Exclusive excerpt: “The Magicians of Mazda” by Ashwin Sanghi
The book contains “492 pages of a thrilling adventure that weaves its way through America, Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir. I have always believed that the greatest quality of a storyteller is to bring the reader to turn the page. I painstakingly attempted to do just that,” Sanghi told us earlier about his new novel.
“The Wizards of Mazda” was released on May 21, 2022. Here is an exclusive excerpt from Sanghi’s new book “The Wizards of Mazda”, courtesy of HarperCollins India.
“The Magicians of Mazda” by Ashwin Sanghi
Less than forty kilometers drive from Surat is Navsari, a town inextricably linked to the history of Parsis in India. The Parsis are the descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Iran to escape Muslim persecution and eventually settled in Gujarat around 720 AD. While many places are associated with this event, Navsari is the place that housed the Parsis for several centuries after they were driven from Sanjan, the place where they first landed in Gujarat. Home to stalwarts such as Dadabhoy Naoroji, Jamsetji Tata and Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, Navsari is just ten miles from Dandi where Mahatma Gandhi ended his famous Dandi March, in protest at the British government’s levy on salt in India.
An elderly visitor to Navsari, Pestonji Unwalla, skipped the town’s star attraction, the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, and made his way through the predominantly Parsi enclave of Tarota Bazar. In Tarota Bazar is the first Dastur Meherji Rana library. Founded in 1872, the library contains over 45,000 printed books on different subjects, but is famous for its collection of around 630 rare manuscripts written in Avesta, Gujarati, Pahlavi, Pazend, Persian, Sanskrit and Urdu. The library is named after a Zoroastrian priest, Meherji Rana, who had visited Akbar’s court by order of the Mughal Emperor, who wanted to learn the key tenets of the Zoroastrian faith.
The white-bearded octogenarian entered the majestic blue and off-white structure and climbed with some difficulty the staircase leading to the main reading room. It was afternoon; the room was shrouded in a sleepy silence punctuated only by the creak of ancient ceiling fans and the occasional shout of a peddler from the road below. The air was heavy with the musty smell of old leather-bound covers, and portraits of library patrons hung from the iron grating that ran around the perimeter of the mezzanine. The old man ignored the other patrons, who were leafing through newspapers and magazines in the reading room, and headed straight up a wrought-iron spiral staircase in a corner.
Somewhat out of breath, he came to an area filled with cupboards full of books. He then began the slow and laborious process of finding the tome he was looking for. Thirsty after his ascent, he licked his lips in anticipation of the thick gulkand ice cream he would treat himself to when his task was done.
The sheer scale of the collection would be daunting to most people, but Pestonji Unwalla had a secret resolution. His search was for the books listed in a 1923 catalog by a certain Ervad Bamanji Nasarwanji Dhabar. From this catalog, Unwalla had been able to weed out the chaff and compile a shortlist of the most likely candidates. He worked efficiently, going through his list, looking for each book, flipping through its pages and then religiously putting it back in its place. One by one, his list gets shorter. He went through the 19th century illustrated and lithographed Shahnameh, the Persian epic of Firdausi. No chance. Overviews of Zend Grammar in Avestan. No. When he saw a 400-year-old copy of the Khordeh Avesta, his heart briefly lifted as he thumbed through it, but that turned out to be another red herring.
He was about to move to another closet when he saw it. Kalila wa Dimna by Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa. He picked it up and brought it to a reading table. Carefully turning the delicate, fabric-thin pages, he saw the handwritten squiggle and couldn’t believe he had found what he had. It was just six lines, written in the Avestan language using the Pazend script. Strange to find Pazend’s notes in an Arabic book. Unwalla quickly snapped a photo with her cellphone. Could it be number 27? He looked at the words again and mentally translated the text. He couldn’t be sure, but his instincts told him he had found what he was looking for. He eagerly took more pictures.
Unwalla had not yet visited Diu, a town on the coast of the island of the same name. Undoubtedly, Diu had archaeological treasures invested in the remains of two dakhmas and a fire temple, now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. But Diu had been abandoned by the Parsis nineteen years after their arrival there. Unwalla wasn’t convinced there would be any valuable documents or records there. He had wisely realized that Navsari would be his best bet. And he knew now that his intuition had been right. Maybe Diu could be on the route another day.
If he were right, it would mean that centuries of history and tradition would be turned upside down. It was possible that the Guardians themselves were unaware of what lay beneath the religious symbolism. A key part of their heritage had been entrusted to the custody of an inner group, but it was something that belonged to Zoroastrians everywhere, not just those in India.
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