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House of Fire: Can India's Parsis Survive Their Own Success?

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Khushroo (left) and Fali Madon at the Colaba agiary. Image by Chiara Goia. India, 2015.

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Left: Birds fly over Doongerwadi in the early evening. Right: A Parsi woman wearing a fravahar pendant. Image by Chiara Goia. India, 2015.

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Left: Family photos in a Parsi home. Right: Parveen Pavri (not her real name) in the living room of her apartment. Image by Chiara Goia. India, 2015.

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Darayus Bajan, a Parsi priest, at Doongerwadi. Image by Chiara Goia. India, 2015.

Fali Madon was looking for a bride. A boyish twenty-seven-year-old with twin passions for physical fitness and expensive cars, Fali was the chief priest of a Parsi fire temple in the Colaba district of Mumbai. For six years he’d been searching for a wife from within his tiny, tight-knit community — the Parsis, Indian practitioners of the ancient Zoroastrian faith, number some 60,000 in a country of 1.2 billion — but so far he’d had no luck. To help his chances, Fali visited a bar on a Sunday evening last summer for a karaoke night organized by a Parsi youth group. He showed up in stylish rectangular glasses and a tight-fitting Michael Jackson T-shirt. The lights were low and the bartenders did a brisk business as pop songs reverberated off the stone walls and beamed ceiling. While Fali chatted with friends, the crowd sang the chorus of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” He mentioned that he was planning to attend a rain dance in August, at the height of the monsoon season, where — if it wasn’t raining already — participants would dance under jets of water. When the first chords of Jackson’s “Black or White” came over the sound system, the crowd whistled and the emcee called Fali’s name; it was his turn to sing.

I first met Fali on a rainy day in July of last year. The fire temple, or agiary, where he lives and works is surrounded by a large courtyard with palm trees and bougainvillea growing in pots. Two leonine fravahars, winged guardians with human faces, flank a pair of ornate bronze doors that lead to the inner sanctum, where a sacred fire, the tending of which is Fali’s primary responsibility as priest, has burned continuously for 180 years. Colaba was still an island when the fire temple was built, in 1836; now it stands in a quiet corner of fashionable South Mumbai, near the navy cantonment as well as the shops and offices of the World Trade Centre.

When I arrived at the agiary complex, Fali’s father, Khushroo, who is also a priest, led me under an umbrella to their accommodations; as an outsider, I wasn’t allowed in the temple itself. Fali and Khushroo were wearing the garments of their office: a white cotton jacket that ties at the throat and chest, called a dugli, and a white tapered cap, or pagri. Fali told me that as a member of the hereditary Parsi priesthood, he had always expected to officiate at least part-time. He was ordained by his father at thirteen, following a twenty-four-day period of ritual seclusion inside the fire temple. After graduating from college with a degree in sociology, he took a job with the Godrej Group, a Parsi family business that is one of India’s largest conglomerates. Later he managed a Swarovski store, worked as a trainer at a Gold’s Gym, and even performed magic — a common sideline for Zoroastrian priests — with his father, who was known for his ability to make BMWs disappear.

According to the Madons, it was Khushroo, not Fali, who should have been appointed chief priest of the Colaba agiary. By 2013, however, when the position opened up, Khushroo had become the focus of the two most vitriolic disputes within Mumbai’s small but influential Zoroastrian community.

Read the full article in Harper's Magazine.