Those who don’t know, Parsees are Iranians who fled religious persecution and sought refuge in India in the 7th Century AD. They escaped to preserve their Zorastrian religious traditions and entered the subcontinent through the western coast of Gujarat. They enjoyed religious tolerance in India for many centuries and prospered under the British rule. They are called Parsees because they spoke “Farsi,” which is the spoken language in Iran. My alma mater, Sir J.J. School of Art was started in 1857 with the benevolence of a Parsee philanthropist Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. The author belongs to the Parsee community as well.
Zorastrians worship fire as they believe that the energy of the creator is represented by fire or sun. The Parsees are very orthodox and a non-Parsee cannot enter their fire-temples. As a child I was so fascinated by the fire temples and used to ask my Parsee friends to describe the interior of the temple. Having grown up in the city and exposed to Parsee culture, especially their food, this novel appealed to me on more levels than one. While reading the book I imagined the scent of sandalwood, the frankincense burnt in the evening, the aroma of dhansak and patiyo, the rustling of beautiful silk gara sarees worn during their weddings and navjote.
The main protagonist, the aging Parsee widower, had fallen for a non-Parsee woman in his youth. She was of a different faith therefore their romance was met with strict opposition. What follows is a tragic sequence of events, which are started by the religious bigotry and unrequited love! This begs the question as to whether it is worth preserving traditions at the cost of ruining so many lives.
The romance in the novel reminded me of the story of one of my classmates from India. She belongs to the Parsee community and fell in love with a guy who belonged to an equally orthodox Hindu Brahmin community. Of course all through their college years in India they totally hid their romance from their parents. The guy came to the United States to study in one of the Ivy Leagues and soon after made plans for my friend to join him. She came to the United States on a student visa and they both started living together. The news reached her orthodox family who threw a fit. Her grandmother called her up and said “Stop this nonsense and come home right this very instant.” Armed with defiance and courage, a product of the geographical distance and being in love she told her grandmother, “You must be out of your mind.” So the grandmother started emotionally blackmailing her telling her that her actions have caused her heart trouble and many other ailments. My friend was completely defiant!
Her boyfriend (now husband) proposed marriage to her a couple of times but she preferred living with him only to spite her family. Finally they got married, more from an immigration perspective than societal norms, which wasn’t attended by any member of their respective families. Eventually both the families were embarrassed by their bigotry and had a wedding reception in India for my friend and her husband. Of course today everything is hunky dory with both the families but my friend and her husband don’t miss a chance to poke fun at their families!