Perhaps because there are so few of us around, people feel obliged to email and SMS me snippets of news and views, blogs, pictures and videos about Parsees. The complimentary pieces are bittersweet gestures of affection for a friend. They come tinged with regret that seems to mourn the inevitable passing away of our tiny community. The last little video I got came with the message “You should be proud” and opened into a montage of the usual greats. I watched with only tepid interest as the pictures and names in blazoned heroic script passed across the screen. There was Jamshedji, and Dorabji, Nani, Fali and Soli. There was Bhikhaji Cama and atomic energy Bhabha and Rattan of course, Adi, and apro Zubin and Cyrus. I’d seen them all before. At the very end, the video stalled and I realised I was mildly miffed at the producers who had missed one name.
Still and sad, I stared hard at the little dots going round and round as the video buffered into its last five seconds. In those long moments, I felt my chest tighten and my eyes prick as I remembered the missing man. He had meant so much to us. Eight years dead this week, he was still right there at every family gathering, lighting up the room with silly teasing and laughter, telling funny stories about the cook in Amritsar whose kheema my mother could never match, or the fair girl who’d given him his first innocent kiss by the back loo in exchange for a promise not to tell the elders she was meeting with the local rake, or the tale of how he had exasperated his mother into throwing a bunch of keys at him for explaining to all the household that his hazel eyes came from being born in Egypt. When we asked; “Why Egypt? His only explanation was “Baby, that’s the only name I knew!”.
He taught us the names of all the flowers in the garden and read us Scheherazade stories from the Arabian Nights. Then wickedly played king. My sister was the favoured and beautiful Lal Pari, I the ugly sidey grateful to be included. When we asked what our mother was he’d say airily: “Oh, she’s the lady in waiting — waiting for everything.” He loved being the hero and would post us scurrilous detective stories at boarding school. In the hols, I complained to my aunt that no one believed the letters were from my father and she cried out “Bhai, you’re still doing the same thing!” She had been an early victim in their school days.
He had enthusiasms and dragged us willy-nilly into them because they had to be shared by everyone around. So my mother, straw hat on head, walked across the winter sun fields near Delhi while he shot quail and joined the locals in chai on the khatia after. At home, my sister wiggled hot and impatient under studio lights while he perfected the angle of his tripod camera. At the race course, he taught me to feed our one-fourth of a race horse with an open flat hand so I wouldn’t get bitten. It mattered not at all that First Entry never won a race.
In Ferozpur, the huge grounds of Flagstaff House turned him farmer. So we all dug potatoes out of the ground, picked cotton and felt how aniseed tasted right off the stalk. In Mhow, he battled the cook for suzerainty over the kitchen and competed with him to show he could make the best tasting chola ever — for breakfast! In Coonoor, it was trout fishing and endless hours fiddling to find just the right rods and reels and being coaxed into spearing live bait on to hook because he wasn’t going to do it.
Then it was milch cows. We had to have them. All the houses along Porter Avenue got milk at the same price for 20 years. Meticulous accounts were kept. The grandchildren got the 6 am milk run and my mother got to name the animals: Rose (naturally, what else can you name a cow), then Rose Bud, then just Bud, then Bud Bud. Until the Gorkhas put their foot down and only a minimal cow was allowed to remain on the premises.
He loved being loved and retired hurt one time when our long time charioteer cook and Gorkhas agreed that “hamari madam jaisa koi nahi”. He wasn’t expecting it. Beyond the jesting, there was wisdom. “You must spoil your children and spoil your children but they must never get spoiled.” He’d say.
The video jerked into play and pulled me out of my reverie. At last I was face to face with the last name and portrait. We looked at each other and I realised I wasn’t looking for the Great Man at all but for the funny, handsome brave father whose face anyway lives behind my eyes — always.
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