Mr Yuan, on the right

Last year, in 2012, I was trying to understand the Parsees sojourn to China.  Traders and merchants apart from the famous ones like Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai, Readmoneys and Tatas also resided in Old Shanghai. The Shanghai Parsee community obviously grew enough to have an Agiary  to preserve and sustain the Parsee faith.  Away from home and family ties, Parsees needed their own worship place to celebrate festivals, keep the traditions alive by employing a Dastur for Parsee rituals, occasions and also to induct the young members to the Zoroastrian faith with the initiation Navjote ceremony.

I read about Sam Tata who was born in Shanghai and his photo collection on Shanghai. He emigrated to Canada and really not much was known of the community. Books, periodicals refer to them in mere passing or list their offices in business gazettes. Searches on these names hardly produce any data.  Dehulling however constantly presented a Chinese professor’s name.  A professor who had extensively studied the Parsee religion, traveled to India, had been refused admittance to the Bombay/Mumbai Agiary (non-Parsees are prohibited)  but invited for seminars in India & abroad to talk about the Parsee faith and his research.

Finally, we met and he was kind enough to introduce me to Mr Yuan who was the caretaker for the Shanghai Agiary, after all the Parsees had left or evacuated, after Japanese invasion in 1937 and thereafter. Mr Yuan worked for a businessman,one, S.M. Talati (no obvious connection to the Tianjin Talati family) and was entrusted to look after the Agiary. It was a very interesting meeting but one thing bothered me. Parsees are extremely particular about one little detail: No non-Parsees can ever step inside an Agiary, even in desperate times. So, it seemed odd that S.M. Talati had entrusted the task of the Shanghai Agiary upkeep to a non-Parsee. After discussing S.M. Talati’s family, I felt that the question had to be asked. The answer surprised me. It was a non-Parsee for sure but it was a Sikh gentleman:  Mr P.Singh, an official in the then Shanghai Indian consulate office, who was paying Mr Yuan, in case the Parsees returned to Shanghai. Unfortunately, they never did and S. M. Talati died a bankrupt man.

As for the Agiary, there’s a  mid-sized sky-scraper, some kind of a school, with gleaming windows in its place.