Our dear friend and contributor Havovi Govadia sends us another beautiful memory about times, places and people of yore.
To read all of Havovi’s previous articles on Parsi Khabar click here
In my youth, I would often hear the refrain “The Parsis of old were very bold”. From my grandparents and other seniors I would often hear fascinating tales of adventure and bravery, hard work and risk-taking that their generation undertook.
My husband’s aunt would often talk about her humanitarian and adventurous father and his deeds of valour. I have taken this account from her recollections of his extraordinary life which she painstakingly wrote down in Gujarati.
I met Superman Sapal papa, as I had named him, several times during his visits to Nagpur. He was a bald, slim and frail man in his eighties, who seemed perpetually happy and upbeat. He was always willing to go for visits to friends or on picnics and participating in any activities that we organized. His wife Jer aunty, a beautiful, slightly plump lady had to restrain him many a times, chiding him ”tame bhuli javch ke tame have juvan nathi” (you are forgetting that you are no longer a young man).
Their visits were not only fun for us but also for our children as well. My aunt, in spite of her busy schedule would organize a lot of dinners, barbeques and outings, with her office friends joining in too. I heard of some of his adventures when he could reminisce about them or when my aunt prompted him to relate some funny incident that had taken place.
Sapal uncle was born at Navsari in 1903 in Balaporia family. Jer aunty was born in Bombay in 1913. Though theirs was an arranged marriage, he fell in love with Jeraunty’s beauty and especially her long hair. Throughout their life together, both of them supported each other as equal partners.
Jer was brought up in luxury but adjusted to her life in a rural setting in a joint family. There were 15 members of the joint family all living under one roof. Since her mother-in-law woke up at 5 a.m. in the morning to tend to the family’s needs, Jer too learnt to get up early to help out with the chores. She adapted to cook on the wood burning stoves, take out water from wells since there was no running tap water in Navsari and took care of all the needs of her marital family.
Sapal was a good mechanic and set up a flour grinding mill. In those days ready-made flour was not available, so the business was good. In spite of having no formal engineering degree, with his acumen and practical experience, he maintained the flour mill in top shape including the grinding stone and also did repair work whenever there were any breakdowns.
In his youth he joined the Parsi Battalion. Many Parsi youth of the Battalion served as soldiers in Europe during WWI. But his mother refused to let him go and fight in the war, so that dream remained unfulfilled and about which he talked with a lot of regret.
He was also an active member of the Culture Club run by one Mr. Jamshed Kanga. They were trained in body building and other such activities. As was the trend in those days, Sapal along with other members gave many shows and demonstrations in Navsari to entertain the people as well as encourage other youngsters to join. His feats included putting a large slab of stone on this chest and asking someone to break it with a hammer, having a vehicle drive over his chest, eating glass, lying down and balancing on 12 bottles. He did all this fearlessly, his mother proudly sitting in the front row, telling everyone that was her son and chastising anyone who made any negative remarks.
Looking at his gutsy performance and derring-do, his younger sister wanted to emulate him and also become strong and fearless. Without a second thought that women are a weaker sex, he encouraged her, training her to become bold and resilient.
He would narrate a funny incident that had happened with his sister. In those days, toilets were rudimentary and had an open hole and big cane baskets underneath, for the day’s waste to be collected. Every morning the baskets were cleared by the poor sanitary workers. For sanitary reasons, the toilets were located far from the living quarters and one had to walk a little distance to reach them. Once when Sapal’s sister was in the toilet, she heard some activity going on below. Realizing that it was an unwelcome thief trying to come up through the hole, she quickly readied herself and waited. As soon as the head appeared, she caught hold of the hair and started shouting loudly for Sapal. Alas the hair was so oily that the startled thief managed to extricate himself from the iron grip and run away minus a lot of his hair.
Sapal was a prankster and his propensity for mischief got him into a lot of trouble during his school days. Once during a school picnic the whole group lost their way. Sapal volunteered to show the way. He made everyone walk around in circles and then told the Master that they were being misled by a ghost. The Master was now very worried as it had become quite dark. Of course Sapal had a solution for this. He told him that everyone had to stand in a big circle and then pee on the ground to frighten the ghost. After the deed was done, Sapal showed the correct way home. All the boys laughed and talked about this prank for years.
He was not only mischievous but very jovial too. Superstition was rampant in Navsari. To ward off the evil eye, all sorts of weird and bizarre rituals were done. People were tired of one old lady in the mohalla, who actively practised ‘dhutam-dhatam’ as they called it. Once Sapal along with his friends had gone to Tavdi, a small village close by, to drink Toddy. After a day of drinks and fun, whilst returning home, they spied a severed fox head on the railway line. Sapal’s fertile mind immediately got an idea. He decided to use the head to teach the old lady a lesson. He picked up the fox head and tied a rope to it. The leftover lime and chilies from the picnic were also tied in a row along with the fox head.
In the dead of night when all were fast asleep, he tied the fox head on the old lady’s front door. In the morning, all hell broke loose. The whole mohalla was woken up with a bloodcurdling wail. The shrieking and fearsome screams kept on echoing in the neighbourhood. Lights came on, doors opened and all came rushing out in their night clothes. It took a while to calm down the old lady. She was incoherent and kept on pointing to her main front door, where the fox head hung in macabre glory with the now shriveled chilies and lime. Many in the crowd were secretly pleased that for once the shoe fit on the other foot.
After some more drama, Sapal coolly walked in and loudly announced that he was responsible for that ghastly and repulsive fox head. He wanted to prove that Black magic or dhutam-dhatam as the old Parsis called it, did not work in reality. Pilamai, now totally calm that no calamity was to befall her, felt embarrassed of both her present and past behavior. She promised that she had learnt her lesson and would not repeat her misdeeds again.
An ordained priest, his day started with a visit to the Atashbehram. Then followed a mandatory chitchat with Kaikobad Meherjirana, the Chief Priest.
Sapal was in an elected Corporator in the Navsari Municipal Corporation for many years. In fact ‘Sapal ne bolavo’ (call Sapal) was a refrain often heard whenever anyone faced any problem. With his wisdom, wit and daring he was able to solve problems, resolve conflicts between two adversaries, and collect money for the needy or for any charitable cause. He was in the forefront to educate the public in matters of cleanliness, to eradicate social injustice and superstition and fight for a better society. Whenever there was any calamity, he was the first to reach. Fire somewhere? Sapal was there before the fire engine reached. A building collapse? He was there organizing, helping the needy. Once an old man jumped into a well to commit suicide. Sapal jumped in without a second thought, pulling him out and saving the man’s life.
In sickness and death, both Sapal and Jer were known to reach first. Once a small plane crash landed at Navsari. A rarity, the whole town rushed to see it. When Sapal got the news, he too ran to help out. When he reached he saw that the Parsi pilot was badly injured. He at once shifted him to Daboo Hospital. He handed over the injured pilot to the doctor and went home to call Jer. Every day till his relatives came, Jer took milk and food and looked after the injured pilot day and night like her own child. When his parents came, they felt reassured to see how well their son had been looked after by total strangers.
The Parsi Infirmary, which even today does invaluable work of looking after the old and infirm of the community, was established with his hard work. The bungalow which houses the Infirmary belonged to the Abuwala family. He along with Mr. Minocher Minocherhomji were instrumental in convincing Mr. Abuwala to donate it for this good cause. The Infirmary was situated on the banks of the river and during monsoons, when water overflowed the banks, the bungalow would get flooded. Sapal would swim across the river to help the staff to shift all the inmates to the first floor and keep them there till the floods receded. Mr. Minocherhomji and Sapal looked after the administration of the Infirmary for many years.
His adventures were legendary too. He not only learnt to swim himself but taught countless youngsters to swim in the Purna River. When cars finally came to Navsari, he learnt to drive himself, of course not without a few minor mishaps. But his determination saw to it that he learnt to drive and that too with confidence and expertise.
The Maharaja of Gaikwad who was visiting Navsari fell sick. An ambulance was called to take him to Baroda. The Maharaja insisted that Sapal drive the vehicle. On the way, there was some problem with the vehicle, but Sapal managed to reach the Maharaja safely to Baroda. The Maharaja was impressed with his daring and commitment and a lifelong bond was forged.
In those days, there were no restrictions on killing of animals. Going on shikar was not only a favourite pastime of the British and Maharajas but the general populace as well. Sapal too indulged in this pastime. Many a times he would kill a rabbit and bring it home. That day there was a veritable feast of rabbit meat dhanshak and kebabs. Once some people from close-by village came to him asking for help. A man-eater tiger had terrorized the whole village, killing men as well as cattle. Sapal readily agreed to help, and along with a friend went in a vehicle. After finding the offender, he fired a bullet and thinking they had killed it, put the lifeless animal in the dickey. The curious village children wanted a glimpse of the tiger who had terrorized them. When Sapal opened the dickey, the tiger growled and Sapal quickly fired another bullet through the head.
There were many facets to Sapal’s personality. He was a loving family man, full of fun and mischief, brave, bold and fearless and a dedicated social worker. He was self-taught and self-made. Whether it was setting up his flour mill, doing repair jobs during breakdowns, doing plumbing and electric repairs at home or learning to drive a car. He drew and sketched with passion and made beautiful paintings as though he had learnt at an Arts School. He painted on fabrics and saris, learnt glass etching and etched his name on glasses. Whatever he put his mind to, he did that with a lot of confidence and ease. In an age when male and female roles were distinctly demarcated, he made no distinction and treated all women on equal footing. In short, you name it and he could do it.
Human beings like him are truly rare. He was not only worthy of love and admiration he got in his lifetime but was a torch bearer for future generations too.