Keeping our promise to be loyal

Berjis Desai

During the Indira Gandhi declared Emergency (1975-77), the income tax authorities raided two Parsi spinsters, bred in the purple, brought up by a German governess and a doting father. The raiding team froze in awe as they walked into the palatial bungalow bristling with a thousand antiquities and artifacts. As they patiently awaited the arrival of the ladies in the (ballroom sized)  dining room, they were struck by the life size portraits of Queen Victoria, George V, George VI, the perennial favorite lover boy, abdicating Edward VIII and, of course, Queen Elizabeth II. "Madam,” stuttered one of the raiding officers, "why are there so many British kings and queens here?” The reply was curt and swift. "Because,” said the noble lady, "we do not recognize your government.” At which stage their tax consultant must have felt dizzy.

 A British guinea


 Bhikaiji Cama with the first Indian flag of independence


For gifting at the birth of a child and for navjotes, engagements and other auspicious occasions, Parsi ladies seem to have a limitless supply of English guineas, even though they ceased to be a valid currency unit in the UK as early as 1814. The tiny Queen Victoria quarters in little red pouches elicit much gratitude from non-Parsi receivers. When Queen Elizabeth made her only state visit (as head of the Commonwealth, not as Queen of England) to India in early 1961, her entourage passed close to the Khareghat Colony, whose outer buildings were jam packed with Parsis desperate to catch a glimpse of the beatific vision. We recollect one very ancient lady in her late 90s being roused from her semi-comatose condition to behold the monarch of her dreams. Ambafui, as she was fondly called, was made to sit on a chair placed on the large verandah of her ground floor flat. She sat morose and speechless, slumped in her seat, oblivious to the great commotion around her. However, just as the royal personage passed, slightly waving her little gloved hand (that is, the Queen, not Ambafui), Ambafui shook off her decades long stupor and joyously shouted, "aapri rani, aapri rani (Our queen, our queen)!”
When the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi visited Bombay, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet led the community in organizing a Persian carpet welcome for "the other King,” who was a closet Zoroastrian. Many Parsis believe that had he not been deposed, we would have perhaps realized the dream of having our fatherland back.
Let not the above lead anyone to believe that Parsis are not patriotic. The first field marshal of India (Sam Manekshaw), many admirals, air chief marshals and generals as well as numerous awardees of the highest national gallantry awards (like Paramvir Chakra, mostly posthumous), were Parsis. The list of freedom fighters for India’s independence is too long and too well known to enumerate. Madame (Bhikaiji) Cama designed the first "Indian Independence flag” in 1907. As a minuscule community, our contribution to every branch of the state — legislature, executive and judiciary — has been abnormally disproportionate, as compared to any ethnic group of a similar size anywhere in the world.
 Ardent admirer of British royalty Boman Kohinoor
 meeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Bombay

More significantly, we have been an exemplary minority. We have never displayed any dysfunctional behavior or insecurity. Our compliance with the laws of the land is immaculate. The apocryphal promise, to dissolve like sugar in milk, given to the refuge granting Indian ruler by the first wave of Zoroastrian migrants, has never been breached. In an era of affirmative action, and although justified, we have never asked for reservations in education or jobs or seats in the legislature.
Some cynics may say that this is more out of compulsion than choice. An ant is bound to politely smile and give way to the elephant. Inwardly, quite a few Parsis continue to believe that the British were perhaps better and more benevolent rulers than their Gandhi-capped replacements. Some even secretly yearn for returning to Iran one day. Is our patriotism ambivalent and do the cynics have a point? In all migration waves from India to the UK (1960s), USA (’70s), Canada, Australia and New Zealand (’80s), Parsis have been pioneers. Parsi migrants are seldom misty-eyed about India, unlike their counterparts in other communities. Parsis feel more at home in a Western environment, which they find more to their liking — cleaner, more disciplined and honest, quieter, politer, more civilized. Those in India too envy their relatives and friends who have acquired foreign citizenship. Many are ill at ease with the sounds and smells of the multitudes.
The ancestral promise to remain loyal to the country which so readily granted them refuge is to be observed at any cost. Is it then a case of patriotism out of promise rather than emotional fervor for the nation? Hypothetically, if the Brits were to grant citizenship to all Parsis, would not most make a beeline for "Velaat (England)?” After 1,000 years, do we still feel like refugees in a foreign land? In our collective subconscious, do we harbor a desire to go back to Iran? Delicate questions, indeed. The head has always done what is right even though the heart may have sometimes felt otherwise.
Is it then, a case of patriotism rather than an emotional fervor for the nation? Our anthem, Chhaiyé Hamé Zarthosti (the rendering of which makes most misty-eyed), seems to suggest so, when it recites: "Jeni vafaadari par, padya nathi koi daag; Aa Rajnee yaari par, ladshè misalè vaag; Nimakhalalee jaalvi; te par bani dilsoj (Whose loyalty to this country is spotless; who has fought like a tiger for this kingdom; who have been always grateful to this land).” The late poet Firoz Batliwala must be complimented for this very subtle couplet.
There are two types of migrants. Those who zealously root for their adopted country, even more than its natives; and those who are grateful and law abiding but not having that emotional connect with the ethos of the nation. If, after 1,000 years, touring Iran gives you goose pimples and the rani remains ‘aapri,’ you may be a loyal citizen all right, but not a fervent nationalist.

Berjis M. Desai, senior partner of J. Sagar Associates, advocates and solicitors, is a writer and community activist.