‘The Tatas, Freddie Mercury and Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis’ review: The Big Three, a distinctive community and its history

A veteran journalist chronicles the Parsis through noted families like the Tatas, Wadias, Mistrys and doctors, lawyers, musicians and rebels

August 14, 2021 04:31 pm | Updated 04:31 pm IST

As I read The Tatas, Freddie Mercury and Other Bawas by Coomi Kapoor, I’ve been making an acquaintance with a multitude of Parsis — dead and living, admirable and less-than-admirable, famous and forgotten.

I didn’t know, for example, that Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the merchant who made an enormous fortune trading opium with China in the 19th century, shaped Mumbai in small but significant ways. The entire causeway linking the island of Mahim to the mainland was built by Jamsetjee to ease travel between Mahim and Bandra. Charni Road derives its name from the swathe of grasslands he bought for the use of cattle-owners, who were finding it difficult to pay grazing fees imposed by the British. And the Tanchoi saree that pops up in trousseaus across the country was born when Jamsetjee sent three Parsi weavers to China to learn the art of jacquard weaving.

Lock story

Ardeshir Godrej, founder of the Godrej empire, was inspired by the Swadeshi movement to design an indigenous lock. It was Bal Gangadhar Tilak who urged him to create a quality soap to compete with imported brands.

The eccentric Ardeshir once issued a statement challenging members of the public to break open the new safe that he had designed. (Three professional safecrackers conceded defeat — and the sales of the Godrej safe spiralled.)

Anecdotes and titbits infuse life and vibrancy into the book. Kapoor mentions that Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw was so grievously wounded in Burma in 1932 that the doctor refused to treat the injured soldier, and only changed his mind when Sam’s loyal Gorkha held up a pistol. And that Nani Palkhivala, who had topped the MA exam at Bombay University, had assumed he would be appointed lecturer. When the post went to a Parsi woman instead, he scrambled around and signed up for a law degree because that was the only course still open. (Palkhivala was so grateful to the woman for inadvertently steering him towards the legal profession that he treated her to a slap-up meal every year.)

Described as an intimate history of the Parsis, it attempts to tell the story of the community by shining a spotlight on its prominent members down the centuries. And although Kapoor, who is a Parsi and a senior journalist, occasionally slips into stereotypes and wide-eyed admiration, the volume is rich with painstaking research and unusual details.

Tangled web

The history of the Parsi community is a familiar one. When followers of Zoroastrianism — the world’s oldest monotheistic religion — faced religious persecution in Persia, many were forced to flee. One group reached coastal Gujarat and settled there, laying the foundation for a unique community that retained its religion and culture while embracing the ways of its new home.

Kapoor chooses to begin the book with the infamous boardroom battle of 2016, during which Ratan Tata summarily sacked Cyrus Mistry, chairperson of the Tata group. She believes that the controversy was a defining moment for the Parsi community — which explains why she devotes half the book to the family trees, petty wrangling and past shenanigans of the three Parsi families involved in the spat. “The histories of the Tata, Wadia and Mistry families are integral parts of the saga of the Bombay Parsis,” Kapoor contends. Admittedly, profiles of the Big Three hold fascinating details but the larger narrative gets lost in a clutter of family lineages, succession battles and corporate gossip. And when Kapoor remarks, “Parsi history is a tangled web, indeed”, one can only wish that she had disentangled it somewhat.

It’s a welcome relief when, in the latter half, Kapoor turns her attention to the many lawyers, doctors, musicians, vaccine-makers and rebels who are the heart of this distinctive community. Their stories ensure that, although lopsided and haphazard at times, the book is a treasure trove of moments from lost times.

The Tatas, Freddie Mercury and Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis ; Coomi Kapoor, Westland, ₹699.

The reviewer is a writer and chronicler of Bombay.

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