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