Family matters: Raghu Karnad and the Calicut Parsis


October 22, 2016

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On the Calicut seafront, Raghu Karnad traces the lingering stories of the Parsis who lived there, including a thrice-great-grandmother

It’s soon after sunrise, and women in burqas are power-walking on the Calicut seafront. Their stride is long and they swing their arms up higher than their shoulders, so their burqas pull out into shapes—triangles and parallelograms—bisected by the horizon. It is the closest thing visible to ships’ sails on the water, an image from the past I would love to see, though there is a lineage between those departed sails and these veils, and between those sails and me.

Article by Raghu Karnad | Live Mint

Just across the road is the Beach Hotel, where I share an airy upstairs room with my mother. The hotel has been there since 1890, which is my first violent thought every morning, when my mother wakes up and the ancient floorboards squeal and mutter around her movements through the room. I am out of bed in time for the soft light and the burqa regatta.

I have woken from sleep’s dreams to a daydream of history. Few horizons have seen more of it. This is where India’s encounter with seaborne colonialism began, at the end of the 15th century, when Vasco da Gama made landfall a little way up the coast. Calicut, as John Keay writes in The Spice Route: A History, was then a beacon for trade, a place where pepper was weighed by the bushel, while “by any but a Malabari merchant, peppercorns were usually counted out like pearls”. To the Chinese explorer Ma Huan, it was “the great country of the Western Ocean”.

The Portuguese fleet would leave and then reappear on this horizon, to bombard the town after the Samoothiri refused to banish its Muslims. According to Portuguese accounts, innocent seagoers and ship crews who fell into da Gama’s hands had their noses, ears and hands cut off. Then they were strung up from his ship masts for crossbow practice. “Their rigging now a forest of prickled corpses,” Keay writes, the ships “were sent ashore for the edification of onlookers”.

This morning, the only onlooker is me. I have never been to Calicut, now called Kozhikode, before, but a century ago my mother’s mother, Nurgesh Mugaseth, was born here. She was the grandparent I knew best, who stuck around longest, and so provided my clearest sense of cultural origins—which is not saying a lot. As a child, I had only visited her in Madras (now Chennai), and never wondered why everyone in the household spoke Malayalam, or how come I was fattened up on chemmeen kootan (prawn curry) cooked by the major-domo, Baby.



Nurgesh Mugaseth (second from left). Photo: Raghu Karnad

Much later, I learnt that one’s grandparents are actual people, with actual life stories. In my grandmother’s case, the story included a Parsi upbringing, an illicit romance, a shotgun wedding, wartime doctoring, and a private apocalypse caused by World War II, which drew in her husband, her brother and her brother-in-law, and did not return them. That was just her 20s.

I considered that maybe my own young life in Delhi was not as epic as I had thought. I wanted to learn more about hers, and about the lives of those young men—which would eventually form the narrative of my book, Farthest Field: An Indian Story Of The Second World War. It began in the community of Calicut Parsis—which did once exist, settled along a lane just inland from the pier and the hotel, looking out at this very same sea.

Once we get moving, my mother, with the instincts of a salmon, steers us back to that lane, and to a banged-up blue door of wooden planks bound with iron. Behind it is her family home, in which her own mother’s childhood is preserved and awaits rediscovery.

Correction: Behind it is a mechanic’s workshop, some lead-acid batteries, and a woman in gold jewellery who was gracious to us, considering that we were acting like potential squatters. A photo from that moment has her and my mother, both smiling, neither quite concealing what they really felt; my mother a little crestfallen, yet amazed, our host vigilant as a hawk.

We would need to go deeper to find the places that persisted from my grandmother’s childhood. Her community was never much of a crowd, and today it is down to a single family, the Marshalls, much beloved of features journalists playing the fugue of the disappearing Parsi. They live in the same house and run the same business that they did in the 1920s. The head of the family, Darius, is the only remaining member of that generation, the keeper of the flame on behalf of all the vanished Dalals, Heerjees, Guzdars and Mugaseths.

Darius gives me the information that will appear in the first line of my book: that eggs turned four annas a dozen on the morning the war began. But many of his memories face the sea. He has seen the Arab dhows floating at anchor, and once the war came, British gunboats in the harbour. He remembers when the SS Damrah plied between Cochin (now Kochi) and Karachi, docking here midway. Even new cars came bumping down on to the pier, as the Marshalls’ 1951 Chevy did.

The Marshalls’ spare-parts shop is now a high-tech operation called Auto Motto. The pier where my grandmother’s brother, Bobby, used to go swimming is now two rows of rust-bitten pillars skewing into the foam. There seems to be no place unchanged, and I don’t expect to find one as our rickshaw noses down Sweet Meat Street, the busiest market in Calicut, up to the Bata showroom and a locked gate behind it.

Behind the gate, an alley runs under foliage into a compound filled with dappled light, mosquitoes and silence. This is the Parsi dharamsala, or lodge, and darb-e-meher, the prayer hall. In the compound it is forest-green, recalling the praise of one long-gone visitor, Edward Lear, for “those beautiful lanes and roads, the exquisite vegetation of which beats all chance of description. The plenitude of palmery here is overwhelming!” So it was in the yard.


The Parsi temple in Kozhikode. Photo: P Musthafa

Within the prayer hall, sunlight warmed by yellow curtains falls on yellow walls, and glints in the kach ni handi, deep glass bowls that hang from the ceiling. All is in perfect condition, and in perfect repose, stirred only by the Marshalls on Sundays, and by Parsi employees of Air India when one happens to fly this route.

I spend a while in there, flipping through prayer books that might have rested in my grandmother’s young hands. On my way out, my eye catches a plaque at the door which reads:

Built in sacred and loving memory of Dhanjibhoy Maneckji Mugaseth

The founder & first president of the Calicut Parsi Anjuman

By his children and grandchildren

A few months earlier, in a war cemetery in Imphal—at the opposite end of the country—I had found a plaque to my granduncle Bobby Mugaseth, a clue about his life’s finale. Here, in Calicut, is a plaque to his grandfather, Dhanjibhoy. Another clue, this time about beginnings. By the prayer hall is another graveyard, where the stones are stained by the juice of falling berries. I brush leaves off one to find the name of Bai Ruttonbai Bejunji, “mother-in-law of Dhanjibai M Mugaseth. Died 31 August 1899”. My thrice-great-grandmother. Now this felt a bit like belonging.

With these clues in hand, we step back into the present and into a town suddenly stuffed with family references—especially to Dhanjibhoy, once I knew to look for him. From newspaper obituaries, I learn that he had arrived in Calicut in the 1850s, a Bombay tyro who built the first steam-powered sawmill in the Malabar. Mechanized mills would turn Beypore into the next-to-busiest timber yard in the world. On the nearby Feroke river, he capitalized on the other material coming down with the river, clay. He built the first tile factory there, cutting the ribbon on another of Calicut’s major industries.

Early wealth led to early honours, and both to Dhanjibhoy’s evident noblesse oblige: It was he who built the dharamsala, and paid the priest, and stood in for him when the priest went on holiday. He funded wards in hospitals, and Dr Pulney Andy’s campaign to vaccinate against smallpox. He emerges as the first president of the Cosmopolitan Club; frequently chairman of the municipal council; advocate of the railway extension to Calicut, on which he was specially consulted by Mr Hope, minister of railways; and, by general consent, spokesperson for the “Indian community” when the governor was visiting.

For all his shining examples of piety and industry, though, the clearest image I get of Dhanjibhoy—as if I had dreamt it—is of his one, surreal failure. He had a coffee plantation on the Wayanad plateau, and faced the common difficulty of transporting beans from the hills down to the shore. His stroke of genius was using camels from Kutch. His animals were purchased and outfitted, and soon arrived in Calicut. But they could not bear the tropics; the camels were doomed.

In the evening, I am back on the beachfront. In the end, it’s easiest to dream of history facing the sea. This view is the same as when the lateen (triangular) sails drew up from Europe. Three hundred years later, the trade they so bloodily rerouted would carry new commodities to the West, like tiles and timber, to enrich new families, my grandmother’s among them. Another century, and those families too were gone, like the Portuguese sails, though Calicut’s Muslims do remain, to march up and down the horizon at daybreak.

Eventually, they are all gone, camels and families, raiders’ ships and traders’ ships. But absence does not mean disappearance. The prayer of the amateur historian is for imagination to strike a match against the rough surface of the present, and to light up the past again, however briefly. In Calicut the match struck, and I see a bit of how we got here—the city as well as me.

Calicut in 1937

Calicut in 1937

Trade and war in Calicut

■During what is called the Age of Discovery, the Samoothiri (ruler) of Calicut had a navy commanded by renowned admirals, the Kunhali Marakkars, with crews of Moplahs, local Muslims. In battle, they sailed ‘patamars’ and ‘urus’, similar to Arab dhows rigged with lateen sails. The Marakkars’ clashes with Vasco da Gama through the 16th century may have been among the first (and overall, only very few) naval defensive campaigns ever waged on India’s coast. They were outgunned, but achieved some victories over the Portuguese thanks to their sailing prowess and naval guerrilla fighting. At Iringal, outside Calicut, a house that belonged to a Marakkar has been converted into a state museum.

■ Not that trade and war were the only uses for the ships that sailed from the Samoothiri’s ports. In the 15th century, much before the Portuguese, explorers of the Ming empire arrived in Calicut via Sumatra and Sri Lanka, and from here they mounted their most adventurous onward expeditions. The Chinese ships of captain Cheng Ho (with whom Ma Huan sailed) crossed the Arabian Sea to reach Aden, Strait of Hormuz, and even continue down the coast of Africa to Mombasa—journeys of a length that Europe could not rival until da Gama’

Raghu Karnad is the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story Of The Second World War. Read an excerpt from the book here