Colloquially referred as Parsi New Year, the day was extra-special as community members, the Parsis, party all day long. One prime reason that this day was special is that unlike the scores of Hindu festivals, which are an all-year-round affair, our community celebrates only two others in the year. Navroze (Nowruz), a celebration of spring equinox, and Khodadsal, the birthday of our prophet Zarathusthtra.
You see, our forefathers landed in India in the eighth century after fleeing the Arab invasion in Persia, refusing to leave their Zoroastrian religion, which is said to be one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, founded around 1200 BC.
Today, there are only 150,000 Zoroastrians left worldwide. While India houses the largest population — 65,000 — the Greater Toronto Area comes in second with 6,000. Toronto is unique because Zoroastrians from India, Pakistan and Iran come together here, sharing the same religion even as they have different customs, cultures and languages.
On Aug. 20, Toronto’s Zoroastrians will celebrate the new year, congregating in two community centres in the GTA — one at Bayview and Steeles avenues and another in Oakville. The evening starts with a Jashan, a prayer ceremony, ending late but only after a sumptuous meal and loads of entertainment.
In India, the community doesn’t congregate together as it does here, but there’s a set pattern to the celebration.
In India, you get up early and enjoy sev, a sweet-roasted vermicelli topped with exotic dry fruits and sweet yogurt. Then you don a new outfit and, in your mind, thank the tailor, once more, for delivering it on time (as orders are placed months in advance). You then go to the fire temple, place of worship, where the quaint scent of sandalwood fills the air and the entire temple is lit up with hundreds of oil lanterns, which look even more beautiful in the dark (most big fire temples intentionally don’t have electricity).
When you return home, you gorge on the traditional meal of dal-chaval and patio-thick lentils gravy with rice and spicy prawns or fried fish - all washed down with liberal doses of beer or wine.
After a short snooze, it’s time for entertainment, which takes the form of a parsi natak, a play that’s usually a comedy full of gaffes. As a teenager, I’d find some jokes so corny that I once even resisted going, but on that day you’ve got to grin and bear it — after all, people all around you are laughing.
Next stop is dinner at a restaurant that’s full of Parsee customers, whom you politely greet even though you don’t know them.
As a community, we can laugh at ourselves, but around the world, Zoroastrians are respected for two distinct traits — their honesty and philanthropy, which tie in with the religion’s core beliefs of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, exemplified by the building schools, hospitals, charitable institutions and housing colonies throughout India.
The highly educated community produced pioneers in business, medicine, law, scientific research and atomic energy. Even today, if one walks around Mumbai, several statues in key public places remind us of those Parsi luminaries.
Statues may be missing here, but Parsi authors such as Rohinton Mistry have put Canada on the world stage as have doctors such as Khursheed Jeejeebhoy, Toronto’s top gastroenterologist at St Michael’s Hospital and recipient of 23 international awards and author of 300 research papers.
Philanthropists such as Dr. Dhun Noria, who migrated here with barely $8 in her pocket, is now chief of pathology and the director of laboratory at The Scarborough Hospital, donating more than half a million to various projects within and outside the Zoroastrian community, including the Women’s Health Clinic for the emergency and critical services center at The Scarborough Hospital.
As the diaspora carves its own identity here, Zoroastrians from Iran, Pakistan and India are making efforts to mesh and celebrate each other’s unique cultures and customs, said Daraius Bharucha, who conducts religious classes at the Darbe Meher in Toronto. As well, to encourage Zoroastrian entrepreneurship, a new World Zarthushti Chamber of Commerce has also been set up to help business folk succeed.
As for me, the new year is a time for some nostalgia. So when my brother calls from India, I promptly ask him what natak he went to and if the jokes are still as funny? Out here, some things have changed, some haven’t. I don’t go to the tailor, but make sure my kids wear new clothes. And despite them insisting I not bother cooking sweet sev or dal chaval and patio, I make sure I cook at least one of them with all the trimmings.