Roj Gosh Mah Meher, 1387 Yz.
It was 9th March 2004. I was sitting on the steps of the Behram Baug Daremeher, outwardly calm but a whirlwind of emotions inside me. The Fasli Muktad began from the next day. All preparations were in place – fruits, flowers, utensils, kitchen items… all but the most important requirement – priests! Having taken up the responsibility and promised the Trustees that things would be done the way they should be…only to realize that those who had said yes were backing out for the flimsiest reasons, or trying to extract a higher price… what would I do? How much could I handle myself?
‘Sahebji, Mobed Saheb! My name is Ervad Siavax Turel and this is my wife Gula. We have come to stay for a few days at my son’s house. Should you have any work in the Agiary please do let me know…’ As I looked up from my thoughts, for a second I thought I was dreaming… but no – there stood in front of me an old man, about 75 and his wife, traditionally dressed. As we exchanged pleasantries and spoke, I managed to learn about his background and the extent of his priestly knowledge, and asked him to report the next morning for prayers. The lady was quiet and respectful, letting us two talk, but absorbing everything I was saying. She’s a sharp one, I thought, this Gulamai!
Little did I realize that day who Gulamai was and the influence she would have in my life for the next 14 years…And as I sit down to write this tribute to her, the memories come rushing back and filling me with emotions which are difficult to control and impossible to overcome. Our dear Gulamai has departed this world and left us grieving… now all that is left are the memories – of one of the strongest and most remarkable women I have interacted with.
The next day, Savaksha was there in the Daremeher by 5:30. You can find out a lot about a priest from the way he takes the Karasya of water and washes his hands, face and feet before performing the Kusti…Even before he has uttered a word of prayer, everything becomes apparent. And so it was with Savaksha… the entire ritual was perfect, the attitude was respectful and reverential, the water was used in a careful and efficient manner, the feet were properly cleaned – heel to toe, not the other way around, the large handkerchief was properly positioned over the shoulder…as my hyper critical audit checklist was ticked off, one by one, I was relieved…Yes! He seems to be a good priest! But can he pray?
And then he started praying, his right hand raised in salutation to God, the head slightly bowed as he recited the opening words, offering praise and salutations to Ahura Mazda! I stood behind quietly, watching and hearing everything, would he be good? Would he make a mistake? Would he untie the Kusti at the right time, after finishing the entire Kem na Mazda, not in between as most do; would the ends of the Kusti fall carelessly on the ground or would he ensure that they remain above? Would the pronunciations of the Hormazd Khodae we right? The knots? The Jasa me prayer? Would he remain standing at the same spot till the entire ritual was complete or would he move around…. So many points, so much doubt in my cynical mind! Forgive me, Savaksha!
To my relief and amazement, he was spot on in everything. He finished the ritual, turned around and realized I was observing him. He didn’t say anything, just continued his prayers…As I started my own Kusti, it was his turn to observe me. He saw everything, nodded his head and kept praying… We sat down close to each other and began our prayers…Sarosh Baj, Havan Gah, Hoshbam – perfectly recited! Khorshed, Meher, Vispa Humata, Mah Bokhtar, Ava, Atash…In each prayer I tried my tricks – speeding up, slowing down, placing emphasis on different words…but he was spot on, eyes closed, just praying, letting a smile pass occasionally as he realized what I was trying to do…
As I went to perform the Boi ceremony he came in and observed everything from the outside room…and then recited the Nyaesh with me perfectly, word for word. Soon we started the Muktad prayers after the opening Humbandagi. I explained what needed to be done and gave him the Stum to recite – with over 600 names! He took the list calmly and began…what a voice! Loud, sonorous, filled with devotion! Assured, I began my own work. A good priest was found! I sent up a quiet prayer of gratitude to God in Heaven and everything was all right with the world! And it was going to get better…oh it was going to get way better!
Around 9 am we stopped for breakfast and went to the kitchen. There on the dining table lay two large metal thalis, covered with larger ones. As I opened them, to my surprise there was a little chit of paper – the back of an old Parsi calendar, properly cut …one had the name ‘Savak’ written on it, in neat Gujarati letters and the other ‘Marzban’. It was breakfast for both of us…made by Gulamai and sent to the Agiary in the proper ritual manner. But this was no ordinary breakfast! One look at the items and I knew this was a master cook at work! Freshly made jowar rotlis, thin and soft! Akuri made spot on – just enough tomato and a garnish of coriander; in a small bowl was titori – sprouted beans in a spicy coconut and tomato base… this was not breakfast! This was a feast!
We ate like kings and I complimented Savaksha on his wife’s cooking. He was modest, ‘oh it’s nothing!’ We went back to prayers, finishing late in the afternoon. As I made preparations for the Rapithwin Boi, I was surprised to see him sitting down for more prayers – ‘jara Farajyat kari leu’ (just the obligatory prayers, nothing more). He left after I had finished the Boi. They were back at 4:30, both of them. And now it was my turn to watch Gulamai. She went straight for the Mobed Saheb’s Karasyo, expertly picking it up with the corner of her handkerchief and performing the Padyab and then the Kusti. Then she started praying and I was like, hmmm now she’ll open the book… Gah, Khorshed, Meher, Mah Bokhtar, Ava, Atash … no book! Ever the critical, know-it-all, I thought, ha! now let’s see her doing the Yashts… And it was as if she had read my mind! Hormazd, Ardibehesht, Sarosh Hadokht … no book! Muktad no Namaskar and then the Tandorasti…
She came to my office and greeted me. ‘I wanted to meet you hence have prayed only a little… Hope you enjoyed the breakfast!’ Little! That was a little prayer? Hmmm… Gulamai is much sharper than I thought! As we started talking, she had that easy grandmother style – the type which makes you talk much more than you should…and soon we were chatting like we had known each other for years…
The next day, it was my turn to get audited. She came in the afternoon as I was in the kitchen, struggling with Malido. She just came and stood, passing one eye over the ingredients, another look at the vessels, and one at me trying to make the Malido. She didn’t say anything but the look showed all that she felt – and I have never felt more ashamed in my life. As I struggled, she came close, patted me on the shoulder and took the ladle from my hand. As I resisted, she gave me a glare, oh those eyes! And then it was a loving smile. She took the ladle and in a few minutes had tamed the unruly Malido into a soft, smooth silken consistency. As I looked on, amazed at what she had done, she smiled and walked away without saying anything but the eyes said it all – ‘it was nothing, bozo! You just don’t know how to do it!’
As the days passed, the breakfast menu changed…everyday it was something different, but just as good or even better than the day before. What variety! Simple but divinely tasting! And then one day the samosas came…From the outside they looked like very normal samosa. Perfectly shaped, fried crisp and flaky. But what must be the filling inside, I wondered. As I bit one, my surprise turned to wonder turned to amazement – the filling was a ripe mango paste, beautifully soft and tender, perfectly seasoned and just oozing taste! I just shook my head and continued eating…sometimes you don’t need words…
That evening I caught her…you’re going to teach me Gulamai! No excuses! She laughed and said: ‘We’ll see…’
And so it started…every evening, something new. Very little explanation. Just practical demonstrations. And a sharp ‘Em nai!’ (not that way!) whenever I made a mistake – which was very often… Along with the cooking came the advice on ingredients, economy – what to make first and then use the leftovers from that for the next dish, how to save on oil and ghee, what type of sugar to use, ice-cream essence or vanilla? Sliced almonds or raisins in the garnish… experience that can come only from years and years of cooking and toiling hard. All shared so selflessly – she never hid anything, she never said, oh! This is my secret! She would say – this is the secret and I’m showing it to you. Learn! ‘Pachi mane yaad karse!’ ‘Then you’ll remember me!
Yes Gulamai! Today I remember you! And will continue to do so!
But along with cooking, what Gulamai taught on the side was even more valuable. She would regale me with stories of her childhood, about her grandfather Rustamji Vimadalal who was the Patel of Khajot village, roaming the area given to him by the British on a horse, and a whip in his hand! Dare anyone break the law! About the difficult times she faced as a young girl. About the lack of money. About how difficult it was to make ends meet. About how difficult life was, maintaining the strict purity in the house, drawing endless pitchers of water from the well, making numerous dishes for the Stum prayers, cutting mounds of vegetables for the Gahambar feasts. But what was different about Gulamai was that she didn’t complain. She just stated the facts. There was no regret in her voice. Rather there was pride. That she had gone through this. And that she had emerged stronger from it all.
She recounted the difficult decision she made to put her son Dinyar in the Madressa in Mumbai – how the entire family was against it, and how she persevered, how she took him without telling anyone and handed him over to Rustamji Panthaky and then returned home – how no one spoke to her for many days after that…the battles and the arguments. But she was firm! Once her mind was made up no one could change Gulamai. She had amazing self-confidence and the strongest will power! As her age increased and her back troubles gave her more trouble, Gulamai was in constant pain. But she would not show it. Nor would she let it affect her lifestyle.
Once a wedding was scheduled in the Agiary. The pre-wedding ceremonies include the Varadh nu Stum, where a large feast is laid out in memory of all the departed worthies of the family and special prayers recited. One of the most difficult items to make in this ceremony is the Varadhvara – 5 giant, dinner plate sized bhakhras, made with special and rich ingredients. The Varadhvara are notoriously difficult to make – and even more difficult to fry – and almost impossible to flip over while frying. One small mistake and they break. There was a person who would come to the Agiary and make this item. But one had to plead with him, he would make the most outrageous demands just to prove how important he was. As I called him and he started his demands, I got angry – and decided I would make it myself – come what may! Who else to call but Gulamai? She came, but warned me – it’s very difficult! Since when has that stopped you, I challenged her! Let’s do it.
We got together the ingredients and mixed them. I kneaded the dough – her back would not allow it but she kept on pressing the dough to check the consistency and trying to get her arm to work…the dough has to rest for a day and then is fried the next day. She was back in the Agiary early next morning – and we rolled them out and began the gentle frying, keeping the stove at the lowest level – so that the Varadhvara would cook from inside and yet remain lightly brown from the outside. She explained how they should be flipped, using two ladles… taking the name of God I did it…and they did not break! And we high-fived each other!
Our ritual was constant. Every morning after I gave the Havan Boi, I would come to my office and look out the window – to where her house balcony faced. She would be standing there, waiting patiently. I would wave out to her and she would wave back. And then one day I couldn’t …I couldn’t walk. As the spinal disc herniated and pressed the nerves I screamed out in pain. It was unbearable. As they took me to hospital and emergency surgery, she prayed, as did a lot of people. After the surgery and recuperation, I went back to the Agiary and took the Nahn, put on fresh clothes and tied a new Pagdi, offered my thanks to the Holy Fire and gave the Havan Boi. Then I went to my office and opened the window – and there she stood – waiting patiently – and we waved! She told my wife – ‘every day I would look out the window and wait to see his face – and every day the window remained closed I would pray to God to give him strength and get him back fast. And today he opened the window and he stood majestically, ‘ek vagh jevo!’ ‘like a tiger! Waving out to me! And today I thanked God that maro Marajban (that’s what she called me, never Marzban, always Marajban) is back.
As our bond grew closer , we shared more about our lives – and the difficulties we faced. She was like a patient granny, listening to everything. Very often I would lose my temper with someone or the other, and she would come to my office, sit, talk and cool me down. ‘E to thaya kare!’ she would say, ‘It happens… cool down, don’t spoil your health over people who don’t matter.’ But what do you do when even people who matter turn? How do you handle that? As the unfortunate events in my life unfolded and everything that mattered broke, she was in Surat. She called but I avoided the calls. I was in no state to talk to anyone. She kept calling. Finally I answered. I don’t remember what we spoke, but she just kept on saying ‘Ai su thai gayu dikra, ai su thayu?’ ‘What has happened to you, my son? What is all this?’ There were no answers, what do you say? I just held the phone and wept…
Soon I shifted to Udvada and began taking the slow steps towards normalcy. We would meet whenever she came to Udvada. We would talk and laugh and smile, but it was different. I had changed and so had she. Her health had deteriorated and she was in obvious pain. But her willpower was still the same! The last time she came, she told her son Dinyar to drive her to my house. She came and visited – and audited. Her sharp eyes saw everything, she admired the house, paid her respects to the Dadgah, saw the large kitchen and liked it! ‘Ai rahni bovj saras che, majeni moti!’ ‘It’s a very nice kitchen, nice and big!’ She saw the photos of my children on the wall and for a moment she went quiet. She looked at me, her big eyes full of pain and sympathy and she kept her forefinger on her lips…don’t say anything! What was there to say!
Last week, she attended the marriage function of her granddaughter. She made everyone sing the traditional songs sung at such functions. She even climbed the stairs of her house and went to the first floor to make a room ready for me – ‘maro Marajban avse to kah suse?’ ‘If my Marzban comes, where will he sleep!’ But I couldn’t make it.
A few days ago, I remembered her a lot as I made tal na papra – a sweet, stiff puri made with sesame seeds. Her daughter Shernaz visited me just 3 days ago and I told her to convey my wishes to her. The evening before she passed away, Shernaz told her about the papra and about why I could not come to Surat for the wedding – and she was happy. As if by premonition she called her son in New Zealand and other relatives…As she got up in the night to visit the toilet she fell, and broke her hip. They took her to hospital and she joked with the doctor – Oh I will be up preparing lunch in the morning! As dawn came, her breathing became slow and the pressure dropped. The doctor’s eyes conveyed to all what was happening. She fought valiantly and then slipped away into the hands of a waiting God, just as dawn broke and the Zoroastrian Roj changed. Our Gulamai was in no more pain! She was in peace!
As I received the message in the morning, I finished my prayers and drove to Surat. Performed the Kusti and then saw Gulamai – covered in white and placed on the marble slabs. How different she looked! This was not the time to cry! This was the time to pray! I sat down next to her and I prayed all her favorites – the 5 Nyaeshes, the Yashts – Hormazd, Ardibehesht, Sarosh Hadokht, Vanant, Haptan, Hom, Tir, Vanant… the Setayashes, Chithrem Buyat…every few moments I would look at her face and some memory would come back, and I would go back to the book and avoid the tears. Don’t cry! Pray! Do your duty! This is why she called you maro Marajban! Now prove it to her!
It seemed as if half of Surat was there to wish her goodbye! The priests came and recited the Gehsarna. I sat with Savaksha and we talked of old times. As people would come to meet him and ask, ‘Kem cheo?’ he would reply ‘Maja ma!’ But the face and his eyes showed what he felt. We filed in for that one last look. And then they took her away…
Gulamai was an amazing woman, one of the strongest I have seen. Her life was devoted to Zoroastrian ideals – truth, hard work, devotion to family and the pursuit of true happiness. Her every moment was spent in doing something productive. She slept little, worked a lot, prayed even more and spread love to all she met. Her giant family – spouse, sons, daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren all learnt from her. She lived by example and showed us what a true Parsi lady is and should be. I will miss her – and her food. But I would gladly give up all that food for just one moment with her – so that she could pass her hand over my head and say once more, ‘Kai nahi Marajban! E to badhu thaya kare! Badhu saru thase!’ Yes, one day will come, when everything will become alright, when all the pain and sadness will go away. But till that day, what can one do but remember her, pray for her and wish for her spiritual progress!
Osti Gulbanu Ervad Siavax! Sarosh Yazad panaah baad!
Osti Gulbanu Ervad Siavax! Sarosh Yazad panaah baad!
Osti Gulbanu Ervad Siavax! Sarosh Yazad panaah baad!
Ervad Marzban J. HathiramShare