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A Parsi?s Gujarat

'Since it?s been Guj e-week, I?m going to be communal. Hindus and Muslims are clawing at each other like cats so I?m going to be like the monkey in the fable,' writes Bachi Karkaria.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2002 01:13 IST
Bachi Karkaria
Bachi Karkaria

Since it’s been Gujarat e-week, I’m going to be communal. And while the Hindus and Muslims are still clawing and spitting at each other like cats, I’m going to be like the monkey in the fable, and run away with the roti. ‘You dhansak-eating dot, what can you do?’ you might scoff.

“You’re not even a minority, you’re a mere molecularity.” Maybe. But, Surat, Ankleshwar, Khambat, Bharuch, Jambusar — for me, these were all Parsi surnames before they were towns.

I grew up on the other side of the subcontinent — so I didn’t get to know these ancestral Parsi villages till much later. But their subconscious spoor was all over the place. Any Sports Day at the Calcutta Parsi Club would find Rusi Surti, Darius Anklesaria, and Nergis Khambatta sprinting up to collect their prizes. Today’s troubled Bharuch had an incongruous echo in Sarah Bharucha, a hormonally fat lady with impossibly tiny feet always encased in alligator-skin pumps.

She conducted piano classes for Calcutta’s brightest, and a regular school for Calcutta’s dullest. One produced young ladies of accomplishment, the other took in the failures thrown out by other institutions. The city’s Jambusar family I knew only from a distance, because they chose to keep theirs.

I find it difficult to absorb Gujarat’s frenzied present because I’m saturated with its laidback links to race memory and family anecdote. Take Navsari — which is what the BJP’s Mangubhai Chhagan Patel and the Congress’s Bhaskar Balubhai Rathod wish to do. It was an arrogant centre of Parsi commerce and priestly power six centuries before its current persona of diamond polishers at pizza parlours. When my mother grew up there, and even when she briefly returned for the birth of her first child, it was only a three-ass town.

For years, whenever Navsari was mentioned in our Calcutta home, Fali-kaka would chuckle and say, ‘Twins well!’ These were the words on the telegram my father got when I was born. New Dad almost jumped out of his skin at this unexpected development. The distance and the primitive communications obliged him to suffer anxiously for a whole week till the message was ‘decoded’. Since I looked like my mother, an old aunt in Navsari thought she would cleverly save on the wordage. So she had telescoped ‘mother and baby’ to ‘twins’!

I must confess my own naivete when I first visited Bombay. Each time, Homai-masi said, ‘Cooverji (or whoever-ji) is coming in flying’, I’d think, ‘Wow, these Navsari oldies aren’t some country bumpkins. They all travel by air.’ My cousins, in stitches, explained that the reference was to the Bombay-Surat train, the Flying Rani. Considering the preponderance of Parsi passengers, it might well have been named after Queen Victoria.

My mother fed us on her nostalgia. Food was my first, and still deepest, association with the old Parsi belt of Gujarat. Any mention of Surat triggers the taste of nankhatais my aunts would regularly parcel, the crumbly halves wrapped like a treasure in a twist of tissue paper. These biscuits gave their name to the gaudy brass bands which went from house to house on festive days playing such Parsi folk songs as ‘The Colonel Bogey March’.

We learnt early that the women of Bharuch were coveted as wives because they were the ‘dishiest’, trained to turn out the tastiest, richest versions of Parsi cuisine. Since Bharuchi women were not known for any other attributes, they were even more coveted as friends’ wives. That way you could savour Bharuch’s famous, raisin-studded akuri, without having to live with acne-garnished Amy.

Tarapore is now in Maharashtra, but it too was part of the Parsis’ early Gujarat base, and of its culinary vocabulary. Its style of making the traditional dried Bombay Duck patiyo is enshrined in legend. All year, my mother would wait for her cousin Ratan, who came every August to help out the two local priests with the annual prayers for the dead. It wasn’t just sisterly yearning. Braving the crush of the Howrah Mail, Ratan-mama always brought her an earthen pot filled with the mildly malodorous, but decidedly ambrosial Tarapori patiyo.

Navsari could not lay claim to any dish, but it held the monopoly on the vinegar essential to all the khattu-meetthu Parsi cuisine. It was brewed in vats from cane-sugar by generations of the Kolah family. I don’t think even my irrepressible Fali-kaka would have dared joke to my mother that, as a Navsari woman, she couldn’t help being like its sarko — starting off as sweet as sugar-cane and ending up as tart as vinegar.

* * *

Alec Smart said, “Has the Dubai court managed to change his name to Run-ease Ibrahim?”

First Published: Dec 14, 2002 23:44 IST