The Crime Readers' Association

Eating the Dead: the Parsees of India by Vaseem Khan

25th March 2020

The fifth novel in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, Bad Day at the Vulture Club, sees my protagonist, Inspector Chopra investigating the murder of a wealthy Parsee in India’s city of dreams – Mumbai. Parsees are a small but influential community in India. Originally from Persia, they are unique on the subcontinent because they do not cremate or bury their dead. Instead they leave them out in stone structures called Towers of Silence in a wooded area in the middle of Mumbai for vultures to eat. This process is called excarnation. I found this community incredibly fascinating when living in India during my twenties, and thought it would make a great backdrop to a murder mystery.

So who exactly are the Parsees and why do they hold vultures sacred?

Parsees believe in a deity called Ahura Mazda – the wise lord. Fire is a physical representation of that deity. The principal prophet of Ahura Mazda was a man named Zoroaster – or Zarathustra – who lived around 600 BCE. When Muslims conquered Persia in 640 BCE and began slowly persecuting the Parsees – destroying their fire temples, initiating the jizya tax on non-Muslims, and, worst of all, mistreating dogs, an animal revered by Parsees, it proved to be the final straw. The Parsees fled Iran and headed towards India.

The community has been central to Bombay/Mumbai’s history and development for centuries. In fact, with luminaries ranging from industrialist Jamsetji Tata to Freddie Mercury, the Parsees have shaped the course of both India and the wider world. Today, Parsee heritage and influence can be found in every nook and cranny of Mumbai – from the various Parsee businesses that have steered the growth of the city – including the Tata group, responsible for iconic buildings such as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – to the city’s historic Parsee cafés.

Parsees consider fire and earth holy and thus do not bury or cremate their dead; this distinguishes them from Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in the country. Parsees allow vultures to perform this rite. Vultures, abhorred by many, perform a vital service in cleaning up carcasses. Alas, the population was recently decimated by manmade chemicals – 99.7% disappeared in less than 10 years.

In the novel Inspector Chopra investigates the murder of Cyrus Zorabian, a grandee from the Parsee community, a man who appears to have harboured dark secrets. Bad Day at the Vulture Club is the latest outing for Chopra, who continues to grapple with the dilemma of looking after a one-year-old baby elephant when he isn’t tackling murder and corruption. The first in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a Times bestseller and set the scene for my exploration of modern India with this series. My aim is to showcase India as she really is, the light and the dark, using my crime plots as a means of taking readers on a journey to this incredible country.

Bad Day at the Vulture Club is out now and you can buy a copy at your local bookseller. Links can be found on Vaseem’s Find an Author Profile

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