The only Parsis in a 1,000km radius

Updated: Jun 02, 2019, 08:04 IST | Ekta Mohta

A sea-loving Parsi family moved to Port Blair 35 years ago, to a house that had no electricity, no toilets, and on one occasion, no roof. Today, they run a thriving homestay, a spice farm and a kayaking tour company

The only Parsis in a 1,000km radius
Tanaz, Shiraz and Dinaz on his wedding day

In 1985, after a lifetime spent at sea, Captain Kersi Phiroze Noble set foot on Port Blair, and decided to spend his remaining life at sea. "He loved the ocean and hated land," says his daughter, Tanaz. "For him, sailing was like detox." Captain Noble earned his stripes in the Merchant Navy. In 1978, he married a Xavierite, Dinaz Dastur, and had two children back-to-back: son Shiraz in 1983 and Tanaz in 1984. "We had a lovely place in Pune, but my husband wanted to lead the sea life," says Dinaz. "The only option was to settle in Mumbai, but we were not happy living in a cage." Tanaz says, "[Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi was in power and he had indicated that the Andamans will be used for international trade. So, dad looked at it as a great economic opportunity. He bought a few properties, [including] an entire island that belonged to a local Sardarji, and we moved here bag and baggage."

Plank by plank, Captain Noble and Dinaz built Khushnaz House, a two-storeyed yellow bungalow, overlooking the aqua-blue sea. Of their early days, Dinaz says, "It's hard to explain what we had walked into. Although we came for a better quality of life, the challenge was to build it. There was no proper sanitation, electricity, or gas to cook on. My husband would take contracts from shipping corporations and cross over to Chennai and Kolkata, and literally bring everything, including the tiles in my bathroom." Tanaz adds, "There were so many creepy-crawlies falling over us that we had to stay inside mosquito meshes. For dad, it was the perfect world, but mum came in her high heels and pencil skirts from Mumbai. For her to adjust to this life was phenomenal." What made things easier for Dinaz was "the fact that the islands were painfully beautiful. My husband and I were both Aquarians and nature lovers. We would walk the jungles for hours on end and feel exhilarated. The kids were brought up in the same environment: sailing, walking in the jungles, fishing in the early morning."

The Nobles in their early years in the Andamans. Tanaz says, "The most common childhood memory I have is of sandcastles. Even bunking school was about going to the beach."
The Nobles in their early years in the Andamans. Tanaz says, "The most common childhood memory I have is of sandcastles. Even bunking school was about going to the beach."

If not for the dismal quality of higher education in Port Blair, they would have stayed put. "I had a full-grown Mallu accent," says Tanaz. "In boarding school in Ooty [in Lawrence School, Lovedale], they used to make fun of my English, it was so bad." It eventually became so good that Tanaz went on to study journalism at KC College; Shiraz studied hotel management at IHM and worked at The Taj Mahal Palace for 10 years; and from 2000-2010, Dinaz was general manager at Burlington's. They lived in Dadar Parsi Colony in this phase, and felt a bit like fish out of water. "I don't speak Gujarati," says Tanaz. "So, there's a disconnect even in Mumbai. We are a very small community and we tend to be a little clannish. I've been cut off for so long that I only identify with them genetically now." Dinaz says, "If the kids hadn't gone to boarding, I would have never crossed over to mainland India or Mumbai again. There's nothing in Mumbai that attracts me."

In 2007, on a "jinxed voyage" from Kolkata, Captain Noble had a massive heart attack. "He died with his captain's cap on," says Dinaz. Tanaz decided to return home. "Locals wanted to take our properties and somebody had to stand the ground. We would receive death threats from moneylenders. My mum was scared and wanted to leave. She said, 'We don't need any of this. Let's just go, live our lives and be happy.' I refused. I said, 'I'm never going back.'"

Bakhtawar, who married into the Noble family, admits that her first year in Port Blair "was difficult". Pic/Shadab Khan
Bakhtawar, who married into the Noble family, admits that her first year in Port Blair "was difficult". Pic/Shadab Khan

Since then, time and tide have been kinder to the Nobles. Tanaz learned kayaking and runs a tour company with 15 kayaks on Havelock Island. She conducts day tours to the mangroves and night tours to see the bioluminescence in the water and stars in the sky, a passion she inherited from her father. "He refused to put a roof on the house, so he could watch the stars." She's also the first Indian to complete 70 nautical miles kayaking in high sea in 36 hours. "I have a Genghis Khan keeda. I have to conquer and keep going distances." Dinaz, who returned in 2010, runs a homestay out of her home, and a spice farm out of the four-acre island, on which she grows nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper. And Shiraz, who returned in 2014 with his wife Bakhtawar and son Jehan, does sailing trips and runs the kayaking company with Tanaz. "One by one, we dropped everything we were doing and came back," says Dinaz.

Bakhtawar, a Mumbai kid who studied law at KC College, went from sharing her city with 1.5 crore people to sharing it with 1.5 lakh. Back home for her annual two-month holiday, she meets us at the Parsi Gymkhana in Marine Lines and admits, "The transition was not easy. You need a lot of mental adjustment to get used to the place. It was a 180-degree change, from the hustle-bustle of Mumbai to the quiet life of the Andamans." But, she's warmed up to it now, as has her five-year-old. "Jehan has the best of both worlds." In August 2018, Dinaz also invited her mother, Ratty Dastur, who was the queen of a chikoowadi in Dahanu, to live with them. "She had no choice: she fell and broke her leg," says Dinaz. "She misses her farm like mad, but she's 85 years old and needs somebody."

As for their Parsi connections in their veins, seawater runs thicker than blood. "I don't need to speak in Gujarati to survive," says Dinaz. "I don't need to do Parsi-panu to survive. All humans are the same. That's my basic idea." Tanaz says, "If I hold on to the sign of Faravahar, I'm still Parsi. My sister-in-law is shocked at how un-celebratory we are, but we celebrate quietly. We have an active volcano called Barren Island, and I sometimes joke and say, 'That's our fire temple.' Because that's the purest form of fire and the real Atash Behram."

Tanaz

Captain of her soul

On why she prefers the islands, Tanaz says, "If I visit the mainland for more than a month, I turn into that same evil — not evil — but aggressive, angsty, shouting person, who is always getting into fights. But, when I'm here, I'm relaxed, lazy, I laugh much more. We have no access to internet, so it's not about fake socialising. When you want to say hi to somebody, you don't Facebook them, you ring the doorbell."

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