Down Memory Lane with the Parsis of New Delhi

Navroz is on March 21 this year.  While a dwindling community struggles to survive, filmmaker Shernaz Italia documents the little-known lives of the Delhi Parsis who moved to the capital at the turn of the 19th century.

Photograph courtesy: Tasveer

Photograph courtesy: Tasveer

“Aavoji, aavo, aavo! Welcome to Delhi! Let me show you my beautiful city.” The booming voice of Nowrosji Kapadia could be heard across the length and breadth of the platform. It was Nowrosji’s favourite pastime: a walk to the Old Delhi railway station to greet the Frontier Mail as it chugged into Delhi from Mumbai to Peshawar. With this refrain, an eager Nowrosji would cajole Parsi visitors off the train and take them home for a meal and often persuade some to stay overnight or for a few days. He would use this opportunity to tell them about the advantages of shifting to Delhi. Though his wife Jer Bai would occasionally object to unknown visitors, she was always overruled. This was the beginning of the community of Parsis in Delhi.

Nowrosji Kapadia was one of the oldest Parsi residents of Delhi. He was born in Bharuch, a small town in Gujarat. He opted out of his family’s failing cloth business and got a job as an agent with the European firm Ralli Brothers. They sent him to Delhi in 1880. Why did he not want to return to Bharuch, or Bombay, where our community still resides in large numbers? Was it business sense, apt foresight of Delhi’s growing importance, or was he just different? A few other Parsi families moved northwards to Delhi and beyond in the 1870s–80s. My mother’s grandfather, Nusserwanji Mehta, moved here at that time. My uncle, Rusi Sorabji, has amazing memories of the Delhi of his youth. Whatever the reasons for shifting, the Parsis who came to Delhi developed a liking for the city and decided to settle here.

Memory is a strange thing. You think it is yours and then you realise it is not; it is actually dependent on other people. Writing about Parsis in the Delhi of old is not easy. There are memories of my grandparents and parents— a collective memory of generations past and people long gone, yet here in spirit.

My earliest memory of trains and stations is associated with the same Frontier Mail that Nowrosji accosted years ago. It brought young, scared Parsis from their cocoon in familiar Parsi baugs (residential “Parsis only” colonies) of Bombay and Gujarat to the unfamiliar city of Delhi. My grandparents’ home, which became my parents’ home after they passed on, was an open house for family, friends and travellers passing through. It was full of hustle-bustle, and much food and laughter. I have never known my home—K-45 Connaught Place, or CP, as it is called—to be empty and it has never been locked. At any given time there were at least 10–15 people living with us. Generosity comes naturally to Parsis, as it did to my family—sometimes at a cost to themselves. My maternal grandparents and mother moved into the flat in 1936 while it was still being built. There was no electricity and water was hauled up three flights of stairs by a bhishti (water carrier).

I have since seen CP through its many avatars. Built like a central plaza, its Georgian architecture is modelled after the Royal Crescent in Bath, England. Its two concentric circles are lined with broad white colonnades and there’s a garden in the centre. As a young child, when I looked down our road, the domes and minarets of Jama Masjid were visible and even the walled city; since old Delhi is due north, thankfully I can still see the domes and the minarets. From our rooftop, before the hideous high-rises came up, we had a clear view of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Diagonally opposite us is Odeon Cinema. In 1964 I saw Raj Kapoor arrive at the theatre from our balcony before I went there to watch Sangam—my first movie ever.

The writer, Shernaz Italia, with her parents outside her childhood home at K-45 Connaught Place. Italia’s maternal grandparents moved here in 1936. Photograph courtesy: Shernaz Italia

Across the Outer Circle of CP is Minto Bridge, the last signal before New Delhi railway station. The day a lodger was expected, my grandfather and I would sit on the balcony. The minute we heard the whistle of the Frontier Mail—one long toot as it approached Minto Bridge, two short ones as it crossed the bridge and another long one while it crawled towards the platform—we would rush to the waiting tonga (a h0rse-drawn carriage) and head to the station.

Parsi women draped in gara saris. These were usually worn for wedding ceremonies and Navjots.

Early days

During the early years of the twentieth century, Delhi was still confined within the walls of Shahjahanabad, which included Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk and Kashmere Gate. Most Parsis worked at offices and shops in Chandni Chowk. The Ghanta Ghar, with the statue of Queen Victoria keeping an eye on the clock, was a central meeting point. People travelled by electric trams that ran on either side of the clock tower with no schedule whatsoever! People got around Delhi on tongas, bicycles, bullock and camel carts, on horseback or afoot. One could cycle through the entire city in less than an hour. Parsi men were intrepid cyclists, pedalling furiously with solar topis on their heads and crisp white trousers neatly clipped above their ankles to protect them from getting caught in the bicycle chain.

The best non-vegetarian food was to be had near the Jama Masjid; poori saag and parathas in Chandni Chowk; and mithai around Ghanta Ghar. There were hardly any restaurants until the 1930s. For the Parsis, however, the most important shops were the two famous liquor stores in Kashmere Gate: Carlton and Spencer & Co—both rivals, each claiming their beer was more chilled. A bottle of good Scotch cost 5 rupees, and a bottle of Stout or Solan two and a half annas. At that time, the rupee had 16 annas; an anna was equal to 4 paise or 12 pies; and one pie was equal to 12 cowries (monetary seashells). Rusi Uncle told us that salaries were delivered on the heads of coolies in basket loads of cowries!

When Delhi was declared the new capital in 1911, Kashmere Gate assumed magnified importance; it was the commercial and social hub. In fact, Kashmere Gate and Alipore Road came to be known as the “West-End” of Delhi because the British officials resided nearby in Civil Lines. By the early 20s, Nowrosji’s family and many other Parsis moved to sprawling bungalows in Chabigunj and spacious flats on Nicholson Road in Kashmere Gate. It retained this aura until the construction of CP. In some ways, the construction of New Delhi—the city planned by Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker around Raisina Hill with its imperial sand-stone domed monuments, wide axial roads and landscaped roundabouts—coincided with the establishment of the Parsi community; they grew together. The Delhi Parsis were for some reason reluctant to buy property. Maybe somewhere at the back of their minds they felt their stay was transitory. So they invested in stocks and shares instead.

My mother and almost all Parsis born in Delhi from 1905 onwards were born at the Victoria Zanana Hospital near Jama Masjid (now called Kasturba Gandhi Hospital). If they were not sent off to boarding schools, Parsi boys and girls went to Queen Mary’s School. In 1924, Presentation Convent started in Delhi. At least three generations of Parsis studied there. Later, three new educational institutions were built: the all-girls Convent of Jesus & Mary (CJM), the all-boys St Columba’s School and the co-ed Modern School.

The writer’s parents in 1952. The Parsis who came to Delhi developed a liking for the city and settled here. Photograph courtesy: Shernaz Italia

Time was also measured differently then, and true to Parsi eccentricity, the Parsis of Delhi studiously stuck to Wellington Time, introduced by Lord Wellington when he was the viceroy. Whereas Bombay Parsis followed Bombay Time, and the rest of India followed Indian Standard Time. I honestly cannot imagine how it all worked with the limited forms of communication.

In 1930, Connaught Place had just one block under construction; it touched Queensway, now called Janpath. Construction of the New Delhi railway station also began around this time. The Delhi Parsis made their mark professionally and in business. For them, a job in the Indian Railways was even better than getting into the civil services. The Delhi power station, where my grandfather worked, was the largest employer of Parsis, after which came the Railways, followed by the Singer Sewing Machine Company and the textile mills. Dr SP Shroff was “the” ophthalmologist. The fourth generation of the family still practices in Delhi and their old home in Daryaganj is now a charitable hospital. Dinabai Jal Irani, owner of Empress Aerated Water Factory, was the first Parsi lady entrepreneur in Delhi. Munchersha Polishwalla was the manager of Elphinston Cinema. Devitreji owned the Apollo Hotel— the first Parsi hotel in Delhi. Faramroze Patel— fondly called Chasmawalla Patel—had a shop in Chandni Chowk, where most of the community went for their prescription eyeglasses.

However much they identified with the British, the Delhi Parsis were far more in tune with the cultural traits of northern India than the Bombay Parsis. Most of them conversed in fluent Punjabi, Gujarati and Hindustani, a mix of Urdu and Hindi that was spoken in Delhi. Whenever women of my mother’s generation travelled to Bombay, they were happiest when their taxi driver was a sardar or a bhaiya; they spoke the same language and felt safe.

Kashmere Gate to Connaught Place

The Parsis were given land outside the crowded Walled City just beyond Delhi Gate around 1890. It was a barren wilderness with hyenas and wolves loitering in the distant monuments. The first Parsi cemetery was made here and the community congregated for prayer meetings just beyond the graves. Neem and peepul trees provided natural shade and the sound of rustling leaves accompanied the prayers. Rusi Uncle remembers seeing prisoners in the adjacent Delhi jail chained to tub-shaped iron trolleys full of bricks and mortar— construction material for the new city.

There were many places where the Parsis met for picnics and social occasions. In my childhood days, Okhla—a barrage built in 1874 as the starting point of the Agra Canal—was a favourite picnic site. The river was sparkling clean; the men and women swam while we children floated paper boats on the water. Occasionally, they met at the steps of the Qudsia Ghat, just outside Kashmere Gate behind the garden built by Qudsia Begum, the dowager queen. Qudsia Garden was partly destroyed during the 1857 First War of Independence. Later, what was left of it became the cricket grounds and tennis courts for St Stephen’s College and Hindu College. More than half of this green lung was again destroyed when the Inter State Bus Terminus was built in the late 60s.

The typical attire of Parsi men in pre-Independence in India. Photograph courtesy: Tasveer

Many religious ceremonies—Navjots and weddings—were performed at Hormuzji Sethna’s house at 19 Alipore Road until we were given additional land at Delhi Gate in 1947. Rudyard Kipling lived in the adjoining house for some time and possibly would have eaten there on at least one occasion. During festive gatherings, the women went to town with the food; outside catering was unheard of. The poorer members of the community never knew who had paid for what. This tradition continued in the northern cities of Lucknow, Kanpur and Allahabad well into the 70s. Sadly, that kind of life has almost gone forever.

Food preparations began two days in advance. Dar ni pori (rich pastry stuffed with sweetened lentils) and malido (halwa) were carried in big vatus (pots) and served with puris. Anyone who has made malido can vouch for the fact that you need strong biceps; it is an exhausting exercise. The first time I made it under my grandmother’s supervision was also the last. I could hardly move my arms for the next two days! Since then, I gained a healthy respect for my dainty grandmother.

The menu was extensive. Breakfast would start with either sev—brown vermicelli cooked in milk and served with fresh cream—or ravo, semolina pudding. Mithu dahi or sweetened curd made with full cream milk was an abso- lute must. This was followed by bafella eeda, hard-boiled eggs, and kheemo kaleji, mutton mince with liver. For lunch, there was almost alwaysmori dal chawal and macchi no patio— white boiled rice with yellow dal offset by a tart and tangy fish curry.

Teatime was special at our home. My grandmother made it a point to dress for tea; I was made to do the same. Once we were ready, out came the treats: Parsi biscuits—batasanan-khataiand flaky khari; patrel, rolled, steamed arbi leaves stuffed with besan masala; kumas, rich Parsi cake; and my favourite, bhakra, sweet deep fried doughnuts. That tradition has stayed with me. I certainly don’t dress up, but I still need a snack with at least three cups of tea! When movies came to town in the early 1920s, Parsis owned most theatres and distribution companies. Renting a theatre for a marriage ceremony was common. When the theatres in CP—Regal, Rivoli, and Odeon—first opened, they mainly held concerts, plays and ballet performances. Each had its own distinctive architecture. In 1933, Minerva Movietone, founded by Keki and Sohrab Modi, opened the Plaza Cinema. The Modi brothers offered the cinema hall free of charge to the Anjuman (our association) twice a year to celebrate Jameshedji Navroz (Parsi New Year) and Khordad Sal, the Prophet Zoroaster’s birthday. Another popular Saturday night ritual was a visit to the Singer Sewing Machine bandstand in CP to hear the tommies (British soldiers) play popular tunes while the Bawas ate homemade snacks: channa jor garam, and fresh cream rolls from the famous Wenger’s bakery in A block. The evening always ended with the band playing “Rule Britannia”, followed by “God Save the King”.

Post-independence life

On 9 September 1947, the Khordad Sal celebration was interrupted suddenly and everyone was asked to leave as Delhi was under a curfew order. Hindu-Muslim riots erupted that day. Next morning there was a shootout while Rusi Uncle and some children were waiting for the school bus. The terrified children ran home, only to be locked inside for three horrific weeks with the stench of death outside. Provisions ran out and communication was almost non-existent. My mother often spoke of those days. She was a volunteer at Lady Harding Hospital, helping traumatised families at the railway station. It was her responsibility to get them to the hospital or to relief camps, where they were housed in large numbers. Parsis did what they could to house people whom they knew from Pakistan. Those were terrible days for all. It was a time of transition. As the country transformed and came into its own, so did the fabric of Delhi. The population in the city changed, giving it a Punjabi character very different from the earlier mix of Baniyas, Rajputs and Muslims. New colonies were created to accommodate the influx of refugees.

Portrait of a beautiful Parsi woman from the 1950s.

The struggle to eke out a livelihood brought out a spirit of enterprise. Street markets started selling goods at throw-away prices. The now legendary tandoori chicken was born in Delhi when a refugee from Pakistan, Kundan Lal Gujral, put a spiced chicken in the tandoori oven, which until then was only used for making rotis; it became a Delhi speciality.

Republic Day was a big event on our calendar. When the parade went past our home, the veranda and rooftop turned into a theatre balcony. The parade was an interactive event with us cheering from the balcony and each bandmaster throwing up the baton; in acknowledgement we sang and danced. Security threats were unheard of. The route changed and became shorter around ten years ago, bypassing Connaught Place; since then, 26 January has lost its meaning for me. I still miss those times. Nowadays, watching the parade on TV is far too lonely.

The changing seasons were always celebrated in Delhi—something a Bombay Parsi would not understand. Summer brought with it days of melons, peaches, plums and phalsa juice as well as SafedaDussehri and Langda mangoes. With the rains came jamuns and bhuttas; in winter the roasted sweet potato, bhakras, peanuts and dry fruits, and my grandmother’s and mother’s unforgettable gorpapri and gooseberry jam. Spring and Navroz was a time for dar ni pori and spring-cleaning.

With the passage of time, as Delhi grew, the community dispersed, living further and further away. Until the late 70s, many still met weekly to play badminton, table tennis or billiards. Slowly, the meetings dwindled down to festivals or ceremonies. Now, more than half the Parsi population lives in Gurgaon and Noida. Though the population is still transient, many have bought homes and put down roots.

I often ask myself: are we different from the Parsis of Mumbai and Gujarat? I think we are probably more liberal in our outlook. We are comfortable speaking Gujarati and Hindustani. We mingle with greater ease and many of our non-Parsi friends are like family. India is a country of unity in diversity; Parsis are a microcosm of its multi-cultural ethos.

My mother passed away three years ago. During her last few years, she refused to visit relatives in Bombay or Hyderabad because she disliked the thought of being put in the Towers of Silence if she died there. She wanted to be cremated. I followed her wishes and all the prayers were said as per the Parsi faith.

Life goes on . . . there are longer silences where voices used to be; gone are the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, the ektara sound of the cotton dhunaiwalla, the call of the kabariwalla and the whistle of the trains; but our doors are still open. There is always a spare bed and food on the table. I can never replace my grandparents and parents, but I am doing my best to see that the energy and essence of the Parsis in Delhi still remain.

Shernaz Italia is a film producer based in Delhi. This article first appeared in The Indian Quarterly.

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