Parsi History: Objective documentation or hagiography?


February 26, 2006

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Enduring Legacy: Parsis of the 20th Century

Edited and published by Nawaz B. Mody

4 volumes

Pages: 1,168

In my early years at school, I was frequently embarrassed by the clannish appeals of my Parsi friends. This was not a Parsi school, but a fine Jesuit institution with a thoroughly cosmopolitan mix of boys. Yet, it being Bombay, there was that inevitable bunch of laggards in every class who thought nothing of trundling up to one, slapping one viciously on the back, and breaking into a garrulous spate of Parsi Gujarati. I am able to speak the language fluently myself but instinctively detested the idea of chatting in Parsi – as I dislike, even today, any claims made on me of a parochial or cliquish nature. I preferred to find my friends from among the less familiar majority, converse in English.

Forty years on, leafing through four hefty tomes chronicling Parsi achievers and achievements of the 20th century, I confess to a twinge of regret. Did I miss out on something essential by not being more whole-heartedly Parsi? Why couldn’t I embrace life’s challenges with more of that exemplary striving and courage which my forefathers had displayed? Should I have taken more pride in belonging to the clan? Such ambition and enterprise, such far-sighted, unwavering integrity. And, unquestionably, momentous accomplishments — the Parsi dramatis personae, who enacted the drama of nation-building, played their parts with great flourish and excelled in every sphere of social activity: political leaders and freedom-fighters, social reformers and educationists, civil servants, entrepreneurs, industrialists, philanthropists, lawyers, judges, doctors, soldiers, policemen, scientists, musicians, painters, dancers, sportsmen? name the calling, and you’ll find a Parsi at its forefront.

This lavishly produced set of books has well-written and painstakingly researched essays on their accomplishments, as well as rare photographs culled from archival sources and family albums. The entire compilation creates an overpowering effect of commemoration, of an aide-memoire to chapters in history that could well have been misplaced, but have been reclaimed, perhaps, just in the nick of time. Wherever one begins to read, one is drawn in by the writing. There’s so much history in these essays, so much fascinating detail of personality, character, and event. So much one never knew about, and so much that one had forgotten.

Leave aside the Dadabhais, the Phirozeshah Mehtas, Jamshetji Nusserwanji, JRD and all the Tatas; forget, for a moment, the Wadias, the Godrejs, the Pallonjis and Homi Bhabha — about them one may well have picked up some information willy-nilly from school history texts. But there are so many equally astonishing personalities who inhabit the margins of our national history whom I had never even heard of. Such as Jamshedji Mehta (1886-1952), mayor of Karachi, whose tremendous caring and generosity towards the sick and the poor earned him the appellation of Parsi saint, and, recently, on his birth centenary, the honour of becoming the only Parsi and non-Muslim in whose memory Pakistan has issued a commemorative stamp.

Others, like him, too, who had made it their mission not merely to generate capital but use it for the uplift of the downtrodden; to participate in politics solely with the aim of creating social transformation. Such as Munchershah Avari, who spent 12 years in jail because of his commitment to Gandhi and Satyagraha, or Nusserwanji Sattha, another revolutionary, who founded the Peasants and Workers’ Party in Maharashtra. Or Shavaksha N. Jhabvala, who single-handedly formed dozens of trade unions at a time when trade-unionism was more a humanitarian than a political pursuit.

In the epithets used to describe our Parsi pathfinders, activists and achievers, there are, inevitably, superlatives abound. Almost every one of them is described as ‘erudite’, ‘visionary’ ‘towering’ ‘outstanding’ ‘intensely humane’, ‘scrupulously honest’, ‘titan’ ‘a giant among giants’, attributes amply substantiated by incident and fact, yes, but the aura of virtuousness does get a bit dazzling. Is this objective documentation, one may well ask, or hagiography? All the myths about the community, aren’t they being doubly reinforced in these volumes? Enterprise, righteousness, charity, the unfailing Parsi sense of humour? But then, though we may be inclined to describe them as ‘myths’ today, perhaps their lineage runs deep into historical soil, removed from our own time by several decades, at least.

We have grown accustomed to strange times, inured to the expectation of even worse. From our present perspective, politics and the public life have become euphemisms for making a killing, in more senses than one. In contrast, this is what KF Rustamji and Jamsheed Kanga have to say in their essay on the Administrative Services:

These were “men of integrity not because they were Parsis, but because integrity was universal at that time. An ICS officer received a salary of about Rs 4,000 a month which in today’s terms should be equivalent to rupees three or four lakhs… There was shame attached even to a whisper of corruption… It was an ‘age denoted by simplicity, austerity and economy’?” The shadow of scepticism, if there be any, will have to be attributed to our own failure and cowardice — to the fact that we have remained mute spectators while every form of idealism has been expunged from our lives. Only the stench of putrefaction hovers about the body politic; the rot has already gangrened in our social discourse. I, for one, am fully convinced that the lives of the Parsis recorded in Enduring Legacy were indeed as noble and heroic as they seem now to us, lived with courage, truth and conviction. Nevertheless, it must be said, inspiring as they are, these stories clearly belong to another age.

Original article here