, more or less intact.

They took me there. This dokhma was bigger and more recent, similar to the dokhmas of Bombay. But it too was in a sorry condition. The door to it had been forced upon, probably by the youth of nearby villages, once it had fallen into neglect by the community, curious to see what was inside. The village boys I was with told me you could see a couple of skeletons inside. The stone outside on which the body was laid for final respects before it was taken inside, had scrub growing around it.

I climbed up into the dokhma to take my first look at the insides of one. I had seen models of one before, and tried to match what I saw with what I knew about it. The three concentric steps where bodies of men, women and children were laid out respectively could barely be made out, they were completely overrun with weeds. The central pit was visible though, but still full of weeds. No skeletons were to be seen though. My local guides were disappointed. They told me they had probably decomposed.

I looked around the dokhma property. There were two bunglis, prayer rooms where the last rites were performed. The doors again had been forced upon, and inside these places of prayer and ritual had been completely vandalized. Obscene graffiti covered the walls completely. The only sign that these places were where the Parsis bid farewell to their departed dead were the commemorative marble plaques in Gujarati telling who built the buildings in whose memory and when.

As I made my way out of the gate which I had missed when finding my way here, I noticed there was no gate left. Just two crumbling gateposts, where iron gates must have swung once upon a time, but which, no doubt, had been carried away to get their value in scrap.

Dhunmai Tarapore, the sole permanent Parsi resident left in Tarapore

XIII: Tarapore (cont'd)

Back in Bombay, I went to meet Pallanji Dastur, who had been referred to me by Percy Bhadha. Pallanji was the panthaki at the Jijibhoy Dadabhoy Agiary in Colaba. He was from Tarapore, he had grown up there. His father had moved there from Udvada to become the panthaki at the agiary, and Pallanji had stayed in Tarapore till 1965, before moving to Bombay. He told me that there were still many Parsis left in Tarapore then.

He showed me an article he had written about Tarapore for a Parsi newspaper. It was tilted ‘A history of Tarapore’ and had been printed a few years back. “In 1881, there was a population of 2939 in Tarapore of which 2124 were Hindus, 397 Muslims, 366 Parsis and only 52 Christians,” it said. “At present, the population has increased 3 or 4 folds, whereas it is sad our Parsis have decreased and decreased drastically. Today there are only half a dozen Parsis left in Tarapore.”

I asked him when Parsis would have come to Tarapore. He told me it was hard to say, but definitely, Parsis had been in Tarapore for at least five hundred years. The agiary had been established in 1820, and the dokhmas were even older.

I asked him what Tarapore was like in the days of his youth. He told me that the elders of the community controlled the affairs then, and refused to give the youth any say in matters. The youth then had got together and built the dharamsala in 1950. The Viccaji Meherji family was the grandest family in Tarapore. Their house had a secret tunnel which led to the Portuguese fort in one direction and to somewhere near Boisar station in another direction. It was probably built to escape from attacks by pirates. He had been in it in his youth. Part of it was in ruins then, and they had had to turn back.

He couldn’t explain the decline. His generation, though they had moved to Bombay for work, regularly kept visiting their families in Tarapore. As the older people died, there was less and less reason to go there, and houses were allowed to get decrepit. The agiary itself had had to be closed down for a few years for want of someone to take care of it. He and other trustees had managed to revive it, and he had convinced Percy to take up the responsibility. He believed the agiary had great power, and even when it was shut he would go to it every year on the anniversary of its establishment and perform a jashan there.

I also met Parzon Zend in Bombay. His family had land in Boisar and Vangaon which he managed, but they did not belong to Tarapore. He had taken up the trusteeship of the agiary recently and was very enthusiastic about his position. He was working towards getting the dharamsala in shape and was hoping to attract regular visitors from Bombay. He told me he was also the trustee of the Tithal Anjuman near Valsad. There also the condition of the community was in quite a bad state.

He told me that Parsis were nomads. Right from the beginning, when they were nomadic shepherds on the steppes on Central Asia, they went wherever the grass was greener. From Iran to Gujarat, from Gujarat to Bombay and now from Bombay to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

I questioned him about the state of the community property in Tarapore. He told me that he believed than India had been good to us. And that if we couldn’t make use of the land any more, then rather than allow it to fall into disuse and neglect, we should give it back.

While we were talking at his family wine store at Crawford Market, his uncle was listening to us while minding the till. He asked me if in the course of my research I had been to Sangli and Miraj. I told him I hadn’t, I didn’t know that there were Parsis there. He told me they were from Miraj, but now that they had moved to Bombay, no Parsis remained there. Their cousins though still continued to live and do business in Sangli. They had never been a large community in these places. Mainly it was just their family, so there were no community institutions there, just their businesses. They had moved there from Poona, he told me, to expand their business. I had thoughts of visiting Sangli to get to know their story but since Tarapore was now the story I was most interested in, like Homi Dupetawala and Daund, it remained unfinished business.

Dhunmai Tarapore's house, Tarapore

XIV: Karjat

I next went to Karjat to meet Meher Mistry, but at the back of my mind I was also interested in knowing the history of the Parsis there. I knew there was a Parsi burial ground and a lot of personal Parsi property from the days of the Raj in Matheran a few kilometres away in the hills, so there was a chance Karjat too would be a place where Parsis had settled in some numbers.

Meher Mistry was a historian. She was researching the history of Parsi settlements in Gujarat especially Bharuch, Ankleshwar and Khambhat for her Ph.D. She had already done a lot of fieldwork in these places for a book written by her guide, and I thought she would be able to help me about the early history of Tarapore.

Meher told me that comparing the situation in Tarapore today to that of Bombay in the future might not be tenable since Tarapore was rural while Bombay was urban. I could compare it though with the present situation in Bharuch. Bharuch was the first Parsi urban settlement, even older than Bombay and Surat. It used to be a large centre for the cotton-weaving industry, before the mills in Manchester put an end to it. Even after that, it continued to flourish as a hub for exporting cotton to England, and cotton ginning mills were set up by the dozen. However, once the port silted up, the importance of Bharuch waned and Surat emerged as the next big city in south Gujarat.

Meher herself was from Bharuch. She had been born there and did her schooling there too. She had moved to Bombay for her college education and had got married here. She told me there were once thousands of Parsis in Bharuch, but now there were only around 200. Most of them were old people, the youngsters invariably moved out for better prospects to Bombay, Baroda or Surat. Bharuch had 7 agiaries for its 200 odd people now.

I asked her about the situation in Ankleshwar and Khambhat. Ankleshwar still had a few Parsis, she told me, maybe about 30-40. Khambhat though had only one family left. She told me there were villages in Gujarat with just one or two Parsis. In one village, she told me, there was an agiary but no Parsis left. A Hindu would open the agiary for visitors.

I asked her about the history of Tarapore. She hadn’t researched into it, but she guessed it was an old settlement. Definitely five hundred years, as Pallanji Dastur had told me, but it could also be much more, dating almost to the time of the first Parsi settlement in Sanjan. She told me that there were records which showed that Parsis had settled down in Thana and Chaul very early on, and it was quite likely that the settlement in Tarapore too had been set up then. Most of the early exploration of new settlements was by sea, and since Tarapore was in such close proximity, it was quite likely that Parsis had been in Tarapore for many centuries.

I asked her about Karjat. Was it also an old settlement? She replied that most of the Parsis in Karjat were recent immigrants, though records at the talati’s office show that Parsis owned land here a hundred years back. Her family had moved here a year back from Bombay. Her husband preferred the natural beauty of Karjat to the crowds of Bombay. Other Parsis in Karjat had farms, and one, a very old resident, used to be a cinema exhibitor, setting up tents in villages and projecting films. Another recent young immigrant was an Irani who had set up a bakery here. His wife was from Palghar, quite close to Tarapore, and Meher though she might be able to tell me more. But it was not possible that day, and Meher gave me their telephone number to contact them later.

Meher took me to meet Rustom Taraporewala, who had a farm in Karjat. Rustom was from Tarapore, his wife from Nagar. He had left Tarapore in the 70’s. There were still Parsis there then, he told me. And those who had left for Bombay for work would make regular visits home, especially on occasions like Navroz or for gahambars or in vacations.

Rustom had sold off his house in Tarapore a few years back. They did not have much land there, and so he had moved to Bombay for work. Luckily, he got a job looking after the farm of another Parsi in Karjat and had moved here. Gradually, he took up the management of more farms and was finally able to buy some land and start his own farm. He still looked after farms for others too. His son, Kaizad, was interested in agriculture too and helped him with the farms.

Inside Dhunmai Tarapore's house, Tarapore

XV: Dahanu & Bordi

Since I had more or less decided I wanted to shoot in Tarapore, I thought it was a good idea to also check out the situation in Dahanu and Bordi, which were not too far away from Tarapore. At the Dahanu agiary, I met the panthaki, Behram Patel. He told me he had moved to Dahanu 17 years back from Bombay. That time there were a thousand Parsis here, mainly Irani farmers owning chikoo wadis. Now that number had reduced to about 600. A lot of migration had taken place, not only to Bombay but also abroad. Many wadis had been sold too. Most of the population were in their 40’s and above. Young people generally went to Bombay for college after doing their schooling here. Dahanu was a well-off community, he told me. Most of them had farms and bungalows. They regularly had gahambars where people from neighbouring villages were invited.

I asked him about community facilities. Did they have a dokhma? Dahanu had none, he told me. But there was one in a village called Govada some kilometres away, that was shared by the residents of Dahanu, Gholvad, Bordi and Davier. They also used the dokhmas in Bombay, and recently they had started an aramgah in Dahanu itself. There was also a sanatorium near the sea which attracted holidayers from Bombay.

In Bordi, I met Dasturji Sena at the agiary. He told me in Bordi and Gholvad, there were about a hundred Parsis. In Bordi itself, there must be about 35-40. He himself had been in Bordi for only five years. He was originally from Navsari, but had worked in Bombay before coming here. Most of the residents had farms. Opposite the agiary was a resort owned by a Parsi, Pervez Dastur. He was praying in the agiary and I could meet him later.

I had seen a building next to the agiary and inquired if that was the dharamsala. He told me it was not. Flats had been constructed for the use of Parsis by the agiary Trust on their excess land. But they were all locked up, their tenants away in Bombay. Some of the locks, he told me, must have rusted away. They had been lying closed for so long.

I asked him about Zai, a neighbouring village, which was often taken in the same breath as Bordi and which had given its name to the Parsi surname Zaiwalla. Parsis may have land there, he told me, but he didn’t think anyone stayed there any more. I asked him if there was a dokhma. He too told me about the one in Govada. It was still in use, he told me, it had not been abandoned. I asked him if there were Parsis in Govada. There weren’t, he replied, but there were still some left in Davier. In fact, he told me, Davier had an agiary too, but it didn’t have a priest. An old couple used to look after it. There must be less than 10 Parsis left in Davier.

I asked him since Davier wasn’t too far away, couldn’t he also look after the fire in Davier. He told me the President of the Davier Anjuman had approached him for that, but he couldn’t take up the responsibility of two agiaries. His children lived in Bombay and Surat and he often took time off to go visit them, which would not be possible if he had to look after both. Here in Bordi he shared his duties with another priest, they took turns tending the fire on alternate days. But the other priest was old and couldn’t be expected to share the task of looking after the fire in Davier too.

Pervez Dastur too spoke to me about Bordi, but he didn’t have anything to add to what Dasturji Sena told me. He too wasn’t from Bordi but had spent close to 25 years there. He didn’t know much about Bordi’s early history, and said I could meet some of the older residents. They would tell me more.

I looked around Bordi before I left. I saw a sanatorium which Dasturji Sena told me was going full. And I saw many houses that must have once belonged to Parsis, the style was unmistakable. But the gate-posts now announced names of new owners, not Parsi. In Gholvad too, which I passed on my way to the station, I saw pretty much the same sight. Some Parsi houses which still housed Parsis and most others which didn’t.

Parsi house in occasional use, Tarapore

XVI: Summing up

This is not the script for a film. But somewhere in all this material lies my diploma film. Certainly, this is the subject for a long documentary, which is why it took me so long to decide to make it the subject of my diploma. Saying everything I have written out here in 20 minutes on film is not going to be easy. My research now has to be distilled into a film.

Before I saw Tarapore, the film that was emerging in my mind was a fictional story but based on what I had seen and heard. A work of fiction that could also have easily been the truth. I thought of making it about three characters who were the last Parsis in their respective towns. A retired railway driver in Daund in his 60’s and his wife and daughter, packing his belongings and bidding farewell to the place where he spent all his life, for reasons of health. A middle-aged unmarried man, who’s not a priest, but whose job is to look after the agiary in Satara, even though he’s the only Parsi there, because his employers, an old family from Satara, though they have moved out would like to keep the agiary going for sentimental reasons. And a young man in his 20’s who’s married to a non-Parsi and runs his family’s ancestral liquor business in Nagar.

This story, however, didn’t excite me enough. It seemed the logical, obvious outcome of the research I’d done, but it sounded clichéd, boring, something done before. However, when I saw the ravaged state of Tarapore, I knew I had found the story I was looking for. And from making a fictional work, I decided that showing the reality in Tarapore was the best way of transposing these twenty-five pages of written material onto celluloid.

To make a documentary though for a diploma film with all its attendant constraints is a difficult task. I do not have the luxury of shooting hours of footage and constructing the film on the editing table. I will have to make the film before shooting. For this, I now need to articulate what I have seen and heard in Tarapore in context with my larger theme of survival and extinction. This is my next task.

As I write these pages, I also realize that this is my story too. A story of a personal search into my roots and identity. This is a story I have yet to explore, and maybe I can tell it along with the story of Tarapore.

Hidden in these pages, then, is my diploma film. As Michelangelo said, “ Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” And so I intend to chip away at my block of material till I discover my film.

Parsi house in utter ruin, Tarapore