Navroz in New Delhi: Shernaz Italia

While a dwindling community struggles to survive, filmmaker Shernaz Italia documents the little-known lives of the Delhi Parsis who moved to the capital at the turn of the 19th century

“Aavoji, aavo, aavo! Welcome to Delhi! Let me show you my beautiful city.” The booming voice of Nowrosji Kapadia could be heard across the length and breadth of the platform. It was Nowrosji’s favourite pastime: a walk to the Old Delhi railway station to greet the Frontier Mail as it chugged into Delhi from Mumbai to Peshawar. With this refrain, an eager Nowrosji would cajole Parsi visitors off the train and take them home for a meal and often persuade some to stay overnight or for a few days. He would use this opportunity to tell them about the advantages of shifting to Delhi. Though his wife Jer Bai would occasionally object to unknown visitors, she was always overruled. This was the beginning of the community of Parsis in Delhi.

 

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Childhood Memories: The writer, Shernaz Italia, with her parents outside her childhood home at K-45 Connaught Place. Italia’s maternal grandparents moved here in 1936.
Photograph courtesy: Shernaz Italia

 

Nowrosji Kapadia was one of the oldest Parsi residents of Delhi. He was born in Bharuch, a small town in Gujarat. He opted out of his family’s failing cloth business and got a job as an agent with the European firm Ralli Brothers. They sent him to Delhi in 1880. Why did he not want to return to Bharuch, or Bombay, where our community still resides in large numbers? Was it business sense, apt foresight of Delhi’s growing importance, or was he just different? A few other Parsi families moved northwards to Delhi and beyond in the 1870s–80s. My mother’s grandfather, Nusserwanji Mehta, moved here at that time. My uncle, Rusi Sorabji, has amazing memories of the Delhi of his youth. Whatever the reasons for shifting, the Parsis who came to Delhi developed a liking for the city and decided to settle here.

Memory is a strange thing. You think it is yours and then you realise it is not; it is actually dependent on other people. Writing about Parsis in the Delhi of old is not easy. There are memories of my grandparents and parents— a collective memory of generations past and people long gone, yet here in spirit.

My earliest memory of trains and stations is associated with the same Frontier Mail that Nowrosji accosted years ago. It brought young, scared Parsis from their cocoon in familiar Parsi baugs (residential “Parsis only” colonies) of Bombay and Gujarat to the unfamiliar city of Delhi. My grandparents’ home, which became my parents’ home after they passed on, was an open house for family, friends and travellers passing through. It was full of hustle-bustle, and much food and laughter. I have never known my home—K-45 Connaught Place, or CP, as it is called—to be empty and it has never been locked. At any given time there were at least 10–15 people living with us. Generosity comes naturally to Parsis, as it did to my family—sometimes at a cost to themselves. My maternal grandparents and mother moved into the flat in 1936 while it was still being built. There was no electricity and water was hauled up three flights of stairs by a bhishti (water carrier).

I have since seen CP through its many avatars. Built like a central plaza, its Georgian architecture is modelled after the Royal Crescent in Bath, England. Its two concentric circles are lined with broad white colonnades and there’s a garden in the centre. As a young child, when I looked down our road, the domes and minarets of Jama Masjid were visible and even the walled city; since old Delhi is due north, thankfully I can still see the domes and the minarets. From our rooftop, before the hideous high-rises came up, we had a clear view of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Diagonally opposite us is Odeon Cinema. In 1964 I saw Raj Kapoor arrive at the theatre from our balcony before I went there to watch Sangam—my first movie ever.

 

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Shernaz Italia is a film producer based in Delhi with a postgraduate degree in philosophy from Delhi University. She worked on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and has made several international documentaries and features.