The Parsis gathered in numbers at this well as it is regarded by some as sacred and reputed to make wishes come true.
“You succumbed to his persistence
Spent time you had to waste —
Victim to his insistence —
But one can’t fault his taste...”
From Aas Paas Rhymes
My Dear Bawajis and Banuon, Wallas and Wallis,
Four score and seven years ago... no, sorry, 1,200 years ago, our ancestors, landed in Sanjan, Gujarat, fleeing the harshness of the Arab conquest of Persia. There is some story about the king of the territory demonstrating the lack of space in his kingdom by calling for a brimful cup of milk. Then the Zoroastrian leader of the boat-people called for a lime and squeezed it into the milk — and lo and behold the milk curdled, as milk must, and became yoghurt, causing the king to repent and say: “We need a bit of yoghurt, you are welcome.”
I have always thought this story somewhat improbable. Why would the king think that a boatload of immigrants would flood his schools with kids and his National Health Service hospitals with their halt and lame? Besides, Arab-Gulf boats landed in Gujarat every day without passports, to flog their dates and coffee beans.
Whatever the truth of the story, our ancestors did settle in Gujarat and after a few hundred years of feudal bliss were induced by the British, who had set up their “factories” in Surat, to forcibly sell opium to the Chinese and then to migrate to the islands of Salsette and Vashi and build the city of Bombay.
The migrant Parsis were identified by the places in Gujarat from whence they came or by where they settled — so we have the Billimorias from Billimore, the Surtis from Surat, the Poonawallas (who should of course change their name to Punewallas) and the Sodabottletopwallas who obviously come from an obscure village in Kutch called Sodabottletop.
My family names don’t originate from territories. My grandmother’s name was Saklatwalla and I always thought her family came from a place called Saklat. I recently discovered that there is no such place and the name originates from the family trade which imported jute from Bengal and milled it into sack-cloth in Mumbai — hence Sackclothwalla — gedd it?
My mother’s maiden name was Antia. It has nothing to do with a trade in ants but, I fancy, from the possibility that a remote ancestor traded with the port of Antioch.
The surname Dhondy, traced back to its Avestan and Gujarati roots means stone-breaker. My ancestors were either master-builders in then Bombay or they could have been convicts.
I incline to the former origin, on the evidence that my grandfather and his brother were builders and have even left a building called Dhondy Terrace in Byculla — now sold through the family having fallen on bad times.
I expect by now you are asking why I am writing this open letter!
It’s an urgent matter, stimulated by the news that Mumbai is planning to build an underground railway system, which would go from Colaba in the south to Bandra and further in the north. On reading about it, I came across several reports that our Mumbai Parsi community is objecting to the proposed route of the underground railway as it passes under a couple of fire-temples and under the well between Churchgate and Flora Fountain (I am sorry, I can’t remember the new names these landmarks now go by) known as “Bhika-Behram, no kuo”.
The Parsis gathered in numbers at this well as it is regarded by some as sacred and reputed to make wishes come true. I have passed it on foot and by bus a thousand times. There are always Parsis praying at its periphery and placing offerings of sandalwood, garlands and fruit.
In my short and happy youth I too would carry sticks of sandalwood to the fire-temple on holy days to contribute to the sacred fire within. My maternal grandfather always maintained that the priests would clandestinely gather these offerings and sell the sticks back to the sandalwood merchants. They may, as he insisted, have done it through greed or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to save the planet from an excess of carbon dioxide.
But to get to the point, I have been in London through the installation of a couple of “Metro” railway systems, most recently the underground named, through British perverseness, “The Overground”. Each time a system is planned or built there are reports of possible subsidence and damage to buildings above.
I now read that Mumbai Parsis or a fragment thereof, are to appeal to the Prime Minister and launch court proceedings to change the route of the proposed Metro. It may be that they can provide evidence in court from accredited civil engineers and surveyors that the tunnelling will cause the collapse of the fire-temples. This to my mind would be a legitimate cause for concern and the court would have to weigh up the public good accruing from the railway against the supposed injury to the sentiments of the Parsi temple-goers.
Yet my friends, this is not what the reports say. I have heard of no surveys which condemn the fire-temples to destruction. I have read of two specific Parsi objections. One says that the underground will “disturb the magnetic field between the sacred fire in the temple and the earth.” The other is that the underground will cause the streams which feed the Bhika-Behram well to dry up and stop it fulfilling human wishes.
I think both these objections are nonsensical. There are no magnetic or gravitational fields between the fires and the earth and monsoon waters will undoubtedly fill the well. I pray that the Parsi community, so prominent in its advocacy of forward-thinking — in science, politics, law and social reform — does not publicly embrace or endorse the sort of nonsense which claims that ancient India had flying saucers, nuclear bombs and pioneered head transplants.
Have some pride in our vaunted progressiveness,
Your humblest servant,