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!
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