Abir gulaal udhalita ranga
Naatha ghari naache maajhaa sakhaa Panduranga
– Sant Chokhamela
Amidst bursts of colourful powders strewn in the air
My dear friend dances with ecstasy in the House of the Lord!
More than a year has passed since the demise of my dear friend, teacher, guide and father figure, known to the world as Vada Dasturji Kaikhushroo Navroji Dastur Meherjirana, but for those who were close to him, Kaikhushroo or KND, or just Keko. Two days ago, we celebrated Guru Poornima – the day of respect for our teachers, and today, we observe the 93rd death anniversary Baj of our Master, late Ustad Saheb Behramshah Nowroji Shroff. This combination of auspicious days is an apt moment to pen a few words in memory of a remarkable man – an intellectual colossus, a great friend, a masterful teacher, a brilliant physicist, an eminent lawyer, a trustworthy banker, an outstanding orator, a giant of Khshnoom, but most importantly, a simple, good human being with a great sense of humour. In the days following his death, several friends awaited my eulogy for him. When it didn’t come, a few prodded, some subtly and some not so, as to whether I was going to write. I made some attempt, but the pain of losing him, even though it was long expected, was so searing that it left the mind numb and fingers frozen in grief. A vast array of emotions played within my mind for several months, going over the 32 years of my association, friendship, love, anger, discord and understanding with him. As I came to terms with my understanding of the events that had transpired between us, my own intense sadness and unbearable pain, hidden for long behind a cheerful veneer, began to eat away from inside like a corrosive acid. Then in the last three days, a series of events, what we normally call coincidences, played out in a remarkable fashion, motivating, goading and almost dragging me to begin writing this note on my association with Kaikhushroo.
Amongst these events was my coming along a moving Abhang (a Marathi devotional hymn) written by the great Varkari saint Chokhamela and sung with intense devotion by a young girl on YouTube. Further research led me to the original singer, Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, who both I and Kaikhushroo had heard together live at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai, more than 25 years ago. The simple words of this Abhang struck the very core of my heart and rekindled memories supressed and forgotten, of a time long ago when life was simple and the world revolved around my teacher and our unique friendship. Then, a phone call from an 81-year-old Mobed in America, about a striking dream he had in which Kaikhushroo had appeared to answer a query that both of us had been grappling with for a few days, further confirmed my thought process.
Today, as I write this, I can picture him very clearly, sitting in the august assembly of saints and devotees, up there somewhere, with his flute in his hand and his body swaying in rhythm to this melodious tune, finally free of all the pain, loneliness and illness of his last few years. Yes, as they throw the divine colours of abir and gulal, my dear Keko sings away merrily in the House of the Lord! Keep well and happy, my friend!
Kaikhushroo combined his study of science and law, with the divine knowledge of Khshnoom in a masterful fashion. A powerful speaker, he took each topic as a court brief, arguing both for the plaintiff and the defendant. Expecting the questions that would come up in cross examination, his step by step approach to building up his argument and then presenting the final masterstroke which would entirely destroy the other side was a sight to behold. No matter how many times he presented the same topic, he would revise the topic from the very beginning, re-read the texts and then prepare fresh notes in his trusted diary.
But what separated him from many other speakers and authors was one great quality – his humanism and compassion. Too often, students of Khshnoom develop a sense of superiority, sometimes bordering on bigotry. A little knowledge of Tarikats and Manthras instils in them a sense of false pride and ego, which manifests itself in many ugly forms. Judging others, harshly and wrongly, on perceived faults; a refusal to understand the difficulties that a normal person faces in day-to-day life; and an overbearing and know-it-all, holier-than-thou attitude are all the usual signs of these educated Khshnoomists. To treat another less-educated or unfortunate person as an illiterate or untouchable goes against the very nature of Khshnoom, which commands one to give up all the benefits of our own Tarikats and Manthras to one who has never uttered a Holy Word in his life. Kaikhushroo would get very upset with such behaviour and derisively called them Ilm-e-Khasyun (mental retards). To all those who came to him seeking advise for difficult family situations, when a member had perhaps decided to marry outside or had put aside the Sudreh Kusti, the first thing Kaikhushroo did was listen – without judging, allowing the troubled person to unburden the great load he was bearing. Even when some came to disclose a great lapse in character or a serious sin, he would never condemn or harshly judge. He would just listen. Only once the unburdening was over, would he try to give some peace to the person. This one quality endeared him to hundreds of Parsis and non-Parsis who would literally worship him and ask him for solutions for their many troubles. His advice was always practical, doable and pertinent. Sant Chokhamela belonged to the Mahar caste, which was considered untouchable and banished to the outskirts of the villages and towns of Maharashtra in those days. They were not allowed to enter the temples or have a Darshan of the deity, or even to recite any Sanskrit verses, lest they get ‘polluted’. Chokhamela unburdened his angst through the Abhang…
Umbartyaasi kaise shivu, aamhi jaati heen
Roop tujhe kaise paahu, tyaat aamhi dheen
Paayarishi hovu dang, gaavuni Abhang
Naatha ghari naache…
How can I even dare think of crossing the temple’s threshold? I who am of a very low caste; How can I dare to see your Divine Face, I who am a downtrodden and lowly person!
All I can do is stand by your doorstep, transfixed singing this Abhang!
This humanism and compassion are also evident in the writings of Dr. Saheb Framroze Chiniwalla. In his essay on Tarikats in the Khordeh Avesta ba Khshnoom, Doctor Saheb writes that when a man standing on the footboard of a tram falls down, people around him don’t gather around and kick him and abuse him, asking why he was travelling dangerously. Instead they pick him up and clean and dress his wounds. Through their humanism, the man himself realizes his mistake and resolves to never travel in this manner again. In the same way, a man, troubled by his fate, makes decisions or performs certain actions which are un-Zoroastrian or just plain wrong. When such a man realizes his mistake and owns up, it does not behove others to jump on him and castigate him. Rather, they need to display understanding and love and through humanism and compassion, make him mend his ways and begin life afresh. The true lover of Khshnoom practices his Tarikats and Manthras silently, without disturbing the equilibrium in the family and in society, and is every ready to help a less unfortunate person, without judging his worthiness or otherwise.
Writing in the Ustad Saheb Behramshah Shroff Memorial Volume in 1928, in a footnote spanning pages 34 and 35, Dr. Saheb makes serious remarks against those who make a great display and fashion of their Tarikats, who look down derisively on others and who feel having long beards and praying for endless hours without first fulfilling our commitments to family and society, are the only qualifying factors for salvation! He warns, very clearly, that looking down on others – a form of untouchability that Sant Chokhamela sings above, can lead to only one result – that sooner or later, nature will arrange circumstances in such a fashion, that he who was most derisive towards another, will himself have his ego broken and will be forced seek the help of the same man he had humiliated and considered untouchable.
I first met Kaikhushroo in November 1987. Within a short time, we hit off well and soon I was visiting his house very regularly. As we discussed Khshnoom, I also found that he was an advanced practitioner of Indian Classical music. Although I had an interest in Indian classical since school times, I had no formal education about it. Slowly, KND introduced the various concepts of Indian music, demonstrating by performing on the flute or singing himself. He had a rich metallic voice and could delineate a bandish very well. My evening visits became almost a daily routine, arriving at around 4:30 pm, then discussions over tea and snacks till about 8 pm, when he would sit down for dinner and I would head back home. Everyday, we would read something from Dr. Saheb’s books, then I would discuss the philological (literal translation from my grammar school studies) version and then we would read the Khshnoom explanation. Even though he was half a century older than me, he had absolutely no issues in learning something from a rookie like me. When I would raise some grammatical point, he would listen very seriously. Then he would read Dr. Saheb’s explanation and grammatical notes. Then we would argue and examine each point over and over until we came to an understanding.
In around January 1990, he decided that I should speak at the Mahella Patel Agiary during the Fasli Gatha series in March. After much discussion, we decided on the description of Prophet Zarathushtra’s stature and birth as given in the 24th Karta of the Fravardin Yasht. It was a tough choice and he made me work very hard for it, going over again and again till the whole thing was deeply imprinted in my mind. My notes in the new diary he gave me were examined again and again. Finally, on 17th March, 1990 I gave the talk, with an introduction by Curset Patel, Editor of Dini Avaz and KND sitting next to me. As I made my way through the talk, I observed that he was taking notes on a small Post it note. After I finished, he gave a short talk, mentioning among other things, that I had worked very hard on the topic. As we left the Agiary and headed home, he handed over 2 Post It notes, where he had written the time at which I had started every paragraph of the Karda and some points. One error in pronunciation was also written down. Later on, we went through these points and he explained how it could have been done better.
In this way, my immersion in the vast ocean of Khshnoom started. Whenever I was in danger of losing my way or getting bogged down, he would help out. But there was no excuse for not working hard. Nothing was given readymade. I had to work hard on it. As a bonus, after the hard study was over, we would shift over to music and then he would regale me with some unknown story of a famous musician, or their eccentricities or wild demands. Like Sant Chokhamela says, I was immersed in the holy waters of Khshnoom and I developed an ability to disassociate myself from the daily humdrum and become totally focussed on Khshnoom.
Vaalvanti jaavu aamhi vaalvanti nachu
Chandrabhagecha paanyaane anga anga nhaavu
Vithalache naam ghevu hovuni nissang,
Naatha ghari naache…
Let’s go to the banks of the river and sing and dance there,
Let’s bathe thoroughly in the waters of the Chandrabhaga;Let’s chant the name of Vithala and dissociate ourselves from everything!
As I picked up more music, we began attending live performances and concerts, returning late in the night. He had this uncanny ability to pick up which raag the musician was going to perform, even before it was announced. He would observe the harmonium player very carefully and pick out the keys he was practicing while the tuning was going on. He would listen to the tanpura and through its tuning find out which would be the dominant notes of the composition. Finally, he would very carefully stare at the musician who would invariably be humming the piece he was going to perform, but with the mikes off. Through these three, he would bend over and whisper: ‘dikra, aaje to Puriya lagech.’ And sure enough, it would be Puriya. Most times he would get it right. Pretty soon I began to try and do it myself and he would wait for me to catch up. Then both would disclose the raag at the same time so that there was no cheating! More often, I was wrong and he was right!
KND hated the showmanship displayed by many instrumentalists by engaging in Jugalbandi with the tabla player. As this generally happened at the end of the performance, he would bend over and whisper: ‘Ai dhabhar dhubar chalu thayu. Tu ja ne bahar thi wada ne chai lai le!’ As the percussion increased and our audience would go wah wah, I could walk out and over to the auditorium cafeteria to pick up a plate of wada or sandwiches and some tea before everyone started running out. Then I would pick a spot where we could sit and eat in peace. Soon he would come out and then we would enjoy the intermission, again discussing some point about the recital. He was a fierce critic but when an artist was good, he would definitely congratulate him, often humming the tune or bandish on the way home in the car.
As my love for music increased, I began to increase my music collection, mainly from the Rhythm House store. Then we would play them together at his house on his modest stereo player. On 28th May 2001, it was Roj Khorshed Mah Dae, Prophet Zarathushtra’s Diso. It was also the wedding day of a friend who would become one of India’s most respected journalists. We had decided to go together for the wedding after our customary evening tea and discussions. We dressed in the formal Dagli and Paghdi and sat in my car. As we started, I took out a cassette and pushed it into the player. The trademark left eyebrow rose in question, asking ‘what’s this?’. ‘Multani’ (a major afternoon raag), I replied, ‘Bhimsen nu recording che!’ He gave a disapproving look, ‘Multani in the late evening, tch tch!’ I kept quiet and let Bhimsen Joshi give him an answer. As we descended Worli Hill and merged into the heavy traffic at Haji Ali, the car became very silent. Around Nana Chowk, his fingers were tapping the rhythm on his knees and the head was swaying in complete harmony. An occasional ‘wah!’ became more frequent, replaced by ‘baap re!’ (OMG!) As the vilambit gave way to the drut and then to the impossibly speedy taans, the vibe in the car became electric. By some curious synchronicity, the tape ended almost as we parked the car near Albless Baug and went in for the reception.
We met and congratulated our friend and then people swarmed around him, eager to ask questions or just shake hands. He was uncharacteristically quiet, physically present but his mind miles away. We finished dinner and met the parents and then took our leave. As we sat in the car he said: ‘I want to hear it again. And drive slowly, ha!’ I looked at him and remarked: ‘Multani? Late night? Tch tch!’ The roads were empty at this time of the night yet I drove slowly, so that the entire cassette would play out. As the recording of Bhimsen Joshi, singing in 1957 at the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar filled the car, we both just listened. As we reached home, he got out of the car, taking the cassette with him. ‘I want this. You can listen later!’ Over many days, we discussed and heard that recordings so many times, and each time he would shake his head in wonder…sala majaa avi gayi! Su gayech e!
And so, the years passed and the friendship grew. We had our disagreements and heated arguments; we would stop talking for some time and then we would start again… As my career progressed, my house visits became less frequent, until we were communicating almost entirely on the phone. Married life and the Panthaky’s job at Behram Baug meant that there was almost no chance of meeting except at some functions. But our phone calls remained constant. He would come over to Behram Baug during the Fasli Muktad or on the Salgreh and give a talk, while enjoying the Malido and the masala dal we would make for breakfast.
In January 2010, Vada Dasturji Meherji Kekobad, the 16th Meherjirana passed away in Navsari. As I started the prayers for him at Behram Baug, KND went to Navsari for the Paidust. At the Uthamna, the Farmayashne name was recited as Dastur Kaikhushroo, thereby announcing to the world that our beloved KND had now become the 17th Meherjirana, with the name Dastur Kaikhushroo Ervad Navroze. Many celebrated but I was worried about how this would affect his life. A few days after the Dasma, I went to meet Meherbanoo, the wife of the deceased Dasturji. After going over the prayer program and Dasturji’s library which he had left for me, I went to meet KND at Jamshed Baug. He sat there in a room full of congratulatory shawls and flower bouquets. Looking at him in the eye, I asked: ‘ai tame su kidhu?’ That famous left eyebrow and increase in temper was immediate: ‘what do you expect me to do? Should I not take the responsibility that my family has borne for 400 years? There’s no one left!’
So, at the age of 83, KND became the Vada Dasturji of the Bhagarsath and the oldest and senior-most Gaadi in India. He began to spend more time in Navsari. But the internal politics and the age-old rivalries, indiscipline of the Mobeds and corruption in various Trusts, and so many more things which cannot be written here, took their toll on his health. His advancing age made things worse. A man, whose memory could rattle off case laws and citations and passages from the Avesta in the blink of a second began to have difficulty in remembering names and faces. His writing deteriorated and his health began to go downhill.
In July 2012, I slipped and fell and damaged by spine. I was admitted to hospital and advised surgery. The pain was incredible and my thoughts were more on the upcoming Muktad and whether I would be able to go back in time. As I lay there on the bed with painkillers in the IV, visiting hours started and a few people from Behram Baug came by. Then there was another knock on the door and in walked Kaikhushroo, in full Dasturji dress, along with two ladies from our Khshnoom circle. I immediately tried to get up in respect, forgetting my injury. The pain forced me back down in one second. ‘Don’t do that!’ He scolded. ‘Sui rahe, siddho siddho!’ He sat down beside me and took my hand in his hands and we talked, like old times. After some time, he said: ‘Marzban, I know a lot of things have happened between us, but I want you to start giving talks again. Go to Mahella Patel Agiary and give talks. Tu karse ne dikra?’ Lying there on that bed, I shook my head and pressed his hand. ‘I will try, Kaikhushroo!’
After my recovery, I did start giving a few talks at the Agiary whenever possible. Next year, 7th July – the 86th Baj of Ustad Saheb was observed in Behram Baug with the customary Jashan and talk by me in the morning. For the evening function at Cama Baug, KND was scheduled to give a talk on the Atash Nyaesh. As I was driving from Jogeshwari to Cama Baug, I got a call on the mobile. ‘Dikra hu Keko cheu. There is a problem. My talk is ready but I cannot remember anything. I am unable to speak. The words are all blurring up in my eyes. Marzban, can you step in and give a short speech in the beginning. I will try and speak a few words if I’m feeling well. I will give you a signal. Otherwise you continue speaking till the end. Dikra aaj no divas sambhali le mare mate.’ The pain in his voice and shock of hearing those words made me pull up the car to the side to take in what had just happened.
I reached the Baug and some time later he came in. He looked weak but gave me an eye and asked me to sit at the back. He had recovered a bit and gave an introductory speech, explaining how the Khshnoom movement had started and how the Masani brothers and then the Chiniwalla brothers had continued, how he himself had run the Parsi Avaz for some time and then the role of Dini Avaz and Parsi Pukar. But what of the future, he asked. What about the net? How do we tackle these new media? I don’t understand much of it but my friend Marzban has started the Frashogard blog and today I want him to come up here and explain to us what is this internet and how we plan to take Khshnoom forward. Then I took over and over 45 minutes kept on explaining how the Frashogard blog was getting traffic from different corners of the world, how the digitization of the Khshnoom literature was progressing and how we could access all Khshnoom books online. A short tug at my Dagli from KND sitting next to me indicated that he wanted to speak. I concluded and the KND began his speech. He was unable to stand and speak so did so sitting down.
In all my years with him, I had always been amazed at his memory and his diction. But that day it was very different. His memory could not support him. He tried his best to explain the short paragraph from the Atash Nyaesh but he could not. He faltered, repeated, kept going back and forth. Sitting in the audience I kept my head down and wept silently at his mental state. It was all getting over. After the talk I met him briefly but he was clearly disoriented. He went back to Navsari and I headed back to Behram Baug.
In May 2014, we received a call saying that KND was in a very bad state in Navsari. Three of us, including my journalist friend referred to above went in the Gujarat express and then took a rickshaw to Sohrab Baug. We knocked on his door and waited. After a long time, a man opened the door. We could not recognise him. He had deteriorated so badly. He looked at my two friends blankly. Even though he knew them since so many years he could not recognise them. He looked at me straight and said, ‘aav dikra!’ The room was a mess. The bed reeked of urine, his handsome face had a stubble and those bright eyes seemed dull and lifeless. I tried to act as if it was all ok and start a friendly chat. We were all just so shocked that we could not say anything much. We sat with him for some time, in awkward silence. The secretary of the Anjuman came to meet him and take his sign on some forms. We left and returned to Mumbai, in silence.
It was April 2015. My life was in a mess. I had received a divorce notice. My son’s health had worsened and we were to take him to Seattle for a clinical trial. I had resigned as Panthaky of the Behram Baug Agiary. There was chaos everywhere. In all this, the phone kept ringing from inquisitive people who wanted to know exactly what had happened and whether this was true or that was true. I was sick and tired of answering everyone. As the phone rang one more time, I glanced at it in frustration and anger. To my surprise it was KND. ‘Marzban, hu Keko cheu!’ As I got up from my chair in respect, he must have sensed it… ‘Tu besi ja!’ ‘Dikra, I’m hearing lots of things about you, I don’t know what to believe and what not to. I’m very sorry that all this is happening to you. But tell me, how is your son Behzad?’ As I explained the situation he listened carefully. Like always, he was never judgemental. Never rude. Never insulting. He only said: ‘Dikra, my life is now almost over. I don’t know how to comfort you or help you. But there is one thing I will do. Today I will pray to Dadar Ahura Mazda. I will tell him, please, take my old life away. Please take it! But whatever few years you have left for me, give it to my child Behzad, so that he may live. I have experienced everything in life. I have nothing to look forward to. But it is not fair for such a young child to suffer so. Pease Dadar Ahura Mazda, take my life and spare Behzad! Marzban, this is all I can do for you!’
What could I answer to that? How to explain that the very same thought had passed my mind every day and night, as I gave the Boi and placed my head in front of the Holy Fire. Who can understand the workings of God? Who can question Him? What can one do but accept His Will?
On 7th July, 2015, the 88th Baj of Ustad Saheb, I left Mumbai forever and started a new life in Udvada. In around November 2017 I went to Navsari where he had been shifted to the WZO Home for the Aged. He looked slightly better but was very weak. We chatted a little, he made fun of the Udvada Mobed who had accompanied me – ‘heard he’s been irritating you guys! Hajun maramari karech ke?’
In January 2018, he fell off the bed and hurt his head badly. I drove to Navsari and chatted a bit with him. He hummed a few Thumris but he was noticeably weak. He told me, ‘have maro time up thai gayoch.’ Sure, I said. Its never in our hands. As lunch was announced, he walked back to the lunch room and settled down on a bench. It was Masala Dosa day for all the residents. A mobile cart had come by and one by one they were served the Dosa. Impeccable as ever, KND insisted on eating with a fork and spoon…
On February 2, 2018, KND came to Udvada with his daughter and a helper. I went to meet him at the Globe Hotel and we chatted over tea and biscuits. Told me, I saw you in my dream yesterday but you looked fatter! His daughter complained that he was not letting them trim his nails so I requested him to allow them to do it later after visiting the Atash Behram. We took him to Iranshah late in the evening. Despite his frail look and unsteady walk, people recognized him. The Boiwala on duty got up to greet him. He sat there on the stone bench, looking at Iranshah. I sat below on the carpet, his hand on my shoulder. He tapped and whispered: ‘I can’t pray the Atash Nyaesh, I’ve forgotten. Dikra tu bhan, hu paiwand rakhuch!’ Sitting there in front of the Emperor of our Hearts, my mind raced over all our years of association, all that brilliance, that eloquence, that dashing personality, now reduced to this state. A cold shudder passed through my heart. Time is a terrible master!
In November 2018 I went to Navsari with my fiancée Kainaaz to give him our wedding invite. He was really happy that day, and more so when he found out that she was a classical dancer. We spoke a little, he sung out a short Thumri for her but the memory was decreasing. He was very weak and kept repeating that his time was up. On 27th January 2019, we went to Navsari to attend the Fareshta ceremony by our PIDPZ Group. He was there, sitting at the head of the carpet. I met him and he was warm. After the ceremony we met him once again, and that warm hand slipped through mine for the last time ever.
A few months later he was shifted to hospital. Around 1st June he became critical and finally in the early hours of 4th June, KND passed on to the other side.
We went for the Paidust and went through the motions. They were all there – those who had harassed him in Navsari; those who were eager to see him go; those who had refused to give him a shawl when he had been first appointed Vada Dastur – they were all there chatting away as the Geh Sarna was recited. As they carried him away, after that last look, the mind kept flashing back from this instance to that…what to remember, what to forget?
Today, more than a year after his death, and on the 93rd Baj of Ustad Saheb Behramshah Shroff, we live in a most uncertain world. We live in a time where the ancient Zoroastrian Tarikats of segregation, isolation and germ control, which many modern Parsis use to scoff at, have become the Standard Operating Protocol for the entire world! Yet today no one complains of being stuck at home, of not being allowed to have contact with others, with social distancing and masks. Because people are scared! And we should be! Because it’s going to be much worse than this! The words of our Ustad Saheb, which were so forcefully spread by Kaikhushroo and so many others, that only those will survive who stick to the Tarikats of our religion, put on the Sudreh Kusti at all times, recite whatever Manthravani they know, and follow Truth and Ashoi in their lives. This was the message of the Abed Sahebs to the Parsis of India, brought forward by Ustad Saheb Behramshah. This was the message which Kaikhushroo spread through his entire life. Sitting up there somewhere, with the other worthies of our time, they must be having a great time. As Chokhamela wrote:
Aashaadi Kaarthiki bhakta jana yethi,
Pandharichya vaalvanti Sant Gola hothi,
Chokha mhane Naam gethaa, Bhaktha hothi dhang
On Aashaada Karthiki (Guru Poornima), the Devotees come there – As all the saints will gather on the banks of the river Chandrabhaga at Pandharpur.Chokha says: just taking the name of the Lord, all the devotees will attain Salvation!
In the same way, our dear Kaikhushroo must have surely joined all our dear departed Khshnoom brothers and sisters and celebrated the occasion to worship our Revered Teachers. And in that , this hallowed group of Teachers and Students must have met each other; good discussion, good music and pure Khshnoom must have flowed. It was in such environments that KND was at his best! But today, after so many years of illness and memory loss, his Ruvan, having reached the stage of Anushehi, must have thoroughly participated in the proceedings! And I’m sure he must have put up a smashing performance!
And so, from today, we must keep our sorrow away, remove the emptiness from our hearts, forget the bad times and rejoice! For our revered teacher, my Kaikhushroo is now finally free! May his Ruvan soar higher and higher and achieve Salvation at the earliest!
Abir gulaal udhalita ranga…
Naatha ghari naache maajhaa sakhaa Panduranga
Amidst bursts of colorful powders strewn in the air
My dear friend dances with ecstasy in the House of the Lord!
Dastur Kaikhushroo Ervad Navroze, Sarosh Yazad panaah baad!
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram
7th July, 2020