Roj Khordad Mah Fravardin, 1385 Yz.
Today, Khordad Sal, remembered fondly by all Parsis as the birthday of Prophet Zarathushtra, is also the birthday of a profound scholar, pious priest, gentle teacher, a humble Athornan from Navsari who attained great fame and standing within the community but yet did not get all he deserved. Ervad Rustamji Dinshahji Dastur Meherjirana, more fondly known simply as ‘Bapaji’, was born on Roj Khordad Mah Fravardin, 1262 Yz, (6th September 1892) that is, exactly 123 years ago in Navsari, the headquarters of the Bhagaria Mobeds and once known as ‘Dharam ni tekdi’ or the ‘Vatican of the Parsis’. Bapaji belonged to the famous Meherjirana family and his father had, for some years, even officiated as the Dastur Meherjirana, under exceptional circumstances.
Bapaji was born in very weak health, and his health remained weak throughout his life, severely restricting his otherwise dazzling career. He began his studies at the Tata English School in Navsari, and although brilliant from first in his studies, missed out a lot of school due to indifferent health. Even at that tender age, teachers remarked at his intellectual ability, his memory and his sheer brilliance. Along with studies, Bapaji also learnt the Avesta prayers under his father’s tutelage and became Navar at the Vadi Daremeher on Roj Mahrespand Mah Meher, 1272, at the age of 11 years. As was the custom at that time, all the Bhagaria Mobeds from the five different Pols (family groups) gathered at the Vadi Daremeher to examine whether the boy was properly trained and fit to be accorded the degree of Navar, and more so as he belonged to the Meherjirana family.
As Bapaji, at the tender age of 11, totally unfazed by the fearsome sight of over a 100 bearded, fierce looking Priests glaring at him, began his Yasna recital in the most perfect and correct pronunciation, the glares turned soft and then the eyebrows went up in amazement at the boy’s mastery of Avesta and his perfect pitch and delivery. By the time the boy climbed down the Hindola to proceed to the well to mark the end of the ceremony, the hall was abuzz with the silent gasps of ‘wah, wah! Soo bhanyo!’ The Anjuman was pleased that another gem had been added to the lustrous pearls which comprised the Bhagarsath Panth.
About eight days later, the young Navaria joined his father as the assistant priest in an Afringan ceremony, when disaster struck. As they sat on the Setranji, a spark from the Fire sprung on to the new Jama of the young boy, and in a second, Bapaji was totally engulfed by flames. Severely burnt and almost unconscious, Bapaji was rushed to the hospital where the doctors took one look at his weak constitution and the severity of his burns and gave up hope. But Bapaji was destined for greater things. Slowly but steadily, his health improved and the collective prayers of his family and many well-wishers saw the boy recover totally in about two months. But the deleterious effects of this accident were to trouble Bapaji till the end of his life.
Soon Bapaji shifted to the Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Madressa for high school studies and chose Avesta Pahlavi as his second language. After passing his Matriculation from the school, Bapaji proceeded to St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai for further studies. Proud of his genealogy and family history, Bapaji always dressed in the Pagdi and Dagli, leaving a mark on all those who attended college with him. But the state of the family’s finances was extremely precarious. The Meherjirana family lived in near poverty, despite their fame and standing, and took pride in their position, never accepting any money from outsiders. In fact, on succeeding his father as the 15th Meherjirana, Dastur Kekobad Dastur Darab said: “Our poverty is our Kingdom. This white Pichori which the Bhagarsath Anjuman has bequeathed to me in the Vadi Daremeher on the Chaharum of my father, and which marks the 15th generation of our Dasturi is the symbol of our Frugality. It is this Frugality and Poverty which we consider our highest honour.” Readers of Frashogard, remember these words well, for you will never ever hear them again!
The sorry state of the family’s finances and his own weak health compelled Bapaji to return to Navsari with his studies incomplete, to join the Mobedi work with his father and supplement their meagre income. Bapaji’s father was not educated in the literal sense with many degrees but was proficient in religious studies and highly regarded as a Yaozdathregar Mobed. In matters of doctrinal questions, liturgical issues, Tarikats and all other related issues, Dinshahji was considered an authority. Besides, he had the extremely good fortune of having as his teacher late Dastur Eruchji Sorabji Meherjirana (this accomplished Priest, about whom we will write one day, was such a Master that it is said that he could take any Avesta word, and recite from memory all the instances in the extant Avesta where the word occurred, with all grammatical inflexions!) Dinshahji himself occupied his day in the deep study of Avesta and the translations of leading scholars.
This studious bent of mind was also present in Bapaji, who began to study under his father. Bapaji realized that many times, they were depending on the translations of Persian texts for their understanding of certain Avesta passages. However, Bapaji was more interested in reading the actual Persian rather than the translations. With no finances to sponsor a teacher, Bapaji procured some old Persian study books and began to study the language on his own, without any help. Whenever he had any difficulty he would approach his richer friends who were studying Persian in school or college and ask the questions of their teachers and hence solve his problem. In addition, Bapaji realized the importance of Sanskrit in understanding Avesta and made friends with the renowned Pandit Vishwanath who had returned from Kashi (Varanasi) and settled down in Navsari to begin the study of Sanskrit under him.
Keeping in mind the family’s finances, Bapaji also took up a job as a teacher in the Tata School at the princely salary of Rs. 20 plus an allowance of Rs. 2 per month, in 1917! Thereafter he used his religious studies to deliver talks at various stages in Navsari and soon became a very popular speaker. Despite all these success, the question of money, or rather the lack of it, troubled the family immensely. They say teaching is the noblest profession, most poorly paid! So eager was Bapaji to study further that he resigned from this job and made one more try to set himself up in Mumbai. He joined the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy Madressa as a student. After years of struggle and hardship, Bapaji passed the MA exam in Avesta and Pahlavi, along with Sanskrit and Persian, standing first in the University. Yet again, his health faltered and in 1923 Bapaji fell seriously ill and was admitted to the Parsi General Hospital, where one midnight it seemed that all was over and family was called. Yet again, he staged a miraculous recovery.
His glittering performance in the MA exam caught the notice of Ervad Bahmanji N. Dhabhar, who approached Sir Jivanji Jamsetji Modi, who was at that time the Secretary of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. After some discussion, Bapaji was appointed teacher at the JJ school at the princely salary of Rs. 150, in 1924. It was here that Bapaji really flourished. His gentle demeanour, scholarly rigour and loving temperament endeared him to a vast legion of students, some of who remember him even to this day as an intellectual giant with uncommon generosity of faith and love. In 1926 he was appointed as a teacher at the Sir JJZ Madressa for Avesta and Pahlavi and soon progressed to becoming the senior teacher. Such was his prowess in Avesta and the even more difficult Pahlavi that he once wrote a letter in pure Pahlavi to a personal friend who was also a scholar! The scholar could not believe his eyes at the purity of composition in Pahlavi!
Bapaji married in 1931, but it was not a happy marriage due to the constant pressure on the family’s finances.
In 1940, when Ervad B N Dhabhar retired as Principal of the JJ School, Bapaji was appointed in his place. In the years thereafter, Bapaji gave numerous lectures all over Mumbai, reviving the moribund Gatha Society, the Rahnumae Mazdayasnan Sabha and many other defunct societies. He made his mark at a strictly orthodox scholar, whom even the reformists respected due to his unfailing good nature and ethical behaviour. When some misguided Parsi youth decided to convert to Christianity, Bapaji took them under his wings and over many days, counselled them and saved their Ruvans from an uncertain future.
Simplicity, sincerity and service were his hallmarks. As a teacher and prayer Master, such was his standing that Bapaji was called as the external examiner in various Madressas, including in Udvada. A perfectionist to the core, Bapaji would write out long reports on the performance of each boy in the exam and give encouragement to those who had struggled. Some of these reports were even published in the Parsi Avaz. He had an eye for catching out promising students and his praise for a young lad called Ervad Kaikobad Nadarshah Mogul in Udvada in the report published in Parsi Avaz Vol. 3.35, dated 5 March 1950 was borne out in the years to come.
But one of the most life-changing experiences that Bapaji had came very early in the life, when he had the good fortune of meeting Ustad Saheb Behramshah Shroff. Bapaji was so captivated by Ilm-e-Khshnoom that he became a voracious reader of the Khshnoom literature that would emerge after Ustad Saheb’s death under the pen of Dr. Saheb Framroze. He brought to bear the same scholarly rigour to the study of Khshnoom which he displayed in his scholastic life. Alas! the politics of those days and his poverty made those jealous of Khshnoom prohibit him from expounding in the mystic doctrine too much.
The contrasting glittering academic career was offset by troubles and storms in his family life. On many occasions, Bapaji would break down in tears at the financial difficulties he faced, but still not approach anyone for help. His grandnephew – the current Vada Dasturji KND Meherjirana often recounted to me that such was the poverty that Bapaji could not even afford a new pair of shoes and would keep wearing the worn out and actually torn shoes, patched up again and again. He could often be seen on Marine Drive, shuffling slowly in those worn out shoes, from the Madressa, in his simple Pagdi and Dagli, sometimes with tears in his eyes over his family life or sometimes with tears of devotion as he prayed some particular verse of the Avesta to himself.
But KND told me that Bapaji would be in his element whenever he visited Navsari to perform the annual Baj ceremonies for his father, mother and other relatives. Bapaji always preferred to pray the Farokshi and he would literally sing it out, with tears of joy in his eyes as he recited the 24th Karda, detailing the birth of Prophet Zarathushtra. In those few moments of happiness, Bapaji revelled in his native town and mingled with all his childhood friends. He had a special place in his heart for young children and KND recounted how he would take special care of him and others of his age at that time.
Such was the life of this astonishing man, a scholar of amazing brilliance. Yet what tragedy! All his notes and books, his dreams of publishing his collected works remained unfulfilled. Such was his precarious financial state that his own researched papers were ‘borrowed’ by wealthier scholars and published as their own. My eyes burn with shame and indignation at the humiliation he must have felt. This is how our community treated one of their brightest and the best. And yet he never complained! Always the smiling face, always the gentle laugh, the glittering eyes and the gentle teaching! Such was his nature that even one envious of his knowledge could not make him an enemy. He was universally loved and admired.
His health, never good, turned worse over the years and after a long bout of illness, Bapaji passed away on 22nd July, 1953 at the age of only 61. After his death, glowing tributes were paid to him and numerous organisations passed long resolutions mourning his passing away. Such is our community, which never cared for or took care of one of their best, and then put him on a pedestal after his death.
To my mind, Bapaji’s most valuable contribution to our community was the small book he brought out of a collection of all the Afringans, Afrins, Khshnumans and other prayers used by priests in their daily ceremonies of Afringan, Farokshi and Stum. This book – simply called ‘Bapaji ni Chopdi’ is the handbook for all sincere priests. While the prayers are available in other books too, the main attraction of this book is the long preface written by Bapaji, where he very frankly and directly accused his fellow priests of using shortcuts in their prayers, of using unethical means to enrich themselves and warning them of the consequences of such actions.
Bapaji’s foreword to this book is so strong and eloquent that it should be translated into English and made required and compulsory reading for all those Priests who enter Mobedi life. But look at the tragedy! When Bapaji’s book was republished a few years ago, the very Preface – which is the essence of the book, was dropped and left out by those who felt ‘it is too harsh and exposes our secrets to Behdins!’ ‘Ave ene kon vaachvanu?’ Shame on such scholars and shame on such Dasturs who did this, and shame on the intellectual shallowness of those who edited out certain parts even from the prayers, without disclosing these facts in the preface.
Readers of Frashogard, on this auspicious Khordad Sal, as you enjoy your holiday, please pass a thought for Ervad Rustam Ervad Dinshah, who spent his life struggling to make two ends meet, but whose Ruvan, I am sure, is today in a place where all the benefits of Paradise are available to him! With the help of our ollective one Ashem Vohu, may his pious Ruvan progress further and further and may it send down blessings to our unfortunate and deeply troubled community.
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram