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The Days of the Dead
Note: This newsletter alternates between new pieces and pieces from the archives. This is one of the latter, written in 2017, in Bombay. The ten days preceding Parsi New Year in mid-August (it’s on 16 August in 2022) are known as Mukhtad and are traditionally a time to commemorate and commune with beloved people who have “passed.”
2017 was an extraordinary year for me. I had never known physical terror before (nor have I since) but in that year, I experienced it three times. I had an episode of severe anaphylactic shock. I was ambushed on the street (I will write about that here soon). And I nearly drowned. The drowning episode inspired the name of this newsletter. I tell the story here.
So I had a keen, bright appreciation of the privilege it is to be alive on the day I describe below. I still do.
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To reach the Saher agiary (Zoroastrian fire temple), I turned off the main street, where a guy squatted on the pavement, rinsing his Dixie-sized chai glasses in a bucket and followed a water bearer, his spindly walnut-brown legs protruding from a lunghi, bare torsoed, with a huge round silver-plated jug balanced on his head and another rotund jug precariously hooked in between elbow and waist. At the top of the lane, I entered a surprisingly homely courtyard, with washing strung at one end, and old men sprawled lazily in chairs, newspapers cracked open across their legs. The Bombay sky was dove grey and topped with a thick froth of slate grey clouds. The monsoon had lingered this year and there was a cool in the air. Spots of rain were dappling my glasses, so my world was adorned with tiny glinting freckles.
I knotted a triangle of headscarf over my hair, the one that makes me look half elf, half Russian babushka. On a brick shelf, there was a pot-bellied jug like the one the water carrier had brought and, bobbing in the water itself, a smaller cup—mother and daughter, Russian dolls. I poured the water over first one hand then the other and daubed my forehead and the back of my neck. Then I sloughed my shoes off awkwardly, hopping around. I’d forgotten to loosen the fastenings and it’s taboo to touch them with your hands once you’ve entered the agiary space. “Entrance for Parsis only” the sign warned, in both English and the squared off curlicues of Gujarati.
Inside, they were commemorating the dead.
I walked around the small space first, touching my hands to the picture frames then to my forehead and solar plexus. A priest looked out at me sternly from a black-and-white photograph, his shoulders draped with a paisley shawl. There were several likenesses of Zoroaster. But my favourite was an engraved mirror with an etching of him in black and white and silver on the glass, his thick curly hair and Dr Who-like scarf trailing like pennants, a lighted taper in his hand.
There were wooden benches around the walls and I took a seat. People were reading from small prayer books. An older lady sat with her head bent over a parallel text: Avestan on one side; Gujarati on the other. Two children were standing dutifully with folded hands. The men, children and old women sported velveteen caps; the rest of us the babushka cotton headsquares.
In front of the fire, there were two sheets laid out like picnic blankets, with cross legged priests at each corner. In front of the chubby priests in their white outfits, which look so much like surgical scrubs, a set of silver platters surrounded a lit brazier. The silver plates each held an apple, an orange and a knobbly guava. There was a tray of jasmine blossoms. Orange flames licked the air.
On one side of the room, a long L-shaped sideboard was laid out with silver vases containing long-stemmed blush-pink roses (oddly, while India is full of strongly perfumed flowers, these, like many blooms that are fragrant in the west, are scentless here). The priests were chanting in resonant monotones, almost together, not quite, overlapping like a badly-directed choir, hypnotic, sounding out the nasal diphthongs and many sibilants of a dead Persian language, open vowels rhyming, long-drawn out aaan aaan aaan aaan and au au au aus hanging in the air, with the smoke.
The fluttering ash reminded me of another end-of-year ceremony, back in Buenos Aires, where people tear up the pages of their diaries and calendars at the close of the office year and send the fragments fluttering down from their windows, whirling through the sultry summer air like a miraculous December snowshower. At year’s end, we burn away the old to ash, we rip it up into joyful showers of confetti; we remember our dead, both real and figurative, with long-stemmed roses—and then we let them go.
I set some intentions for the new year, as I sat fanning myself with one of the square paper fans they laid out for us, eyes tearing up a little from the smoke. I had new projects ahead. I was the subeditor of a digital magazine (I’m now the editor); I had a podcast; I had been interviewed several times. I was putting my words out into the world and curating other people’s words and I wanted them to be enriching. I hoped those words could promote calm, reason and sincerity in a media world of hysteria, partisanship and posturing. And I wanted to be less anxious, more focused, less scattered on the wind like the ash and paper.
I could have died several times that past year. Buffeted by the waves, storm tossed on that morning in Sri Lanka when I thought I might drown; mottled crimson all over and puffed up like a cobra, throat closing with anaphylactic shock just as I was helped panting onto a hospital bed in Breach Candy; and on a street in Andheri, trapped in a circle of hostile men, the most terrifying experience I have ever had.
Life is fragile. I will never take it for granted. I want to take each day one moment at a time and show up fully for each of them. I want to make this new year count.
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