Roj Ashishvangh Mah Dae, 1381 Yz.
Yesterday, Roj Din Mah Dae was the 20th death anniversary of my maternal grandfather, Nariman Dinshahji Vagchhipawala. It is an apt occasion to remember him and present before readers of Frashogard some insights in to his life and the influence he had on shaping me into what I am today.
Nariman papa was born on Roj Khorshed Mah Amardad, 1917 in to a large, but poor family in Valsad, Gujarat. One of many siblings, Nariman was born under extraordinary circumstances. Due to early marriages in those days, when Nariman’s mother, Khorshedbai was pregnant, her own eldest daughter Banubai, was also pregnant! After Nariman was born, his mother died shortly thereafter. Within a short time, Banubai also delivered, and Nariman was given to his eldest sister to be fed! He grew up knowing his own sister as a mother, and even called her ‘Mai’. It was not a happy childhood. His father also died shortly thereafter, and Nariman was at the total mercy of his elder brothers. The little property that the family had was taken over by a close relative and Nariman was left to fend for himself. Those troubling days and the hardships of growing up without parents left a strong feeling of bitterness in him towards those who had deprived him of his rightful share.
A few houses down on the same street in Mota Parsiwad lived the Kajanwala family. The family patriarch was Nariman Bahmanshah Kajanwala, who sired 10 children with his wife, Najamai. The Kajanwala family was landed gentry, with hundreds of acres of land in villages around Pardi, which produced a rich crop of fruits, grass and sugarcane. They also possessed a factory where the sugarcane was processed to make jaggery. The family lived in great comfort and ease, with the children well looked after. Of these siblings, one was Dina, who was endowed with the most beautiful features and a really fair complexion, which was the envy of many. But Dina’s heart had already fallen for the poor orphan who lived a few houses away from them. They met and talked, but the difference in the social status meant that there was no chance of anything moving forward.
Amongst Nariman’s few friends was a Mobed who lived in Valsad but went for the annual Muktad prayers to Secunderabad, where he managed to earn enough to support himself through the year. Seeing Nariman’s near destitute status, the Mobed suggested that he too should accompany him to Secunderabad and try working at the Agiary there. It would be a welcome change and he could earn something to be able to live a dignified life. Having nothing better to do, and finding himself always unwanted in his own home, Nariman made up his mind. He met Dina one last time and took the train to Secunderabad to join the Seth Bejonji Chinai Agiary as a chasniwalla and helper.
In the meanwhile, many proposals for Dina’s fair hand were coming into the Kajanwala household. The father would soon take the decision, based on social status and money. Who asked the daughter what she wanted? But Dina had other plans. She had made up her mind, and one day, with just the clothes she had on and a few in a bag, a little money and a lot of courage and guts, Dina boarded the train, leaving Valsad and her comfortable family to spend the rest of her life in hardship, poverty and grind with the person who she wanted to be her husband.
Soon thereafter, Nariman and Dina were married, in the Daremeher at Secunderabad. Although accustomed to a life of luxury and many servants, Dina never made a murmur of protest at her changed circumstances. Nariman would be gone very early in the morning, to sweep and swab the Agiary and then carry out the other duties through the day, returning in the afternoon. He would go back in the evening, coming home only at night. One of the punishing duties given to Nariman was to walk up every evening to the Dakhma and to light the Divo in the Sagdi near the Dakhma. It was a steep climb, nearly 300 steps to the top where the Sagdi was situated. And it had to be done every day, without break or holidays.
The Panthaky in charge of the Agiary took pity on Nariman and his condition. He encouraged him to learn some craft or trade, so that he could earn a bit more and improve his status. But poor, uneducated Nariman – what could he do? The Panthaky therefore decided to teach him how to cook the sweets and food which was put for prayers every day. Slowly but steadily, Nariman learnt the ropes and soon became an expert cook. The Panthaky was encouraged and then taught Nariman how to make the Daran – the sacred small round bread which are used in the Baj ceremonies. The Daran have to be made very carefully, should be perfectly round and extreme care has to be taken while cooking them on the griddle. They should not have any burn marks, but at the same time should not remain raw.
Nariman could manage the roasting, but had great trouble with getting the Daran to be perfectly round. One day, as the Panthaky gave him the order and went on for his other duties, Nariman thought of a trick. He made a big thin rotli and then taking an inverted Kasya, cut out the perfect rounds from the rotli, much as we use a cookie cutter. Pretty soon, the large number of Daran was ready. As the Panthaky came around to see what was happening, Nariman proudly pointed out the Daran and said: ‘See, Dasturji, today they are all perfect!’ The Panthaky took one look and smiled at him. Happy that his task had been appreciated, Nariman bent down to continue. The next second he got the hardest slap of his life, as the Panthaky beat him firmly, picked up the fake Daran and threw them all away. More than 50 years later, papa would recount this story to me and hold his ear and claim he could still hear the ringing in his ears from that slap.
From that day on the Panthaky would beat him for the slightest error and make him redo all that was even remotely wrong. After many months of this hard training, Nariman could work without supervision and his pay was increased a little. The Panthaky then requested Nariman to volunteer as a helper who would carry dead bodies into the Dakhma. He explained that it was a noble task, and he would get some money from it. Nariman agreed and soon joined the group of volunteer Nasseh-salaars. Around that time, a noble Parsi lady doctor whose first name was Khorshed passed away, at a young age. Dr. Khorshed was well loved not only by Parsis but more by many poor and destitute non-Parsis who would come to her for treatment, which she would give free, without taking money even for the medicines.
When her Paidust got over and it was time to carry the body up the steps to the Dakhma, a huge crowd of Parsis and non-Parsis gathered. The poor ran behind the Paidust, crying and asking for the Doctor to come back. This piteous scene made a great impact on Nariman papa. He understood not only the value of education, but also service to the poor and needy. Many years later he would recount to me that taking those steps, bearing the body of Dr. Khorshed on his shoulder, he made two decisions. First, he would name his daughter Khorshed, and secondly he would make her a doctor.
As the months went by, Dina became pregnant. As her time came, she was unprepared, had no one to help her and nowhere to go. Tragedy struck, and the child, a boy, was stillborn. Some months later, she became pregnant again. This time, help was around, and in 1945, my mother was born. True to his promise, Nariman named her Khurshid, after the late doctor. Working in the Agiary, the hospital was out of bounds for Nariman. So every evening he would take a stroll outside the gates and Dina would come up to a window and hold aloft the child for him to see.
Nariman learnt many of the inside tricks of the trade in the Agiary. He saw some unethical means being used. But he also saw great piety and goodness. Nariman papa would always talk about the great Dastur Khurshed Dastur Behram who was the High Priest of the region in those days. A man of great piety and illustrious looks, Dastur Khurshed was highly respected and occupied an important position in the Nizam’s court. One of the few persons to possess a car in those days, Dastur Khurshed would be driven to the Hussein Sagar lake where he would stand at a particular spot and recite the Ava Yasht, almost daily. The Parsi driver and Nariman were friends, and the driver would often tell Nariman that despite the heaviest rains, the great Dastur would step out of his car without an umbrella, finish his prayers at the lake and come back – perfectly dry.
An accomplished astrologer, the great Dastur had foreseen his death. On the appointed day, he rose early, finished his prayers, and had a cup of tea made by his wife. He then told her he was going to lie down for some time and left instructions to wake him up after an hour. The noble lady did as she was told, and went upstairs, only to find the great Dastur perfectly dressed, lying on the bed, with a Divo and all the clothes, Syav and Kusti required for his entire year’s prayers at his side. Such was the caliber of priests in those days!
After the birth of my mother, Nariman found it very difficult to support the family on his meager wages. A relative approached him at that time and informed him of a vacancy in the Polson dairy at Anand in Gujarat. Nariman agreed, and the family left Secunderabad and came to reside at Anand, where Nariman started working in the dairy. Soon thereafter, a son was born to them, who they named Peston, after the founder of the Polson dairy. Fresh trouble arrived in their lives. Nariman did not suffer fools easily and had a sharp tongue and fearsome temper. An argument with a British superior in the factory got out of hand and Nariman let loose a string of our famous Parsi vocabulary, poorly translated into English! He could not last long thereafter.
Another relative managed to get him a job in the railways and Nariman became a linesman, climbing up poles and checking signals. One day as he was on the top of the pole, he slipped and fell on to the tracks, breaking his leg. A friendly neighbourhood astrologer warned him that iron was his enemy as per the birth chart. The family decided to leave Anand and came back to Valsad. Here they began living in a rented house. Heeding the astrologer’s advice, Nariman left the railway job and decided to run a carriage service. He bought a horse and a tonga, with the help of a rich Parsi Sethia of that time, and soon became known in Valsad as Nariman ghodagadiwala. From that day on to the time he died, Papa would always wear the thick Khaki coat and trousers of his trade, whatever the occasion.
The rich Parsi families of those days in Valsad included the Dhanbhooras, the Chothias, and the Shroffs, amongst others. With his genial, humble behaviour, and timely service, Nariman soon became the escort of choice for these great traders and leaders of the Parsi community, ferrying them from their offices to home and back, to the clubs in the evenings, or dropping them and picking them up from the railway station as they went about their business. Things grew better a little, and Nariman expanded by buying two more horses and carriages. On the personal front too, there were three more additions to the family, Mehru, Kumi and Dhunjisha.
(to be continued…)
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram