The Light which never went out

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Gatha Ahunavad, 1384 Yz.

Who doesn’t like hearing stories of generations gone by, some humorous anecdotes, some moving tales, all related by those elder to us, with full passion and belief, recounted as though they had happened just a few days ago. These stories form an important part of our culture – the oral historical tradition. Many facts can be gleaned and important historical events properly placed by listening to the different accounts of the same story and then placing it in the proper historical perspective.

Sitting here in Udvada since the last few weeks, I have had some chance to interact with some of the Mobeds Sahebs who live here and hear some interesting things. The stories of our Mobed Sahebs and their lives are at once, sometimes sad and depressing, and at the same time highly entertaining and inspirational. One particular incident, related to me by the grandson of the Mobed Saheb concerned, really both entertained me as well as gave me food for thought. I felt that it would be an ideal account to relate to readers of Frashogard and also commit to writing for the first time, thereby avoiding the sad saga of various stories disappearing with the death of those who carried them in their mind.

Udvada, about 60 years ago was well populated with over 50 priests in full time residence, carrying out the service of Iranshah as well as innumerable Pav Mahel ceremonies for Behdins from all over India and abroad. Such was the rush of work that Mobed Sahebs would line up even before dawn to take the first position and the over 30 Hindolas in both the main Atash Behram building as well as the Petit Daremeher would be full with pairs waiting for the first ones to get over so that they could commence their ceremonies.

In all this hustle and bustle lived Mobed Saheb Behramji Khurshedji Dastur on the main Mirza street, in a modest house next to Terrace View and opposite where Din-Behram cottage is situated today. A powerfully built man with a infamous temper as well as the distinct habit of telling it as it is, Mobed Saheb Behramji was well liked by his peers as well as a little feared for his anger and habit of speaking out. Even though he had never himself offered Boi to Iranshah, he was a great stickler for traditions and tremendously orthodox as was the norm in those days. Mobed Behramji would not tolerate any disrespect shown to the sacred Iranshah, even in passing or by mistake, by any one – Behdin or Mobed or Dastur. A man of particular habits and discipline, Mobed Saheb would have the daily tipple in the evening with some company, often pouring out three pegs… ‘Kem aapra maa che ne Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta, chaal le have, tan to levanaj…’ he would counter to anyone who refused his generosity!

Behramji Dastur Lo Res

Living in his house with 9 children and other relatives, it was a busy and very tough time for Behramji. He used to practice in a Mumbai Agiary at the meagre salary of Rs. 50 per month. Despite these hardships, Mobed Behramji had made friends with many professionals, notably Maneck Mistry of the CA firm Kalyaniwalla & Mistry, Nadarshah Mulla of the solicitors firm Mulla & Mulla and A. D. Shroff, later President of the Bombay Stock Exchange. These famous professionals were all attracted to his moral courage and ability to call a spade a spade, his visage as the quintessential traditional Mobed, always dressed in crisp white Dagli and a tall Pagdi, sporting a fulsome beard  (you can get more information here on beard and men’s grooming) and a somewhat awe-inspiring look. His presence was such that people would make way for him wherever he went.

The last months of 1961 were a very busy time for India in general and western India in particular. The liberation of Goa, Daman and Diu, which remained in Portuguese hands despite India achieving independence in 1947 was an important prestige issue for the newly born country. As talks with the Portuguese authorities failed, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made plans for the physical invasion and takeover of Goa, Daman and Diu from the foreigners.

These activities caused some concern in the minds of Mobed Sahebs of Udvada, because Daman, hardly a couple of miles away from the Dungarwadi at Udvada as well as very close to Iranshah Himself, was likely to face military action. In around December 1961, the Indian Air Force began flying sorties over Daman, which were met with artillery fire from the ground garrisons of the Portuguese forces, gathered at the old Fort of Moti Daman. Anxious Parsis, watching the events from the hill of Dungarwadi could see the flashes of the gun fire from the artillery and the fire from the Indian Air Force’s Mystere fighter planes.

A meeting of the Athornan Anjuman was called in the Atash Behram to decide what steps needed to be taken to safeguard the sanctity and physical security of Iranshah. The concern was that if one of the fighter planes missed their target or was shot down, there could be some damage to the village of Udvada and the Atash Behram itself. One by one, the many Mobed Sahebs gathered in the hall of the Atash Behram debated what to do. One suggested building an underground tunnel to keep Iranshah inside when military action started, another suggested moving the Iranshah to another village, someone suggested building a large copper shield around the complex.

As the ideas grew more weird and the discussion started losing focus, Mobed Saheb Behramji slowly became more and more agitated. When he finally couldn’t take it anymore, he got up from his seat and shouted out: ‘Enough! What is all this talk about protecting Iranshah! Are we qualified to protect Iranshah or will Iranshah protect us? What are all of you talking about? Let us all raise our arms in appeal to Iranshah and ask for His protection for our village and our Atash Behram, with a solemn promise that if the threat passes away, we in the Anjuman will offer a Machi of 1.25 maunds (25 kilos) to Iranshah. No more talk of weird ideas now! Mobed Sahebs, gather your wits and place faith in Him Who Cannot Fail us!’

Such was Mobed Behramji’s presence, his immense faith in Iranshah and his fiery face and blazing eyes, along with that commanding voice, that it was enough to make up the minds of all gathered there on that fateful day. The Mobed Sahebs also realized that the other ideas were hardly practical and hence agreed to his proposal and earnestly beseeched Pak Iranshah to offer His Protection to all in the village as well His Own Throne.

Soon the hostilities started. The Portuguese were ill-equipped. Not only was their artillery and anti-aircraft weapons of old vintage, they were also woefully short of ammunition. The Indians choked their supply lines and mounted military force from air, as well as a ground attack headed by Lt.-Col. SJS Bhonsle of the 1st Maratha Light Infantry Battalion on the dawn of 18th December. By 11:30 in the afternoon, the Portuguese ran out of ammunition. By 17:00 hours, the last pockets of resistance were finished off. Two attempts by the Portuguese to talk about a ceasefire were repulsed and the next day by 11:00, they surrendered without a fight. It was all over.

As jubilations and celebrations broke out all over India, the Mobed Sahebs of Udvada were a relieved lot. Remembering their promise to Iranshah, shortly thereafter, a massive Machi of 25 kilos was offered to the Padshah Saheb and heartfelt thanks offered for His Help and Protection. The wise suggestion of Mobed Saheb Behramji Dastur was gratefully acknowledged.

Soon life settled down to its routine. But shortly thereafter, post the humiliating defeat at the hands of China in the Sino-India war in 1962, Pakistan began to get active, sensing a weak India, which would result in the 1965 war. During those days, when Pakistan Air Force flew sorties around the Gulf of Kutch, some of my elder readers may remember the ‘blackouts’ ordered in many places of India to foil the enemy’s plans.

During those desolate days, a blackout was also ordered in Udvada. All residents had to compulsorily shut off all electrical and other lights, put up dark paper over the glass windows and generally the entire area was to become totally dark. All areas except one, that is, Mobed Behramji’s house in the middle of Udvada. A man with immense faith and blazing anger against any weakness, perceived or otherwise, Mobed Behramji agreed to shut off the lights in the house, but when it came to the question of the dim light bulb on the Otla of his house, Mobed Behramji put his foot down. ‘Arre bawa, Roshni vagar Aiwisruthrem ni Farajyat kem thai!’ was his valiant response, underlining the fact that the very first prayer to recite in the Aiwisruthrem Gah after the Kusti is the Diva no Namaskar! Despite many requests, warnings and gentle reminders, Mobed Behramji refused to shut off the night bulb from his Otla, and it burned even brighter, in the overpowering darkness all around.

Now some of the non-Parsi residents of Udvada grew anxious that this old man’s eccentricity would cause the whole village to suffer and so a group quietly went and complained to the Collector of Valsad who promptly arrived the next evening and sent a peon to Behramji’s house, asking him to come at once to meet the Collector.

To anyone in those days, a summons from the Collector meant immediate response. But not Behramji! ‘Jaa taara Collector ne kehje ke hu kaale savaare aavas!’ The next morning, Mobed Saheb finished his prayers, put on a crisp new Dagli and his tall Pagdi and proudly walked to the Punchayet office to see the Collector, who was equally keen to meet this weird man who had refused his summons last evening! As Mobed Behramji walked in, his huge size, the imposing personality and the grandeur of his starched clothes and implicit Mobedi Khoreh made a great impression on the Collector, who immediately got up from his seat with folded hands and bent down before Behramji! What a reversal!

After pleasantries, the Collector gently asked Behramji why he had not come the previous evening. Never one to lie, and always one to say the obvious, Behramji began: ‘Jov ni Saheb, it is this: my dear friend Mr. Nadarshah Mulla, Partner at Mulla & Mulla, Solicitors (taking the name of this reputed company and its Partner had an immediate effect on the Collector), has always advised me that one should never visit the police station or any official after sunset, because you see, we Parsis have a habit of taking a couple of drinks in the evening (this in the face of the Collector and oblivious to the fact that Gujarat is a ‘dry’ state), and it is possible that the officials may take advantage of our drink and may make us sign a false document!’ (this is a free translation from the Gujarati original)

The Collector could of course give no reply to this astonishing statement, said in all seriousness and gravity, from a person whose self-confidence and stature had already had a salutary effect on him! After some small talk, and with great reluctance, the Collector then came to the main point – that Behramji was breaking the law by keeping the light on his Otla in spite of blackout orders. Mobed Saheb Behramji was frank and open: ‘Saheb, you can do what you want, but I will not switch off the light on my Otla. How can I do the Aiwisruthrem Farajyat (as if the Collector could understand what that meant!) in the absence of any light? Divo no Namaskar kem karu bawa? Ay kay thashe nahi maara thi Saheb!’

All over India, Collectors, who are recruited through the prestigious Civil Service Exams and form the crème-de-la-crème of the IAS, are used to the entire population bowing before them. They wield tremendous powers in their areas of jurisdiction and their word is law. And here, in this little non-descript village of a few hundred people, far from civilization, stood this man whose presence and over-powering personality was such that the Collector could only look at him and nod his head! Such was the power in Behramji’s poise and the faith that glittered in his eyes was enough to subdue anyone who dared cross his path. And so Behramji returned to his house and the proud bulb continued to flicker on his modest Otla. Soon thereafter, the war was over and blackouts ceased.

Behramji continued living his disciplined life. To his great joy, all three of his sons not only became Navar, Maratab and Shamel and gave the Boi at Iranshah, the eldest also became the first Chartered Accountant from Udvada. At the age of 84, Mobed Saheb Behramji went to the Atash Behram one day, to recite the daily Nyaesh before Iranshah. He returned home and rested. In the afternoon people noticed him sitting on the Otla loudly singing Monajats (devotional poems) in honour of Prophet Zarathushtra in his melodious voice. He had his early dinner, put his head on the couch, and there breathed his last! What a life! What a death!

Readers of Frashogard, such were the Mobed Sahebs of our community! Where have they all gone today? Why don’t we find even one, who can arouse such emotions in us? What happened in the last 50 years that this generation of god-fearing, honest, Tarikat-baz Mobed Sahebs just disappeared into thin air?

When I heard this story the hair on my hands stood up and despite the burden of my own personal sorrow and loneliness, there ignited a small spark in my heart, a spark of pride, that one of my own could do this! That it when I decided to write about Mobed Behramji Khurshedji Dastur, in the hope that the same, strange, warm glow of happiness may also spread in the hearts of my readers, during these holy days of the Muktad! I take this opportunity to wish all readers of Frashogard a happy new year and end with a request that you all recite one Ashem Vohu in memory of Ervad Behram Ervad Khurshed, that his pious and righteous Ruvan may progress further and further in Nature, and shower its blessings on all of us!

Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram

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  1. Aspi Bamanji Ambapardiwala  August 13, 2015

    Very excellent story! Wishing you a very prosperous year. Happy New Year to you too. Thank you fot posting such religious posts. Keep it on. You are serving our community by this way!
    May Dadaji bless you & your family.

  2. Eddie P. Behramkamdin.  August 13, 2015

    Dear Ervad Marzban,
    After reciting Ashem Vohi in memory of Ervad Behram Ervad Khurshed, would like to mention here that deeply touched reading your lucid write up which we always look forward to receive and read.
    Just a small observation : I think you meant Mr. Maneck Mistry and not Kalyaniwalla. Hence u may suitably substitute the word in your writeup after you are satisfied with correctness of same please.
    Thanks and Best Regards.
    Eddie P. Behramkamdin.

  3. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 13, 2015

    @Eddie P. Behramkamdin
    Thank you for pointing out the error. Best wishes to you and Roshan aunty.

  4. RUMI PATEL  August 13, 2015

    What is the difference between Navar, Martab & Shamel? Same as in what is the difference between Dastur, Mobed & Ervad.

  5. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 13, 2015

    @Rumi Patel
    Navar is the first degree of Priesthood which gives the candidate the right to perform all normal Hushmordi ceremonies. Maratab is the second degree which confers the right to perform all the Pav Mahel ceremonies. Shamel is an additional viva voce test taken for priests who wish to serve Iranshah Atash Behram as Boiwallas.

    Ervad is a normal priest who has passed Navar and/or Navar and Maratab levels. Mobed is a full time priest qualified to perform Pav Mahel. Dastur is the head of any section of Priests, or a High Priest.

  6. Keiky Press  August 13, 2015

    Thank you Ervadsaheb Marzbanji for sharing an inspiring fact. May Iranshaji Bless all the Dasturs, Mobeds and the Common Ones who served all our Firetemples in any capacity with such love. Saal Mubarak & Khordad Saal Mubarak to all.

  7. Mohnaz  August 13, 2015

    Life, If well Lived, is Long enough – Lucius Annaeus Seneca … By sharing this story, u’ve made Him so very alive in our Thoughts .. extremely well timed for His Pious Anushe Ruvan.. hope all pray as much as possible for His Ruvan’s onward progress to Behest .. evane ghana naman .. what times & what lives they had .. we can only imagine in our minds & feel proud . as at least the only thing common we all have with such Great personalities is our pristine DIN, which we should strive to always keep in forefront… Thank U .. n Navroze mubark in adv .. with wishes that the New Year brings the best in life as destined & stored for U

  8. Roshan Edul Darabna  August 13, 2015

    A very illuminating article of our stalwart Mobed Saheb Ervad Behram Ervad Khurshed. So awesome to read the facts of your lucid article of this true Dastur who lived his life and performed his duties as a true Ratheshtar! Indeed our community severely lacks such brethren in the times of today. There are barely a handful now who can stand up to the likes of this daring and simple Mobed Saheb. A good life that he lead, gifted him with a peaceful and beautiful end. May His Revered Soul move to greater heights in the Kingdom of the Almighty Ahura Mazda! Yatha Zamyat Atha Afrinami!
    Many thanks Ervad Saheb Marzbanji for your very interesting article shared. Wish you and your dear ones A Very Prosperous & A Successful Navroze Mubarak Y.Z.1385 and a Blissful Joyous Khordad Saal Mubarak. Pray Ahura Mazda bless you with a long happy life! Ushata Te!!

  9. Mehernosh  August 13, 2015

    Thank you Dasturji Saheb,

    Wonderful article and one worth enjoying. May God give you the strength, courage and wisdom so that these tough times may pass smoothly. The day is near when Our Beloved Varzavand Saheb will revive this great religion. Keeping the faith strong.


  10. Kainaz p  August 14, 2015

    Thank you reading this after a long days wrk really made me happy to understand that we had such tall stalwats who were so devoted and faithful .please continue writing and inspiring us . Happy new year and kodadsaaal mubarak .

  11. Shernaz Marfatia  August 14, 2015

    Thank-you very much Ervad Marzban Hathiram for sharing this story. I could not wipe the smile off my face whilst reading the article. So simple yet immensely inspiring. My family and I are extremely proud and feel blessed for our Zoarastrian heritage. May this enlightenment spread to our younger generation and their children there on. Here’s wishing you and your family a very Happy and Prosperous Papeti and Khordad Sal Mubarak. Thank-you once again for sharing with us your wisdom and knowledge, I earnestly look forward to read each of your articles

  12. AMY HORMAZDIYAR TUREL  August 14, 2015

    Thank you for the superb write up…..enjoyed every word of it………what a wonderful life and death marvelous…….Erwad Meharzban Sahib; you too are doing a great honorable job by putting forth such interesting facts…..really touched my heart…..HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL FAITHFULS

  13. Mahrukh Dadabhoy  August 20, 2015

    Dear Respected Ervad Saheb Marzban Hathiram
    Truly a wonderful write up. Many thanks for it. I’ve been busy and couldn’t read it earlier. Wishing you a very Happy & prosperous New Year good health wealth and prosperity. May Lord Ahura Mazda help you overcome the struggles you face.
    With heartfelt thanks & best wishes
    Respectful regards
    Mahrukh Dadabhoy

  14. Amy Hormazdiyar Turel  August 21, 2015

    I have a question not relating to the above subject…………….Last year in Jame Jamshed You had advised us to pray SAROSH NI TASHBI from our New Year to KhordadSal…..My question is can we pray SAROSH NI TASHBI during any time of the year whenever we feel like or when we are in trouble?
    SAROSH HADOKTH AND SAROSH NI VADI are lengthy prayers I have strong faith in them but cannot pray for long hours….so can i do the SAROSH NI TASHBI every day ?

  15. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 21, 2015

    @Amy Turel
    In matters of prayers, it is always advisable to follow the procedure set by those far more advanced than us. I am not qualified to answer your question regarding Sarosh ni Tasbih as a substitute for Vadi and Hadokht. Both these prayers hardly take 15 minutes each. Question of long hours does not arise. If one is needy, one has to do what is required.