To the world at large, Parmeshwar Godrej was a coolly elegant figure who partied with the international jet set and carried one of India’s most famous surnames. Those who knew her, however, remember a different Parmesh: warm, caring, giving, and always fun to be with.
I first met her when I was 20 and just starting out in journalism. She was already Mrs Godrej, queen of Bombay society, and had no reason to give a damn about a young journo. But she was unfailingly hospitable, charming and friendly. At the time, she was famous for having bridged the gap between the film world and Bombay society, which had seemed unbridgeable till she appeared on the scene – and on the cover of Stardust.
We forget now that she was India’s first designer, running the successful Dancing Silks boutique at the Oberoi and making clothes for the top heroines of the 1970s. When fashion bored her, she moved into interior designing and set up Bombay’s hottest design firm, Inner Spaces, in partnership with Sunita Pitamber. Inner Spaces designed the homes of millionaires in Bombay, Delhi and London but is probably best remembered for its revolutionary approach to restaurant décor. The original China Garden in Kemps Corner was the first stand alone to actually look better than any five-star hotel restaurant.
By the time others had attempted to copy the success of Inner Spaces, Parmesh had finally got involved with the Godrej Group’s businesses, advising the real estate development division. I used to joke with her that with Inner Spaces she made so much money that she could have maintained her glamorous lifestyle without drawing on the Godrej wealth.
And her lifestyle was certainly glamorous. When she and her husband, Adi, abandoned their Carmichael Road apartment to spend more time at their stunning beach house in Juhu, their move had the effect of quadrupling property prices in Juhu. Suddenly, every millionaire wanted a beach house like the Godrejs.
Some of her legendary parties were thrown at that beach house and attended by the likes of Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn, Amitabh Bachchan and Imran Khan. The parties acquired an iconic status not because of the guest lists or the extravagance but because of Parmesh’s own sense of warm hospitality.
She was born into an upper middle-class Sikh family and met Adi when she was flying with Air India. They had an intense romance before marrying. Till the end, Adi remained the centre of Parmesh’s universe and for all the exterior glamour, the Godrejs and their children were a close-knit family.
When middle-class women marry into billionaire families, they usually have to change to fit in. Parmesh was the exception. She changed the Godrejs much more than they changed her. She took a conservative Parsi family whose idea of a good time was a family picnic and introduced it to international glamour. But through it all, she remained the exuberant Punjabi she had always been: generous to a fault, full of life and vitality, and yet, at the same time, sensitive and vulnerable.
She was a true original.