I just couldn’t sleep the night before!
Kept waking up every few hours with an anxiousness I couldn’t explain. Checking on him, then checking the time. Midnight, 2:10, 3:45, 4:50, 5:30 until finally I threw the covers off at 6 and got out of bed!
I know my son is well prepared – both mentally and physically. He’s seen his elder brother go through this whole phase, been preparing for the prayers for over a year and knows exactly what to expect after our meeting with the priests at the agiary (fire temple) yesterday. We even met the little boy who is supposed to share this journey with him. He had started his nahan just the day before and was now sitting there very sweetly in his pure white robes and cap, smiling at passer byes, politely answering all the friendly questions asked, never once losing his patience or his smile. Now it’s my son’s turn to get started with his 24 day journey of ablution, one that would lead him to become a Navar (initiation into Zoroastrian priesthood). And he is just 10.
It starts with the ‘Nahan’ – An age-old ritual of purifying the mind and body starting with a ceremonial bath in the Bareshnum ghar where the purification is done using sand, consecrated water and nirang while the Chief priest prays continuously setting the mood for the sombreness and simplicity of the days to follow. The child is then given fresh clothes to wear all made of soft cotton muslin. A simple sleeveless vest that we call the sudreh, something that every Parsi has to wear once he/she is initiated in our religion after their Navjote along with the sacred woollen thread that we tie around our waist called the kusti. He also wears a legha- loose cotton pants, a badyan – a short shirt usually worn on top of the sudreh, a plain cap with tie strings to secure it from falling, white cotton socks and gloves. All in pure ethereal white from top to bottom making them look matured and very innocent at the same time. These white robes become their uniform for the following three weeks and more. The most important and difficult part in this ritual is to observe seclusion which means that the child is not allowed to touch or even brush against any other person for the next nine days and nine nights. And he is just 10.
Their day is quite organised starting with a wake up call at around 7:30 am, a quick mouth rinse (they are not allowed to brush their teeth as they are not supposed to touch water), breakfast served in a thali (metal plate) that they have to eat sitting on the floor on a leather mat, just next to their bed which is nothing but a thin coir mattress with a coir pillow covered in white sheets. Their simple meal is followed by their morning prayers which usually takes upto an hour and a half. After that they are allowed to step out of their room and sit on the main verandah of the agiary. The officiating priest sits with them and makes them prepare for the Yazashne (prayers for their Navar). Our prayers are in the Avesta language and not very easy to learn yet repetition is the key to getting it right and learning it by heart without any mistakes. That’s just what they do as they go through their words, lines, paragraphs, sentences over and over again till their mouths are dry and minds are exhausted. Just then it’s time for lunch which is given quite early by normal standards at 11:30 am. At this point of time they usually take a toilet break and hurry back into their room to prepare for this elaborate affair! First they need to recite their Baj prayers before they use the washroom. They are not allowed to wear the same clothes that they wear during the day to the toilet. Hence they must change into another set of clothes which is exactly the same – cap, gloves and socks included! Once they are back they need to change back into their day clothes, recite their post-toilet baj prayers, do their kusti and only then they can start eating. Talking is NOT allowed during meals. Talking can only resume after their baj prayers post meals. After that they can rest and relax in their room for the afternoon as the agiary staff take a break, the place closes to public for a few hours and falls into complete silence except the tick-tocking of the grand grand father clock and the lone crow cawing. And he is just 10.
Life returns to the agiary with the clanging of pots at around 3 o’clock as afternoon tea is made in the kitchen, staff wake up from their siesta and activity gets back to normal. The kitchen is huge with high ceilings and caters to 50-200 people at a time! The boys are now habituated to their afternoon sweet tea drink after which they are allowed to go outside and sit on the veranda. Carrying their prayer books they walk out, not allowed to run, they once again sit and recite their prayers. When the geh changes and the Dasturji rings the bell they also need to recite their geh prayers in order. This continues till dinner time which is again quite early by normal standards as the meals have to be had before sunset which is at 5:30 pm. Post dinner they can sit and revise their prayers or talk to visitors who usually come around this time of the day. Games like dumb charades, atlas, buzz are popular as they can be played without physical touch. Sometimes the evening passes quickly in the chit-chat sessions with visitors, sometimes it feels long drawn as we try to keep ourselves positive and continue with our banter. Soon the cacophony of the street noise outside and the chatter of the devotees inside recedes as the grand father clock chimes to let us know that it’s 8 o’clock. Time to head back to their room to prepare for their night-time prayers and then to sweet slumber. I say a bye, give him a tight whoosh-hug (our made-up touch-less hug), keep up with the smile while all I want to do is take him back home with me and quickly make an exit just before the agiary shuts at 9 pm. And he is just 10.
It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions for both of us. It hasn’t been easy…certainly not at first as we both had to get adjusted to this brand new lifestyle. And I’m saying ‘we’ and not ‘he’ because it felt like we went through it together. The rules, the restrictions, the lifestyle felt quite daunting and difficult to cope with. The prayers to be learnt by heart, the fluent Gujarati language that everyone around him spoke and that he found difficult to grasp, the expectations on his behaviour, the pressure to perform prayers without a mistake….every time I left the agiary I felt like a heavy load on my chest, as if I’m leaving something very precious behind and I couldn’t wait to run back in. The first three days felt like the longest of our lives. By the start of the fourth day I saw signs of settling in. Traces of that familiar smile, a hint of mischievousness seemed to be put back in place! He worked hard, very hard at learning his prayers, understanding the new language. Once he made a mental time table of his day’s activities allocating time slots to his visitors and setting a schedule for this prayers, he was back to his organised confident self. I even started making him write about his feelings…I feel….I think…I believe…I wish…and the things that he wrote, the thoughts that he had, moved me beyond words. I never knew my son was capable of such maturity, such hard work and dedication. His thoughts were clear, his dreams were simple. It was a wonderful feeling to see him like this and the weight that I had been holding on my chest suddenly lifted off! I witnessed an amazing transformation in that 10 year old boy, and this is what I would like to tell him.
You are a star
You’re an inspiration
From what I knew you to be
To who you’ve become
Is an amazing transformation.
The day you left home
Started like any other
Your laughter, your mischief
Your lack of nervousness
Made me wonder…
Whether you were ready
Whether you had given it any thought
That the weeks coming up
Would be very different and very odd.
And I was right, wasn’t I?
Cause in the first few days I could see
Your discomfort, your constant pain
Those questions in your eyes
That made me go insane.
I couldn’t hold you in my arms
And take away all your fears
I couldn’t touch your face
And wipe away those tears.
All I had
Was the gift of speech
Words forming sentences
Promises I hoped to keep.
“You will be just fine” I said
You will know your prayers pit-pat
And even if you can’t
Who cares, I know that you tried your best
So let’s sit and chit-chat.
I repeated these chants
Every minute every hour
Till I was spent
My mind went blank
Then I took a deep breath
To start all over again.
Cause I needed courage too
To be able to motivate you.
Oh God please help me I prayed.
Take care of my little boy
Make his mind stronger
Fill his heart with joy
And just like that
Without any warning
Gone were the tears
The anger, the fright
You started practising hard day and night
Fought with me over those prayer lines
Till you got it absolutely right!
I’ve never seen you this determined
So challenged to achieve something
It amazed me
Made it unbelievable at times
My little baby boy
Is mugging up those tricky verses those lines!
Lines going into paragraphs
Paragraphs going into pages
Each time you finished a prayer all by-heart
I wanted to jump up and give you a high 5!
Well done my son
You have matured for sure
And though I’ll miss my baby
This eagle is ready to soar!
While we started off on an unsteady note, today I am honestly happy that he went through this rigorous process of becoming a priest. The age-old traditions, the discipline, the rituals, the ceremony each has its own meaning and significance far beyond what is visible to us. I believe that this purification process and the ceremony thereafter has had a certain positive impact on his mind and the learnings are going to stay with him for life.
My heart fills with joy and pride as I stand tall with my sons on my side (my elder one just completed his Martab- second initiation) and I hope that they are able to continue the good work carried on by their father for our community. I thank God for his blessings.
Thank you for your patient reading.