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Meher Oral History Interview

The interview was conducted as part of SAADA'S ACFP 2021-2022. This interviewee discussed her early life in Bombay, India. She described her memories of her childhood neighborhood and family life. She also shared her migration experience of coming to the United States on August 15th, 1990 and working as a librarian in Santa Rosa. In specific, this interviewee reflected upon marrying outside the Zoroastrian community. She also described how she has maintained and incorporated Zoroastrian traditions in her day to day life and her memories of early days in California.

In this slideshow, you will see:
Meher's favorite photograph of herself playing in the mud in Lonavala, a hill station where she spent a lot of her childhood with her extended family and cousins. She shares: "the sheer joy on my face as I play in mud puddles is the best."

A photograph (a cibachrome) of Meher, done by her husband Marcel before they were married. Meher shared that Marcel did some photography for a hairdresser and she was often his model.

A photograph of Meher and her husband, Marcel, on their wedding day. She shares in the interview that they decided to get married only 5 days after Meher graduated because both of their parents would be coming to Santa Barbara for their graduation. Looking back, Meher shares that she realizes they had no idea what was involved in planning a wedding ceremony, and were just "winging" it. She shared: "Luckily it all turned out better than we expected, with the help from our friends. The Zoroastrian priest who conducted our ceremony was a family friend and impressed everyone in attendance with his translation of the "ashirvaad" (blessings). "It was a beautiful ceremony, hearing the words translated from Avesta was very special."

A photograph of Meher In 1990 while she was still in India. She shared that there was a year-long Festival of France in India (to create or strengthen ties between the two countries). She shares: "One of the big elements of the events was a fashion show showcasing Haute Couture, that is one of a kind, high fashion creations by Yves Saint Laurent. Young women from all over India sent in their information and photographs, and 40 were chosen to model YSL creations. I was one of the 40 girls. Our names were in the newspaper (I still have the cuttings), and it was a lot of fun modeling a dress from the Russian Collection."

Childhood, Family, Immigration

Duration: 00:52:51

Date: January 13, 2022
Subject(s): Meher
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Sharmeen Mehri
Contributor: Meher
Location: Karachi, Pakistan

Transcribed by Shirin Mehri

Sharmeen Mehri: Okay, so today is January 13th. It's 10:42 pm in Karachi, Pakistan and my name is Sharmeen Mehri and I'm interviewing Meher online for the SAADA archival fellowship project about Zoroastrian South Asian migration to the US. Meher, I'd like you to share your name, spell it for us, share your location and address and your age or date of birth.

Meher: Okay, so my name is Meher. My husband is German. And I came to the US on, I left India on August 15th, 1990 and um, my birth date. It's January 26th, 1968. My location is um my home which is in Santa Rosa California, Northern California.

SM: So let's just begin learning about you and your background, so um using 3 nouns, how would you describe yourself?

M: Mother, friend and helper. I find like I'm a like in my job and in my life, I just like to help people and so I've kind of discovered that recently that that makes me the most happy, is helping others.

SM: And so what does your uh job uh entail?

M: My um job now is at the library. I'm a library associate, at the local public library and um in my job I’m, of course I'm working with books because we're in the library but I'm also helping people with uh more than just books finding resources they, they might need to make their life better or for health or for um business for anything and I find that I want to or tend to go over and beyond like more help more than um, my co-workers do. Sometimes I get personally involved with um people's lives that I meet through the library and I help them, in ways that is kind of unexpected like if once I drove um an older person who needed an operation but was really freaking out about how to get to San Francisco so I took a day off and I drove her there and then when she was done several days later I brought her and her daughter back to Santa Rosa things like that and I, that, that's okay for me I like to do that.

SM: How do you define the key aspects of your identity? Um do you identify yourself as a you know as a Zarthoshti, Parsi, Indian?

M: I mean of course I do personally identify as that. But I don't make that public or I don't say oh this is why I am the way I am, I, I feel I just uh am a product of course, of my upbringing, and of my parents and family and that's really a big deal to me. My parents, my family my, so when you when you see me, I feel like I have all these ancestors behind me, my parents, my grandparents who I grew up with in the same house and um so I'm a product of all of that. So while I am Zoroastrian but that I keep to myself and that's private. But of course, that affects how I am but people who don't necessarily know that about me that I'm Zoroastrian. If they ask I'll tell them but I don't publicize that. If they ask where I'm from I will tell them India if they ask more, I'll tell them I'm Zoroastrian. I'll give them a very short history of how we came to be in India but otherwise I don't yeah, I just don't publicize that.

SM: Thank you for sharing that. So how do you define your key aspects of your identity?

M: I am a mother more than just to my own kids. I try I'm I and I saw that in my father too. Like he would be, he was a father to us but he would also be a father to like a slew of um other cousins and you know people looked up to him and I kind of see myself like that and I also tend to look after other people who are not necessarily children. But you know trying to make their life easier and smoother and.

SM: Um so can you describe your childhood home and the neighborhood would you were brought up in?

M: I was born in Bombay in 1968 so just about 20 years after independence. And the the place the building what we call, what is my home I mean people live in apartments in Bombay and so I lived in a building called Pallonji mansion and um it was a building that my grandfather built. It was in a very nice area in Cuff Parade. It still is there and a lot of the neighbors have the same last name because they were occupied by you know cousins or second cousins. So there's right now I think there's 4 apartments that have the last name. My grandfather sold the building long ago, but it was still. It's still a kind of a known building like oh yeah, Pallonji Mansion so there were wonderful large apartments and and I felt you know very lucky my dad lived there pretty much his whole life and my grandparents lived with us in the same house. So when I was growing up, we had the grandparents had the biggest room in the front of the house. And then there was the children's room which was, it could be a mixture of children whoever was there and then my parents had the only room with an ac, with an air conditioning [laughs]. It was very fluid and that I didn't realize how unusual that was until I came to America but we used to, I remember of course when I was a little child I remember sleeping in my parents' room. They had a you know separate cot and sometimes I'd sleep right with them in the same bed in between them. Then then I would I went to the kids room for a while. But then I remember for many many years I slept in my grandparents' room with my grandparents so they would be. We each had a bed and so I guess I didn't realize how unusual that I was because like one day I'd be in my grandparents' room, one day I could be in my parents' room if it was really hot. We'd all go into you know and put little mats down and sleep in my parents' room because we needed the AC.

M: So like literally every night could be in a different room. It was, there was no, we didn't have this thing of like oh well, this is my room. That sense of space or privacy wasn't there and that was okay with me and I think because of that I sometimes, my boundaries which I didn't even know that term until recently. I didn't understand about boundaries and about not going into someone else's space just because I was so used to being in everybody's space and it was okay. Anyway, we had this amazing amazing apartment. We had our neighbors who were second cousins. We had a door between the apartments. So for my early childhood the door would be open so we could run from 1 place to the other and it was really fun and there was a lot of family always around and because we were, my grandparents’ house so when on uncles anybody came to visit, they'd all stay with us so the house would become really full. And it was, it was a lot of fun. I have 2 brothers one is older than me and uh just fifteen months older than me and his name is Darius and the younger brother's name is Zal and Zal is 4 years younger than me and I remember. That's one of my earliest memories is when he was born and he came home. I remember being at the lunch table, and that was around the time my mom came home so I just dropped everything and I ran to the balcony and stood on the little stool because we had this little stone stool to stand on and looking down and then she was coming in with this little bundle and it was, that's one of my first memories and he was my first baby so you know I had a lot of fun with him. I couldn't wait for him to grow up and then I'd dress him up and I'd put like my grandma’s old saris around us and then we would make little, we had these big fourposter beds. So like I'd drape saris all around and then we'd have our little cottage inside. You know it's really cute, was fun.

SM: And so where are they now?

M: They’re still in India, they still live in Pallonji mansion. Yeah, my older brother has a flat, a separate flat that my parents bought for him and um my younger brother has the flat that I grew up in and my you know my dad grew up in and stuff so it basically both their flats even though they're in different spaces. They're exactly the same floor plan. So, it's very familiar when I go back if I stay with one or the other. It's just like being home.

SM: It was primarily as a Zoroastrian uh kind of apartment building or did other folks also reside there?

M: I would say it was it originally was primarily um, a Zoroastrian building but um, even by the, well it still is I guess quite a bit Zoroastrian but by the time I was born, it was probably 60% 70% Zoroastrian and 30% non.

SM: Your uh sort of Zoroastrian neighborhood did that have any effect in your upbringing, was there a lot of emphasis on certain like traditions and beliefs?

M: A lot of Parsis in Bombay live in baughs which are these developments that are just for Zoroastrians and we didn't live in a baugh and, but there were, because of a lot of Parsi-like neighbors, we had um some feeling of like comradery or some you know togetherness like I would be running down the stairs and this as I was you know a teenager I was maybe 14, 15, this old aunty would be, Shirin aunty would like stop me on the stairs and say be sure to marry a Parsi, be sure to marry a Parsi. I I was and I would these are people; this woman I mean she wasn't even related to me or anything but she would be, they were all like you must marry a Parsi as soon as I started to look like a young woman, I got this advice [laughs]. I ended up not marrying a Parsi. And neither did either of my brothers. But my parents were both you know Parsi and my grandparents. I was very close to my grandmother; she lived a long time even after I was in the States, she was still alive, so when I'd go back, she met my husband, Marcel. I heard stories about how her marriage was arranged and how she got married at I think 17 and she didn't really want to. She wanted to continue studying and it was just it's just one of my stories that when when she got engaged because she had only met her husband, her future husband once before, she didn't even know which one was her husband. There were all these brothers. So, her cousin she said my cousin was very smart and she got up and said: Will the groom to be please stand up or something like that she said will he so my grandpa stood up. I just thought that ah that's kind of a funny story about like not even realizing which one is my husband I forgot how he looks because they all very, very tall men. She was only five feet tall and he was six two and then he would wear this Parsi pheta. That's how I remember my grandpa every day he would get up. He would get dressed in uh, not in a dugli but like it was a shark’s skin a long sharkskin kind of jacket kind of thing and then this tall pheta. He would wear a pheta is like this tall cap.

SM: Were you part of any organizations back in your community or are you part of any organizations now in your community in San Francisco?

M: Not really part of any organization. But I do go once in a while, not as often as I'd like to, but I do go in the South Bay in South of San Francisco, they have a large Indian population and also quite a lot of Parsis. So once in a while, on a Parsi new year or something, they will have a they'll have like a dinner and dance kind of thing and so I do go to some of those and it's fun. It's actually really fun. I used to think it was kind of dorky and but as I've grown up I really have enjoyed, I've enjoyed that. But besides that, I'm only a part of like a couple of facebook groups that are “Zoroastrians Worldwide” and another one I forget what it's called. But I'm part of those. And I find those interesting too. Some of the things they post are interesting some photos or history or culture.

SM: I would like to move on to now particularly focusing more on the process of migration for you and specific memories of you coming to the United States and your experiences and your first days. what prompted you? What was your motivation to come to the U.S?

M: I came to the US. Well, when I was 13 we had visited the US, as a family all 5 of us and my uncle from England. We had come to the US on this amazing mega trip and then we were two months we traveled all over the country. We went to lots of national parks and we we went everywhere from New York, even Buffalo to Florida, to San Diego to Seattle so really and everywhere in between. So I had had that exposure and I had loved it. I just loved the vast open spaces of America and the natural beauty of it and, so after I finished my schooling in in Bombay, I had a, I got a degree in philosophy and then I did a year, a postgraduate year in mass communication. Also, in Bombay and then through that I decided I wanted to study photography. So I looked up in these big fat books that you used to get with American colleges. I looked up ones that specialized in photography and there was one in Rochester, New York and then there was one in Santa Barbara and really my decision making was just that oh I think it's supposed to be warm in California. I think that's where I'll I'll apply and so I I came to the US thinking I would study photography, get my degree and definitely go back to India, but then when I got here I met, within the first year, I met my future husband and he's German and since we you know we both really love like nature and being out and in nature and we have amazing beauty in California, we decided we would get married and try to live here if we could so I didn't come here trying to you know, get away from any kind of hardship. Or anything like that. But I did I did feel more in some ways more at home in America than I did in India. When I was in India because, you know I always had really short hair. And I was light-skinned and people, I felt kind of like an outsider because I'd have people say things about me to my face thinking that I wouldn't understand you know in Hindi or in Marathi or Gujarati. So, I I kind of was in some ways an outsider over there, even though it is so familiar. But I I remember before I came, one of my dad's friends was saying something that oh don't worry she won't have a problem there and you know because he meant because I was light-skinned and I would fit in. Basically now the word I realize is passing, I would pass for white you know. And I mean they were saying that only as a kind thing as like to tell my parents don't worry. She'll be okay, she won't be targeted or discriminated against or whatever and for the most part that has been true. Initially, I think when I first came here and I had more of, maybe more of an accent, I very rarely would have someone say go back to where you came from kind of thing, if I tried to speak up about something. Oh, and that's one of the other things that I I feel like some of the the corruption and like the injustices that are that I was exposed to in India, I, it was hard for me to, to deal with that. At an early age like around 12, you start thinking about like why? Why are some people like so poor and so and why am I so privileged and so it really help kind of you really have to think about it. It's a hard thing to see every day. I don't know what I'm trying to say with that, just that um I guess that, I started thinking about these things, and maybe that's what I was looking for when I studied philosophy is trying to find some answers.

M: I do remember that I just I was always interested in religion. Like we had a subject religion so where we'd study all Western religions and then another one was all Eastern religions. So, I was very interested, I still am interested in that and somehow, I've made I've kind of synthesized it to what makes sense to me. A little bit of Hinduism, a little bit of Buddhism a little bit of of course a lot of Zoroastrianism. Specifically like the good thoughts, good words, good deeds. That is how I try to lead my life consciously, especially as an adult, I think early on it was sort of unconscious but now it's more consciously where I think about how I want to live, what an impact I want to have on the world, what legacy I want to leave. You know as you get older, you think about these things more

SM: When you were coming for your studies, what were you expecting America to be like or what were some of your concerns about coming here?

M: Oh, I'll tell you about that, I'll tell you [laughs] oh my gosh and again Zoroastrianism actually had a big part to play in my initial, in being here. So, like I said early on I left India on August 15th. It was monsoons. There was a lot of rain like a lot. It was the there was flooding in the city and my dad took me to the airport like 4 hours early just because we wanted to make sure. We would be able to get there in case we got stuck and I came with two bags. When I landed in the US, it was in Los Angeles and I stayed with my friend Seema, who is Gujarati. She had some family in Los Angeles so that's where I came first for the first two weeks and within those two weeks, I was really busy I had to get a bank account, get a social security card, figure out to get a driving license I took a couple of classes and I failed my first driving test and I was really really upset because I took a wrong you know turn. He said go straight and I was in the wrong lane or something was something small like that. But I was so disappointed. But anyway, once the two weeks were up, it was around Labor Day and my friend's sister dropped me off in Santa Barbara. We had gone we'd made a couple of little trips to Santa Barbara to find where I would be staying. I stayed in a person's house. I had a room in their house but they lived up like way up in the Hills where it was really um remote. It was quite remote. So going back a little. When I first visited Santa Barbara to go to the school, to visit the school and to sort of register, my friend, the Gujarati friend said oh there's a Parsi couple in Santa Barbara and we, I've gotten their number so we can call them so we call them and their names were Farah and Khushru and Farah said oh yes, come over for tea. This was before I moved to Santa so we went over for tea and we had a nice visit.

M: And as with many other encounters I've had, we found we realized that we were distant not that distant cousins. So, when she heard my last name, she said oh you're so-and-so's daughter. Oh ok and she's just a little bit older than me. Not much but we realized that we're related and so we had some people in common and so that was good. Then I moved to, so it was two weeks after I arrived I was dropped off in Santa Barbara and the people that I was staying that, whose house I was living in gave me the keys and said oh it's labor day weekend and we're off for the, we're going to be away for a few days. So here I was on the top of this mountain without a car or anything and I was all alone and it was really really really kind of scary for me because I had never in my whole life, never ever been alone in the house ever. We were never left alone so we always had either a grandparent or an aunt or a parent or somebody was in the house at all times. So, this was the first time I was alone in a house and I remember spending my first day unpacking, ironing everything, putting it up in the closet, like arranging stuff. I then I didn't know, it was evening was falling and I just didn't know what to do. I I had no like food prepared or anything. So, I called Farah and I said uh, she said oh you've you've arrived you, you're here and I said yeah and I think I had a very like I was scared, I had a very small voice and she said where are the the people who you're living with and I said oh they're they're out. They've gone away. And she said so you're alone and I said yeah so she said okay, well come over for dinner. I'll send Khushru to pick you up and then Khushru got lost because it was way up on this was before GPS and it was way up on this mountain. So he came and he picked me up uh after like a couple of hours and took me to their place and I had dinner with them and it felt so good, so comforting to just be you know with what now is like family. So, she said, she could probably sense what I was feeling and she said just stay the night and they were at that time running a little inn in Summerland and so they they had an extra room for me, just in the inn. So, like I got to sleep there and so my first night in Santa Barbara wasn't even at the place I ended up staying. I was with them and then the next day, I spent the whole day with them. I spent a lot of time with them. But I said no I I have to go home and I knew that I had to just be brave and and do it because this is what was my choice to come to America and I chose this and although it was really scary I, I had to do it. So I just I just um was brave and I spent you know then I got used to it and little by little I like uh maybe a few weeks later I got a car and then I was more mobile. I could you know drive myself places and stuff but I continued to have Farah and Khushru just always, they're always like a surrogate family to me. They had a little girl and I'd spend a lot of time with them and they'd take me out with them when they went to eat or whatever and so that was really nice. And then three years later when I got married to Marcel, Khushru who was trained as a priest, he's a doctor but he's also trained as a priest, he he did our wedding so he did the prayers and it was lovely. It was really really nice. My parents had come for my graduation and Marcel's parents had come for my graduation so we um decided that we'd just get married like five days after we graduated. We had no idea at that time we were just I mean I was 25 and we had no idea what we were doing really, but it all worked out. And my dad who is something of a photographer himself and has was you know his whole life had photographed so many maybe hundreds of weddings. Not professionally just as uh as a favor. He said that he'd been to so many weddings in his life and he never knew the meaning of the words that were being said, the prayers. And what Khushru had done was he would say the prayers in in Avesta and then he would he would give us an explanation of what it meant and it was even for us like I had no idea what to expect I had just said hey Khushru will you do our wedding and he said yeah and it was like that was it. We We just got lucky and so, it was really really beautifu what the words were, what he was saying about looking after the environment and about being good and I I have those somewhere and I'd like to find those.

SM: Um were there any concerns about you moving to the US?

M: I was very homesick. I was very very homesick at first. And I I still have letters from my dad. My dad was the one who wrote. My mom hardly ever would write but she would she would be the one I would talk to on the phone and then my dad would be the one who would write letters to me and I'd write back to them. But um I I recall in one of the letters, he said, please speak up on the phone. You know because mom gets worried, she can barely she can't hear you and I know what she meant because my voice would be really small because I was like afraid and and had this kind of anxiety. And um I remember so I arrived at August 15th and it was, I was living in such a, which I didn't actually realize but I was in such a state of like coping, just in a coping state, that it was November before I realized, wait a second, I haven't needed any menstrual products and I was always very regular and and it was my body just like going. Oh my god you have so much to deal with you cannot have a period and so once. So it was around November that I realized it and then the next month or whatever, it was like I had maybe settled enough, my so this was the first and only time that's ever happened where my periods just stopped so. It made me realize later looking back on it that I must have been in this this state of like just trying to cope and and, figure out stuff I mean everything was a new thing. How to use an atm, driving on the other side of the road, buying things, feeding myself, which I never had to do. It was yeah it was a big um big adjustment a really big adjustment from being surrounded by family and love and servants and we that's how we grew up and then coming here. But I I wanted to do it I knew that I could.

SM: What was the most difficult change to your lifestyle or your thinking that you had to make when you were in the US?

M: Well, the first most difficult thing was just not having, not having family around. That was really, it's really important to me to have people around and family around and I remember, being very very lonely. You know in the beginning and so I would I would just go out and like into the town and just walk and walk and walk a lot to to be among people, to be in because, even even on the streets, it was just so empty compared to India. That was a big that was a big adjustment. The other thing was with the exchange rate, in India I had, we'd always been very comfortable in terms of you know money and status and like knowing who you are, so in India I felt like you I automatically and this is only on reflection I realize this, that you are you know who you are you know your place in society, you’re you know Fali’s daughter, Jahangir’s granddaughter you’re that's who you are, whereas over here I was like who am I am I, you know you had to create your own identity. You weren't automatically given anything. You weren't automatically somebody and so that sense of belonging took a while. Now I feel like I belong here and I have every right to be here and I feel you know powerful but it took many years to get and and one of the things that people don't realize I mean when I came here I couldn't tell the difference between like a lot of white people. I just I couldn't see the difference like so if it was a woman with short blond curly hair and there was another one, I wouldn't know which was which, like it took a while for your eyes to adjust.

SM: Can you think of any occasion when you felt you were treated unfairly because of your non-American origin?

M: Not really and and the thing is I and maybe maybe there were occasions, but the thing I choose not to like I don't see that like. I don't get easily offended just anyway. I'm I feel lucky in general like I feel like a really lucky person I've always felt like that like, I'm super lucky. So if someone is trying to and I just don't even I, I just don't see that I won't take offense. I'm like it's their problem if they do say something. Early on there were a couple of people who like early early back. I mean can't remember any specific details, but I do remember, someone saying where have you come from or where you you know, and but even that didn't upset me.

SM: So now we want to just go into more of a reflection kind of section of the interview about something of the here and now and also just since time has passed since you've been in the US. How has being in the United States affected your family life, especially with your relationship with parents or family back home, even developing various relationships in the US or raising children here?

M: My parents died when, my dad passed away uh before I had my my son my first child. I have 2 children, Aidan, who is now 23 and Ava who is 20. And um my dad passed away early on. He was more I think one who would have wanted me to come back and marry a Parsi and all of that. So, when I went back from Santa Barbara after the first year was done during the summer break, I went back but I had already met Marcel at that point. And the reason I went back is because I was really homesick and he had said okay, you just come home for the summer and so, he I think would have preferred I think for me to marry. But once he met Marcel. he was okay. My mom was the one thank goodness who convinced, it wasn't very hard but she convinced him that it was ok and that uh she trusted me to make the right decision and that's how my mom was, she was very smart. She wouldn't say do this or do that or marry a Parsi or she said I'm sure whatever you do will be the right thing and so she put it all on me. I had to make sure it was the right thing because I knew I wasn't gonna have parents who were saying no, you can't do that because then you just do the opposite so I had a good, my parents were really wonderful and very open minded and had brought me up like that and my mom like I just said, you know, trusted me to make the right decision and um after almost thirty years of being with my husband, it was the right decision so it was good. I really missed my parents. In the beginning when we were married, I was all happy and you know I didn't I didn't like actively miss them anymore because I had you know I had Marcel and then but when I had my first child, I really missed my mom. I really wished I had like more support and somebody to to be here with me and not just to help me like babysit or help me look after the kids. More just to witness, I realize how important that would be and I just the act of them or anybody witnessing what you're going through, and witnessing, I think is really important. Like I see you I see what you're going through I see you know the the pleasure and the pain and the you know the hardships of of parenthood. I wish they were there for that, but like I said my dad had already passed away and my mom uh was too unwell to like travel and be here with me. So, I really that was that was when I really like missed them and I wish they were there for me or with me. But they weren't able to be there and so it was okay. I mean I had my husband's parents. They were supportive and they would fly in also from from Europe but they couldn't be here all the time either. I mean they were very, from a distance, they were very supportive. My mom was always, when we talk on the phone she and I would worry about the kids or them being sick or, she said that is the way they have to go through all these sicknesses to grow up that is these are the steps. It's almost like you're taking the steps. So, it’s okay, if they're sick, it's okay, if this you you just do what you can and so that was. Those things would play in my head. I would be I'm just I'm doing my best and that's okay, I wouldn't beat myself up is what I'm saying.

SM: I wanted to ask more about your marriage because it's you know outside the community. Was that something that you were personally you know struggling with in some sort when you were deciding to marry Marcel?

M: Before I left uh for the the States, my my even my brothers would be like oh you should marry a Parsi, you really should. And I said okay then like show me some Parsi men that I [laughs] and at the time they didn't have a good answer for me. So while I was not at all opposed to, I mean even because I wasn't a tall person in India, when I was 16 and 17, people would think I was already like in my 20s so they would say oh is your daughter ready you know. I know a great guy or whatever and my parents were like no no, she's she's only 16 or 17 or whatever, we're not ready. She's still going to college and so they they were very good about like not trying to. Because I have some cousins who were really strongly urged to like meet this guy or go out with him or it took sort of arrange it. It's not like forced arranged but it is sort of arranged and my parents didn't do that to me or you know they let me live my life and when I decided that I wanted to come to America to study, my mom immediately said yes we will make don't worry we will make it happen. I said but what about like the money and how will you know we pay for everything and she said you don't worry we will make it happen and and she was my biggest like supporter and she made that happen. I I can pretty much guarantee if she had not been that way, I probably wouldn't have been allowed to come even though I wanted to and I think she even like sold some, some jewelry or some gold or something. I remember that vaguely that she was like we will make it work. So, she was really eager for me to to be able to have the life and to be able to do and explore whatever I wanted to and it might have been because she wasn't able to do that in her life. You know she she in some ways, even though my dad and she met and it was not really arranged, but it was sort of engineered a little bit.

M: And then they liked each other and then they loved each other and they you know just got married but beyond that, my mom always resented having to be in the same house with with her in-laws. So, although it was wonderful for me and she never held me back from having a good relationship with my grandparents or any of the children having a good relationship. She herself suffered for it like she, the fact that she had to be in the in-law’s house kind of thing. You know she would have liked to have just her own so she was really determined that her children all like have their own spaces with their, without in-laws, if they, you know did want that. Even though to me as a child, it was wonderful, having the grandparents there. When we uh decided to get married, we we had like on the same morning of our wedding, we had we went to the court and we had a ceremony, but I was determined not to let that be the real thing, even though technically it was the legal wedding so I I and this is just like a 25 year old like was like no it is not going to be the proper thing so we are just going to wear jeans. And uh I think I wore like jeans and white blouse and we're we're gonna make it really casual. Like I just I don't know why that was so important for me to have it like not be the real thing so we did that in the morning of the same day and then in the evening we had the Zoroastrian wedding. Marcel is, one of his parents was I think one of his parents were originally Catholic and one was Protestant, but they are not religious at all at all, so he was happy to, um he said no let's do a Zoroastrian wedding. So, we, we had decided that and Khushru was going to do it and once we heard like while we're standing there with our garlands and coconut and you know in I'm wearing a white lace sari and he's wearing this like beautiful Indian suit with like you know with Nehru collar. And we were so overwhelmed with what Khushru was saying and it just it all worked out so well because he was like this is exactly right. So, he would rather be Zoroastrian than not that he is but he he knows a lot about it now.

SM: Do you and Marcel, bringing up your children, did you decide on sharing maybe Zoroastrian values or making them learn about Zoroastrianism?

M: So when we had kids and it was time for their Navjote, I really wanted to make sure that they had their Navjotes. Even though if I had lived in India, with the father being a non-Parsi, being a purjaat, he would, we wouldn’t have been maybe allowed to do that, but I made sure that I taught my kids all the prayers and I did that myself which I’m really proud of because I just basically taught them the Kusti prayer, but that took months and months. Like it was about a year before we would do that every evening and say okay, we have to do half an hour of practicing our prayers and so I made them memorize the prayers and I had to kind of relearn a little bit myself but it all comes back to you and so then we went to India to actually do the navjote, but we did it at home at Pallonji Mansion. And um my husband's uh sister and her family, so all my kids' cousins were all there and my family, my uncles, aunts. Everybody was there and it was really fun. We had the Navjote at home in the morning and then in the evening we had kind of a big party with food um. My kids themselves, I think my daughter maybe more so identifies as Zoroastrian but I think both of them if you ask them or you press them to write something down. They would probably say Zoroastrian. Though my son is more like he's not religious and he doesn't believe in you know, he's a scientist. So, I think and I realized this myself that it's good. I wasn't particularly religious growing up, but I I realized that when someone dies or when you're going through a difficult time in your life or you feel for whatever reason you need the support mentally or it is it is good to have a faith and it's good to have a focus and something to to pray to even if it's just Ashem Vohu and Yatha Ahu Vairyo to you know to have that and so as I grow older I actually pray more and I realized that it's an anchor. It's something to focus your attention. Even if it's just psychologically focusing your attention on some intention. It's a good thing. And I've told my kids that I have told them that and I keep telling them things about myself, about our religion, about the history and I think that somewhere or the other whether they agree or they they don't have to, but it gets into their head somewhere. Just like it did for me, my grandma’s stories, and my grandma used to sit every day at home and she would do her prayers. She would have her chair and, in the morning, she would put on a headscarf and sit with her prayer book and she'd be praying and sometimes she'd be like swaying like this. And if you had to disturb her during her prayers and you said Mama where's you know whatever it was, she would I don't know why she did this maybe because it was, she would like close her teeth and talk like as if she wasn't breaking her prayer by you know, answering your question or whatever so she would continue praying but she'd like quickly say whatever it was through clenched teeth [laughs]. It was funny.

SM: What does it mean to be a Zoroastrian in the United States for you?

M: I don't know how else to say it. I'm very, I feel very fortunate to be born a Zoroastrian. I feel fortunate to not have like extreme, you know, like impositions of you must do this or you mustn't do this or you must eat this on a certain day or not do certain things. It's a very free, freeing kind of religion where what really matters is what matters, like what really matters being a good person is I think the bottom line and I know every religion has that, but I feel our Zoroastrian faith like really, it really makes it like so that it's a practical religion, like where good thoughts, good words, good deeds. I try to live my life like that. I try to help people do charity give away things and I do that all the time and what people may not realize is. I do it because it makes me feel good. Not because anybody and and so the religion is I think geared to make you feel good actually if you follow it, you will feel good and be happy and isn't that what anybody wants.

SM: Do you um think it is important to stand out or fit in more, in the US, in terms of your Zoroastrian or your South Asian identity?

M: I definitely, I think stand out, I definitely feel different. I definitely feel different. And in a good way, special and blessed you know that I've been given all this and so I can give back. So when you have a lot or you feel you have a lot then you can give a lot to the world and stand up for people who can't speak for themselves or help people who need need that kind of help so I feel very blessed.

SM: What is one Zoroastrian principle or tradition that has meant the most to you and why?

M: Giving to others for the betterment of the community, betterment of the whole, preserving the earth and I live in the country so I I am around like I'm surrounded right now; I'm looking at a pond and chickens and making things, making sure things are sustainable and that we are forward thinking. You know, thinking about what what we leave for our children. I think that's really important to me. Making sure, like just like with this whole climate thing, climate crisis, we want to make sure that we don't destroy this Earth this planet that we've been given. And I think we can each do that and I think one of the things that I I feel like I have that is maybe given to us is the resilience like Zoroastrians have been very resilient. They moved over from Persia, they came over to, to continue their religion, to continue their way of life I guess and so I think everybody makes a difference. Like sometimes even my husband will be like oh it won't make a difference one person doing and I don't agree with that. I think one person saying something or standing up for something or saying against something is worth it. So even if I will insist on doing my part because I do believe that that um makes a difference. It does make a difference. Everybody makes a difference.

SM: What traditions or beliefs have you continued since migrating to the US and how maybe some have changed?

M: I think, just because of my my uh development my age and I feel like I'm in some ways more Zoroastrian now. When I was younger, you know of course I had my Navjote when I was 7 and I learned the prayers from my grandma, while just goofing around in her bedroom. She'd go on and you know teach me the prayers, but I feel like I'm more Zoroastrian in in my philosophy now than I was then because yes while I had all the trappings of the cultural stuff that makes me Parsi. In America, I'm more like Zoroastrian in beliefs and in in ways that like matter that are not cultural. It's not about wearing the Sudreh Kusti. It's not about going to the fire temple or praying every day several times a day or covering your head while praying. Those are all just sort of external and physical things. I think internally I'm more, the way I live my life is more Zoroastrian here than it was even in India.

SM: So, are there certain things that you've noticed you're adopting more of, like are you trying to learn more about the history and your connections to that Zoroastrian history?

M: Yeah, I am definitely more interested in the the history and like I have several uh I, I get books and I want to learn more about it and also a little bit. It's interesting for me to know that there might be other Zoroastrians, in the that now it's coming more and more like the Kurds might be Zoroastrian. Some of the Kurds might be I'm I'm not sure I'm happy if they are. I do love the history and I do love like the cultural aspects of things that. You know I miss that, I miss the the when I go back to Bombay which I tried I was before the pandemic I was trying I was going back every year and I really I enjoy that.

SM: What would you like to convey to the following generations particularly as a Zoroastrian?

M: Following generations, I would like to say, have have a purpose, have a not a job persay like do something that you love so that it doesn't feel like a job but have a purpose in life and keep busy. It's really important to stay, not just stay busy, but to do something do something with your hands every day. I think everybody should work with their hands. I do that. I like to do things, make things, paint, garden, just do things that are, that take you outside. Keep your mind active. Be engaged with the world. Don't become uh despondent or jaded or stay involved, be involved with your community. It is so important and it's so gratifying it. It really will enrich you more than you, you think you're doing something for someone, but it actually you're doing it for yourself. I would say don't worry too much about money, just have enough to keep your body and soul together and to enjoy your life as much as you can. If you, have it, go travel see other places, see how people live, be accepting of everybody and all viewpoints. There's nothing, there's nobody who's really really like just bad or good. That's just all heads people just, the world just is and so if you can accept that you'll be happier. Do try and change things do speak up for people who can't speak for themselves. Just basically lead a good life and be happy.

SM: If you were to put three things in your own time capsule. What would they be?

M: I put photographs of my family. I have them. I have photos on the wall and I I don't even see that in India. People no longer have like their grandparents and great grandparents and all. But I put them up on my walls because it tells me where I'm from and who I'm from and it gives me like the support of like all these people behind me and that you can't see right now but they're all there. It's like I'm like the top of a triangle or the bottom of a triangle and they're all fanning out behind me and so I feel very supported and loved, very loved. And that is actually one thing maybe I haven't said already, but I feel loved by my family, by my world. So, I think it makes me who I am and makes me like a successful person. I don't mean success in terms of like business or money or something but just a human successful human being.

SM: How would you define home? What is home for you?

M: Home is where family is.

SM: So, thank you for sharing your story, Meher.

Collection: Sharmeen Mehri Fellowship Project
Donor: Meher
Item History: 2022-06-10 (created); 2022-06-29 (modified)

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