The perfectionists

Berjis Desai

Life seldom provides a straight run. Even the wealthiest and the healthiest and the cleverest go through swings and roundabouts. Similarly, one seldom comes across a faultless personality. Even Greek gods have flaws. However, here is the story of a Parsi couple, who lived a perfect life, in every aspect; well, almost. For ease of reference, we shall call them Harry and Sally.
Sally’s lineage was mildly aristocratic; two rungs below the Wadias and the Petits. Harry’s father was of modest means; though prim and proper — not the type to have mutton dhansak for every Sunday lunch. Excessive spices excite the children, Harry’s staid mother believed. Though Harry and his brother studied at the Bharda New High School, sometime at the beginning of the First World War, neither had a trace of haandagiri (peculiar Parsi loutishness) in them. Even the mildest of abuse like saala (rogue) never escaped Harry’s thin lips, during his long and illustrious life. Sally, of course, did not know, during her equally long and happy life, that ghelchodio (idiot) was the only authentic Parsi abuse.
Both were academically brilliant, well behaved children, who devoured Charles Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse in the summer vacation. Both showered love and affection on their siblings and never let them feel that they were inferior in intellect. Their teachers ran out of adjectives for their exemplary conduct. Adorable, affectionate, respectful to their elders; two little celestial beings undergoing an earthly sojourn to wipe out some accumulated karma of past incarnations. While Sally was a bit sporty, Harry displayed little interest in athletics or cricket (though in his late 70s, he started to skip, to remain fit, until he stumbled on the rope and slightly bruised his left hip). Harry underwent the navar ceremony and became an ordained priest. When his career did not take of, in the earlier years, he did consider becoming a full-fledged priest. She remained an atheist all her life; he was mildly agnostic.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Mountstuart Elphinstone College, with its dark and musky mock Gothic exterior, was their common alma mater. The philosophy they learnt from the venerable Prof D’Andrade permeated their conversations over half a century of blissful married life. How Harry met Sally, fell in love, and had three healthy children was a predestined process, fixed by some divine mainframe computer. No hiccups, no blemish, no anxiety, no aggravation. It remained, though, a matter of speculation whether they came together as man and wife, only for procreation or also for recreation. Of course, Harry’s eyes never strayed beyond his Sally’s visage.
After a rather long wait, his career took off to dizzying heights in his chosen profession. Integrity was his religion. Not even a white lie was ever uttered. Sally’s standards were equally high. As they say in Sanskrit, Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Truth (satya) is always pristine pure (shivam), but not necessarily beautiful (sundaram); the couple seldom hesitated to utter hard truths. This naturally did not endear them to many in power. In the course of his illustrious career, he refused to bow to the venal and corrupt. Such was his sagacity that his straight talking did not prevent him from being recognized as a titan in his field. He penned a mega treatise on his lifelong specialization, which still remains the last word on the subject. Sally painstakingly proof read all his work and herself acquired a reasonable grasp of its principles. Or so, she thought, until one particular incident.
A young, visiting professor from Australia was invited to deliver two lectures at the University of Bombay on Harry’s subject of expertise which Sally attended. After the Australian completed his first lecture, Sally rose to expound as to how wrong the professor was. The hapless man was most embarrassed but did not argue much. When Sally triumphantly recounted this to Harry, the latter said, with a benign smile, "Darling! You were absolutely wrong and he was indeed right!” Before the second lecture could begin, Sally stood up. The Australian, visibly upset, asked her to wait till he at least completed his lecture. Sally smiled and told the stunned audience that she was profoundly apologetic about the prior day’s blunder. As the audience broke into a thunderous applause, the Australian lecturer choked on his sobs.
Money was of no consequence to the couple who led a modest, upper middle class life despite Sally having inherited reasonable wealth. "My grandmother insisted upon washing the coins before distributing them to us children,” Harry used to often say. Such was his standing, of almost saintly integrity, that none had the temerity to even suggest anything inappropriate to him. He devoted a large portion of his time to working for the government and had to often visit New Delhi. While his peers stayed in lavish five star hotels, Harry chose to reside in a nondescript hotel and ordered only tea and some buttered toast for dinner to save public money. Of course, the couple were lifelong teetotalers (not even the mandatory warm brandy with honey to cure a bad cold). Despite this, once Harry had to learn about different kinds of alcohol and their properties, in the course of a critical professional assignment. The authority, before whom Harry made his presentation, refused to believe that a teetotaler could have such mastery over the subject.
Such force of character is entitled to a few eccentricities. Reading The Times, from page to page, and avidly listening to the radio, every late evening, were the couple’s habits. Of course the newspaper was The Times of London and the radio was BBC. However busy Harry was, he never failed to enjoy a cup of tea and his favorite buttered toast at the Princess Victoria Mary Gymkhana lawns where he would gladly expound his encyclopedic knowledge to any captive listener who would rarely get a word in. Sally, a disciplinarian in letter and in spirit, informed the traffic police about club members who parked their cars on the pavement. During the Indo-China border conflict in 1962, when the Gold Control Order was issued, Harry patiently explained, in minute detail, its complex provisions to his son, to elicit from him an informed decision whether grandpapa’s gold cufflinks ought to be surrendered to the Government of India in exchange of bonds or cash. The son was six years old. Harry, on an official visit to the UK, entertained the young children of some UK lords, by imitating birds calls.  Sally, at 80, took to composing verse (rather pedestrian) and reading them.
The couple hardly socialized or entertained, preferring solitude at home, listening to Western classical music or discussing the works of Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, Voltaire and Rousseau. They may not have had much of a sense of humor, but did laugh a lot at each other’s jokes. To celebrate the golden jubilee of their heavenly marriage, where love did not abate one bit over 50 years, there was a dinner party with simple fare (no alcohol, of course), which began at 8 p.m. sharp, in a single sitting (guests ate in respectful silence and spoke in hushed whispers). An illustrious doctor walked in late with his wife, as the sitting was about to end. All witnessed, with some trepidation, as the doctor walked up to the hosts, greeted them, and retreated sheepishly without having eaten a morsel.
Barring the usual end of life ailments, the perfectionists enjoyed excellent physical and mental health. Happiness permeated their relationship with parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, colleagues. Their children were bright, intelligent, honest and imbibed the same values (barring alcohol and abuse). They did not have to suffer losing a beloved or any major illness. Not even a murmur arose about their reputation and honor. International fame did not make Harry proud or egoistic. Karma was discharged perfectly. Greek heroes develop hubris and fall. Not so, our perfectionists. Perhaps, the Lord had arranged for us, lesser mortals, a demonstration of a model life.

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