Class without brass

Berjis Desai

The senior naval commander’s widow was greatly relieved when her monthly pension was substantially increased by the Government of India. She would now be able to afford the salary of a live-in maid-cum-cook. Just the previous month, she had sold with a heavy heart, her antique jewelry including the pigeon blood red Burmese rubies, to pay for some much needed repairs to her tenanted but spacious residence in one of Bombay’s richest neighborhoods. For a long time now, she had stopped eating her favorite pomfret, the most expensive flesh in the city, pretending she was allergic. Her mode of transportation is the rickety black and yellow taxi, as even the Uber and the Ola are beyond her reach. All this is a far cry from her world, some three decades ago, when she enjoyed palatial residences all over the country, thanks to the Indian Navy; had a retinue of cooks and servants, and was ferried around in a chauffeur driven car, albeit an Ambassador.
Her story is not unique. The social elite of the yesteryears is steadily being impoverished. Accustomed to being fawned over by deferential servants and service providers, a certain standard of living was taken for granted. Circumstances have conspired to substantially erode this standard of living.

 Photo for representational purpose only


Scions of illustrious families, some of whom built Bombay, brought up by German governesses in the lap of luxury and often products of a Swiss finishing school, are suddenly being told that there was little money in the bank. Gentlemen at large and ladies of leisure are not accustomed to working from nine to five. Neither do they have the acumen of augmenting wealth through sagacious investments. This was never a superrich class, and whatever corpus or fortunes was accumulated in the past got dissipated due to disasters like the Manchester Cotton price crash or some other disruptive event which snatched their only source of income. This was a social and educated elite — Anglophile and Westernized — tutored in convents by nuns and Jesuits, regaled by Western classical music concerts and choir recitals, afternoons spent in playing bridge and mahjong, sipping tea from Wedgewood bone china teapots covered by an intricately embroidered tea cosy. They thought nothing of spending their entire income, or even a part of the capital, on expenses ranging from a luxury cruise or foreign education. They expected and received respect from the lesser classes of Parsis.
Rustomji’s father migrated from Navsari to Bombay in 1905. Matriculating after two or three botched attempts, Rustomji landed a soporophic job as an assistant secretary at one of Bombay’s prestigious clubs and managed to rent a 7,000 sq ft flat in one of the just constructed art deco buildings on Marine Drive for a monthly rent of Rs 12; married his first cousin and remained so for 60 years; his two sons, rather dim-witted, managed to become head clerks in Tata companies. The family enjoyed the services of a mistaree (cook; not to be confused with mistry, the carpenter) who conjured up some mean Goan fish curry and delectable kheema pancakes. At 8 p.m., Rustomji would finish his sundowner and with his trembling hands shake a little brass bell to summon the ‘boy’ (domestic help) to lay a 16-seater dining table for the family, and any unannounced visitors too. A four-course meal was rounded off with a shot of brandy. The family had little savings and investment was an unknown concept. The surviving widow of one of the sons, childless and alone in the 5,000 sq ft house, had to suffer the indignity of seeing the mistaree, the boy and all others gradually leave. She heated the meal delivered in an aluminum bhona no dabbo (food container), and ate, sitting alone, on that 16-seater, surrounded by dozens of grandfather clocks.
Large tenanted residences in the poshest localities (which they will not sell or surrender for money or love) have become decrepit due to an inability to repair or maintain. The occupants are unable to match the market rate of servants in the richest areas of the country. Caught in a time warp between dignity and desolation, they are too self-respecting to seek charity help even for a medical emergency (exacerbated often by a lack of medical insurance). After death though, when their cupboards are opened by distant relatives claiming to be legal heirs, purple and black Chinese garas along with some priceless set of South Sea pearls and other valuable antiques, tumble out.
Often childless or effectively abandoned or ignored by children, this elite of the yesteryears nostalgically recall the fairy-tale existence when little money provided such great comfort. There is no hope any longer for a Cinderella moment. Mistakenly thought to be rich by the outside world. Fervently praying for death so as not to suffer any further indignities. Yesterdays seldom come back again.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.