What is remarkable is the ability of a community to laugh at itself and allow others to laugh at them: Ookerjee has done just that in his book Altamount Road and Other True Stories.
I’ve just received, courtesy The KR Cama Oriental Institute, Sheryar Ookerjee’s book Altamont Road And Other True Stories. “At 31, Altamont Road, we, like all self-respecting Parsis, were an eccentric family,” Ookerjee (1925-2013) writes.
He adds that the Altamont Road he is talking about is now history that all the wonderful old bungalows and the quiet have gone. Ookerjee’s family had to sell theirs in 1971 as they could no longer afford to maintain it. But Ookerjee also remembers all kinds of oddities. He writes, “At one corner of Altamont Road and Anstey Road, in an old house, lived an old lady who took her morning walk on the terrace on stilts.”
And again, Ookerjee’s grandfather, who was a judge of the Small Causes Court, visited Anstey, a judge of the Bombay High Court one morning. He was ushered into the bedroom and, “on seeing Anstey lying in bed covered by a blanket, asked him if he was not well. Anstey explained that he was not ill at all; his two suits had both gone to the dhobi.”
So far, so good. But what of the stories of “Avabhai (who) was a large lady married to a lanky man, Dali, who could well pass as her son. How large can be gauged from the only risque remark I ever heard from my father, that her ample bosom could easily support a tea tray.” Dali, it is said, always wore Avabai’s knickers when he travelled, because they were so wide and comfortable.
Eccentric Parsis formed the staple of Adi Marzban’s plays, and have put in an appearance in Bollywood films and various stories. What is remarkable is the ability of the community to laugh at itself and allow others to laugh at them. It is a remarkably civilized trait, and very few communities in our country share it. We are more likely to advertise our “sensitive feelings,” by looting, destroying, and responding with general mayhem to books we have never read and would be incapable of reading.
So I hope that all the dire warnings of diminishing numbers in the community, and their ultimate disappearance are not true. They are, and have always been, an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the fabric of this nation, and have contributed far more to society than their numbers would indicate.
Sheryar Ookerjee was an immensely civilised man: Professor of Philosophy at Wilson College till his retirement, author of academic books, immensely knowledgeable in Western music. Pervin Mahoney, Ookerjee’s step-daughter says, “At 76, he was invited to teach Plato and Political Philosophy for a year at City College, New York. He loved exploring New York on foot, and spent most of his salary attending concerts at the Lincoln Centre and the Metropolitan.”
After he retired in 1985 from Wilson College, he was asked to teach MA classes at Mumbai University.
Till he was in his 80s, says Pervin, he drove his little Fiat to Kalina, and gave lifts to colleagues who frequently said they had never been driven so fast in their lives.
Altamont Road And Other True Stories is available at the KR Cama Institute which published the book, an institute to which Ookerjee was dedicated.