Some stories are so ordinary that the fact that most anyone can relate to them makes them extraordinary.
One such story is that of my late parents. A story of love, sacrifice, and struggle. It’s a story that both my pre-teens can narrate to you verbatim. One that I wouldn’t mind narrating right now, amid all the chanting while being clad in nothing but a flimsy white cotton shirt and pajamas.
Article posted on Hyper Ranchi
But first, I’d like you to know what I see at the moment. Because this moment is precisely the lost jigsaw piece in my life that I have long searched for. I am watching from up here my beloved wife Delnaz Kohla Mandvivala hugging the kids with tears in her eyes. We’re all in a room filled with everyone who cares about me and everyone who makes this “home”. They are all gathered here in my honor. My paternal grandmother, who we recently found out went to school with Delu’s grandmother is seated in the third row, catching up with her childhood companion. Her denture stuffed wrinkling lips are often curling into a smile. Although I can’t hear her, I’m sure she’s on about something witty and intelligent. Qualities that Aai always told me, I inherited from her. Call it coincidence or just a friend paying respect to her childhood pal, Delu is her namesake. Perhaps, the latter being the case.
There’s a bittersweet serene peace that washes over me, despite the burning fire and the crowd watching me. I’ve always been the shy kind you see. Not a fan of larger than life ceremonies. Even my wedding was a small ceremony with under 15 guests on both sides. Oh, now my wedding to Delu is another story that I keep dearly close to my heart and even closer to my kid’s ears. It’s not often that a second-generation NRI Parsi nerd like myself is lucky enough to have a beautiful, charming Parsi woman in class at The University of Sheffield. Let alone succeeding at wooing and eventually marrying her. But that tale is for another day.
Coming back to Aai and Dad. Dad or Jehangir Rustomji Mandvivala, the then 22-year-old son of Mobed Ervad Saheb Rustomji Mandvivala had returned to Bombay from England. Jehangir or Jehan as grandma called him had become a chemical engineer with top honors. “Mumma, you should have been there. I said thanks to you and pappa in my speech.” dad had said. “This is for you.” he had laid the gold medal at grandpa’s feet. “Hmmph….That’s great. I’m very proud. You can finally start work at the shop. I would like to retire now.” Grandpa had said. I remember grandma telling me “Jehan was always made for greater deeds. He was never interested in the priesthood or the shop. Neither would he settle for it like his father.” “Mumma, I want to start off on my own. Industry in the outskirts. I want to make PVC pipes. Talk to pappa please.” He had said when grandpa was out working, which he was a lot those days. The grocery store that great-grandpa had set up in Manekshaw Baug had caught a higher momentum than ever before and the number of priests had seen a steep decline which meant longer hours of work and very little rest.
“Jehan, you know pappa. He’d rather kill flies at the store than take any risks. Just start at the store. Win his heart and then we’ll talk to him.” Grandma had suggested. And so dad had commenced his apprenticeship with grandad at the store. His tasks for each day included waking up at sunrise and taking the bus to the baug. He would pick a copy of the daily newspaper on his short stroll from the bus stop to the store. “Motabhai, kem cho? Ane? Su che?” He would strike up a little conversation with the newspaper stall owner as he lit his first cigarette for the day while Motabhai gave him a gist of the news for that day and spoke about the rumors around town. Motabhai by virtue of his profession and sheer curiosity seemed to have all the updates about everything under the sun.
Dad would then open the accordion door and set up 3 boards outside the store. One of which had a caricature of a little girl with “utterly butterly delicious” in a thought bubble. The other two read “milk available” and the price of rice and wheat for that particular day. He then was to clean the front porch of the store and the glass containers that held condiments and peppermint candies. The first half of the day was usually spent without grandpa around. Dad’s hands were always working, either counting cash or keeping a tab of the goods sold. At midday, grandpa would take over and give dad the much-needed nourishment break. The second cigarette of the day would then be burnt out post-lunch. Another half of the day would follow doing the same set of mundane tasks. This went on for over a week. And then it all changed one rainy afternoon.
Julys in Bombay were and still are unforgiving. But the city just does not give up. It has always chosen to function despite the assaults of the rains. July of 1974 was no different. Dad leaned against the stall smoking his second for the day looking down at his white shirt drenched part from sweat and part from the rain. He lowered his gaze to the sleeves of his flared pants. The seams were dripping onto his custom made leather oxfords. “Leather! Paausaat? Chaan!” a distinct young female voice sniggered almost mocking his stupidity. Dad looked up. She quickly jolted her umbrella open over her head and walked across the street. A silhouette, clad in a traditional nine-yard saree, her bare feet created tiny ripples in the water on the ground. The veil that covered her head followed after her creating a visual symphony along with the raindrops and her feet.
Dad peeked forward yet failed to give a face to this beautiful scene that had just played out in front of him. He looked down at his oxfords again and a smile briefly danced on his lips. They say that love is sometimes found in the most unusual places. But perhaps it is mostly found in the most usual places. So the next day dad waited patiently, staring at his fresh pair of sandals repelling the drops. “Shikla!” she sniggered again. “Becoming Bambaiya?” she surprised him a second time with her near-perfect English accent. Her eyes shone through as she flashed him a smile. Her toned, caramel calfs glistened in the rain. Day after day, dad would wait for her beautiful smile, barefoot stride, and one-liners.
“Sunanda! Damodar ni Dikri.” Motabhai had said. Dad soon learned that she was back to Bombay after the sudden demise of Mr. and Mrs. Damodar Deshpande in a train accident. A student of English literature at Allahabad University, she was left with no choice but to drop out and watch over the school that the Deshpandes had set up. Dressed in the sarees that her mother had left behind, she had found in them her mother’s hug that she craved so much.
“Chaha! Better than Cigarette, any day.” She said. Dad quickly stomped on his cigarette and walked next to her. “So? Chaha? When? ” He asked. “When you’re ready to make it.” She giggled and waltzed away. A few days later dad found himself fixing her tea in her ancestral home – an art he had mastered during his university days. Soon dad’s lunch break regime changed and the two found themselves more and more in each other’s company. “No way! I don’t care who she is. Only over my dead body will the son of Ervad Rustomji marry a non- Parsi. People will talk. Outcaste! That’s what you’ll be.” grandad had yelled when dad told them about mom. “But mumma. She’s bright yet compassionate. Just like you! And we are ….in love” dad had begged. “So you do what you must.” She had handed him her heirloom Gara.
With a few friends and relatives who agreed to bear witness and the blessings of his mother, Jehangir saw Sunanda for the first time in the Gara that his mother had given him. He gasped in awe. They exchanged garlands, signed on the register and fled to Sheffield where he would set up a factory of his own and make PVC pipes like he once dreamt. Mom continued to teach, this time tutoring kids of Asian parents in the locality. They made the perfect couple and even better parents to me, their only child. Mom and dad though far far away from India, made home look exactly like a slice out of the baug. The food, the smell, the language, the songs, they floated around me like I’ve always lived in Bombay.
When I did decide finally to return 10 years after Aai breathed her last and almost 12 years since dad, little did I expect that grandma would make sure that I feel at home. It’s overwhelming almost to digest the turn out of people here today. The stage, the decor, white orchids are hanging down from the golden arches. I’m sure one could probably mistake it for a lavish funeral. Gosh! Whatever made you think that? Because, this, my dead friends is not a funeral. This is the beginning of another story. The story of a 40-year-old reinitiated into being a Parsi. Of a middle-aged man having his Navjote in the presence of his wife and kids. The two Delus are now smiling at me as Ervad saheb wraps the Khusti. I smile back at grandma and my nauvari clad wife with tears in my eyes. I look up at the sky hoping that mom-dad are happy about restored pride and proud of their son.
I wonder if maybe, just maybe, theirs wasn’t that ordinary a story after all.