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The Canine Arbiter
It’s a tiny piece of paradise in the heart of one of the world’s most relentlessly built-up cities. Trudge up the winding road from the entrance, turn a corner and you’ll find yourself in what could be a picturesque village in Italy or Croatia. A classical looking sculpture rises gracefully from a large urn of herbaceous plants, in lieu of a fountain. There are cottages and offices to either side, arranged in an E shape, like stables, the kind of tithed cottages that used to be a perk of loyal service to the lord of the manor, redolent of a Downton Abbey style coziness.
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On my last visit, a copper coloured man in the white garb of the doongerwadi workers, the darkest-complexioned Parsi I’ve seen so far, let me pet his calm tan-and-white dog and fondle the delicate round furry skulls of a litter of puppies as they chewed at my sandal straps.
This time, we enter the main hall, which has the feel of church halls, school assembly rooms and community centres everywhere. Rows of chairs, blank walls and ceiling fans in regimented order, long-stemmed 80%-cocoa-solids brown fans that clink and buzz and describe Chandler wobbles as the copper man turns the wall switches, one by one. They remind me of giant dragonflies poised for death defying nose dives.
The body is already laid out on marble slabs at the front of the hall, swaddled in white cloth, with only the head visible, a pupa awaiting its metamorphosis. It seems a little out of place there. Ours is an outdoor religion, a faith of fires and wells, of goats and roosters and vultures. I feel we should be on a windswept, pebble-strewn Levantine hillside. Not confined in halls and chambers in this cramped city with its smoggy vultureless sky. A priest is fanning a fire in a small silver urn and incense hits our nostrils in unpredictable gusts. Now another priest has joined him. They sit cross legged, one at each end of the body, which I cannot make out past the sea of heads. They are dressed like nurses in white scrubs, with round white caps but without the face protectors the ordinary priests wear. These are the pall bearers, the custodians of the Tower of Silence, who live separate from the rest of Parsi society, in lovely seclusion on this leafy hill.
A resonant two-part chant begins. I recognise the smushed consonants and clear vowel sounds of Avestan, the language of Parsi ritual. Words in a dead tongue, kept alive by tradition, to honour the dead. The chanting continues for a while and the crowd of watchers grow restless. Some are gossiping quietly. The women are in monochrome white and black garb, mostly white, heads covered by triangular headscarves or dupattas slung loosely over the hair, the men in round velvet black or wine-red caps. A few wear delicately embroidered pure white sarees, which swish along the floor as they walk. Enveloped in their white robing, they look like Christian brides. Or Hindu widows.
Then comes my favourite part: the dog. The hazelnut-coloured man enters with the same brown-and-white dog I petted last time, this time on a chocolate brown leash. The dog trots in calmly, head and tail held high, and, on command, bends his handsome head to sniff the body. Animals have more honed senses than we do, sharper eyes and ears and nostrils, a keener feel for the signs of life. The dog is the most sacred of all Zoroastrianism’s friend animals. And I’m just fine with that. I’d like a canine companion on my last journey, an anti-Cerberus, a mirror image Argus to be the life to my death, to welcome me home.
The chanting resumes for a while. And then we rise and go to clasp the hands of the deceased’s daughter, the principal mourner. The body is enclosed in a rectangle of string, fenced off now from this world. Then a sheet is pulled across and the burden lifted. and carried off towards the tower. The mourners follow, two by two, each holding one end of a white handkerchief. The dog trots contentedly alongside, seemingly happy to be of service. Up the hill they go. I don’t follow, since I am not close family.
Back home, as prescribed, I shower, wash my hair and wash the clothes I wore: white kurta, white trousers, white sudreh, white headsquare. The place of death is ritualistically unclean (though the actual hall was spotless and we never came into contact with the body). But I prefer to think of it like this: we wash away the atmosphere of morbidity, we rinse off the fatality and the sense of our own impending deaths. Under the squeaky showerhead’s starburst of cold water, we recommit. To life.
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