On the occasion of Parsi New Year yesterday we dedicate this column to some of the extraordinary Parsis we have known over the years for their qualities of grace, good humour and gentleness -- traits the entire community is known for
>> Top of my list has to be the Father of Indian industry -- JRD Tata. This anecdote is from the winter of his life and demonstrates his extraordinary consideration for others. Well into his 80s, JRD would be a lonely silhouette when he would drop in to see his younger sister Rodabeh Sawhney who was living alone at Mumbai’s Taj after the loss of her husband. The story was narrated to us by a Taj housekeeper.
One evening, she says she picked up her courage and said to JRD, “Sir, wouldn’t it be better if your sister could be moved to a sea-facing room. That way she can pass her time looking outside at the Gateway and all the hustle and bustle there. I’m sure the hotel would not charge extra for it.” As she tells it, on hearing this Tata flared up: “What do you mean the hotel would not charge extra for it,” he reproached the mortified woman. “The Tatas do charity, they do not take charity!” he said. One can imagine the plight of the poor housekeeper after that. Not only was Tata her chairman at that time but an adored leader of his community.
But, obviously she was not alone in her discomfort. Come punch out time for the employees and lo and behold -- what did she see outside the back gate?
There sitting behind the wheel in his car was the Great Man himself. “I wanted to apologise for my outburst,” he said, “May I drop you to your home this evening?” And so the Chairman of the Tata group drove one of his employees home that evening. “I didn’t want you to have a miserable evening thinking about the incident,” he said when he dropped her off at her colony. “Goodnight.”
‘I’m an artist’
>> The late great Jehangir Sabavala had been a friend of mine. My friend and colleague Namita Devidayal in her excellent obituary to the late artist wrote this story: Apparently she was present when at a city club event, some philistine member had asked the great artist what he did for a living.
A lesser man would have shown irritation or pique. Not Sabavala. “I’m an artist,” he’d said, and continued conversing with the person with his characteristic equanimity and grace!
The Maestro’s calls
>> There was a phase in my life when I was privileged to be a friend of world famous conductor Zubin Mehta. I had gone to meet him for an interview for the Sunday supplement of the Times of India, and by the time we’d finished the interview we’d become friends. Phone friends. He had flown out that very evening, but over the next few weeks, from various capitals and music centres of the world, I’d receive calls from the maestro and his distinct sing-song Parsi accent would come trilling down the phone line.
Could anyone have imagined that the musical genius and one of India’s most celebrated exports would have such a great sense of humour or be such a good mimic? Each night I’d receive his call full of good humour, laughter and grace bringing news and perspectives about a range of his interests from politics to food, from music to travel. And above all, his love for Mumbai. And his memories of home. One evening there was an even more thrilling treat: Mehta was being honored at a forum along with Harry Belafonte, the legendary troubadour and outspoken champion of the disenfranchised who I’d grown up listening to. Knowing this, Mehta got the great man to say hello on the line. A small gesture of thoughtfulness but one that meant the world to me. It was just another instance of his kindness.
Goodness doesn’t differentiate
>> One of the abiding images we have of Dr Firuza Parikh, director, department of Assisted Reproduction & Genetics at Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai and one of the world’s most respected authorities in her field, is at the Mumbai airport early one morning when we see her carrying a small overnighter and waiting in the queue to catch a flight to Srinagar. It was winter and Kashmir must have been bitterly cold and it was a time when the insurgency and violence were at their height.
And yet, every month, come rain or shine or bullets or threats, this brave compassionate woman, would visit Srinagar at her own cost and without fanfare and fuss so that its childless couples could be helped through her treatment. “There used to be bombs going off and often we would ourselves request her to put off her visit,” her friend Amir Miraj said to me a few years later when I visited the charitable fertility centre that they had set up. “But Madam would come. ‘How can I let my patients’ down?’ she would say and come! Firuza herself hardly mentions her work at the centre. “The people there are so simple,” she once said to me. “Some of them are so poor and so when they thank me they give me a hen or vegetables from their own garden in gratitude.” I thought of this last Thursday when I attended a puja to inaugurate a spanking and beautifully designed new wing at Firuza’s department at Jaslok amongst some of Mumbai’s most famous faces. The high and low, the rich and poor, the sophisticated and the simple. Goodness does not differentiate between any.