The opportunist

Berjis Desai

He was an opportunist. Born to a father, who was both a chief justice and prime minister of an Indian princely state; he earned a monthly salary of Rs 2,000 in 1921, as an accountant; owned a palatial apartment in the elite Pedder Road area of Bombay; was on first name terms with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru; was blessed with an endearing personality, wit and a strong pen; he enjoyed oodles of goodwill amongst Parsis and others in Bombay and Gujarat.
He relinquished all ancestral wealth including the Pedder Road flat in favor of his widowed sister-in-law; retired at 41, at the height of his accountancy career; resided life long in a dilapidated building in the congested Fort area of Bombay; spurned the offer of an executive position in the Indian National Congress; sacrificed his aspiration to be an author; and created one of the biggest religious controversies which rocked the Parsi community.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


He redefined frugality to a new level. Slept on an old trunk containing his meager belongings; wore only a white coat made out of khadi and a hybrid white cap — a cross between a Gandhi cap and a Parsi topi; a vegetarian by choice, he ate at a particular Udipi restaurant for decades, an unchanging meal of curd and semi boiled vegetables, that too once a day; he drank only water and sometimes a bit of milk; travelled by the then ‘third class’ railway compartment between Bombay and Gujarat; seldom boarded a bus or taxi and was seen, even in his 80s in the bylanes of Bombay on foot, in the sweltering heat; he never availed of any hospitality or even a car lift. He took the bare minimum from society, but his giving was endless, earning the gratitude of countless poor and oppressed.
Like that of the Parsi farmers in Saronda, Nargol and Bilimora whose houses were repaired by an anonymous donor from Bombay. Like that of the young Parsi widow who trained to be a seamstress at one of the many vocational institutes he established in the towns of Gujarat. Like that of the suddenly impoverished family in Bombay who received monthly help, by a money order, from a faceless Parsi gent. Like that of the boy waiters in his favorite Udipi restaurant who received Diwali greeting cards made by him personally along with a suitable gift. Like that of the earthquake victims in Quetta and Bihar and the flood displaced in Surat (where, at 78, he waded through waist deep mud and water). Like that of those who studied in one of the 14 night schools he started in the city. Like that of the Parsi youth in Gujarat who availed of the free gymnasiums and libraries he founded.
None saw him at agiaries and atash behrams and it is unlikely that he wore the sudreh and kusti. However, he organized mass navjotes of children of Parsi fathers and their tribal common law wives from Adivasi families in Gujarat. The so-called then renegade priests, Dasturs (Drs) Maneckjee Dhalla and Framroze Bode, were his associates. While legally he could not be faulted, the orthodox were simply horrified. He could not have cared less. Many of his ‘navjotees’ found employment in Parsi fire temples and at the towers of silence. This made him a persona non grata for the Parsi establishment.
His income-tax officer had to personally visit his bare one room tenement to convince himself that a man who spent so much on charity had virtually no personal expenses. He wrote notes and letters on the back of discarded calendar pages and kept meticulous accounts of every person and institution he had helped. Every beneficiary was closely monitored to ensure that the undeserving did not abuse his largesse. A life long celibate in the Gandhian tradition, his work for women’s rights was far ahead of his times. This did not deter his baiters from spreading rumors about a relationship with one of his longtime charity workers.  
Post Independence, he was a bit disillusioned with Congress politicians. He wrote short and pithy letters to the editors of English and Gujarati newspapers on public issues and never minced words when castigating a scoundrel minister. Yet his death was publicly condoled by Prime Minister Nehru and a sheriff’s meeting, packed to the brim, mourned him. True to form, the trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, however, resolved not to convene a Samast Anjuman meeting after his death despite 13,500 signatures of prominent Parsis requisitioning the same. The navjotes had obviously rankled the orthodox. This did not prevent hundreds of sobbing Parsis from attending his funeral; as country-wide condolence meetings were held by numerous charities, socioeconomic organizations, non-governmental organizations and labor unions. A road is named after him in Fort, Bombay, which was his daily haunt.
Until his last few days at The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital, the man labored relentlessly for thousands whose tears he wiped and whose smiles he restored. They were, of course, his only family. He saw God in every person who asked for his help. He grabbed every opportunity, which the cosmic granted him, to serve the poor, the weak and the defenceless. Bloody opportunist.

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