It is like any other Central Calcutta by-lane, which means lot of unorganized rush to rattle one's movement ahead inside the lane which has found settlement with time. However, this lane just does not stop with the history of European imperialism - it has also been a little Persian Gulf enclave since early twentieth century. Definitely not an ideal Saturday afternoon from November as it does not even allow a hoodie to make one feel a bit stylish – a warm one must say.
One look and you know it is not from any kalkatta heirloom. Though old, still it does not have a dying look, not ready for an expensive bargain (there has not been any dearth of fortune either). Yes, it may feel disenchanted at times – A community, which is dwindling in the labyrinth of rituals’, some term them as ‘Orthodox’, (would be too immature to nail it right here) has seen very small number of visitors in the last few years. Here is a gigantic white wall – a pluralist canvas like arrangement (Hold on to your thought right here, as you may be up for surprises later) which has survived many regular roadside nuisances or is it the effect of periodic white paints.
We stood under an almost impregnable iron caste gate, which has been guarding the ‘Atash Adaran’ (the sacred fire) and the shrine since 1912. Slightly flabbergasted at the extreme nonchalance of the place; expecting the suburban boy emerging out with the freakiest of pretext while his mother has just slipped into an afternoon siesta. While I was looking for a ‘Wala’ for help, we spotted a ‘charpoy’ on the other side of the iron Gate and a man in all white linen, wearing a round skull-cap (now this got me really confused, is he from the fourteenth or fifteenth generation of the Zoroastrians, those who settled by the west coast of India after they were compelled to flee Persia) almost had to return from the middle of a day dream because of our un-called presence. Make no mistake – he is Ali Cha Cha – he was not expecting anybody at this time, so was about to re-direct us to some other house at Metcalfe.
He confirmed it to be the Fire temple. It took us no time to understand that our entry would not be a regular one. Thus, we were quick to disengage with Calcutta and told Cha Cha that we have come all the way from ‘Jamshedpur’ and we were doing some kind of research on Fire temple. (Now, why did we think of Jamshedpur when it was never planned – let me say - it is an alliteration of some ubiquitous consonance). Though, Cha Cha did not go inside to get any approval but we had a very calibrated entry, just what you do when the person deliberately stands not facing the door eye-hole. You do not have to take off your shoes as this point – it looked as a waiting area for the visitors, couple of stones on the wall most of them written in Gujarati, one stone commemorates graceful contributions of the community members on the centenary year of this ‘Atash Adaran’. A ‘Cyrus’ who can be scathing critical on something or anything in the most frivolous way, to another who is heading India’s most trusted conglomerate name; An ‘Irani’ whose first few generations knew more about Persia than any Arab today and the mention of the ‘Seths ‘ all over. (History Byte: Bombay City saw the first group of Parsi Seths moving from Surat right at the start of eighteenth century; Rustam Manock was the first and one of the greatest traders and benefactors of his time).
Cha Cha was playing a perfect helicopter host to us...just as you would always find a Parsi Woman doing it for her 40 plus little ‘Dikra’ (boy). It was definitely a big favour given to us by letting us in now we could not ask too many questions to Cha Cha and the only other person from the temple. (Now when I say the only other person from the temple...Let me tell you that he is the only Parsi available in the temple now and yes he has a long beak nose like all Parsis do. You will not find a Parsi or a Zoroastrian who can’t be identified by his nose. Finally, I found my Wala and he is a Mandwala – his family is known by the name of the place they belong to, not by the work or profession. He was looking at the Television, not sure, whether he was watching it – the channel was playing some dark villainous movie, which had Ranjeet doing what he does best on-screen off course and given the deserted situation Mandwala was the Wadia of his estate – Wadias are the first Landholders in Bombay City by the late seventeen century. Yes- you got it right, it’s the same Wadia which has been setting the mood of the day every morning when you dip your Britannia Marie in that cup of tea; for last many decades and generations; no matter which city you are from but your bedroom linen are always from Bombay dyeing. So here, we had another Wadia scion in the Mandwala who was righteous in not sharing almost anything to a non-Parsi).
Udvada a small town in Gujarat, it has the oldest Fire temple in India, ‘Atash Behram’ – it is the most sacred fire in Zoroastrian religion. There are nine ‘Atash Behram’ in the world out of which eight are in Western India and one in Central Iran. The first three day ‘Iranshah Udvada Utsav’ has been a stunning success for the community (25-27 Dec 2015) in the august presence of Mr. Ratan Tata (A family name, which is a phenomenon in our country, their legacy in nation and community building, is a subject in it). The Utsav saw Parsis and Zoroastrians congregating in Udvada, from all across the world, fostering it to be the most sacred pilgrimage site.
Cha Cha has been very generous within his capacity; (Like, Thebaw the Burmese king who tried every bit for the people of Mandalay even after he was exiled by the British regime in The Glass Palace, the king is one of the real characters in the novel). We still could manage a photo opportunity with the main shrine in the background, which is house to the sacred fire.
A community, which was hesitantly welcomed by the Hindu ruler of a land, which we identify as Gujarat today has a rich history of assimilation in this country. The last Parsi census says a count of only 69,000 Parsis left in India, does that worry you a bit ...... Yes, our government has taken up an initiative called ‘Jiyo Parsi’ to control the decline in population of the Parsi Zoroastrian community in India.
Let’s hope that the sacred fire is perpetually alight and it also douse anything which is not so pure for this already reformed community at large.