Press and prejudice - II

Objective reporting by the Parsi Press, as it was then called, was as rare as vegetarian dhansak. Like President George W. Bush, who famously remarked after the 9/11: "If you are not with us, you are against us.” Neutrality did not sell copies; intemperate language did.
There was the famous Parsi political rivalry between the managing partner of a leading firm of solicitors in Bombay who later became the chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) and a dubiously reputed Parsi character, the archetypal haando (lout) who was unusually dark in complexion and obese. The Jam-e-Jamshed supported the solicitor and Kaiser-E-Hind, the stout one. The solicitor apparently had chronic hydrocele. The Jamé dubbed the stout one pélo kaaro, jaaro, jaanito Parsi goondo (that dark, fat, well-known Parsi thug). Only sissies responded with a defamation notice; the brave counterattacked. Kaiser published a letter containing a ditty: Mr so and so/ raakhé button khulla/ door thi bhi dekhay/ Evan na rasgoolla (keeps his buttons open; even from a distance one can see his testicles). No innuendos, direct name and shame. Plain abuse, incidentally, is not defamation.
Kaiser was unapologetic about its reformist agenda. Equal rights for interfaith married women; crematorium as an alternative to doongerwadi; right to adopt a non-Parsi child; no pariah status for non Parsis at funerals; rituals being decried — all found a place in its English Gujarati columns. The writings of the renegade scholar priests Dasturs (Dr) Maneckji Dhalla and Framroze Bode were regularly published.

   Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Jamé toed the orthodox line. Its editor Adi Marzban, though, was a pipe smoking, freewheeling libertarian who privately and in his famous Parsi New Year farces lampooned the conservatives. Jamé usually published the views of the mainstream orthodox and less of cults like the Khshnoomists. It did carry a much awaited column by Dastur Khurshed Dabu, a scholarly priest who was quite openly Theosophist in his beliefs, though he did not advocate conversion or religious reforms.
The legendary constitutional lawyer Homi Seervai had narrated to this columnist yet another episode in this famous war. The stout one published an advertisement titled Maaro Vafaadar Kutro (my loyal dog), with the photo of a particularly ugly bulldog whom he had christened with the name of the solicitor, along with the comment: Uth kéhévoon tau uthé, né bès kéhévoon tau bèsé! (If I order the dog to sit up or sit down, he will obey). The furious solicitor approached Seervai for advice. Seervai counseled him to ignore the insult and not litigate.
During his days as a reporter with Saanj Vartaman journalist Minoo Desai was asked to cover a particularly stormy meeting on some raging Parsi controversy. Pelting eggs was routine. When chairs were flung midair, things got a bit heated. At this meeting, a few dissenters were pushed, jostled and even slapped. Desai promptly titled the report, Parsi kom ma fari ék vaar goondagiri é oonchkélu maathoo (Goondas rule the roost once again in the community). The report named some of the hooligans who took umbrage at being called goondas, apprehensive that the police might book them under the then draconian Bombay Goonda Act. The newspaper refused to relent and the police did actually book the haandas under the Act.
While Desai’s column Parsi Tari Aarsi (PTA) (A mirror for Parsis) did publish differing views, it too displayed bias. In the early ’60s, the mercurial and legendary head of The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital, Dr Hormusji Mehta, staged a coup by ousting the entire managing committee in an election, with the exception of Sir Dinshaw Petit. This earned the wrath of the humiliated elite which included the Camas who owned The Mumbai Samachar. The offended Camas directed Desai, by then the editor, to run a campaign in the PTA against the rebellious doctor, a former police surgeon and eminent toxicologist who also dabbled in hypnotizing roosters in his spare time. Shiavax Vakil, a noted solicitor, spearheaded this campaign which portrayed Mehta as high-handed and lacking in integrity. A few towels bearing the inscription of the Hospital were found in the doctor’s residence just across the road from the Hospital; maybe a few chicken drumsticks and the Hospital’s much admired ravo (semolina pudding) sprinkled with dry fruits; and much was made of it. The campaign fizzled out and the doctor who ran a highly efficient show, emerged unscathed. The attack by Desai did not, however, affect the editor’s personal friendship with the good doctor who literally saved the former’s life a few years later.
PTA faithfully supported B. K. Boman-Behram, Vakil, P. C. Hansotia and Eruch Nadirshah, all veterans of Parsi politics and elected as trustees of the BPP. Vakil and Desai had much in common. Both had humble roots in Surat and Navsari respectively. They were ardent disciples of a Sufi guru at Goregaon, while still remaining practicing Zoroastrians. When one trustee was elected after a keenly fought election, PTA sneeringly clocked a snook at the defeated candidate and titled the column, Chor né potlé dhoor ni dhoor (the dishonest ultimately loses).  Desai’s chaste Gujarati often sailed above the heads of its readers unlike the Jamé and Kaiser whose Gujarati was replete with Parsi expressions.
After Desai’s demise, Jehan Daruwalla, who took over the editorship, anglicized PTA much to the delight of the Camas, but continued to publish a mid-weekly column in Gujarati on Parsi affairs called Parsi Prakash. Daruwalla, during his quarter century as Samachar’s editor, made PTA rock. Reformist, liberal, bordering on agnostic but without any baggage, this retired development officer of Life Insurance Corporation of India was brutally honest. He wrote without fear or favor, but he too had his own predilections. PTA won many a famous battle and highlighted the sufferings of the common Parsi. Boman-Behram used to wake up nervously on Sunday mornings and wait anxiously for a copy of the Samachar to be delivered to him, ruing the days when his friend Desai had never ever criticized him. After Desai’s demise, the former mayor was instrumental in naming a road near the Radio Club after his journalist friend.
Kaiser soon closed down. The Jamé came to be edited by Rusi Dhondy (1999 to 2010), a controversial individual who unwittingly espoused the liberal cause. Dhondy’s father, Adi, had faithfully served the Jamé for decades. He was a gentle soul who composed religious lyrics which engendered more amusement than devotion.
Parsiana, the most professional of the Parsi media, too empathized with liberal causes. For a few years, the entire Parsi Press roasted and toasted the orthodox establishment which only had the Khshnoomist newsletter, The Parsee Voice (PTA dubbed it The Parsi Noise). PTA under Daruwalla and Parsiana under the American trained Jehangir Patel introduced hitherto unknown standards of integrity and grit to Parsi journalism. Yet, they too had their biases.
To be continued

Berjis Desai, lawyer and author of Oh! Those Parsis, and recently Towers of Silence, is a chronicler of the community.