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Updated: November 28, 2009 16:35 IST

Of an Edwardian India

Silloo Mehta
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29sm sillu NICAID:112276995
29sm sillu NICAID:112276995

When life in a Parsi household was lived at a leisurely pace...

Indian cities were beautiful a century ago. Bungalows had gardens, leafy parks were well maintained and flowering trees arboured the streets. There was an air of space, tranquillity and wellbeing. We were a joint middle class family, Grandpa the benign patriarch. He was a successful solicitor. The Courts opened late so the morning was his. A brisk walk in knee-length shorts and white cotton shirt, he was a familiar figure on the sandy track beside the bay.

Files and more…

A glass of orange juice awaited his return. Then roared in the champiwala's motorcycle. Behind the door we children listened fascinated to the chop-chop-chop, slap-slap-slap, very fast slice slice-slice of skilled hands on greased flesh. Skinny as he was, it was astonishing how Grandpa could enjoy this daily torture. After bath he came down for lunch. It was always the same. Khichri and bhaji. A health nut, he was a fervent believer in the virtues of spinach long before Popeye was conceived of. The spinach had become so ingrained in his system that if he hugged a toddler the mother would sniff distastefully, “You've been near Grandpa”.

First Saturday of every month we older children went to his office to collect pocket money. In those days five rupees was a princely sum. Grandpa's office was on the fourth floor of an old building in Bombay's financial district. No lifts. We panted our way upstairs straight into his room. He smiled a welcome and proudly introduced us to his clients, “You've come to see Thanekar”, he joked. “Of course Grandpa.” We took his scribbled slip to the treasurer. Mr. T. was an old friend. We discussed the books his children were reading, he recommended others we had missed.

We departed with the cash. Passing through a vast room where clerks were writing at decrepit wooden desks, I observed stacks of files tied with red tape on shelves reaching almost to the ceiling. I wondered how they ever found anything. Years later, encountering bureaucratic hurdles, I realised there actually had been red tape. Then came the best part of the visit. On the ground floor there was a small well-stocked book shop. We were allowed to choose one book each and the bill would be sent to Grandpa. Imported hard covers, smooth glossy paper, beautiful illustrations – a pleasure to touch, smell and read. India had no printing industry at the time for this kind of market.

We read our way from Three Bears, to fairy tales, to School Annuals, adventure stories, English classics, crime fiction, etc. We read haphazardly, often without understanding, yet appreciated the book better later on. To Grandpa we owe a deep debt of gratitude. He allowed us to find our own level at our own pace.

We were Parsis, yet we looked forward to Bakri Eid more eagerly than any Muslim household. Years ago, Grandpa had won an important case for Mr. Karim Khan. To show his eternal gratitude Mr. Khan used to send us a huge degchi of mutton pillau on Bakri Eid. From mid-day we would run around like hungry dogs waiting for Mr. Karim's car. When it came at last, two men were needed to carry the degchi inside.

Sensuous experience

An intent audience watched cook break the wheat flour dough seal around the lid. The wafted perfume was sheer bliss. Prime mutton cooked tenderly with spices from Malabar then added to saffron rice, sweet pink and white, curds, potatoes, apricots, a thousand other magic ingredients sealed and simmered for hours – if there be a heaven on earth it was this, it was this, Mr. Karim's pillau. When Grandpa died no wonder the youngest mourned for us all, “now we'll never get the pillau again”.

I, the eldest, mourned Grandpa for more than the pillau. His youthful spirit which lit up our lives. His care for our safety when the car slowly turned in, knowing that a horde of children would rush out to greet him. For the Sunday evening “concerts”, when I played the piano for our sing-along. The repertoire was limited. “Daisy Daisy”, “Clementine”, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (favourite school hymn), “Auld Lang Syne” and “God Save the King”.

Even the servants knew the last one because it was compulsory after every cinema show. I improvised of course. My left hand seldom knew what the right was doing. So long as the melody came out loud and clear nothing more was expected from me. We belted out the choruses crowded round the piano. Grandpa with a toddler on his shoulders sang and danced round the carved centre table. Edwardian England transposed to the colonies.

The writer (aged 91) is a freelance contributor to national newspapers and magazines.

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