Coomi Kapoor's heartwarming chronicle of Parsis, then & now

Coomi Kapoor's heartwarming chronicle of Parsis, then & now

The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis by Coomi Kapoor. Westland. Pages 320. Rs699

Book Title: The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis

Author: Coomi Kapoor

Niloufer Bilimoria

Coomi Kapoor’s recent book on her delightfully eccentric Parsi community is her second one. Her first was based on her personal family experience during the Emergency, and like that, this one begins with her personal story too. 

What is interesting and sets this book apart from other works on the community is that Coomi has focused on the Parsis of the last century and included some of the newer and younger enterprising ones as well.

It appears that the Tata vs Mistry debacle played a huge role in her writing this book, which begins with an unbiased account of this. Almost half of it is on the Tatas and the Mistrys. Other eminent houses, like the Wadias and Godrejs, are also detailed. It is a delightful, easy read, well researched with many nuggets thrown in that even most Parsis would not be aware of. 

Let’s start with a Parsi quiz. We have heard that all Parsis think they are related to Her Majesty, the Queen of England. But what is the Parsi connection with the US anthem, the Star Spangled Banner? Did you know that James Bond has a strong Parsi connection too? What did a Parsi have to do with Hong Kong being ceded by the Chinese emperor to the British? Read the book to find out.

I grew up in the beautiful city of Jamshedpur, but had no idea that it is the only city in India without a municipality. And that is because the Tatas run it! How wonderful it would be for large corporates to adopt cities or villages. Did you also know that the legendary JRD Tata told his biographer, “I don’t think I have contributed anything in economic matters except in ethics and values?”

So, what makes the Parsis such an amazing community? Coomi puts it down to liberalism, and the stress on the importance of education of women. Parsi women have many firsts to their credit. Madame Cama, the freedom fighter, has a major road near Mantralaya in Mumbai named after her; Cornelia Sorabjee, the first woman graduate of Bombay University, who went on to do law at Oxford at a time when it did not give degrees to women; the first woman in medicine and surgery; Homai Vyarawalla, the first woman photojournalist to document for Time magazine the Dalai Lama’s escape to India; the first woman barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, London, Mithan Lam, who was also the first woman called to the Bar in Britain. As the only woman in the Bombay High Court, she recalled feeling like “a new animal in the zoo”.

The first Indian cricket team was a Parsi one. The dog rights to protect strays were led by animal-loving Parsis. And Bollywood evolved from Parsi theatre. A notable omission, which Coomi admits to, is Adi Marzban, the doyen of Parsi theatre. Several eminent Parsi families may also take this to be a lightweight book as many could not be accommodated. But that would have perhaps required another book.

Coomi has put together an interesting selection of Parsi icons of modern India. Legendary scientist Homi Bhabha, who could have won a Nobel Prize had he not died in the Air India crash over the Alps; rock star Freddie Mercury, whose record sales were on par with Madonna and Michael Jackson; conductor ‘aapro’ Zubin Mehta, as Parsis like to say to lay claim on him; and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who quipped that the Chinese resurrected his career. Many leading doctors and lawyers are Parsis. It is said that their early training as priests, where they learn so many prayers, stands them in good stead with brilliant mental acuity later. Dr Farokh Udwadia is known as ‘God’ in Bombay circles. Abhishek Manu Singhvi says of Nani Palkhivala that he was the best Finance Minister India never had. What is interesting is that both Nehru’s daughter Indira and Jinnah’s daughter Dina married Parsis. And when Jinnah expressed his shock to her, she asked him why he hadn’t married a Muslim!

Coomi ends with her concerns about the rapid decline of the community. Traditional Parsis want to preserve their purity. Ironically, their prophet, Zarathustra, was born in Azerbaijan. And interestingly, there is enormous similarity between the Atharva Veda and the Avesta. 

A book for all Indians.