“It’s really not that hard to do something meaningful. Avoid the elegiac debates about what’s wrong with our community and just do something” – Dinsha
Hi Dinsha! Welcome to our coffee chat and we’re excited to have you as our third guest in this series!
1. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Thanks! I was born in Houston and grew up in Atlanta, where I finished high school. I then went to Boston for college before moving to New Jersey for graduate school. I am currently a research fellow and lecturer at Stanford Law School where I teach and conduct research on topics related to international development and poverty. I am married to a great person (Fareeza) and have a son named Hormazd, with a second on the way!
2. You have visited Iran, lived across the United States, visited your wife’s city of Karachi, Pakistan and of course been to India. Can you highlight some of the Zoroastrian cultural similarities and differences?
This question deserves a longer and more complex answer, but basically the short answer is that everyone practices the religion differently. There are some common features, of course, but I think we have lost any semblance of a standard global practice. There are more similarities from a cultural perspective, but we are different. Even in N. California, where I am currently based, we have two Zoroastrian associations, one run by the Iranian Zoroastrians and one run by the Parsis. There is a deeper question here as to whether this is a problem, and if it is, what should we be doing about it? My view is that we must promote mutual respect. If someone in Timbuktu wants to be called a Zoroastrian, I don’t need to agree with it, but I don’t need to interfere either. Likewise, if a temple in India says, “Only these people are allowed,” it would be wrong for someone living abroad to attempt to break or change the rule.
3. You co-founded the now popular “Return To Roots” as well as “Agiary Connect” programs, how did that idea come to your mind and can you tell us a bit more about these projects? What other projects are you involved with?
Agiary Connect came about because I find value in Zoroastrian religious services and could not get them performed when I am in the US. At the same time, priests in India are suffering economically as a huge portion of our community has left. There is priestly poverty, and I can’t blame any priest who doesn’t want to go into the profession as there is really no money in it anymore. I decided to learn more. The first question was whether it was religiously possible. I found out from my uncle Khojeste that back in the ancient days in Iran, priests in the cities would send religious service orders to priests serving in rural shrines. Then I thought about all the times that I had gotten a service performed at an agiary for someone who wasn’t physically there. My friend, Benafsha Shroff, also got really interested and we started looking out for a priest at an agiary who could help us. We found our person at the Banaji-Limji Agiary, the oldest agiary in Bombay. That’s when all the headaches really started. The Indian government made it very difficult to do money transfers from elsewhere to India. Thankfully, we figured out a solution and are now able to make things work. Then our website was subject to a number of spam attacks, which ultimately led to it being shut down. Thankfully Jamsheed Mistri came into our lives and revived the website. As we grow, we are hoping to find someone who can help us market and do advertising. Also, we are always looking for more agiaries and priests to work with. We operate the site with a few small donations. We transfer all the money we get for services to the priests and agiaries, apart from the transfer / currency conversion fees (www.agiaryconnect.com).
Return to Roots was different. Aban Marker Kabraji and Shernaz Cama wanted to do a project that a bunch of youth could work together doing. They had been asking people in their networks for ideas. I had come across an undergrad at Princeton (where I was currently studying) who had just finished a trip on Taglit-Birthright Israel. He was not all that connected to his community when he went, but he figured it was a free two-week trip where could learn more. He ended up moving to Israel after he graduated and even served for a short spell in the Israeli Defense Forces. Aban and Shernaz were instantly on board with the idea and we set forth on plans to arrange trips to Iran and India. Aban and Shernaz reached out to talented youths from all over the world. We started with Rosheen Kabraji, my cousin Kaiyan Mistree, Shireen Havewala, and myself (fun fact: Aban brought Shireen into the group and Kaiyan fell in love. Shireen and Kaiyan got married a few years ago). Rosheen and I went to communities all over the diaspora to fund the program and to send their youth. Kaiyan and Shireen handled Indian operations, which included the gargantuan tasks of planning the trips. Not really knowing what to expect, sixteen brave souls decided to come for the first trip. Return to Roots has done trips to India every year apart from 2020 and 2021. We always wanted to do Iran, but visa issues have limited what can be done. Hopefully one day.
4. You mentioned you’re traditional in your practice of the faith, but your mother is a non-Zoroastrian, did that affect you in your childhood and practicing of the religion? You’re also the nephew of the renowned Zoroastrian scholar - Khojeste Mistree, were you always heavily involved with the community and faith. Did you feel any pressure to continue the familial legacy?
My mom grew up in the Unitarian faith. My personal view is that in mixed marriages, at least one person must compromise on the religious practices in the family. If both parents compromise and the parents try to provide both religions, then the child grows up without a strong grounding in either faith. In my case, the Zoroastrian influence was a much stronger presence. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate my mom or my matrilineal relatives, but we were going to Zoroastrian Sunday Schools instead of church. My dad, Farrokh, and Khojeste are both heavily involved in the community and have both encouraged me to get engaged. They have both provided me with a number of opportunities, not to mention intellectual engagement on the weighty issues facing our community.
5. Can you tell us more about your work with FEZANA and the Scholarship committee? How has FEZANA adapted and grown with the times and maximizing reach?
If FEZANA ever had a Hall of Fame, Dolly Dastoor would certainly have to be among the first inductees. In addition to starting FEZANA Journal and serving as FEZANA’s president, she started the FEZANA Scholarship program more than 30 years ago. What Dolly has done is remarkable: this year, the Scholarships will give out more than $70,000 USD to several of the community’s finest students. Much of this money comes from endowment funds and will only grow over time. I was lucky enough to receive a FEZANA Scholarship when I was studying and was honored when Dolly invited me to serve as a judge on the committee. Recently, I have been helping Dolly do some updates to the Scholarship program, which has provided me a glimpse into the amount of work she does in coordinating everything. It’s simply incredible. We are doing several things to maximize reach. This year for the first time, FEZANA’s social media team (led by Tanya Hoshi) got the word out about the scholarships. We have more than 100 applications, about two to three times what we usually get. I am optimistic that we will be able to expand what we can offer as well. Scholarship alums frequently pay back what they receive, and we have several new donors who are coming forward to support our activities. It’s really exciting.
6. So, lots of people visit 8 Atash Behrams in a single day, but you’ve covered 50 agiaries in Bombay in a single day, how was that experience? Would you recommend it to our readers?
One day, Kaiyan (my cousin) and I were talking, and we got the crazy idea to visit all the consecrated fires in Bombay. There are 41 agiaries and 4 Atash Behrams; we also did one or two dadgah temples to get to an even 50. We started making plans. Everything would have to go just right, and even then, we thought we might not be able to pull it off. We got everything ready and left from Khareghat colony at 4:15 am. We started in Kalyan and it was a blur from there. We would do our kustis, enter the agiary, make some donations, say a few prayers, take our tilis, and go to the next one. We finished at 9:35 pm and only took one bathroom break. When we were planning everything, I didn’t think it would be a very religious experience, but I have to say that there were several moments where we really experienced the magic of the agiaries and the fires. Also, we did this activity on a random Saturday. Kaiyan and I estimated that we saw more than 500 people in all the temples. There was the aunty who goes to agiary every day, the college student praying for better grades, the newly married couple coming in, and the person dashing in quickly before starting his errands. We often bemoan how the religion is falling apart, but it is worth remembering that these are important institutions that people use everyday.
7. Are you involved in the organization of the upcoming World Zoroastrian Congress to be held in New York City, USA in 2022? How excited are you and would you encourage the youth and other community members to attend the international event next summer?
I’m not involved in the planning for the upcoming World Zoroastrian Congress, but I’m cheering them on. Congresses are great ways to meet new people. In pre-covid times, I traveled a lot for work. When I got the chance in a new city, I like to contact some of the people I have met at previous Congresses. It’s always fun to see these folks again, plus they always love showing off their home cities. If one has the means, Congresses are worthwhile to attend.
8. Lastly, what message do you have for our young members reading this and in what ways can they make an impact?
It’s really not that hard to do something meaningful. Avoid the elegiac debates about what’s wrong with our community and just do something. If you’re looking for ideas, organize a hike or talk people into a dhansak cooking party or go bowling. Invite the other Zoroastrians in the area. You will find a nice group of people who will become your friends. Before you know it, you will have a community.
Thank you so much Dinsha, for your time and amazing work for the community!