A hundred and ten years ago, Parsi businessman Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, a distant relative of the founder of one of India’s oldest corporate houses, sailed from Mumbai to Shanghai to further his company’s trade. When his company withdrew from China, he stayed on, turned entrepreneur, raised children and built a house. A century later, the land records of the Tata home in Shanghai have been swept away by the turbulent floods of Chinese history.
Anahita Mukherji | The Times of India
BD’s son Jehangir died in his 90s last year in San Francisco after spending the last 50 years of his life fighting to get the land records — any piece of paper that acknowledged the house his father built.
The alluring story of one man’s struggle to preserve a childhood memory intertwined with a 100 years of history would have been lost with Jehangir, had Mishi Saran, a tenacious Indian writer in Shanghai, not tracked him down, recorded his story and hunted down the spot on a busy Shanghai street where a Parsi mansion, Avan Villa, once stood.
BD was a distant relative of his boss RD Tata, who was the father of JRD Tata and the first cousin of Jamsetji Tata, the Tata group founder.
“RD Tata’s company sent BD to open branches in the Far East. The trading was mainly exporting of silks from China to India. In the process, BD became friendly with so me Chinese mill owners, in particular, with the owners of two cotton mills (who) appointed RD Tata (whom Bejan represented) to manage the mills. This involved buying the materials (raw cotton) to producing the yarn and bedsheets,” said Saran. When RD liquidated his Far East interests, BD stayed on in Shanghai, formed his own company and continued the same work.
BD’s business flourished and by the 1920s, he could afford to buy a 28,000 sq ft plot in Shanghai and appoint a British architect to build a two-storey villa for himself and four smaller villas, one for each son.
Avan Villa lost to Cultural Revolution, property documents untraceable
The villa was designed in “a style called Moderne-spare lines, curved-edge balconies, a stream-lined look reminiscent of ocean-liners,” writes Saran in her story, A House for Mr Tata, published in Travelling In, Travelling Out, an anthology of unexpected journeys.
The villa, completed in 1935, had seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, long passages, a prayer hall and two priceless murals by a Russian artist, Jehangir told Saran. Though he never got his hands on the land records, he did visit Shanghai in 2001 and was amazed to find his house still standing, though the lower floor was turned into an antique shop. He even met one of the family’s tenants who lived in one of the cluster of smaller villas around the house.
But by 2004, the villa was torn down. When Mishi visited the spot, she found a multi-storey office building on the land where Avan Villa once stood. But the cluster of small villas still remain, “though subsequent additions…dividing walls, added rooms on top, haphazard tree planting had given the four semi-detached houses a higgledypiggeldy feel,” writes Saran.
BD was one of many industrialists who fled China for Hong Kong in 1949, in anticipation of a Communist victory over the nationalists. That he chose Hong Kong and not Mumbai may well have been because he expected to return to Shanghai. He had very few ties left with India. Jehangir recalls visiting India on only two occasions as a child and vaguely recalls living with relatives in Babulnath in south Mumbai.
BD’s sons stayed behind for a few years to wrap up his affairs. “Around 1950, a year after the family left for Hong Kong, the Communists levied a huge tax on real estate property that was a back tax for over 10 years that had to be paid. This is one reason my father Jehangir could not get an exit visa. He had to raise money to pay the taxes. When he rented out the properties he was able to secure payments and satisfy the taxes owed on the property ,” says Irene, the daughter of Jehangir and his Russian wife Lydia.
Soon after, Jehangir appointed a British estate agent to manage the Tata property and left with his wife for Hong Kong. In July 1954, the Shanghai municipal government announced that foreign real estate agencies had ceased operations, a shock that may well have brought on BD’s death in Hong Kong a month later. BD’s children then found a Chinese man to manage the property .
In the same year, the family was asked to submit all original property documents to the government. A decade later, in 1966, the Chinese agent who managed the property abruptly lost all contact with the family during the Cultural Revolution. Several decades later they traced him to New York, where he told them he’d been imprisoned in China during the revolution for his ties with foreigners and had to submit all their property documents to the government. Jehangir repeatedly wrote to the Indian Consulate in Shanghai to find out the status of the property, but to no avail. Saran herself tried tracing the land records through a lawyer. No file was found. She was told the property belonged to the government.