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Parsis, my favourite people

My Kadam is host to a large variety of birds particularly those which like to hide behind thick foliage: koels, barbets, woodpeckers, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2008 21:49 IST

About 15 years ago, I planted a sapling in my backyard I call my garden. I bought it from a nursery that assured me it was a Kadam. Over the years, it has grown 20 times taller than me and towers above my mango, peach, lemon and guava trees I had planted much earlier.

One of its branches encroached the verandah of the apartment above mine and I was persuaded to lop it off as it prevented the occupant from getting the winter sun and invited a host of birds he did not like. However, despite having a few branches lopped off, it flourishes in leafy glory most of the year. But I am no longer sure if it is a Kadam. I’ve tried to check in my books of trees and consulted friends who are familiar with trees and have failed to establish its true identity.

Identity be damned! It is a beautiful tree — with a straight, light-grey trunk rising over 20 feet before it stretches out its arms on either side, covered with large, elongated leaves. Then it resumes its skyward climb throwing out more arms and leaves. In its full splendour I can only see the stately grey trunk, the rest is a mass of thick greenery. Joyce Kilmer’s two lines are apt:

“I think that I shall never see, A poem as lovely as a tree.” She repeats: “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”

Kilmer was among the many poets who went into rhapsody over trees bursting into new leaves. There was also the greatest German poet — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Perhaps his most famous lines are:

“Kennst du das land, Wo die Zitronen bluhn?” Know you the land where the lemon trees bloom? In the dark foliage the gold oranges glow; the Myrtle is still and the laurel stands tall — do you Know it well? There, there I would go, O my Beloved with thee.

My Kadam is host to a large variety of birds particularly those which like to hide behind thick foliage: koels, barbets, woodpeckers. Others like crows, mynas, doves, pigeons and babblers seek shelter in it from the half-a-dozen stray cats that have made my home theirs.

When I want a break from the drudgery of reading and scribbling, I put a wicker armchair and a steel table in the garden, relax with my legs up on the table and watch the tree and its avian guests flying in and flying out. The last week of February and the first half of March are particularly spectacular. In February, some of its green leaves start turning a pale yellow.

By the end of the month, it has more yellow leaves than green. Then they begin to break away from the bramble and waft down spiralling as they come, to make a bed of dead leaves around the bole. In the first week of March, the Kadam tree starts shedding its leaves in showers. With every gust of breeze a dozen or more leaves come floating earthwards till the branches are almost bare. Other trees do shed leaves during Patjhar, but not in the same regal style as my Kadam takes off its green robes.

I wonder if my Kadam is on its last leg. By no means! While a few old leaves remain, tiny, bright red ones begin to sprout on its bare branches. By mid-March, my Kadam is one huge tree on fire. It celebrates Holi by daubing itself in glowing gulal. It is a sight for the gods. By Baisakhi, it regains its greenery and looks down majestically at everything lying below it. I often ponder if its cycle of birth, death and regeneration was a message for mankind. The Kadam dies to be reborn every year. We die once but never to be reborn again — except in our fantasies.

Parsis are my favourite people. They should be top favourites of all Indians because they have given India more than any other religious community by way of industrial enterprises and charity comprising hospitals, institutions of learning, arts, music and much else. They are a minuscule minority and their members are fast dwindling. You cannot become a Parsi as they do not accept converts. To be Parsi, you have to be born a Parsi. The death rate among them is higher than the birth rate. More of them are marrying non-Parsis. Within a foreseeable future, there will be no Parsi left; they will have gone into the pages of history.

I was hoping somebody would write a definitive history of the Parsi people. A beginning has been made by Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy with his Sugar in Milk: Lives of Eminent Parsis (Rupa). It is not a history book but a compilation of profiles of 12 eminent Parsis, five of them associated with the House of Tatas. The all-too-short introduction names a few who deserved to be included but have not been.

Even this list is far too short as I can name many more who have made a singular contribution in their fields of specialisation. In law, besides Nani Palkhiwala, there are Soli Sorabjee and Fali Nariman; in literature, Bapsi Sidhwa, Farrukh Dhondy, Kanga and Keki Daruwala; in popular Hindustani music, Penaz Masani; in arts, Jehangir Sabawala. In the freedom movement, besides Dadabhoy Naoroji and Madam Bhikaji Cama there was SH Jhabvala who was implicated in the Meerut conspiracy case. There must be many more of who I am not aware.

The reason why Parsis have done so well in different fields is largely due to the fact that the end-product of their efforts inspire confidence — whether it be milk products, biscuits, bread rolls, locks, safes, cement, steel or motor cars, you can be sure they will be of the best quality. Bribery is as little known among them as beggary. They look after their employees better than other entrepreneurs.

With interbreeding down the generation, the Parsis have also produced more crackpots than other communities. Fortunately, they have the self-confidence to laugh at themselves; there is a corpus of Parsi jokes in Parsi Gujarati, one time the main feature of the Parsi theatre.

The title of the book (Sugar in Milk: Lives of Eminent Parsis) is a much clichéd legend, common to Bhakti saints, about there always being room for good flavour in a cup of milk full to the brim. The compiler could have chosen a more sellable name.

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(Contributed by JP Singh Kaka, Bhopal)