Long live the Parsi

Celebrating this oddball community that still refers to the Queen of England as “aapro rani” or “our queen”

Man, I love Parsis. And director and photographer Sooni bawaji, the term of respect for an older Taraporevala in her charming lm Little Zizou. Bombay, the city I was born and raised in, was built on the dedication and ingenuity of stalwarts like Phirozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji and JRD Tata. At every stage of my life, I’ve been a kolmi na kabab’s throw away from a bunch of bawas and bawis (slang forms of the word bawaji, the term of respect for an older Parsi gentleman) and my love for this community of idiosyncratic wonders has run deep as long as I’ve lived.

2My introduction to Parsis began with a very special family known as the Spencers. A decidedly un-Zoroastrian- sounding name indeed, but then, this is a community that refers to Queen Elizabeth as “aapro rani”, or “our queen”, so it was all quite within nomenclatural alignment. The Spencers were already living in the South Bombay apartment building that my parents moved into when I turned a year old. My family connected with them across both generations. My folks loved Jimmy and Roshan, and my six-years-older brother became tight with their younger son, Jehangir. By the time I was old enough to hang out with the older boys, we’d been to each others’ homes more times than Uncle Jimmy had yelled “ghelchodia” from underneath his car, which he was always tinkering with, every time a ball from a nearby cricket or football game would pummel it.

Uncle Jimmy was a giant man with a giant heart and a voice that matched in tenor, tone and volume. He had a penchant for cold beer, good food and dirty jokes and was the life of the gathering every time we met. Apart from keeping my folks in splits with his ribald humour, much of which we didn’t get, Uncle Jimmy was known to randomly grab Jehangir and me and tramp about his home yelling, “The dwarf, druid and the monster!” – re-enacting a scene from Asterix And The Roman Agent. Auntie Roshan parried his gargantuan energy with her gentle manner and was a kitchen goddess, a gift this gluttonous lad was always ready to feed off. Jehangir, or Bawa, as we still know him, was a fast friend with a very fast bike: the building’s first racer, replete with fixed wheel and curved handlebars.


My formative years were spent in and out of the Spencer home. I received much of their love – and their wrath when I fucked up. Like when Uncle Jimmy found out that I was responsible for vandalizing the lift door on their floor. The man who otherwise flooded me with kindness and love had me quaking in my pants as he gave me a dressing down a boot camp sergeant major would find intimidating. My parents didn’t intervene; they believed it was the right thing. But then, those were different days, when all members of the tribe, not just blood relatives, took on parenting roles when required. Not like the milquetoasty molly-coddling parents of today who broach no rebuke to their precious little laadlas.

Fortunately I wasn’t caught when a couple of school buddies and I jumped a wall and snuck into the highly restricted and hallowed grounds of the Towers of Silence, where the Parsis used to offer their dead to the vultures. But I did occasionally find myself receiving the sting of PT master Mr Pardiwala’s whistle cord during school march past.

This community, which has spawned such celebrated humans as the conductor Zubin Mehta and Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, among a swathe of other notables, is probably this country’s most stereotyped. Are Parsis nuts or brilliant? Was Farhad Wadia bonkers when he put Rock Machine keyboard player Zubin Balaporia behind his 150- kilo mass, and me in front on the gas tank, of his Royal Enfield Bullet, and plummeted down the insanely steep Mount Unique slope at Peddar Road, with none of his brakes working? Or was he a brilliantly insightful rock concert impresario when he created Independence Rock, India’s longest- running rock festival at a time when it was the ambition of fools? Was Ronnie Desai bananas when he embarked on a career in music with just six chords in his head and two strings short on his guitar – and then went on to become one of the country’s biggest jingle producers? A bit of both, I guess.

My present life has some very significant Parsi constants: 30 years since we first met, Zubin and I still make music together; Navaz Sandhu (née Bhathena, of the famous rally-driving family) remains one of my closest friends even though she chooses to live in Chandigarh, a rather un-Parsi thing to do; and I’m always totally at ease on stage when Fali Damania, India’s finest live sound engineer, is mixing an Indus Creed concert. That he puts ketchup on absolutely anything he eats doesn’t faze me. He’s a Parsi – the oddity comes with the territory.

Published on GQ India