Unsung scholar

Murali Ranganathan

The Parsi community has long been writing biographies of its members. This tradition however has quite a few glaring omissions. While we may have multiple biographies of Parsi bone-doctors and policemen, one is hard pressed to find biographical narratives of some of the leading Parsis who played an influential role in shaping the future of the community. From the 19th century, some of the prominent names which come to mind are Nowrozjee Furdoonjee, the de facto community leader for many decades, and businessmen-philanthropists such as Framjee Nusserwanjee Patell and Cursetjee Nusserwanjee Cama. It is therefore no surprise that Parsis from other fields have suffered a similar fate even though they might have reached the very acme of their chosen vocations. One such person is the historian Shapurshah Hormasji Hodivala (1867-1944) who has been completely ignored by Parsi historiography, both during his lifetime in books like Hormusji D. Darukhanawala’s Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, as well as in modern compilations like Dr Nawaz Mody’s Enduring Legacy: Parsis of the 20th Century.
Hodivala taught at Bahauddin College, Junagadh, which was located at the far end of Saurashtra, quite a distance from centers of Parsi activity. He ploughed a lone furrow for many years before coming into public focus through his lectures and research papers in the early 1910s. Bursting onto the Bombay scene in 1913, drawing upon research conducted over the previous two decades, Hodivala, lectured at numerous venues including the Zarthosti Deenni Khol Karnari Mandali or the Society for Promotion of Research into the Zoroastrian Religion, and the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (now the Asiatic Society of Mumbai). 

  Prof S. H. Hodivala: time to identify "a new community hero"


In many of his lectures, he reviewed the works of his Parsi predecessors, and more often than not, had to reject their propositions or prove their conjectures wrong. Well aware of the uneasiness that this might engender in various sections of the Parsi population, Hodivala, in his very first lecture at Zarthosti Deenni Khol Karnari Mandali to a largely Parsi audience on October 25, 1913 on "Traditional dates of Parsi History,” reviewed the historiographical process thus:
"I beg that you will not misunderstand me. When I say that these entries are not worthy of acceptance, at least in their present form, and that most of them are based on speculative or ex post facto calculations, I do not mean that those who jotted them down at odd moments on margins and fly leaves, had any knowledge of their inauthenticity or any intention to delude or even to perplex any body. All I mean is that those who first made these calculations and those who copied their results, were men who, like ourselves, were anxious to know when these most interesting events occurred and how these events were correlated, the one to the other. Just as chronological systems have been constructed in our own days…so these forerunners of ours in the same department of inquiry made up systems of their own by accepting or rejecting, favoring or disfavoring some view about this, that or the other detail. Far from intending to deceive anybody they were deceived themselves. Far from being open to any imputation of bad faith, theirs were honest attempts, pioneer attempts, to construct for the satisfaction of their own understanding an intelligible chronology out of their materials.”
Numismatist par excellence
Parsi community history was just one of the many subjects which interested Hodivala. His reputation as an international scholar was based on his work on numismatics. In 1922, he was the first Indian president of the annual conference of the Numismatic Society of India. Of the numerous articles on this subject written by Hodivala, special mention can be made of "The unpublished coins of the Gujerat Sultanat” (published in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society). This 1922 paper on Gujarat coins was by far the most exhaustive and meticulous survey of the coins issued by the Sultans of Gujarat, deepening not only the knowledge of their monetary policies, but also broadening the understanding of their rule.
His major contribution to this field was Historical Studies in Mughal Numismatics (Calcutta, 1923), a collection of his articles on that subject. It came in for glowing praise from all quarters for the erudition displayed not only in the field of numismatics but also in the arena of Mughal history. In his foreword to the book, C. J. Brown notes: "Hodivala’s wide and extremely accurate knowledge of the Persian historians of India and of the works of European travellers has enabled him to bring together in this series of studies, including those in the present volume, what for all practical purposes is an exhaustive list of all references bearing upon the Mughal coinage, and he has thus been able, for that period at least, to accomplish single-handed a piece of research which the Society in 1915 considered could only be performed by a number of its members working in cooperation … His knowledge of numismatics has led him to carry his investigations a step further; (and) set at rest at least half of the controversies that have engaged numismatists during the past half century.”
Hodivala published extensively in numerous journals including over 40 articles on numismatics in the Numismatic Supplement to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Elected a Fellow of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1924, he was also awarded the Society’s Campbell Gold Medal (1929), then considered the most prestigious accolade a historian in India could aspire to. He was the second Parsi to be so recognized after Jivanji Jamshedji Modi who got the award in 1918.

   Above (l): Bahauddin College, Junagadh; (r) the Asiatic Society of Mumbai

Hodivala, the man
Founded in 1899 with donations from the Nawab of Junagadh and his vazir (high ranking advisor) after whom the college was named, Bahauddin College soon assembled a star cast of professors. After stints at Wilson College and Baroda College, Hodivala joined the Bahauddin College in 1902 as vice principal and professor of English. He had completed his BA degree in 1888 from the Elphinstone College and later went on to do his MA from the University of Bombay.
At Junagadh, Hodivala and his colleagues had a blank slate on which to impress their pedagogy and personality. Very little would be known about Hodivala’s reputation at Junagadh, if not for a chapter devoted to Bahauddin College in Jeevanpanth, the 1949 Gujarati autobiography of Gaurishankar Joshi, the famous Gujarati short story writer and novelist who wrote under the pen name Dhumketu. Writing about his college life, Dhumketu provides a student’s perspective of Hodivala’s personality.
In the early 1920s, "Bahauddin College held a unique position in Kathiawad. It had all the ingredients which contributed to creating an atmosphere for education. The main constituency of any college was its professors who contributed to the emergence of this atmosphere. But the legends and half-truths which had been transmitted from one generation of students to another also played not a little part.
"It was said of Hodivala that he was concerned with nothing at all in the world except his own subjects. He never drank water; he drank soda instead. Most probably his wife was already dead. He had one son who would be lucky to see him once in six months! He was always immersed in his books in a room on the third floor. He was considered a historian of the Mughal period; he had made a special study of Persian coins where his scholarship was acknowledged by experts in the field.
"Hodivala languished in this remote corner because of the peculiarities of his personality, else his knowledge on a variety of subjects was astonishing. Once, when the conversation drifted towards the subject of rats, he delivered an impromptu lecture on the rodents for one hour which was so informative and based on the latest research that his listeners were stunned.
"Another characteristic was that the professor could rarely walk along a straight line. He would walk a few steps, veer off towards one direction, and then the other! Meanwhile, he would burst into laughter, he might mutter something to himself, else he might exclaim a few words, or be lost in contemplation, and all this seemed perfectly natural. If he had his own way, he would converse only with his books. It could be said that his scholarship had led him to a stage of self-actualization. While knowledge was shut up in books for others, in his case, it was on the tip of his tongue… In those days, the very presence of Hodivala in the College was an inspiration. He was a living example of erudition and scholarship.”
Hodivala retired from Bahauddin College in 1927 at the age of 60 as the principal and professor of English, History and Political Economy. He was probably born in Bandra, then a suburb of Bombay and settled in a bungalow in Marzbanabad, not far from his birthplace. In retirement, he seems to have moved on from numismatics to projects on which he could bring to bear the complete range of his scholarship.

  Tomes by Hodivala: "Felicitous writing style"

Critiquing the classics
In a series of articles that appeared in the Indian Antiquary (1929-32), Hodivala critiqued and expanded on the entries in Hobson Jobson, the Indian lexicographical classic compiled by Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell. It was first published in 1886 and revised in 1903 by William Crooke. Hodivala’s erudition and remarkably eclectic reading shines through these articles and amounted to yet another revision of this glossary of "Anglo-Indian words and phrases.”
Perhaps the most valuable service rendered by Hodivala to Indian history was his Studies in Indo-Muslim History which was published in 1939. Working in seclusion after retirement, Hodivala embarked on a remarkable venture which he sub-titles A Critical Commentary on Elliot and Dowson’s ‘History of India as Told by Its Own Historians.’ Elliot and Dowson’s eight-volume history of India (1867-77) had acquired an enviable reputation in the seven decades after its publication but, as Hodivala observes, "it has continued to be followed in spite of (its errors and shortcomings) and … has been responsible for misleading many modern authors, the dissemination of not a few inexactitudes, and the circulation of some false and distorted history.” He therefore had "ventured to undertake this laborious and difficult task … merely to investigate, ascertain and verify facts, to reject statements which were inaccurate or without adequate proof and to place the subject on a sounder critical footing.”
Notwithstanding Hodivala’s humble submission, a perusal of the 725-page tome betrays his scholarship and erudition in the field of medieval Indian history and his industriousness and tenacity in marshalling innumerable sources in many languages to write illuminating and emendatory notes to the original text. As the reviewer in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1941) comments, "Professor Hodivala, by making a close and systematic study of these volumes, along with relevant original texts, inscriptions, and other data, has been able to suggest an enormous number of corrections of interpretation and reading, as well as of identifications of persons and places named, thus elucidating a very large number of obscure passages hitherto unexplained or erroneously interpreted.”
The second volume of the book, equally voluminous and erudite, was ready for the press when Hodivala died in 1944. It was eventually published by his son Ruttonsha in 1957. This was a landmark project which even the leading historians of the day would have shied away from. Hodivala’s success was attributed by a reviewer to "a methodical system of keeping notes, his own linguistic attainments and wide reading, intimacy with the peoples and their customs, and an uncommon flair for topographical detail.”
In spite of writing on very abstruse subjects and translating from Arabic and Persian sources, Hodivala’s writing style is remarkably felicitous and makes for pleasurable reading.
A historian from the community or a community historian?
A Parsi who dabbled in history in this period was seen as being more accountable to the community than historians hailing from other communities (organized on the basis of caste, ancestral profession, religion, geography, language or any other parameter whatsoever). In the first half of the 20th century, the reasons were not hard to seek: small numbers, the economic clout of the community, and its self-enforced insularity. This accountability could culminate in the curtailment of scholarly freedom which no genuine historian like Hodivala would ever have compromised with. Hodivala was able to shrug off the cumbrous Achaemenian mantle that many Parsi historians of that era found draped over their shoulders.
Deeply interested in Parsi affairs, Hodivala published his Studies in Parsi History in 1920, a collection of articles based on 25 years of research and first presented to various learned societies in Bombay and elsewhere. Drawing on his deep knowledge of the Persian language and its predecessors, Hodivala presents very cogent propositions about many aspects of early Parsi history which had been the subject of much argument and dissension in the Parsi community. In 1925, he again presented his fresh research on this subject in a series of five lectures held in Bombay which were published under the title Parsi History, being a series of five lectures delivered in 1925 (published 1926). In both these books, Hodivala demolishes many of the notions held by fellow Parsis on various episodes connected with Parsi history in Gujarat, refutes contentions based on the wispiest of premises, and generally advocates that, in many cases, the traditional narrative "must be abandoned in spite of its flattering our vanity, and making a strong appeal to national pride.”
Hodivala seems to have been an impressive public speaker. As Dhumketu recalls: "There were many other interesting tales about Hodivala which were bandied about. When principal Scott was on leave, he had to substitute for him in the English class which was then studying Milton’s Paradise Lost. Once, because of his typical absent-minded nature, he walked into class without his copy of the book. In those days, professors would still ask students to read out poems aloud and that is how the class started. Without using any text, Hodivala began to recite and expound line upon line of poetry in his clear ringing tone which might have sounded just a bit severe, but with such exactitude of pronunciation and with such empathy of feeling, that the entire class was held spellbound by him.”
Hodivala’s propositions and theories were backed by meticulous research and could not be refuted by his compatriots. He also adopted a non-combative style and refused to enter into futile argument, "because I believe nothing to be more unpleasant and unprofitable than controversies of this sort” (Parsi History: 73). Hodivala was quick to demolish old myths and traditions. We shall consider, merely for illustration, one episode where Hodivala unites his expertise in numismatics with his interest in Parsi affairs.
Dispelling myths
One of the ardently cherished and oft-repeated episodes in Parsi history from the Mughal period was that of coins "bearing the initial letters of … Pestonji Mehrji, and widely known after him as the Pestanshai Coin of the Nizam Government” (Dosabhai Framji Karaka, History of the Parsis, vol 2, pg 127). These Pestanshai coins were considered relics and heirlooms by some members of the Taraporewala family to which Pestonji belonged and Hodivala ascribes their preservation to "sentimental vanity.” He referred to historians like Gustaspshah Kaihushro Nariman who "frequently recalled with pride and regret the fact that in ‘the good old days,’ the Parsi Pestanji Mehrji had enjoyed the unique honor of striking money inscribed with his own name … It was a matter of lasting regret to him that this last remnant of our ancient power and glory had been lost for ever on account of and after the advent and consolidation of British rule in India.”
As a numismatist par excellence, Hodivala did not have to stretch himself too far to present the facts relating to these coins. He pointed out that before 1857, all coins were issued in the name of the Emperor of India: even the Nizams of Hyderabad never ventured to put their own names on their issues, much less allowed any of their subjects to do so. Pestonji was Mint Master or Darogah at the Aurangabad mint and, as was the usual practice, the coins issued from this mint were then known as Pestanshai coins. All the surviving specimens indicate that, far from his name being inscribed, the coins do not even bear his initials. In conclusion, Hodivala had to declare that "the pretensions advanced by some members (of the Parsi community) are groundless and unhistorical” (Parsi History, pg 52–3).
Puncturing egos
One of the primary historical texts of the Parsis of India, the Qissa-i-Sanjan, relates the story of the migration of Parsis from Iran and dates from the 16th century. Composed in Persian verse in 1600, it narrates the events relating to the journey of a group of Zoroastrians from the city of Khorasan to the coast of Hindustan and from there to Sanjan, an important Gujarat city in that period. Its contents and their interpretation had been a constant source of debate among the Parsis from the 1830s when it was first translated into Gujarati. Some of the key issues which dominated the interests of Parsi historians was the year in which the Parsis arrived in Sanjan and the identity of the contemporary ruler of Gujarat and his dynasty. Reviewing all the work that had been done by Parsi scholars and others in the 19th century, Hodivala offered an astute analysis of the available facts in his paper "Jadi Rana and the Kissah-i-Sanjan” presented at the Town Hall of Bombay to the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society on November 24, 1913.
After noting that Kharshedji Rustomji Cama "could never advance a step beyond conjecture,” Hodivala summarizes the work of J. J. Modi, his immediate predecessor in this subject, who continuously revised his position on the vexatious issue of the timing of the arrival of the Parsis. Hodivala expressed amazement at Modi’s audacity of having "erected upon that shifting and scarcely stable foundation an imposing chronologic fabric.” Modi, then a vice president of the Asiatic Society, was in the audience during the presentation and was gracious enough to propose "a hearty vote of thanks to Prof Hodivala for the interesting paper he had read and expressed a hope that the professor would again appear with further papers on such interesting subjects.” Hodivala was particularly careful to emphasize that he had not made any final pronunciation and was also subject to correction from future researchers.
In this paper, Hodivala also provides an instance of an "unconscious mistake of the Parsi compilers” in a summarized account of this history which appeared in the Bombay Gazetteer (volume 13, part 1) to support his contention that available evidences were frequently and unconsciously twisted out of recognition to bolster an imaginary framework of Parsi history that, in some unspecified manner, redounded to the lost glory of the community.
Though keen on avoiding argument and confrontation, Hodivala was not one to mince his words. Dhumketu recalls this aspect of his personality at Junagadh: "Prof Hodivala was also a very outspoken man. Due to his independent nature, he occasionally came into conflict with higher officials, but it made no difference to him. When the University Commission had once come for an inspection of Bahauddin College, as they were walking along the upper floors, the braying of donkeys from the compound outside began to echo in the corridors. One of the members of the Commission turned towards Hodivala and remarked, ‘Oh! Your college has donkeys which are braying outside in the compound.’ ‘That’s all right,’ promptly replied Hodivala, ‘in many other places, they bray inside the college.’”
Always a recluse, his uncompromising and unromantic stand on Parsi affairs perhaps led to his being sidelined by the community even when he settled in Bombay after his retirement in 1927. Barely any notice was taken of his death except for a brief notice in the Anglo-Gujarati weekly Kaiser-i-Hind (December 3, 1944) and an obituary in the Journal of the Numismatic Society of India. Nor was any effort made to perpetuate his memory. This is in stark contrast to the posthumous biographies, testimonials and memorials bestowed on other individuals by the Parsi community. After his death on November 26, 1944, his research and writings on Parsi history were largely forgotten and barely utilized by historians of later generations. Is this perhaps the perfect time for Parsis to identify new community heroes?

Murali Ranganathan researches 19th century Bombay and is the editor of J. R. B. Jeejee- bhoy's Bombay Vignettes: Explorations in the History of Bombay.