An outsider’s induction into Zoroastrianism and Parsi food

Photo credit: 
Binge. Shot at the Parsi Anjuman in Delhi.
Vritti Bansal's picture
Vritti Bansal
April 06, 2018
I grew up in a Parsi home that wasn’t mine to begin with. Years later, I return to a sanctuary that made me feel welcome then—to find out why it’s home to one of my favourite restaurants now.

Women in neatly draped saris seem unbothered about their coiffed salt-and-pepper hair as they speak in frantic Gujarati. It amazes me a little that they have no inclination to check whether their saris are still pinned, or their manes still voluminous. Perhaps it’s a projection because I feel like something they don’t need to pay any attention to as well. Nevertheless, I try to catch hold of a phrase I might understand. Among the repartee, “Achoo Michoo” is all that registers.

It’s my younger step-sister’s Navjote. Everyone fusses over her while I tell myself I’m important, too. My stepfather doesn’t approve of the dress I’m wearing. It’s not snazzy enough for a Navjote ceremony and I have no sense of fashion—I know that’s how he thinks; he’s said as much to my face. But it makes me feel good to defy him. I cuss him out in my head, clutching dearly to my sense of self. He sulks and ignores me throughout the ceremony, rubbing it in my face that his biological daughters are dearer: they love him unconditionally, are girly girls who get the importance of ornate clothing, and of course, good Parsis with the privilege of a Navjote. My mother is bothered by the tension and copes by showing me less or no attention; it’s what makes him happy.

I’m not allowed a Navjote because I’m not Parsi by birth (not to mention too old for one). The fact that I’m nine years old, coupled with my stepfather’s attitude, makes it feel like prejudice. In return, I sulk at my step-family, my mother, and even the food that’s served later. I miss my father’s presence, in silent faith that he would never find it in his heart to make me feel non-existent. That we’d sit together and snigger at all these heartless people.

Achoo Michoo is an important Zoroastrian custom. It’s believed to ward off the evil eye and essentially performed at every Navjote.

As the rituals begin, I half-see and half ignore what’s going on. Achoo Michoo is an important Zoroastrian custom. It’s believed to ward off the evil eye and essentially performed at every Navjote. The Navjote ses—or thali—has a coconut, betel leaves, betel nuts, dried date (kharak), unshelled almond, a stick of turmeric (harad no gathio), a raw egg, a small bowl of rice, and sugar crystals (khari sakar). All of the ingredients are usually provided by either the priest or the Navjote caterer, I find out nineteen years later when my curiosity has more to do with my work rather that what I might be missing out on.

Growing up, I rebelled against all the Parsi food that was cooked in my house. I happily ate chicken farchas that neighbours brought over. Sali chicken and dhansak that friends of the family made on hot, lazy Middle eastern Friday afternoons was easily polished off my plate. But I found excuses to push the plate away if my mother ever cooked dhansak at home. 

I found an explicable comfort in it again a few years ago. The comfort was refreshingly reminiscent of acceptance from strangers instead of family wounds. Rustom's had just opened in Delhi and I found myself feelingly strangely territorial about the food when friends and acquaintances praised it. I felt a sense of pride when I found out that the Adhchini outlet, which bore a stark resemblance to bawa homes in Bombay, was moving to the Parsi Fire Temple (also called the Anjuman, or agiyari). 

The Fire Temple in Delhi has always been a place of acceptance and tender memories for me. My stepfather first took my mother and I there before we moved countries. He told us, with little tact, that we weren’t allowed in; the nine-year-old me thought it was just another opportunity for him to make me feel like an outsider. But Zoroastrianism became an inextricable part of my life ever since. The Bagli family, who have been responsible for running the Anjuman for decades, treated me with more care than my own family. The priest—Kawas Bagli—never hesitated to place his palm on my head as a gesture of blessing. He still does each time I see him. At the Anjuman, I'm known as my stepfather's daughter but there's a silent understanding that my identity is entirely separate from his. 

Excited about the merging of two Parsi establishments I hold particularly dear, I asked Kainaz Contractor—head chef & proprietor at Rustom's—a little bit about her restaurant's new, unmatchable accolade. 

How did the partnership with the Fire Temple come about?

This happened close to a year ago, when Mrs Bagli was approaching retirement. They were looking for someone to take over the canteen that she managed earlier. Since we already ran an established Parsi restaurant, some of the trustees got in touch with us and spoke to us about running their canteen for them.

There was no better place for us to even think of opening an outpost of Rustom’s. This is quite an iconic space for the Parsi community, not only because of the Fire Temple, but also because it’s where all the Parsis of Delhi come together for special gatherings. If there’s a Navjote in the family, that ceremony also happens here. It's just a place where the entire community comes together and there’s no better place for us to be.

Has being in a religious space affected you in any way? Has it changed the way you manage things?

I feel that my staff is more sensitive to where they are. They’ve learnt a lot more about Parsi culture than they were exposed to in the past. Now, they’ve actually seen a fire temple from the outside; they know who Parsis are. When people come in from outside of Delhi and ask to know a little about the area, they are updated. We also have the priest, who is Mrs Bagli’s son: he’s always in and out, so they’ve even seen a Parsi priest now. It’s just a lovely place to be operating out of. It’s got its own charm, honestly. I feel so happy coming to this place as opposed to Adhchini, where you’re always in the middle of traffic. This is like an oasis.

Is it true that non-Parsis aren’t allowed inside the Fire Temple?

Yes, they aren’t allowed inside but are free to take a look and get a sense of the temple from the outside. 

It felt wonderful and reassuring for me to have that confirmation, even if it may be meaningless so many years later. The six years I spent in my Parsi step-father’s house in Dubai is a chunk of my life I’ve kept hidden for years. Even my closest friends don’t know I ever had a step-family. I’ve told some and regretted it. But there’s only so much time for which you can conceal a part of your identity, especially if you take pride in it. Having lived in the UAE is a time in my life I otherwise enjoyed and still cherish. However, it bothers me that I’m still stumped when someone asks me why I was there. I see myself getting tired of lying by omission. I either say that it was because my mother or father moved there for work. Neither feels comfortable. I've also never given out a straight answer when anyone asks how I could possibly be so smitten with Parsi food. Even if it means revealing something I’ve so carefully guarded for years, I think it might be time to relieve myself of the weight. I can still take comfort in the fact that it'd be unrealistic to narrate and explain every nuance from over a six-year period. And without every nuance, the story will always be incomplete.