Roj Dae-pa-Din Mah Bahman, 1378 Yz
Fasli Roj Fravardin Mah Tir, 1378 Yz.: 82nd Baj of Ustad Saheb
So who exactly was Ustad Saheb Behramshah Nowroji Shroff and what did he do to deserve this kind of praise? Ustad Saheb was born on 3rd August, 1858 in Surat, to a priestly family. His grandfather was a practicing priest as well as a partner in the trading firm of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, but his father was a moneylender, hence the surname Sharaf (moneylender), later anglicized to Shroff. Behramshah was a poor student and did not study beyond the third standard. He suffered from a stammer and hence could not qualify to be a priest, as the right pronunciation of the Avesta is a standard requirement for priesthood. Since he came from a well-off family, Behramshah spent his time rather aimlessly. His father died when Behramshah was very young and he grew up with his mother and a sister in Mumbai.
When Behramshah was around 17 years old, he had a disagreement with his mother and ran away from home. Although he had no idea where he would go or what he would do, Behramshah felt some unknown power determining every step he should take and pulling him towards some faraway place. From Mumbai, Behramshah travelled to Ahmedabad by train, and from there to Kathiawad. On reaching Godhra, he caught the Punjab Mail train to finally reach Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province – the very outpost of the British empire and the last stage of civilization. By some queer coincidence, an uncle of Behramshah had a small provision store in Peshawar. This uncle was most agitated on seeing Behramshah there and immediately sent a telegram to Mumbai informing Behramshah’s mother. In the meantime he allowed Behramshah to stay with him, his mind preoccupied with thinking up some method to mollify the teenager and send him back home to his mother.
Behramshah was very fond of open spaces and nature and of taking long walks and treks. Knowing this habit, Behramshah’s uncle very sternly warned him that Peshawar was a very dangerous place and he should be very careful of any Pathan or other stranger trying to befriend him, as kidnapping for ransom was an important small scale industry there! (Nothing much seems to have changed in Peshawar over the 150 years since this happened!) Behramshah listened to his uncle but his habit of talking long strolls got the better of him. He would often roam around the crowded ‘Kinari’ Bazaar area and from there take a walk to the ‘Chaman Darwaza’ which was the gate beyond which the border areas and the uncivilized part of the province started.
On one such walk, Behramshah managed to go much further than the gates, when he felt the urge to relieve himself. He squatted on the ground, relieved himself, and like a true Parsi, began to perform the Kusti after the toilet. As he was finishing his prayers, Behramshah saw two very tall, handsome men dressed in Pathan clothes approaching him. Their faces shone with some strange brilliance and their entire personage inspired a feeling of awe and respect. Behramshah tried to move away from them, but a strange force seemed to be pulling him towards them! The two men started speaking to Behramshah in a mixture of Hindi and Persian which Behramshah could understand, and soon it seemed as though they had known each other for many years! The two men invited Behramshah to their caravan which was setup some distance away to meet their ‘Aaka’ or leader.
The uncle’s warnings rang loud and clear in Behramshah’s mind and he hesitated. Seeing his suspicion, the strangers pacified him and tried to persuade Behramshah that they were not kidnappers. After some discussions, the strangers lifted the outer robes they were wearing to show that underneath they had on the Sudreh and Kusti! This amazing display, coupled with the spiritually calming effect of the two stranger’s presence soon overpowered his suspicion and he agreed to accompany them to the caravan.
As they reached the spot where the caravan had set camp, Behramshah saw a big tent. On entering the tent, a most wondrous sight awaited Behramshah. A group of radiant, spiritually advanced men sat around the tent, on plain but beautiful carpets. On the carpets was spread another plain cloth on which were arranged fruits, fresh and dry of every kind, various vials of sherbet and other items, as if a picnic was in progress. In the centre of the tent, sat a man whose radiance and brilliance was of a level Behramshah had never seen before. This pious man introduced himself as Rashidji Saheb and kindly beckoned to Behramshah to join him on the carpet. He asked Behramshah about his family, the situation in Bombay, questions about the Parsi community and many other topics. As Behramshah would begin to answer, his stammering would increase, but Rashidji would instinctively end the answer in his own words, thereby putting Behramshah at ease.
Despite all this, Behramshah used to say in his later days when he used to recount this story to his close disciples, that the foremost though in his mind was: how to get away from this caravan and back to his uncle’s house! Rashidji sensed Behramshah’s unease and tried to divert his mind by asking different questions. After some time, Behramshah got really uneasy and decided to go back. Rashidji graciously agreed, and gifted Behramshah 2 beautifully woven bags, packed with the best kind of dry fruits. He instructed the same two men who had brought Behramshah there to escort him back to the bazaar, and while leaving reminded Behramshah to come again the next day to talk some more. Behramshah agreed verbally, but in his mind decided never to venture out of the town again.
As he reached his uncle’s home, questions were raised regarding the bags of dry fruit. Behramshah recounted his entire experience to his uncle, who decided there and then that it would be in the best interests of everybody if Behramshah left Peshawar at the earliest. Over dinner, the uncle recounted tales of various boys who were kidnapped by the Pathans for ransom and the horrible things they did to them when the ransom was not paid. That night, Behramshah had a very disturbed sleep, with some wondrous dreams, along with the thoughts of kidnappers, torture and ransom.
The next day dawned and Behramshah made up his mind to not go anywhere close to the caravan and its strange occupants. But as afternoon came and the sun began its journey to the west, a strange unease gathered in Behramshah’s mind. At one end, an unseen force seemed to be calling out to him, asking him to go to the caravan. At the other end were the words of warning of his uncle. As the evening approached the unease increased and soon Behramshah found his legs taking him towards the end of town to the caravan. At various points, Behramshah decided to turn back, but his legs seemed to have developed a will of their own. On approaching the end of the bazaar he found the same two men waiting for him, and smiling broadly and working their charm on him, gently escorted Behramshah to the caravan and in the august presence of Rashidji Saheb.
Rashidji welcomed Behramshah back to the tent and had some more general discussions. He told Behramshah that they were residents of Iran, staying in a place called Demavand. He asked Behramshah whether he would like to join them on their trip back to Iran. Behramshah replied that he would need to take his uncle’s permission. Rashidji agreed that it was only fair and proper for Behramshah to do so. After the discussions were over, Rashidji gave Behramshah some more dry fruits and asked him to come back the next day with his reply. Over dinner that evening, Behramshah gave his uncle a narrative of what had happened and asked for permission to go to Iran with Rashidji Saheb and his caravan.
The uncle decided that it was time Behramshah was sent back to Mumbai. He devised a stratagem of faking a telegram. The next morning, he hurried back home with a piece of paper and told Behramshah that a telegram had come from Bombay stating that his mother’s health had taken a turn for the worse and that he should leave for Bombay immediately. Despite the disagreement with this mother, Behramshah still had love and respect for her. He therefore decided to go back to Bombay, after informing Rashidji about the development. That same evening he went back to the caravan with a downturned face. Rashidji asked him what was wrong and the young Behramshah recounted the whole story. Rashidji closed his eyes for a second, opened them, smiled and said: ‘Today is your mother’s birthday and she has had a hearty meal of dhan-dal, fish and curd in the afternoon with your sister and is hale and hearty.’ Behramshah was dumb-struck when he heard Rashidji’s words. He remembered that today indeed was his mother’s birthday. He inquired about the telegram and Rashidji told him it was a fake. He asked the young boy to go home and confront his uncle with the truth. Rashidji explained to Behramshah that when he had been told the entire story, the uncle would himself give him permission to go to Iran.
Behramshah went back to his uncle’s home and over dinner explained what had happened and once again asked his uncle’s permission to accompany to caravan to Iran. The uncle, on being exposed, realized that he was dealing with persons far more advanced than him, and gave Behramshah permission to leave for Iran. Behramshah returned to the caravan the next day with the good news. Rashidji welcomed him back, but first asked him to make some arrangements at the local post office. On hearing that Behramshah had come to Peshawar, his mother had decided to send a small amount of money every month to him through a money order. Even before the first installment had arrived, Rashidji instructed Behramshah and helped him draft a letter to the postmaster requesting that the money be kept at the post office itself till further notice and that it should not be sent back if Behramshah was not there to receive the same! After these arrangements were made, Behramshah was asked to change into clothes similar to what the caravan members were wearing, and on the appointed day, the whole caravan started its slow journey back to Iran with its most prized possession – young Behramshah Nowroji Shroff.
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram