Book Review

A Moving Parsi Masterpiece
CYRUS H. MERCHANT, spiritual author, society writer and conscience keeper of the Parsi community, reviews SOONI TARAPOREVALA'S book Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India
Afternoon Despatch & Courier | September 30, 2004


SOONI Taraporevala's second edition of Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India comes at a time when a recent census on the community tried to toll the bells. Beauty never dies; through customs and religious rites it is passed on, each baton of the community's relay bringing it more into bloom. The book is outstanding, a visual feast for the fervent soul, disappointment trespassing in only with a brief chapter on Generation Next. Zorastrian Generation Next comprises handsome young men and committed young women with one foot in the globe and the other in the keblah room of the Agiary, combating all temptation with tradition. Pictorial justice could have been done to their fetching appeal, a universe within itself, love on the Agiary steps, climbing corporate ladders and after a whole day is done, walks around the Baug lawns, holding hands and hearts ascending towards the Almighty.
Perhaps, another tome?

Sooni's passion for the Parsis is clearly abiding, through her succinct prose she voices the unspoken longings of her legion of people; it is not easy being few. Through Maneck kaka's words and her granny reclining on an old bed in Cozy Building, she draws out the vigour and sometimes the pathos, of living the Parsi Life. The quality of photographs is world-class, Aurobind Patel's typography is clean and uncluttered, quite like the Parsi temperament, Paramount's printing complements the subject matter and Good Books publishers can take a bow with every detail being seized by Sooni. But what brings the book to Life is something the author can't take credit for: the Parsi tapestry itself. A generation, like a gara, woven on a piece divine.

From grandparents and old relatives to typical Parsi homes and typically lovable Parsis, from Irani restaurants (proof that time can stand serene in a world obsessed with running nowhere) to the jam tarts in RTI, Dadar's youth dancing to dhansak laden tables to earnest Parsi workers in the Godrej factory to Zarir Zed Cama, the first Indian CEO of the HSBC bank far removed from his corporate attire, squatting on the steps of the Saher Agiary; the magic is impatient to leap off the page. A Parsi will effortlessly fit into the world, but he or she will always retain what is quintessentially a part of their world; so too does this book. Who needs numbers, the joy is in the living shared by those who were and those who are, alive. The book brings forth this genteel quality that is at once poignant; the legendary Dr. Farokh Udwadia with his hand atop a patient's head, Meher Banaji, as much of an institution as the Happy Home School for the visually impaired (a classic shot with her in a mustard saree surrounded by her students in a sea of blue uniforms), Busybee seated at Britannia Restaurant, a man deeply attached to his roots, who often during our working hours from his ferocious hiding of his identity, would hark back to his days in Cusrow Baug's "H-block", something intangible yet so personal that his softest side emerged when he spoke of all things Parsi.

The merriment of weddings with lagan-nu-bhonu, the ladies lifting the sagan-ni-ses for the Navjote ceremony, colony boys with a football in front of the powerful Karani Agiary, and the by-now classic picture of a gentleman in a Parsi topi and dagli walking down Bhaji Gully. How do you put a price tag on memories so priceless?

This is the kind of coffee-table book that puts the beans on the table. But what makes the book acutely beautiful is Sooni's camera chronicling the religious road of the community. There are evocative pictures of young boys being initiated into priesthood, whispering golden flames in divo trays at Aslaji Agiary, elderly Parsi ladies in white sarees offering loban reverentially under morning's baby blue sky and the water pictures, they deserve a separate mention. Devotees seated by the seaside praying to the flowing waters by the Parsee Steps at Marine Drive, the blue-Khordeh Avesta covering the face of a gentleman in prayer at the miracle Bhika Behram well (vandalised but not broken in spirit) in the Flora Fountain district, a woman in mathubanu at her household well and many, many pictures of ceremonies, beautiful jashans and Fareshtas that bind the wandering soul in a gentle grip of ethereal love.

Agiaries in stone white and vivid colour; quintessential chowks on the ground, aapro JRD, the retreat that is a Zoroastrian home, all the faithfuls with fervour will identify with these images. Amidst the 255 pages there are three masterpieces: a priest's white robe fanned-out on a wooden bench in front of the portrait of Navsari's pious saint;an aerial shot of Doongerwadi, that stark canvas of brown roofs, green tree-tops and men in white; and, the photograph of an aged lady cleaning the boi, the mullet's water and skinned fins visible on the wintry village ground. And just when you think it can't get any better, it does. Two chapters on Udwada and Doongerwadi, the Tower of Silence speaks a thousand words.
If you have ever known a Parsi or been in love with one; if you have ever had Parsis as friends or colleagues or if you are a Parsi, then this book ought to go from the bookstore into your home. Parsi industry houses and corporate heads should bulk-buy and generously gift; it could make for a very sweet Diwali distribution, a grateful throwback to the people who built the city's civic, shipping, aviation and strengthened the four pillars of the democratic estate. After seeing such beauty and inherent grace, you may feel guilty to use the word "bawaji" again. Census or raving reformists notwithstanding, this pictorial documentation of a race caught in troubled times years after being forced to leave motherland Iran's shores, is proof that all is better than well. To the community's religious triad of Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds can then easily be added the abiding righteous motto of Good Times.

For clearly, there is a whole world in this book and it is a beautiful one.


Afternoon Despatch & Courier | September 30, 2004

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