Married at an early age, she came to live with her husband in Bombay from Surat. She was a worthy partner. She bore him 6 children, brought them up, married and settled them. Gulbai was now the matriarch not only of her family but our entire building.
From time to time we invite readers to contribute. This article is by Havovi Govadia.
A little short, stout fair lady with a regal bearing, she resembled Queen Victoria of the old British silver coins. She would be dressed in a long blouse, her sadra peeping out from underneath, worn over ijars, which resembled today’s calf length pants. A sari would be draped carelessly, which she hauled up whenever she sat down to cut vegetables or weave the kusti. A hard working and industrious woman, her large family’s well being was important to her. Saturdays were family day when her brood of children and grandchildren would have dinner together. One of her grandsons confided in me that he came over, leaving the opportunity to play with his friends, to eat her very tasty mince cutlets.
She woke up at 5 a.m. After her tea, which she had in a vessel called ‘kasia’ rather than a cup, her bath and prayers; she would start cooking for her large joint family with the help of her daughters-in-law. The verandah of their house had her customary chair with a jantar in front of it. She would then sit to weave kusti or the sacred thread on the jantar, for her family’s use and also for sale to earn some extra income. She was also an expert at making ‘vasanu’ a delicacy full of dry fruits, made and eaten by Parsis during winters only. Our neighborhood would be engulfed in the heavenly aroma of vasanu and we would all know that Gulbai was making it. She sold that too to augment the family income. She was good at making typical Parsi delicacies like chapats, bhakhras, kumas which she made and gave the ladies during the kusti weaving competitions or other such social events.
One would normally find her sitting out on the verandah. She was an ace at multi-tasking, both weaving the kusti expertly as well as keeping an eye on all the activity going on around her. Rarely did things escape her eagle eye. Without stopping her kusti-weaving activity, unfamiliar hawkers were questioned in her Parsi Gujerati Hindi as to what they were selling, what was the cost, why it was so expensive, where were they going etc. and only then allowed up the stairs. If anyone came to ask about an address she would first ask her routine ‘kahan se ayaa – kai ku milna hai’ (where have you come from and why do you want to meet) before giving elaborate instructions on how to find that person or household, which further puzzled the poor person. I am sure no one asked her to explain the directions twice.
If by chance the person asking was a Parsi, she would make him sit and ask his full family history, about his work, where he stayed, number of family members etc. She was being nosey but it was pure unadulterated interest in another human being. I realized that since she hardly went out anywhere; this was her way of widening her horizons. It was also her way of peeping into a world beyond her home and family. After her lunch, she would normally rest on a big sofa on the verandah.
When any of us were caught going to college inappropriately dressed according to her, she would stop us. In spite of our efforts to tiptoe past her open door and escape her eagle eye, we hardly succeeded. Most of us dreaded the words ‘ahiaa aav kahn jaiech’ (come here, where do you think you are going). We were then subjected to a whole lot of questions. “Why is your dress so short, did your mother not buy enough cloth or did you forget to wear pants underneath?” she would ask when she spied us in minis. She found the bell bottoms very funny. “Be careful that you do not trip on those elephant-ear pants when you are climbing a train or bus” she would advise. The high stiletto heels called for more advice. “Are you planning to work in a circus that you are balancing yourself in that fancy footwear? One day you will sprain your heels and then realize this fashion is not worth it” she would retort. Sometimes she would admonish “all this hair in your eyes will make you squint and you will soon be wearing glasses. Put up your hair in nice braids”. We would sit and try and explain all the latest in fashions but that really made no difference. When she thought we were dressed modestly, she would nod her head approvingly and spare us any comments. We would in turn tease her. We would call her ‘ijar’ ‘paunya (three fourth) bell bottoms’ which made her laugh loudly.
I loved sitting with her and hear her narrate about the times when she was young. It was fascinating to hear about the days when life was simple, families large, electricity a luxury, about traveling in ‘ghora-gaaris’ or horse carriages instead of cars and buses or trains, about the British Raj and goodies which came from England for the ‘gorias’ (white people).
My Dad had lost his parents when he was just 18, so I asked her questions about my grand parents and she filled up a lot of blanks for me. She described my grand father, his boisterous and jolly nature, his colorful vocabulary and his cockatoo. She told me that as soon as my grand father was spied coming, the cockatoo would shriek and call out in the colorful language which it had picked up from my grand father, and which alerted everyone of his arrival. The cockatoo was so attached to my grand father
that it died only two days after his demise. She described my grand mother and how pretty she was and how my Dad resembled her. I felt happy when she told me that they would have been happy that their first grand child was a girl since they badly wanted to have a daughter. She bemoaned the fact that they passed away so early. All thanks to her I felt that I knew my grand parents even though we had never met.
Those were the days when hardly any household had access to their own telephone and long waiting periods were the norm to even acquire one. If at all any of us had to make a call or during an emergency, we had to go out to a shop which was very inconvenient. Then someone had a brainwave and we applied for ‘public phone’ which was installed under the stairs near Gulbai’s house. She agreed to man it.
Whenever any one telephoned, Gulbai would take the call and shout out for that person, activating the relay system. If the person was in the same building, someone from the opposite building would shout out. And like the effective communication with drums and animals from Tarzan comics, the message was relayed and re-relayed and managed to reach the right person. That person would then come and take his call. In case the person could not be reached due to the distance of the house, Gulbai would send a written message through a servant, who had to be tipped for his services. Once, someone who lived in the buildings not reached by the relay system, called her up and told her to please send a message to his wife to keep a hot bath ready when he arrived home in another 20 minutes! Gulbai fired him on the phone and told him that she was not here to take and send frivolous messages. A day before the board results, all the children would crowd around that one little phone. A call made to Jame-Jamshed paper giving all the roll numbers, would get us the results a day in advance.
Her services though came with many riders. Gulbai was not discreet and would hover around to see that the person did not exceed an allotted time of 5 minutes. In those days, it was not 1 paise/second call or some such scheme. Once one dropped the 20 paise in the phone box, one could talk for one second or sixty seconds. Lovers wanting to make full use of their 20 paise call and wanting some privacy, would time their calls during the afternoon, when Gulbai would take her afternoon siesta. She had told everyone that she would not entertain any calls during the afternoon siesta
hours or after 10 in the night when decent people went off to sleep. If any of the girls received a call from a male caller, she would first ask him countless questions before she deemed it fit to pass the call on. The parents were also informed about the male caller!
Once, a friend who had faced a barrage of questions whenever he called me, complained to Gulbai when his cousin was getting married to her son. “There is a nosey old lady who makes my life miserable whenever I call a friend here. I wonder where she lives and if I meet her ………!” He realized his monumental blunder when he got a whack on his back and Gulbai introduced herself. But thereafter, our phone conversations flowed smoothly.
Gulbai was an Institution by herself. She was equally at ease with men, women and children and genuinely interested in all. She attracted people like a magnet and at any time, one would find someone or the other sitting and chatting with her. She was nosey, caring, watchful, forthright, full of verve and vigor, looking after the needs of her large family and also serving the community when required. If someone needed a servant, Gulbai was told, and the very next day, a servant was sent. If there was a wedding or navjote in the family, or birth of a child, Gulbai was consulted for the various formalities and rituals involved. If a fishermonger or vegetable seller passed muster with Gulbai, then all people bought without questioning. If there was some problem, people turned to her for her sage and practical advice. In short she was a committed and caring human being.
How does one measure the worth of a person’s life? By the name and fame earned? By the money amassed? By the services done to the community, to the country, to the world? Or the love received by family and friends? There are really no yardsticks. Any life that has been lived well serving even one other person is worthy. By all measures, Gulbai lived a worthy life, touching and influencing many who crossed her path.
Havovi Govadia is a 65 years old grandmother of 3. She was born and brought up in Mumbai and shifted to Nagpur after marriage. Was working in Empress Mills (first Tata enterprise) till it shut shop in 1987. Working now as an independent financial adivsor.
Havovi wrote scripts, directed and staged plays and various tableaux on Zarthushtra, Parsi fashions through the ages etc. mostly to acquaint the younger generation of their rich heritage from 1980 till about 2000 for the Nagpur Parsi Gymkhana.
Havovi started writing these little anecdotal stories at the insistence of her niece who is now 10 years old and living in USA and who was keen to know about her grand parents whom she would never meet and those days when “you and my Dad were little”.