The perfect couple

Berjis Desai

If the couple were horses, their pedigree would have been classified as exquisite. Both their fathers were knighted by His Majesty King George VI, for their exceptional contribution to the British Empire in India. This honor was not due to ancestry; both were eminent professionals. The upbringing of the couple was, therefore, immaculate. Neither was a spoilt brat. As a matter of fact, the families were wealthy but not rich. Both the ‘Sirs’ were loyal to their King, but also proud Parsis.
While both were extremely fair complexioned, he had unusual blue eyes. She had a pretty round face, not vulgarized by the typical Parsi parrot nose or any extra angular features. When they visited Velaat (England), none could believe that they were Indians. He, in his felt hat and black overcoat with a Phileas Fogg umbrella; she with high tops and A-line skirts up to her knees; both very British. At home too, shepherd’s pie made more appearances on the dining table than dhansak. Restrained and proper. Low profile and understated.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Propriety was supremely important to the couple. Once a fortnight, midweek, they would invite four other couples (mostly Parsis, though an occasional juddin spouse was made to feel comfortable) for a sit-down dinner, at 7.30 p.m. sharp. If you arrived after 7.45, it was not appreciated. At 8.15, he tinkled a brass bell and made you sit next to someone’s spouse. The guest selection was designed to ensure that the guests knew each other only faintly. Conversation, mostly inane and unexciting, was in soft hushed tones and boisterousness was considered loutish. Display of exuberance was unappreciated. No handa (boor) must have ever dined at their table. No abuse greater than sala (rascal) must have escaped the lips of the equally stiff upper lipped guests. If you applied butter with the carving knife or shoved the soup spoon in your mouth as if you were swallowing cough syrup, or if you could not nurse your drink, no further invites were extended. The sherry and the port were excellent; the desserts were to die for. After dinner, coffee was served in cups with triangular shaped saucers from Tokyo. The proceedings were wound up before 10 p.m.
He tried his hand at several ventures including manufacturing cans containing delectable pumpkin murraba (preserve), jams, squashes and some Parsi delicacies. For a while, the brand was popular. He chaired several venerable community institutions. He self published a book of verse for children containing rather atrocious poems about Zuzu, the giraffe and Moo Moo, the cow; as also an equally puerile novel about interfaith marriage. He was such an Anglophile that he directed the taxi to his office near Kala Ghoda (black horse) statue, by calling it the Prince of Wales statue (later, Edward VII) and seeing the blank look on the cabbie’s face, further confusing him by calling it a kala gadha (black donkey) statue. They were exemplary parents and generous employers. Some celestial mainframe computer must have designed their marriage of 55 years, where not a voice was raised and never a temper frayed. Great similarity in upbringing, demeanor, temperament, views and thinking did not make their co-existence dull and jaded. Love was palpably visible. Life was as picture perfect as the Austrian Alps on a sunny morning. 
And then, like the way of all flesh, there was trouble in paradise. Banish the evil thought that you are about to read about some salacious affair with the maid. His eyes never even strayed. The story centers around their beloved home.
They lived in an old building with an attached garden, with tenants, including his trusted solicitor, then a formidable name in Bombay, occupying the upper floors. The latter persuaded our gentleman to sell the floor space index to a rather controversial builder who seemed to specialize in purchasing Parsi owned properties. The builder constructed a new apartment building adjacent to the old structure but reneged on many of his obligations under the agreement. The couple was in a state of great agitation. When a barrage of letters (he was a veteran correspondent) did not remedy the situation, they decided to sue the builder. Much to their growing consternation, their solicitor appeared to side with the builder by declining to share with the couple some vital documents which would have established the valuable rights of the couple and the multiple breaches of the builder. Other lawyers whom they consulted advised that if they were to succeed against the errant builder, there was no alternative but to also involve their own solicitor. Few were then willing to skirmish with the extremely well networked and powerful solicitor. Finally, an eminent senior counsel of great integrity decided to appear for the couple. The matter came up before an upright retired judge, as sole arbitrator. The arbitrator issued his award largely in favor of the couple. The dispute then shifted to the High Court, as the builder was a master of obstruction and delay.
The corridors of the High Court were stunned to witness this battle royale. The builder was defended by a bright but brash lawyer, who decades later, would become one of the top law officers of India. He too was enraged that the couple had involved his godfather solicitor. The couple may have lacked a sense of humor, and perhaps, they were a bit nitpicking and cantankerous, however, their integrity was never in doubt. The litigation finally ended on a mixed note. The wife repeatedly assured the husband that her father had taught her that the inexorable wheels of justice grind slowly but surely.
However, he felt let down by someone in whom he had so implicitly trusted. After much deliberation, and despite dissuasion by his own legal team, he decided to file a complaint before the Bar Council. The solicitor was supremely confident that the old gent would not dare to do this; and no prominent lawyer would appear against him in any such disciplinary proceedings which he believed to be frivolous. He was wrong on both counts.
The Bar Council proceedings were even more melodramatic. The old gent was a meticulous compiler of documents and a veteran recorder of facts. Even his lawyers were shocked at the documents he unearthed one after the other, linking the facts. The solicitor came under considerable pressure during some ruthless cross examination by the couple’s senior counsel. In this bloody battle, several relationships were permanently destroyed and many reputations tarnished. In the preliminary round, the couple’s prima facie case was accepted. However, in the final proceedings, the solicitor was exonerated. The national Press, widely published these proceedings in detail.
The couple stood steadfast in this roller coaster litigation ride. However, the negativity and bitterness that such litigation invariably generates, took its toll. The couple died within a span of a single year. Ironically, their beloved home was sold to the same builder. A few years thereafter, the solicitor too succumbed to a fatal illness. The builder’s fortunes declined, as few trusted him. From a leading brand, he went into near oblivion. The bright lawyer defending the builder, now a top law officer of the country, passed away suddenly, barely 60. The builder sold the couple’s home to a socialite, known for throwing rambunctious parties every weekend. About  100 guests, laden with alcohol, revel up to dawn, amidst loud music and a continuous buffet. The city’s Page 3 jet set have a whale of a time in  creating a ruckus. Vodka and tequila shots are downed by 19 somethings who have never heard of tinkling brass bells summoning you to the dining table, or carving knives or triangular shaped saucers. Few marriages have lasted five, forget 55 years, in a home,which was once a temple of perennial matrimonial bliss. Something to be said about the inexorable wheels of justice. 

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