Behramji Merwanji Malabari: A Parsi in London


February 14, 2019

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Historians have written not just pages, but books on his life; he is a wellknown figure in the Parsi historical hall of fame; it should be a polite yawn by now to read the writings of social reformer, author and poet Behramji Malabari.

Article by Sanchia Desouza | Mumbai Mirror

show-photoBorn in Baroda in around 1853, Malabari is best known as an advocate for the rights of women, writing against child marriage and in favour of widow remarriage. Mumbaikars will, of course, recognise one of his legacies: the Seva Sadan Society for the education and empowerment of women and girls, headquartered at Nana Chowk, Gamdevi. He founded it in 1908 with his friend, Dayaram Gidumal. All of this makes him sound like the 19th century worthy he was, but there is more.

Sitting down a few days ago to reread the travel memoir Malabari wrote about his three visits to Britain, beyond the stillfresh surprise of the Indian looking back at and assessing imperial Britain, I was completely hooked. Looking at sections from this 1893 book The Indian Eye on English Life, or Rambles of a Pilgrim Reformer, my delighted students commented that he was “pretty snarky”. And if snark is a typically millennial way to be subversive, Malabari could very well be a millennial.

On the bustle around in London, he comments, “Every man, and woman — one might say every animal, and even some of the inanimate objects — seem to be full of life.” Decades before the railways of Bombay carried millions of commuters in his own home city, he is shocked by them in the imperial capital: “The crush is indescribable… I wonder how people can stand the noise and bustle. If I were to be detained in such a crowd for a few hours I am afraid I would either be stunned, or distracted beyond cure.” I can only be glad that he doesn’t have to endure the proverbial Virar Fast.

The sounds of the city are fascinating reminders of industrial progress to Malabari: “The noise and bustle — the everlasting clang of feet, the whistling of engines and smoking of chimneys — are music to my ear.” But he also prefers hearing them “at a safe distance.” When he eventually leaves London, he does so calling it a “dirty little pool of life, that has grown and expanded into an ocean”.

Madame Tussauds, which now houses oddly alarming figures of so many Indian celebrities, didn’t seem to meet with his favour, but for a comically withering reason that had little to do with wax. “We do not care to visit Madame’s Chamber of Horrors, to be introduced to many of the criminals and cut-throats known to history. We have just had our throats cut by the waiter at the restaurant, who charged us half-a-crown for two plates of mudwater which he passed off as mulligatawny soup. There were horrors enough in that costly repast.”

Malabari enjoyed the zoo much more and casts himself sardonically as a man from an exotic jungle: “One feels as if moving about amongst his kith and kin, all of them real and alive—very much alive indeed, judging from the overtures made to me by a greedy old beast of a baboon.”

Amidst all the description of people and places, the spectacle and cruel extremes of an empire at the height of its power, Malabari faced also some less-than-gracious treatment. His unfamiliar headgear and habitual wearing of white flannel, as done in more tropical climes, both came in for some gawking from urchins and the middle class alike. The urchins heckled him saying “Yaw, gov’nor, foine day for creeckit?” and Malabari’s mimicry of the accent in writing is surprisingly, sharply funny. Further down the street, two ladies wanted to look at his pagdi, and his companion commented that they were probably photographers or artists. Malabari’s sense of privacy and dignity injured, he remarks with killing subtlety, “Very likely. But I would rather not give them a sitting.”

On the tightrope of the British Empire, maintaining his delicate position between worlds, Behramji Malabari got in more than a few jabs with a gentlemanly walking stick.

More about Behramji Malabari: Here & here & here