Malavika Sangghvi pays tribute to Parmeshwar Godrej

I will always remember Parmeshwar Godrej as a dignified lady, unfazed and gracious

Nadir Godrej, seated fourth from left, at a surprise party thrown for him by his family for his 50th birthday. Standing (from left) Tanya Godrej-Dubash, Raika (Jamshyd's daughter), Adi with his grandson Aryan. Sitting (from left) Rishad Naoroji, Jamshyd, Rutty,Nadir, Parmeshwar, her son Pirojsha and Pheroza
Nadir Godrej, seated fourth from left, at a surprise party thrown for him by his family for his 50th birthday. Standing (from left) Tanya Godrej-Dubash, Raika (Jamshyd's daughter), Adi with his grandson Aryan. Sitting (from left) Rishad Naoroji, Jamshyd, Rutty,Nadir, Parmeshwar, her son Pirojsha and Pheroza

The news reached Mumbai like a slow train on Monday night. Parmeshwar Godrej had died.

For someone who'd spent most of the last decade reeling back her public engagements and media outings to only the very necessary bare minimum, it was surprising how palpably people felt the loss of a woman who very few really knew.

Aishwarya Rai and Richard Gere
Parmeshwar Godrej with Aishwarya Rai and Richard Gere

For many she'd just been a name. For others a rumour, for most — even the ones who knew her — she was an enigma.

Above all, she was a woman whose journey involved such rapid evolution and growth, that it often appeared that no sooner had she acquired one label than she'd already discarded it: Army brat, Air India air hostess, wife of leading industrialist Adi Godrej, friend of glamorous film stars, fashion designer, hostess with the mostest, interior decorator, style icon, society queen, businesswoman, philanthropist; one by one she had assumed these titles and then left them behind, as if she were constantly evolving, constantly growing, always progressing, way ahead of the rest.

Imran Khan
Parmeshwar Godrej with Imran Khan

The first time I'd met her had been when as a teenager I'd accompanied a famous actress to a party she'd thrown at her fabulous beach side home in Juhu.

MF Husain
Parmeshwar Godrej with MF Husain

Of course, it had been everything I'd imagined it to be, right down to the liveried staff bearing champagne flutes on silver salvers, and the queues of limos jostling for space outside.

Arun Nayar
Parmeshwar Godrej with Arun Nayar

Our paths crossed many times since then, and I had been back many times to that home as I had to her others: her apartment in Mumbai's iconic high rise Usha Kiran and her seaside home at Walkeshwar.

Amitabh Bachchan
Parmeshwar Godrej with Amitabh Bachchan

Each residence she had inhabited had carried her distinct and peerless style. Every appearance she had made had articulated her unmistakable sophistication and vivacity, and the wide and varied circle of her friends — Amartya Sen, MF Husain, Imran Khan, Richard Gere, Salman Rushdie, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Goldie Hawn, Shah Rukh and Gauri, they all had mirrored her own passionate interest in the magnificent dance of life.

Above all she was a pioneer. The instances of how she led the way and taught Indian society how to live, dress, decorate and entertain are well worth recording.

Way before the film industry was regarded as respectable by polite society, it was Parmeshwar Godrej who'd begun fraternising with it, breaking down the barriers between business and entertainment.

At a time when Indian women were dressing pretty much like their mummies and were weighed down by ornaments and saris, she'd chosen to stand out in her famous body hugging Herve Leger bandage dresses paired with minimal or pared down jewellery. Before the designer craze had even reached Indian shores, and Manish Malhotra was not even a glimmer in his father's eye, Parmeshwar Godrej had already set up the Dancing Silks' boutique at the Oberoi, and had become the go to person for top film stars and socialites. In the days when the best homes in Mumbai were filled with the relics of the past, she'd broken through the clutter with the stark sweeping lines of Spanish haciendas and oversized urns. Her interest in contemporary art had led the way for other collectors. She'd been the first to introduce celebrity endorsements in Indian advertising, when she set the ball rolling by asking her pals Imran Khan, Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia to model for campaigns for her husband's company, and when philanthropy had not been taken up seriously, it was Parmeshwar Godrej who'd raised its bar by taking on the cause of AIDS awareness, aligning with no less than Richard Gere and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as she did so.

And even with all this going on, from all accounts she was an exceptional spouse, mother and grandmother to her brood and her family absolutely doted on her.

So many memories come rushing in about her: for a photo shoot for the anniversary issue of a newspaper I was editing, involving power couples like Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, and Murli and Hema Deora, which was to feature them along with Adi and Parmeshwar sharing bhel at the Cooperage, (yes, those were the days) I will never forget the sight of two sleek, black chauffeur-driven limos arriving from two different directions bearing the suave industrialist and his glamorous wife at exactly the same moment — such a symbol of power and glamour equality.

At the Holi celebrations at a superstar's home even amidst the mayhem and the exuberance, she had stopped to enquire and assist, when my shivering six-year-old son who'd emerged scared out of his wits from a tank full of colour, was crying his heart out.

For all her incomparable glamour and unmatched sophistication she was always so real, so warm, so unabashedly herself.

Above all I will cherish the memory of how we had once, so bizarrely and memorably shared a hotel room at a maharajah's palace in the nineties!

It was on the maharajah's invitation to partake in a weekend festival at his palace. Parmesh had flown in from Mumbai and I from Delhi.

For some reason we'd both felt a bit off colour and under the weather, and had decided to skip the welcome dinner preferring to hole up together, and wait till morning to depart so as not to disturb the festivities.

It was her room but she had made me feel welcome and at home with her kindness and care. All night we had laughed, and talked, and shared stories about our lives and times, ordered room service, and then had fallen asleep waiting for the dawn to break to make our escape — she to Mumbai, I to Delhi.

Even though I met her often after that, it is the memory of her from that time, standing on the palace steps waiting for her car to arrive, that I will always remember her for. Even though she'd been under the weather and out of her comfort zone, it had not stopped her from being who she was: a dignified, erect lady, unfazed and gracious, handing out outrageously generous tips to the staff as she waited to go home.

I do not know the circumstances of her last days but from the outpouring of love and sadness it seems she exited life itself in that way: with great style, peerless panache and with an unparalleled generosity of spirit.

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