Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Laughter In The House: Meher Marfatia On Parsi Theatre

That Sunday afternoon was as soggy with nostalgia as a khari biscuit dunked in chai. Fifty old troupers of Mumbai’s Parsi stage had reunited to celebrate a new book, Laughter in the House. They met over as hearty a lunch at the Irani Universal Cafe on a road aptly named after the remarkable playwright and director, Adi Marzban. Further up the street stood Jame Jamshed, Asia’s second-oldest newspaper which ‘apro Adu’ also owned and edited.

By Bachi Karkaria | The Times of India

With archive, anecdote and admiration, Meher Marfatia’s book covers the most prolific years of Parsi theatre. Merely flipping through the corny names of the plays and slapstick photographs was enough to crack me up. But the tears rolling down my face were also of sadness, for that afternoon encapsulated death thrice told. It reminded me of the tragic disappearance of this hilarious brand of theatre, of the quaint Irani restaurant, and of the Parsis’ rare ability to laugh at themselves.

Universal Cafe resounded with back slapping, ‘Kem Sala’-ing, beer guzzling and dhansak-gorging. On the steps, there was much posing and more chaos as Sooni Tarporevala captured this sepia moment. Looking around, i tried to match a revised face to the old familiar names. Were these stooped and greying figures the same drop-dead gorgeous heroines and comic heroes who once dropped dead with histrionic regularity, keeping all the Gujarati-speaking communities of Mumbai in such splits?

The likes of Burjor and Ruby Patel, Jimmy Pocha, Dadi Sarkari, Jerry Kumana and the portly Dinyar Contractor were also part of my adolescent years in Calcutta, for Adi Marzban’s patented magic came to Calcutta in the mid-1960s.

But we were prouder of our own Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatic Club, with its own anthem, gold emblazoned velvet banner, and its hardy perennials who met every Sunday for five whole months on the fourth floor of a faded Bowbazar mansion to rehearse for just one play every year. Mock them not. This ‘Pateti Natak’ was the annual ritual around which our small outpost community coalesced to renew its bonds. Dressed in our new year clothes, we did kissi-koti to each other, bent double with laughter, threw paper darts at the stage, and in the interval drank the free Byron & Co Vimto provided by its owner, the venerable Edulji Olpadwala.

Last year, shortly after the CPADC’s centenary, there was no Pateti Natak, traumatising a tiny kaum deprived of its annual oxygenation. In the larger home-base of Mumbai, Parsi theatre, spiked with clever double entendre, had lapsed into a vulgar whimper of its rip-roaring self almost a decade earlier.

Irani restaurants, the second in that fading trilogy, have been decimated by a worse atrocity, turning into video-parlours, beer bars or even a McDonald’s. Gustad Dehmiri’s bright and airy Universal Cafe belongs to a pav-sized group of doughty survivors. It’s surprising how entrepreneurial Mumbai has let this lucrative chance slip by. The Light of Persia clones have the most prime locations, and could easily be reincarnated as a stylishly retro dining experience, complete with their bentwood chairs, sweet lemongrass and mint tea, bun-maska – and a dour Shukriyeh Kayani manning the cash counter.

Which brings me to my third and last requiem of that Sunday afternoon. Perhaps the Mumbai Parsis aren’t laughing good-naturedly at themselves on stage any longer because they no longer have much to laugh good-naturedly about in real life. An exemplary community which never got into communal conflict is now at war with itself, its leaders squabbling for the spoils. We were too busy laughing to have understood the large-hearted significance of Parsi theatre. We now have all the time in the world to weep over everything else that has fallen with the curtain.