The politician

Berjis Desai

Half a century ago, in 1967, a navar ceremony was being celebrated in Navsari. The three storeyed house, with Mangalorean tiles and a Romeo and Juliet balcony, was bustling with paronas (guests). As soon as he stepped out of a ghoragari (horse driven carriage), which had brought him from the Navsari railway station to the house, he barked at his host, "Having regard to my status as a minister, couldn’t you have sent me a car, instead of this ramshackled ghoragari?” The host sheepishly mumbled some explanation. One matronly lady bowed to him and said, "Amaara garib ghér ma, tamara panota pagla parya, téthi bahuj khushi thai (your noble entry into our humble household has delighted us).” That seemed to make him frown less. He cursorily greeted the boy who had been initiated into priesthood that morning; and sat down for lunch. "This fish,” he said, "has too many bones.” The hostess apologized for the deficiencies in the bone structure of the boi (mullet). "Hope this water has been boiled,” he said. The lady, who had earlier extolled his noble entry, said, "Sir, it is from our well. We regularly place a large tortoise which eats all the worms.” He shoved aside the glass of water and said, "Tomorrow I have a cabinet meeting to attend. I cannot afford to fall sick.” "Sick,” mumbled a parona from Canada.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


With virtually no connections, he had wormed his way to become a cabinet minister, in the then newly found state, albeit with a minor portfolio. He was a self-publicist par excellence. He was both the soap and its salesman. Every night, he phoned newspaper editors (no television existed), and harangued them to publish his photo — rather dark complexioned for a Parsi, donning a Gandhi cap and a Nehru jacket with tight churidar — inaugurating some school, slowly cutting a ribbon to open some exhibition (with a large pair of scissors strategically held), being garlanded and feted by some association (cost was, of course, borne by him), clutching a "Chicago Radio” microphone, folding his hands in a huge namaste (gesture made with folded hands). Before he became a full-time politician, he had been a journalist. That helped.
Hardly a decade had passed since Independence, and the erstwhile freedom fighters (not all, of course) were extracting their pound of flesh. The ruling party was unbeatable and the opposition was a joke. A Parsi politician was a blue moon. Feroze Gandhi took on his father-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the floor of Parliament, while exposing one scam after another. Minoo Masani fearlessly espoused liberal values and was highly respected. The rotund Pillo Mody regaled Parliament with his sense of humor and sarcasm. None were ministers or held any public office. Our little Parsi minister was different.
How hard he had worked to become a minister. The humiliation he had faced; the friends he had to betray; the chief ministers and the party bosses he had to appease. Being a Parsi, of course, greatly helped. He was not exactly handsome but stood out nevertheless amongst the dhotia brigade of those days. His ability to articulate in English; his forceful public speaking; remaining always in the public eye through obliging editors (who were his colleagues earlier in the Press); and, of course, his attractive wife, who stood like a rock behind him. Ahura Mazda had created such a perfect pair. A common objective to be achieved without bothering too much about values and sensibilities. No Macbethian guilt made them sleepless. Brick by brick, step by step, the political ladder had to be climbed. Though, at times, he appeared human and vulnerable. When he attempted to speak in the language of the state, school girls openly giggled and senior civil servants pressed handkerchiefs to their mouth to suppress laughter.
There were some years in wilderness, when a ministerial berth could not be procured. Those lean years were passed with the chairmanship of some state institution (so long as there was a red light on the white Ambassador). Even when the opposition gained power, post Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the new rulers said that he was a harmless Bawaji (maybe, a little odious), so do not displace him. Fortunately, the ruling party bounced back soon, for our extrovert friend. He managed to avoid any scandal or enquiry. Of course, there were murmurs, which died. State politics soon grew difficult for an old warhorse like him without any political base. The young breed of journalists rudely disconnected his phone or published his aging visage next to the obituaries ("does not matter, darling, so long as your photograph is published,” opined the faithful wife). Time to play the minority card. Chip away like a tireless woodpecker in New Delhi, until someone tossed the ambassadorship of a small and disturbed country. For the first time, there was a hint of scandal. Unlike present times, the media was not aggressive and the scandal was hushed. He had to resign though.
Then personal tragedy struck. His only son, a brilliant professional of great integrity, perished in a freak accident. The power couple will be devastated, thought many. Not really. At a public meeting to mourn the death of his only child who was extolled by his many sobbing admirers, the father was calm and composed while delivering the vote of thanks. His zest for public office was not lost. He landed a governorship of a small state in the corner of the country which was having troubled times. He had to resign again.
Even with arthritic legs and failing eyesight, he continued to clamber up on stage in the twilight of his life. He even dabbled in Parsi politics and was about to file his candidature to become a Bombay Parsi Punchayet trustee. Sharper minds outwitted him. He no longer had the energy to fight.
He always knew instinctively that his community did not like him. This is not the way Parsis do things, they said. He was oblivious to their censure or to the whiff of a public scandal or the stories which had always circulated as to how he had secured a ministerial berth for the first time. All this was trivia. Early in the morning, while sipping tea, when you opened the daily newspaper, and there was your photograph, wasn’t it worth the whole world, darling?

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