Interview with Berjis Desai, author of "Towers of Silence"
on Feb 16, 2022
Berjis Desai, 64, lawyer and writer, studied at Cambridge and Bombay. A former journalist with a Gujarat daily; he retired as the Managing Partner of one of India’s leading law firms.
He is the author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, both have received critical acclaim. Towers of Silence is his third book and a first fiction novel.
An ordained Zoroastrian priest, he is acknowledged as the authentic chronicler of Parsi culture. He is married and lives in Mumbai.
Frontlist: How can you describe Berjis Desai as a person in real life?
Berjis: I think I would describe myself more as a writer rather than as a lawyer. It has always been a dilemma for me, which career to pursue. I certainly do not regret being a lawyer and it has taught me a lot in life and in the profession. Therefore, it would be ungrateful to say that, but my preference has always been for writing, and increasingly, I am devoting much of my time to my other activities and also substantially in writing.
Frontlist: ‘Towers of Silence’ is a fictional book that depicts the heritage of the Parsi Clan. How did you come up with the idea of writing down this book?
Berjis: We come from a town called Navsari in Gujarat, which is the most famous and important center for Parsi refugees who first came to India some 1300 years ago. Navsari is also the spiritual headquarters, the religious headquarters of the Parsis. I've spent almost all my school summer vacations with my grandmother there and I heard stories from many of those who were then in their 80s and 90s. My novel is based on a real-life story, which happens in the life for a major Parsi clan in Navsari. And of course, it has been fictionalized in parts as any novel is, so that effectively is the backdrop against which this novel was written.
Frontlist: The previous books that you’ve written till now based on Parsi Heritage are non-fiction. This book would be your first attempt to write a fiction novel. How did you put together the real-life story with the blend of fiction?
Berjis: Well, it wasn’t really a challenge because I had been writing short stories and other works of fiction for a variety of reasons. Since I was in the legal profession, I did not want to get them published. However, as we speak, there are two novels currently under the process. Its not that I am writing fiction for the first time, but of course the structuring and editing of the novel, organizing, connecting and coordinating it was more of an organized effort than writing fiction. Writing fiction comes rather easily to me.
Frontlist: Some research shows that the Parsi Population will be dwindling in the upcoming years. What should the Parsi clan do to preserve their culture as you’re acknowledged as the authentic chronicler of Parsi Culture?
Berjis: We have reached a stage where there are only about 80,000 to 90,000 Parsis in the world. There are many zoroastrians that are not Parsis racially or ethnically nevertheless follow the Zoroastrian religion. So possibly, there are something like 3 million zoroastrians, but only about 80,000 to 90,000 Parsis left in the world. And the situation of demographic decline is very serious, we are almost staring at extinction. And unless a major miracle happens, there does not appear to be any easy solution. So, the government of India and UNESCO have started an effort in the last six or seven years called Jiyo Parsi, which by means of IVF and various other subsidized initiatives, they have managed to give birth to something like 600 additional Parsi babies, in over five and a half, six years now. 600 may seem a small number in the context of India, but it is a huge, huge number in the context of Parsis, and there’s some hope for that. While, I believe that extinction may default and demographic decline, its acceleration may be faulted. But ultimately, over the next 100-150 years, whether we will survive even in any meaningful way, is a question mark.
Frontlist: ‘Is every little thing hopelessly preordained and do we suffer from the illusion of decision making’ asked by the anti-hero in the story. What would you like to say in this context?
Berjis: I do think as a result of my experience, and my learnings, and I do believe in this, that, however strange it sounds, we underestimate the extent to which things are preordained, at least the major things in life. And we do suffer from an illusion of decision making in the sense that we believe that I did this, and I did that, actually, we do nothing. We are just instruments and we are being used as instruments by whatever the cosmic forces are and we just have to flow along with the process of life. So this feeling “I”, “Ego”, I don't think that makes any sense. And the moment you realize that you're only an instrument, or a soul, which has been given the vehicles of the body and the mind to work out your karmic debt, and to learn whatever you have to learn in this incarnation, life will become much easier and tolerable.
Frontlist: When did you find the Parsi Zoroastrian Guards Of The Holy Fire (Pzghf) and what is the vision of founding this public religious trust?
Berjis: About four years ago, that's a trust essentially to protect heritage, very ancient fire temples, which particularly in the city of Bombay and Thane, which is around nearly 50 temples are there, some of them as old as 300 years or 330 years, and several are in a state of disrepair. Several don't have funds, because of the dwindling population, the footfall of the worshipers is hardly there, you have one or two worshipers during the day, then there is a lack of Odin priests to tend to the fire the fire requires to be tended 24 hours a day. So there is nobody to tend to the fire. So now the laymen also are acting as Officiating priests. So all these issues exist, properties are being lost because they are not properly taken care of and maintained. So this idea of this trust is to help as much as possible to ensure that these things are protected. So it's just now a small beginning, but we are expecting that in the next couple of years, this will grow into a substantial moment. So it's more from a viewpoint of preserving heritage fire temples and to protect them from any external or internal forces, which will cause erosion or destruction.
Frontlist: It ought to be the dream of any author that their readers remember them for their distinctive thoughts and writings? What do your readers learn from your writings?
Berjis: I think my objective as a writer is, first and foremost, to entertain, and also to make readers think and become more aware of themselves because I believe that we often see very little what we don't see, which is all around us, and which is there for us to see to develop those insights. But the objective is, essentially, to entertain, and to ensure that people become more compassionate, they develop more humility, they see the universality of life that essentially is the object of these writings.