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MORE LITTLE THINGS

The vultures are back,’ he said dryly. ‘Now I can die.’

The gateman belched and rolled his eyes. He was making a Parsi joke. I smiled witlessly. He was a big-boned fellow wearing a large white singlet over loose black pants and thongs. His gut bulged out in a languid fashion, just sitting there, minding its own Parsi business. He wore a little black skull-cap over a broad, fat face. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I was still hunting down the minorities. We were in the doorway of Agni Mandir in Metcalfe Lane, the only functioning temple for the Parsis of Kolkata. Who were the Parsis of Kolkata? I had no idea either. Beside us bluish-grey stuccoed plaster walls, over our heads the second floor painted bright red, domed and vaulted, enormous columns reaching high – but, unless you looked heavenward in the narrow lane, you could walk by it and never notice it was there. The only clue hung on the wrought-iron gates; a gold rim enclosing a silver circle that held a golden goblet. From the goblet spring fifteen bright red flames. Together those fifteen flames make up the sixteenth flame, the ‘Fire of victory’, Atash Behram.

Inside, upstairs in a secret room, a flame really was burning, as it had been continuously since 12th October, 1912. This was quite a young flame, really – there was one in Yazd that had been burning continuously for 1,200 years. Kolkata’s flame was an Atash Adaran, the ‘Fire of fires’ – the next class down from the Atash Behram. Kolkata’s might have been a second class fire, but was tended to with as much devotion as if it had come direct from the hand of Yazdegard the Third himself. Yasdegard, as we all know, was the last Zoroastrian Emperor of Persia.

Well, you might know. I’d never even heard of Zoroastria, let alone Emperor Yazdegard the Third. All this was like a fairytale to me.

From the minute I walked into the courtyard I was hit with a barrage of bizarre information. I could tell you it all but you’d have to kill me. It was a pretty non-descript courtyard and, as a non-Zoroastrian infidel dog, I was not permitted to pollute the temple by setting foot inside, so there was nothing to see. It was a unique combination of fascinating and dull. In the gateway, standing mutely on the street looking in on us was a man with a withered leg leaning on a stick. In that most elegantly simple of gestures he held out one skinny arm, opened his palm to the sky.

‘M-a-a-n-e-e-e,’ he mouthed. I shook my head and looked away.

The priest appeared, a very charming man. He guided me conscientiously to the few doorways I was allowed to peer into while trying to confuse me with extraordinary facts I couldn’t process. I put my ‘oh yes, oh, how interesting…’ face on and nodded a lot but really, I wasn’t listening.

I was still thinking about the vultures.

In 1822, a Parsi gentleman called Nowroji Sorabji Umrigar is recorded to have built the first Tower of Silence in Kolkata. I’ve never seen a Tower of Silence but they sound pretty grim. This is a circular walled structure with a pit in the centre that functions as a repository for the Parsi dead. Since earth, fire and water are regarded as sacred elements in Parsi faith, they can’t be defiled by the dead so, in a tradition called Dokhmenishin, the bodies are kept en pleine air, dumped inside these towers, or dokhmas, to be consumed by vultures.

Everybody was happy with this arrangement; Parsis, their God and the vultures – till the vultures disappeared.

By the late 1990’s the Parsi leaders, and more than a few scientists, noticed a rapid decline in the vulture population. Under temple law, the Towers of Silence are forbidden to members of the Parsi community; only Khandiyas, the men who carry the dead, are allowed to enter. They knew what they were seeing; the bodies of their fellow Parsis remained untouched; as the months went by corpses piled up in the Tower of Silence, rotting. Nobody said a thing – everybody knew what was going on but nobody knew what was causing it.

The birds had vanished from Kolkata – there was nothing left to eat the Parsi dead. The purity of earth, fire and water was all very fine, but when it was Mum down there slowly decomposing, when the putrid smell of Uncle Pete started to waft down the street and particularly when an angry old woman in Mumbai leaked photographs of what was actually going on, people starting to take notice.

The photographs are truly dreadful. To outside eyes, and some few in the Parsi community, her point is made with a glance. The traditionalists were appalled – not at the state of affairs in the Towers, but at her treachery in exposing it.

While the Parsee neighborhood imploded, scientists were doing what scientists do. Their sleuthing eventually showed that vultures are highly susceptible to diclofenac – a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used by veterinarians in livestock. Vultures, not able to tell the difference between a dead Parsi and a dead cow, snacked away quite happily on any old rotting carcass they could find. A nip at the remains of an arthritic hoofer soon after it had been treated with diclofenac was enough to send that bird to his own Vulture Tower of Silence quick smart. Someone had the bright idea to ban the use of the drug in animals.

Now the vultures were back. In March this year about twenty birds were sighted near the Kolkata Race Course and a couple of nests spotted on a few tall trees near Victoria Memorial. They were breeding again. It didn’t much matter in the scheme of things. There were so few Parsis left to nibble these days.

‘Ten families,’ the gate-man said mournfully.

That was his estimate of what was left in Kolkata. Fifty people, sixty maybe, most living within a block of Agni Mandir – old, getting older, settled down – within a generation just the three priests would be left, maintaining a temple for no congregation, tending a vulnerable flame.

‘What will happen then?’ I asked the priest.

‘Of course – we will always keep the flame.’

Just like the vultures, the Parsis of Kolkata might return.

Thripasharan Mahasthavir, esteemed monk and scholar, sat very still in the courtyard of Bauddha Dharmankur Sabha, just on the corner of Buddhist Temple Road.  He was a handsome man with fine chiselled features, not a spare ounce of flesh, the living instrument of Lord Buddha, straight-backed and cross-legged, soft robes falling loosely around him, holding an open book.

He founded the building we were standing in right now. He was a great man – but he wasn’t great enough. The stunning swirl of Buddhism, that golden pagoda’d faith that I’d seen all through South East Asia stopped right here. The Buddhist community in Kolkata is tiny. The humble little concrete temple offers paying guest accommodation, with ‘very spartan rooms – but a warm welcome’.  Every little bit helps.

So Kripasharan sits – and he sits and he sits, waiting for the day, sculptured in perfect stone; ‘a simple, childlike and saintly personality, of large heart and high souled enthusiasm,’ with white marble lips and white marble eyes, white marble robe and hands. This life-size statue was created when he was still alive, placed here in this glass-fronted cupboard on 31st October, 1915 – as was the stone tablet I was reading. He was fifty.

I wonder what he thought when he looked at himself – in the right light, at the right time of day, in a swirling pattern of distortion, all of Kripasharan’s work is reflected back at him. I stood in front of the cupboard, looking through the phantom image of the orange walls of the little temple, its balconies and doorways stretched and waving like music in the glass – up and into the blank marble eyes of a dead Buddhist scholar.

Kripasharan stared vacantly over Dogster’s head into the distance. He doesn’t look in the least enthusiastic, I thought, not simple at all, not remotely child-like nor particularly saintly – bleached of colour, cast in pure white stone, he looked more like a severe German sports master counting push-ups. The steel will of his belief is all that remains, chiselled into marble, locked forever behind glass. He’s going to sit there and hold his breath till all of India turns Buddhist.

It’s just as well he’s made of stone.

Buried down in New Market is the last taste of the Jews. The Jewish confectioner Nahoum’s, founded in 1902, holds a special place in my heart. It is still run today by the original owner’s grandson, David Nahoum, a rotund octogenarian who spends his days sitting at a desk surrounded by cupboards and mirrors, scales and flour. I didn’t introduce myself, content to grab a pastry or two, walk away proudly with my little white cardboard box with ‘Nahoum’s’ in blue joined-up writing on the cover. That taste of pastry was all I needed. With the first bite I could almost hear the cash registers clinking, smell the business in the air.

Kolkata in the 1930s and 1940s was a lively city and Jews formed a solid minority; up to five thousand of them, wealthy, cultured, erudite – they were diamond traders, real estate dealers, spice wholesalers, exporters – their weddings and religious feasts were the talk of the town. Regulars at the fashionable restaurants in Park Street, punters at the Kolkata Race Club; the community built five synagogues and two schools – they were here to stay.

The Second World War, Indian Independence in 1947 and the creation of Israel the following year altered everything. Many left for the new Jewish state, others moved to Europe or the United States – Jewish Kolkata was virtually abandoned. By 1950 there were one hundred and twenty Jews left.

Sixty years later the last twenty-eight clung on, the children of those who stayed. There haven’t been enough able-bodied men to form a minyan, the quorum necessary for services, for twenty years – only one man regularly visits the two remaining temples to light a candle. They were carefully unlocked for me by their caretaker, a Muslim man who doesn’t think his job is strange at all.

Beth El Synagogue in Harford Lane is in fine condition. No wonder – it has barely been used in the last sixty years. Stuck to a bulletin board in a side alcove are notes from a meeting dated 21st May 1989 pleading for the few eligible parties to vote in an election to replace the board. These few papers are all that is left.

Maghen David was built in 1884 and has barely altered from that moment. The interior hangs suspended in time, kept exactly now as it was then, maintained and guarded by a tiny staff. Only a large pile of broken chairs just inside the main entrance and a thick layer of dust in the balcony upstairs give evidence to the passage of time. Quite what sinister force broke twenty synagogue chairs remains a mystery.

I stared at the forbidding portrait of David Joseph Ezra on the wall. His son Elia built this place in memory of him, obviously still terrified of his celestial wrath. Dad hangs there looking like Moses in a frock-coat, a fierce look on his bearded face, two beady eyes peering sternly through oval wire-rimmed spectacles. I was terrified too. I found Elia not far away. He didn’t look like a lot of fun, either.

‘Scary,’ I said to no one in particular.

The Muslim caretaker nodded proudly. He had no idea what I was saying. He didn’t care. This was his duty. He was happy when a foreigner came. Happier, probably, with the tip we left him. Outside, through freshly painted wrought-iron gates, Kolkata blasted away – in here all was calm, all was peace, all was silence. The caretaker smiled and bowed.

I thought he was genuflecting at me – then saw a youngish, distracted looking man with a thin beard glancing at us from a distance. He wore a tightly buttoned black coat and a yarmulke.

‘That’s him,’ whispered Ifte, ‘that’s Shalom Israel!’

Shalom is only thirty eight, the youngest of the Kolkata Jews by nearly twenty-five years. He lives in the Jewish cemetery guarding the bones of his ancestors, spending his time caring for the remaining two dozen elders; carting them off to the doctor, the dentist, the specialist, tending the infirm. He performs the last rites when they die – he even butchers their meat. It gives him meaning, a feeling of belonging – but to just what I’m not quite sure. In his lifetime he will see the extinction of all he knows.

He waited till we were out the door and into the driveway before he went in to the synagogue to light a candle, say a prayer, to think of all that came before him and reflect on the nature of impermanence. This is the mission of Shalom Israel, to be the last one standing; the ultimate Jew in Kolkata. Then, with all the majesty and power that he commands, he can slowly turn out the lights.

In Kumartuli the painter of faces sat rock-still, staring at another Durga. At his right hand was a low table. On it stood a large silver pot of water; next to that a spattered tray, three fine brushes and five small tins of colour; lurid carnival pink, electric green, honey brown, jet black and white. One for the Jews, Dogster thought, one for the Armenians, the Parsis, the Buddhists, the Chinese. I think Stella would be the carnival pink.

He sat there for a long time, looking straight ahead into the empty eyes of his goddess. She stared blankly back. His lips moved in a silent prayer. Then he turned slowly to one side and grabbed the finest of his brushes, ran its tip against his tongue. He reached over smoothly and dipped the brush into the white paint. For a second he sat poised, his brush hovering in the air, then, with a final stroke, put another light in another Durga’s eye.

That’s what they are, Dogster thought, my 0.42%; they are the secret glint in the city’s eye, the artist’s final touch; five tiny diamonds in the Kolkata crown, polished, finely cut, proud.

Kripasharan sat very still and held his breath.

The solicitor sadhu threw another handful of grain into the wind.

Whoosh! The pigeons scattered. At Nahoum’s the flour flew.

Upstairs in Metcalfe Lane the Parsi flame flickered on into eternity.

Stella locked her shop up tight.

One by one the birds settled back on the ghat.

The pigeons pecked at the seed, strutted, fluttered, cooed and fought. In the midst of it all the wise old sadhu sat smiling.

He knew the value of little things.

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