The Lost Tribe……Parsis of South Africa – Jaloo Camay
How do I begin to describe the sense of desolation, isolation and solitude, and the lack of an identity that we as Parsi Zarathustis- are experiencing here in our beautiful country South Africa? Where do we belong amongst the multitude of religions and cultures we are surrounded with here in Sourh Africa? We tried very hard to blend in by dissolving like sugar in milk like our forefathers did when they took refuge in India. However, in that dissolution, over the years, we have lost our identity and sense of belonging and have dwindled into a miniscule plus/minus 25 Parsees in the whole of SA! The majority of us are resident in Johannesburg and a handful live in Durban. I have no knowledge of any Parsees living in Cape Town. I am able to count every memeber of the Parsi community here, on my fingertips. The passing away of the older generation coupled with the emigration of the younger generation resulted in minimising the Parsee population here in SA. We have become, in essence, members of a long lost lost tribe that is slowly just dwindling away. I am one such lost member- seeking a glimpse of our people, our religion, our culture, our language, our humour, our drama, our flair; like a thirsty traveller trying to find a mirage in a desert. My name is Jaloo Camay and this is my story.
Many Parsi families left SA back in the 1960s to settle overseas mostly in the UK. My parents and a handful of others however decided to stay here as we did not have the finanacial means to settle abroad. We therefore missed out on the golden opportunity to mingle with and stay amongst our community. I often fantasize of how different my life would have been today had my family emigrated to the UK back then.
Parsi Zarathustris and all their related brethren – all over the world have found some sort of a niche for themselves by belonging to a Zoroastrian Assocition or to affiliated religious and cultural organisation. Alas over here, in SA we have absolutely nothing, no organisation , no functions no get-togethers, no Jashans, no Gambars, no Navroze or Pateti celebrations etc etc . We have absolutely zilch. It is almost as though we are living in a solitary vacuum.
I will not go into discussing the history of how the Parsees came to SA. I will leave that to my brother – Dr Sohrab Shapurjee- who is an avid historian and can narrate the story if anybody is interested. Suffice it to say that my grandfather Shapurjee Cavasjee Patel came to SA in the 1900s with his wife Ratanbai and two sons Shiavax -my elder Kakajee and Framroze my Dad and started a small business in Johannesburg. Dad went back to Navsari India and got married to Khorshedbanu Nariman Kapadia. They had two childern here in Johannesburg – my brother Sohrab and myself. That is how we ended up in SA. Both my parents are sadly late now. I have always been questioned about my married surname : Camay. Well, my great grandfather-in-law – Mr Nadirshaw Cama saw it fit to anglicize his surname from “Cama” to “Camay” when he arrived here in SA in the 1900s hence the surname “Camay”. As for the name “Jaloo” – that too is unique here in SA. It would be very interesting if anybody could kindly explain its meaning to me. It doesn’t sound like a Persian name and seems to have a Gujerati ring to it. Was it concocted by the Parsees in India? I would love to know especially because I have always been asked about the origin and meaning of my unusual name. I secretly wished my parents had named me with a globally recognisable name!?
Growing up in SA without the much needed exposure to our religion and culture and the absence of a wide Parsee community became problematic for us. It was always difficult to explain who we are to friends who never heard of Parsees and looked at us quizically and were perplexed by our answers. You are a what? What is a Parsi? With my limited knowledge, I then tried to narrate to them in a nutshell, our epic saga: how our ancestors came from ancient Iran and how were prosecuted by Muslim Arabs and how some of us were forced to convert and some of us were slaughtered and how some of us fled to India to find refuge from persecution. Where do you pray? Where is your temple ? Who is your God? What do you celebrate? These were endless questions posed by my friends and my answers were scanty. In the world of modern technology, however, I can now refer people to Google ” Zoroastrianism” to satisfy their curiosity about our religion. However, back then, we did not have the convenience and luxury of the internet.
The only time I felt a sense of belonging was when my parents took my brother and myself to Bombay ( now of course Mumbai) for our Navjotes. I marvelled at the fact that there were other people other children just like me, wearing the sudreh and kusti and recting Ashem Vohu and Yatha Ahu Vairyo. I saw and entered an Atash Behram and Agriary for the first time and heard our prayers recited not by my father but by a real Dasturjee? I felt elated and excited and for the first time felt proud to be a Parsi. I wore the sudreh kusti proudly and performed all the prayers I knew. I savoured the fragrance of burning sandalwood, the melodious chanting of our soothing prayers and most impotrtantly – being amongst my own kind.
The early days of my childhood were relatively happy as back then, our parents ensured that we go together via The Johannesburg Parsi Association. I then had some modicum of belonging, some sense of my identity as a Parsee. As a child, I still remember we had a Parsi Anjuman, and we had a number of Jashans, navjotes and even a wedding – functions that were organised by the the Parsi Association made up of members from the very small Parsee community – here mostly our fathers. Everybody knew everybody. In fact, I chose my life partner from the handfull of eligible Parsi boys here. The biggest drawback for us as children, was the absence of a Dasturjee and regular religious classes. What we knew about Zoroastrianism was what our parents taught us; but as most parents, they were preoccupied with earning a living and had little time for religious discussions and meetings. All I remember is watching my parents perform the kusti prayers and my mother praying every day in the morning and at night. I also remmber the divo being lit every day in our small and modest home. and sandalwood burning in a small afarghan. My father was considered as a “priest” here as he knew some of the prayers mainly for Jashans and for funerals. I also remember Dara Uncle – Mr Dara Tavaria who also officiated prayers with my Dad. they were our “dasturjees” Right up until his demise , my Dad conducted all the Parsee funerals to the best of his ability. Now after his demise, my brother Dr Sohrab Shapurjee tries to conduct funeral prayers. The irony is that the handful of Parsees here come together at funerals only -rather than other joyous occasions like Navroze or Pateti ?! It is truely a very sad state of affairs!
As we have no dokhma facilites here in SA, we have no option but to bury or cremate and for this we have a very small Parsee Cemetry in Johannesburg sandwiched between the Jewish and Christian cemetries. Legend has it that one of our forefathers acquired this small piece of land from the ruling Afrikaner Nationalist Party leader at the time. We take solace in the fact that at least in death we have some recognition as a Parsee and can be buried or cremated in our own Parsee cemetry.
I also rememeber few picnics being organised for us, the children and it gave us a sense of belonging of togetherness and comraderie. This was important as at school, we were always the odd ones out especially when it came to other religious festivals or celebrations like Eid, Diwali, Christmas etc. For us Navroze and Pateti was like any other day and we attended school like it was a normal day. We “celebrated” by eating sev, dhai and mori dal chaval and macchi no paatio and wearing new clothes. Compare this to going to the Atash Behram and celebrating with thousands of other Zarathustris!
Unfortunately for all of us, the youngsters of my generation did nothing about carrying on and nurturing the Association after our fathers passed away. I am guilty of this as well. It seemed nobody was interested in organising activities, Jashans, outings and talks and everything came to a standstill as each one of us enclosed ourselves in our little world at the expense of losing touch with our religion and culture. The visits became less and less and then stopped completely and instead rivarly, bitterness, jealousy and complete indifference crept in. Under these circumstances, there was no place for unity love and comraderie. It became selfishly like everyone for themselves
It s quite a sad state of affairs and I think it could have been averted if the Parsee youth of my generation had stepped up and taken over and continued the efforts of our forefathers. Most importantly, however, things could have been much better if a Dasturjee had decided to settle in SA. So many other countries have had the benefit of having Dasturjees live amongst them. We, however, were not so lucky??!
I as a child and right up to today I have always practised “Good thoughts, good words and Good deeds” I also believe in helping those less fortunate than myself and bringing happiness to others because it makes me happy. A reflection of one of our Asho Zarathustra’s profound quotes: “Happiness comes to them who bring happiness to others.” The three principles of Humata, Hukhta and Hvarshta govern my whole life. I have never thought ill of anybody, I have never spoken bad or evil words and I have never harmed anybody physically orf mentally. I will always be true to these three tenets till the end of my life. All of Asho Zararthustra’s quotes are so profound, so meaningful and have brought a lot of wisdom and comfort to me and I strive to practice as many as I can.
I had this void – this spiritual bankrupcy in my soul for many years now. I didn’t feel like a Parsee, I didn’t belong like a Parsee. All I had with me was the divo I burn daily a little afarghan, the Khordeh Avesta and my undying faith in Dadar Ahura Mazda. However, with the advent of the internet and once I became technologically savvy I have managed to fill part of this void. A huge “Thank you” to the Dasturjees who recorded our prayers so we could listen to them at home and even attaend virtual meetings courtesy of Zoom. Ironically, this is one positive side effect of the deadly pandemic COVID-19. It definitely brought us closer. I have now found my spiritual side and pray together with the Dasturjees every single day nourishing my soul. It gives me a sense of purpose of being part of the flock in spirit if not in the flesh.It provides light and comfort, peace and serenity in this stage of my life.
I may not have access to an Atash Behram, or Agiary to say my prayers. I am, however, constantly mindful of the following quote by our Prophet: ” One need not scale the heights of heavens nor travel along the highways of the world to find Ahura Mazda. With purity of mind and holiness of heart one can find Him in one’s own heart”. That is exactly what I am doing: finding my Ahura Mazda deep inside my heart in my home.
I am truely thankful that I learnt to read and write the Gujerati language and it is all thanks to my late Mom who was a Gujerati school teacher. Today I can read or recite prayers in the Khordeh Avesta. Somehow the English version just doesn’t seem authentic! I would really like to know what I am praying in the ancient Avestan language. Has there been an attempt to translate the meaning of all the prayers either in English or even in Gujerati? I would appreciate it if anybody could refer me to the books or literature.The words are, rhythmic, melodious yet powerful and soothing. Yet they are in an ancient language not spoken any more. We dont technically understand the words but spiritually, we understand.
Culturally I am also bereft. How I long to hear colloquial words like : “Sahebji, tame kem cho?”, “Merere…..”, ” O khodaiji!”, “Dikra… dikri….”. I long to get those bear hugs- the “kotis”. I miss the fragrance of sandalwood burning in the afarghan at the Atash Behram or Agiary, the melodious yet powerful chanting of our beautiful and deeply meaningful prayers. I long to hear conversations in the Parsi Gujerati dialect and savoured every moment of this when I watched a hilarious Parsi Natak on Youtube! I remeber saying to myself – that is who we are — funny, whimsical, fun-loving, witty adaptable, intellgent, and unique.
Seeing or meeting another Parsee is indeed, a rare novelty for us. Everytine I heard any Parsee name like Ratan Tata, Godrej, Zubin Mehta, Gen Sam Manekshaw , Dadabhai Nawzroji, et al , I feel so proud and wanted to shout out “that’s a Parsee just like me!” I remember about a decade ago, I bumped into a Parsi lady shopping at one of our local supermarkets and it was like I had found a gem ! I recognised her from her mannerisms and the red and gold bangles on her hands. I rushed up to her and introduced myself and then arranged to meet with her family. She had come to SA to visit her daughter and son-in-law who were sent to SA by the company they worked for in India. Just talking to them all I felt so connected as though I had found my long lost relatives!!
I got married to a South Afriacan Parsee – Phiroshaw Camay in 1973 and we had three lovely children – two daughters and a son. Unfortunately, my ex husband passed away in Oct 2016. He was instrumental in helping to develop the trade union movement in SA and was well known for his selfless involvement in NGOs in the country. I am a proud Mamaiji to two beuatiful grandchildren – Zhara and Ethan. They are truely the loves of my life! They bring an abundance of joy in my life!
I also have a few maternal and paternal relatives mainly in USA and UK. From my in-law’s side I have family living in Arizona: My brother-in-law Dr Nadirshaw Camay, my sister-in-law Zarine, their two daughters Michelle and Nina, their grandson Kiyaan. Sadly Nadirshaw passed away a couple of days ago – may his soul rest in eternal peace. He was a wonderful human being, a much loved Dentist, caring and loving and always a smile on his face. It is a tragic loss for the Camay family. Zoom has, however made it easy for us to keep in touch. In SA I am forunate enough to have a few relatives like my brother Dr Sohrab Shapurjee and his family and also my brother-in-law Behram Camay and his wife Shamla and their son Bradley.
My biggest regret for my chidren, however, is the fact that I failed to provide knowledge of the Zoroastrian religion, rituals and culture to my children mainly because of my limited knowledge. All I had were a few books on the religion and whatever my parents had taught me – which was insuffcient. However I have always kept a divo burning in the house and said the prayers I knew. I also tried very hard to instil the value of “Good thoughts, Good Words and Good deeds” into them. I also ensured that Pateti and Navroze were special days for them. But what they needed most as children was a teacher – who would teach them guide them to become good Parsees. They desperately needed to attend religious classes conducted by a Dasturjee which were non-existent here.
We performed the Navjote cermonies of my two daughters here in SA in 1990 by asking one of our Dasturjee relatives to come to SA. My son’s Navjote was performed in Mumbai by a Vadha Dasturjee in 1995. I tried to ensure that they did their Kusti prayers regularly. However, It was not enough to susutain their interest and committment to the religion. They became like lost sheep wandering off from the flock and tried to assimilate themselves in the country of their birth. Things would have been different if we had been living in UK, USA or Australia or of course, Mumbai. Their religious and cultural interest would have been sustained and nourished by the many Associations, Jashans and outings, conferences, seminars etc. It is encouraging to know that my son, Hormuz has shown a genuine interest in wanting to learn more about his religion and I will direct him to the various avenues and opportunities to obtain the information he seeks. I am hoping he will be able to attend the Zoroastrian World Congress to be held in New York in 2022.
However, now with the help of modern technology there are so many avenues to obtain knowledege of our relgion. How I wish I had all these modern tools at my disposal back then in the 1990s when my children were small. I really wanted them to get exposure to our religion and culture by emigrating to countries like UK USA, Australia, New Zealand where there was a sizeable Zoroastrian population. However, due to my finanacial circumstances this was not possible and so they stayed in SA. and had to mingle in the hotchpotch of diverse cultures and religions. I really feel I failed miserably as a mother in this regard. They missed out on the opportunity to meet, mingle, identify and get a sense of belonging with other Zoroastrians across the globe. They would have had much needed exposure to our religion. Obviously, now they can get as much info as they want on their religion due to the internet. However, be that as it may, they would still lack the personal interaction with their bretheren. Attending zoom meetings or reading religious literature is not the same as meeting Zarathustris in the flesh and developing friendships, sharing and exchanging ideas and as most Parsi mothers fantasize – they could even find their life partners!?
In conclusion I would like to say to all my fellow Zarathustris all over the world: Count your blessings that you are living in the midst of our vibrant community and can reap the benefit of belonging to our community. You have an identity that you can share with other humdins, you can stand in the middle of New York City, Melbourne or London and shout out loud that you are a Zarathustri and be proud to be a member of the Zarathustri flock. The next time you attend a Navjote, wedding or a jashan ceremony think about how fortunate you are to have the priviledge of being amongst your fellow Zarathustris and our Dasturjees. Do not ever take that for granted and treasure every moment you can by belonging to this beautiful, pure and simple religion that teaches one to follow the paths of truth, rightheousness, humility, goodness, kindness & humanity.