Letter from Mumbai — From the August 2015 issue

House of Fire

Can India’s Parsis survive their own success?

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Fali Madon was looking for a bride. A boyish twenty-seven-year-old with twin passions for physical fitness and expensive cars, Fali was the chief priest of a Parsi fire temple in the Colaba district of Mumbai. For six years he’d been searching for a wife from within his tiny, tight-knit community — the Parsis, Indian practitioners of the ancient Zoroastrian faith, number some 60,000 in a country of 1.2 billion — but so far he’d had no luck. To help his chances, Fali visited a bar on a Sunday evening last summer for a karaoke night organized by a Parsi youth group. He showed up in stylish rectangular glasses and a tight-fitting Michael Jackson T-shirt. The lights were low and the bartenders did a brisk business as pop songs reverberated off the stone walls and beamed ceiling. While Fali chatted with friends, the crowd sang the chorus of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” He mentioned that he was planning to attend a rain dance in August, at the height of the monsoon season, where — if it wasn’t raining already — participants would dance under jets of water. When the first chords of Jackson’s “Black or White” came over the sound system, the crowd whistled and the emcee called Fali’s name; it was his turn to sing.

Khushroo (left) and Fali Madon at the Colaba agiary. All photographs by Chiara Goia

Khushroo (left) and Fali Madon at the Colaba agiary. All photographs by Chiara Goia

I first met Fali on a rainy day in July of last year. The fire temple, or agiary, where he lives and works is surrounded by a large courtyard with palm trees and bougainvillea growing in pots. Two leonine fravahars, winged guardians with human faces, flank a pair of ornate bronze doors that lead to the inner sanctum, where a sacred fire, the tending of which is Fali’s primary responsibility as priest, has burned continuously for 180 years. Colaba was still an island when the fire temple was built, in 1836; now it stands in a quiet corner of fashionable South Mumbai, near the navy cantonment as well as the shops and offices of the World Trade Centre.

When I arrived at the agiary complex, Fali’s father, Khushroo, who is also a priest, led me under an umbrella to their accommodations; as an outsider, I wasn’t allowed in the temple itself. Fali and Khushroo were wearing the garments of their office: a white cotton jacket that ties at the throat and chest, called a dugli, and a white tapered cap, or pagri. Fali told me that as a member of the hereditary Parsi priesthood, he had always expected to officiate at least part-time. He was ordained by his father at thirteen, following a twenty-four-day period of ritual seclusion inside the fire temple. After graduating from college with a degree in sociology, he took a job with the Godrej Group, a Parsi family business that is one of India’s largest conglomerates. Later he managed a Swarovski store, worked as a trainer at a Gold’s Gym, and even performed magic — a common sideline for Zoroastrian priests — with his father, who was known for his ability to make BMWs disappear.

According to the Madons, it was Khushroo, not Fali, who should have been appointed chief priest of the Colaba agiary. By 2013, however, when the position opened up, Khushroo had become the focus of the two most vitriolic disputes within Mumbai’s small but influential Zoroastrian community. Interfaith marriages have long been permitted for Parsi men, but Khushroo is one of the few priests in the city who is willing to perform them for Parsi women as well; he also welcomes the children of those marriages into the faith with a navjote, an initiation ceremony similar to a bar or bat mitzvah. Many Parsis argue that accepting the children of intermarried women is essential if the community is going to survive, but Khushroo says that he is not motivated by demographic concerns. Citing the Gathas, hymns composed by the Prophet Zoroaster, he insisted that anyone can follow the religion. “I don’t know why they are restricting it only to Parsis,” he said.

Even more controversial is Khushroo’s willingness to say funeral prayers for Parsis who choose cremation over the traditional Zoroastrian practice of sky burial, in which corpses are placed on open-air towers to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey. In 2009 the trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (B.P.P.), an elected group of seven men and women who administer the enormously valuable real-estate holdings of Mumbai’s Parsi community, prohibited Khushroo from performing funeral ceremonies at Doongerwadi, the fifty-five-acre forested estate that surrounds the so-called Towers of Silence. In 2011, the Bombay High Court lifted the ban, but the B.P.P. appealed the case to the Indian Supreme Court, where it languished for three years. Khushroo knew that the litigation would make it difficult for him to secure a permanent position as a priest, so he told the main patron of the Colaba agiary, “If you appoint me as a chief priest in your fire temple, you will have a lot of political flak. I have an idea — just consider it for one minute. You appoint my son. I will be behind him.”

While Fali’s eighty-six-year-old great-aunt served me sweet, milky tea, the young chief priest went into the sanctuary to perform the Uziren Geh, a ritual prayer that marks one of the five periods of the Zoroastrian day. Like nearly a third of Parsis, Fali’s aunt had never married; she often stayed at the fire temple with the Madons and liked to spoil her great-nephew by cooking him dhansak, a Parsi dish made from mutton and lentils. (Fali, in turn, had taught her to play solitaire on his computer.) When Fali returned after the ritual, he applauded the patrons, who had appointed him chief priest in July 2013: “They said, ‘Let controversies come, but we will take a bold stand.’ ”

Fali was used to receiving unwanted attention because of his father’s opinions. In high school, his religion teacher, who was also a B.P.P. trustee, mocked Khushroo’s unorthodoxy and suggested in front of the class that Fali and his family were performing the irregular ceremonies for financial reward. And since the B.P.P. brought its case to the Supreme Court, Fali has sometimes been mentioned along with his father in the local and national press. Still, he counted his appointment as a major honor.

Fali’s position at the agiary gave him a central role in the controversies surrounding his father, but it also complicated his marriage prospects. The income of a Zoroastrian priest is no match for what an educated young man might earn in India’s booming technology and finance industries, which is why Fali’s younger brother, Jimmy, went abroad, to London, for college. Jimmy, who now works as a software engineer, performs ceremonies for British Parsis in his spare time, but he acknowledged that being a full-time priest in India is much harder. Among some young people in Mumbai, he told me, the stereotype is that you became a priest if you didn’t graduate or get a job. And while Fali is allowed, and expected, to live at the fire temple, he receives no health insurance or pension. When I first met him he said that marrying a non-Parsi was out of the question; finding a Parsi wife meant wooing someone who could accept a life tied to the rhythms of the fire temple and whose family would be willing to embrace one of the faith’s most notoriously liberal practitioners.

Fali complained that the current set of B.P.P. trustees had “spoiled the name of the community,” but his disdain for his father’s antagonists did not extend to Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation, the youth wing of the B.P.P., which had organized the karaoke night. At the bar, the crowd had shouted for him with special fervor — almost as a mascot might be hailed by fans whose pride stopped short of inspiring them to put on the costume themselves. Even Khushroo was enthusiastic about ZYNG events, though several of the group’s organizers were children of the trustees who had brought the case against him. In such a small community, there were only so many places where a young man might meet his future wife.

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is the author, most recently, of The Newlyweds (Knopf), a novel. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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