Cyrus the Great
Mother greeted them at the front door with hugs and kisses, then Father and Dastan Uncle slipped out of their street shoes and into house slippers. They the men washed, Bapsi pulled down from the sideboard in the dining room the family’s white and gold teapot, embossed with the image of Cyrus the Great, the famous Zoroastrian king of Persia, sixth century b.c.e.
Cyrus’s empire spanned three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. According to the Bible, he freed the enslaved Hebrews of Babylon and decreed the rebuilding of their temple in Jerusalem. Bapsi’s grandfather had purchased the teapot during a visit to Persepolis when the Shah was still in power. That was before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, known in the Parsi community of Mumbai as “the second Arab invasion.” The first invasion came in the seventh century, A.D., when Islamic invaders gave the Zoroastrians of Persia two choices: Convert or die. Bapsi’s ancestors escaped to India.
Bapsi had just started the tea when the kitchen door flew open and laughter filled the room. Dear Homai Auntie — wife of Dastan Uncle — and beloved daughter Goolrookh had arrived, bringing a cacophony of chatter. Bapsi greeted them with hugs and kisses. She complimented Auntie on her lovely purple and black sari. “Very attractive,” she said. “It has a profoundly slimming effect.” Auntie was delighted. Goolrookh, however, wore western style jeans and a shirt that did nothing to hide her unseemly rolls, much to the shock of Father and Mother.
“You should wear a sari, Goolrookh,” Mother said, tugging at the tight shirt, desperately trying to stretch it over the girl’s lumpy midriff.
Bapsi defended her teenage cousin-sister. “She’d going to University in America next year, Mother. Everyone in America is, um,” Bapsi hesitated and Goolrookh grinned, her round face joyful. “Healthy,” Bapsi politely added. The women laughed at the joke. Healthy was a polite way of saying fat. Goolrooka hugged Bapsi so tight she picked her small cousin-sister ten centimeters off the floor.
“Put her down!” Auntie insisted. She was bursting to tell Bapsi and Mother about Dastan Uncle’s new receptionist. “Don’t tell Dastan I told this, oof, he gets so angry at me for gossiping, but I must.” She took a deep breath and began her story, “He hired a Muslin girl to work at —.”
“A Muslim!” Mother reeled. “Dastan vowed he’d only hire Parsi!”
“I was just as shocked when Dantan told me she was Muslim. A devout Muslim, at that. But that isn’t the half of it. The silly girl risks all for a ham sandwich,” Auntie said, animatedly waving her hands. “She could be beaten, or worse. A man in Uttar Pradesh was killed by a mob for eating a hotdog! She stupidly sneaks out of Dastan’s office at lunchtime, head covered, looking this way and that, making sure no one sees her, and rushes to the Christian deli across the street. She buys the forbidden meat, and then brings it back to Dastan’s office. She quickly consumes every morsel at her desk. She thinks no one knows but Dastan sees everything.”
Mother laughed but Bapsi was more concerned than amused. “What if her husband discovers her transgression? Or her Iman? You haven’t told anyone else, have you Auntie?”
Mother chided Bapsi’s concern. “So like you to worry about others when you should be thinking about giving me another grandchild.”