Of vultures and crows

Radio Play


Building Peace: Meher Pestonji

Often, one man’s mambo-jumbo is another’s time-tested ritual, especially so in our country where we live separated by our own small worlds and in many time zones at the same time. ‘Feeding Crows’, a radio play written by playwright-author Meher Pestonji, that won in the South Asian section of the prestigious BBC Radio Play Awards, primarily questions the validity of the last rites of the Parsi community, that has often come under scrutiny from society at large. The play, at the same time, also tackles at various levels differences of class and caste.

Told from the viewpoint of an upwardly mobile Parsi couple and their ageing Hindu domestic help, ‘Feeding Crows’, reflects the changing ethos in contemporary Mumbai in particular and urban culture at large. While at one level, Farhad and Zenobia are desperately trying to leave all traces of their Grant Road life and fit into the ways of Malabar Hills, at another level the Paris couple are at odds with their America-returned cousin who wants to cremate his dying mother instead of leaving her at the mercy of vultures.

As Pestonji says in the play, people have different religious belief systems that we may not be able to comprehend because we were not born into it. The only way is to respect it. A one-time journalist and activist, Pestonji, who calls herself an ‘accidental Parsi’, turned to writing fiction with many acclaimed works to her credit, including Mixed Marriages and other Parsi Stories.

The BBC/British Council International Play Writing Competition received about 1200 entries from all over the world of which eight made it to the shortlist. Of these three are from the US, two from India (the other being Warren Lancelot D’Silva) one from Nigeria, one from South Africa and one from St Lucia. Says Pestonji of her win, “As the winner from South Asia I hope we get a sponsor to take on a full production of ‘Feeding Crows’.
The script has controversial segments and a serious streak — not quite the ingredients for a runaway hit — so finding a sponsor isn’t easy.”

Excerpts from an interview:

The play questions the validity of the last rites of the Parsis. People are somehow most touchy about the ‘after life’.

No one knows for sure what happens after death. Whatever belief system we adhere to it’s only a belief, a viewpoint, a conjecture. But in the case of dokhmenishin, the traditional Parsi death rites, it is currently practiced in barely three or four cities of the world. Because it is unviable in an urban environment which cannot sustain a population of vultures so integral to dokhmenishin. That might explain the sentimentality of traditionalists who don’t want to see an  old ritual becoming extinct. I hold the more pragmatic, liberal viewpoint, opting for change.

You have been involved with a host of issues from campaigning to change rape laws, child rights, anti-communalism campaigns both as an activist-journalist, as well as an author. Which of the two identities helps you articulate your concerns better?

I’m less of an activist-journalist today than I was 10-15 years ago. Probably because the general tone of activism in India has become much quieter than it used to be. I moved into creative writing after disillusionment with today’s market-oriented journalism. I find creative writing deeply satisfying. Maybe you reach a smaller audience than with a mainstream newspaper or magazine. But the freedom from deadlines and space constraints makes the process of writing a joy in itself.

And what about that part of one’s identity that is linked to our roots. Coming out in the open against one’s own community is never an easy task.

In the build-up to the Babri Masjid demolition and after it became a moral imperative for people to question their roots. All around me I found both Hindu and Muslim friends questioning their own so-called religious leaders, the fundamentalists, who had whipped up mass hysteria all over the country. For some, the soul-searching was immediate, for others it came later as they had got sucked into the diatribe and needed distance to gauge the aftermath of the propaganda they had imbibed.

At this point of time I became acutely aware of my Parsi identity. Being neither Hindu nor Muslim. As a journalist I was at times reporting in the thick of riots, was deeply involved in the peace-building process. To my chagrin most of my Parsi friends were unconcerned beyond their own security levels, treating the nationwide conflagration as “their problem, not ours”. To me this was shocking.

But aren’t things changing for the community as well?

We are now 17 years from the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992 and yes, things are changing, especially among the younger generation of Parsis. There’s more openness to inter-mingling, more questioning of rigid positions on rational lines, more mixed marriages leading to a wider worldview. Sections of the community accept that change is inevitable if Parsis are to survive but, as among Hindus and Muslims, there are hardliners holding on to an antiquated past.

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