The frogman

Berjis Desai

Immaculately dressed in a dazzling white Parsi duglo (coat) and pugree (Parsi headgear), the elderly gentleman gingerly stepped out of his largish house on the corner of the moholla (street), one of the most conservative in Navsari. A walrus moustache adorned his oval face, which was otherwise clean shaven. He sat in his usual ghora gari (horse driven carriage) whose owner, Abdul, saluted his daily patron. As the ghora gari ticktocked over the cobbled stones, past the atash behram into the busy Tarota bazar with its wheat grinding machines creating a big rumpus, to the railway station, he nodded to acknowledge people who reluctantly reciprocated or altogether avoided eye contact. The gentleman was used to the frosty reception.
He boarded the second class compartment of the Navsari-Surat local (railways had three classes then) and read the copy of yesterday’s Jam-e-Jamshed (then, a daily, whose ‘dak’ edition reached Navsari by noon). Never did his eyes stray over a female form, and he appeared utterly disinterested in matters carnal. Yet, Parsi ladies from Navsari avoided sitting near him.
At Surat station, the ticket checker smiled at him. He walked across the road to a lad polishing shoes, who was eagerly awaiting his daily customer. The gentleman sat on a chair with a thin white cushion, while his shoes were polished to shine and sparkle. Paying the lad double the usual charges, he quickly ambled back to the station. Consumed a lemon soda, in a thick glass bottle capped by a small glass ball, which was pushed inside with force. The next local took him back to Navsari, where Abdul awaited him, to ferry him back to his house. This door to door journey for polishing shoes took around three hours. During this time, his maid had swept, scrubbed and cleaned; and then, quickly departed.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper

The gentleman was nicknamed Derki (female frog). In Navsari, these little creatures, whose large head rested between their haunches, hopped around in the backyard and created a racket all night. And, of course, he knew why he was so called. He attained transition nearly 80 years ago and left behind not a single heir who could be embarrassed by the rest of the contents of this column. He was christened Mancherji, and therefore, called Mancherji Derki. In order to throw light on the possible origins of the nickname (and we must tread here with caution, considering that this is a respectable family publication with a mildly puritanical bent of mind), we must resume Derki’s daily journey from Surat.
Derki entered his house, surveyed with satisfaction the domestic’s clean-up operation, settled down in one of those wooden armchairs whose elongated arm handles were meant to rest your feet [which was akin to the Pawan Muktasana (yogic wind-relieving pose) with its attendant benefits]. After a while, he rose and walked upto the huge four poster bed with a machchar daani (white mosquito net). The polished shoes were carefully placed on the shoe stand. The socks in a cloth bag. The pugree was gently placed on a table, with great respect. Off came the duglo, hung on the curved hook, and then vigorously brushed. The shirt and duck trousers were next to be discarded. The kusti was ceremoniously untied with reverence and placed next to the pugree. Like a Japanese tea ceremony, he got rid of the kaccha (loin cloth — underwear had not yet reached India), and of course, his sudreh.
Until the next morning, Derki would not put on a single garment, except a black cap (whether it was out of devotion, or only to avoid catching a head cold). The Navsari winters, often severe enough to form a layer of ice on the glasses of doodh puff (rose and cinnamon sprinkled milk placed overnight in the open, to condense and froth into a creamy puff), did not affect Derki in the buff. His routine of rising at dawn to bathe in his back yard (paacchloo bar) with lukewarm water heated in a large brass boiler over charcoals (called bumbo); and thereafter making himself a giant ‘railway’ cup of tea flavored with mint leaves and lemon grass was completed while naked. On his birthday, he personally delivered a box of delectable sweets from Surat (Surat-ni-ghaari) to each of his neighbors in the moholla, which they gratefully consumed.
Had Derki shut the many windows of his house or placed curtains on them his bona fide nudism may not have caused much consternation in pre-World War I Navsari. Generations of boys returning from school crowded outside his windows to catch a glimpse of the beatific vision. Girls were sternly warned to avoid the moholla altogether or walk away rapidly with a downward gaze. A delegation of enraged matrons decided to give Derki a dressing down (pun unintended); and dropped the idea as none would dare enter the house. However, some leaders of the community did march upto him at the railway station, to chastise him. He heard them in rapt attention, with a deadpan expression; said ‘sahebji,’ and clambered onto the local. The police said that Derki had not committed any offence under Lord Macaulay’s 1860 Indian Penal Code if he chose not to wear clothes in the privacy of his home.
Derki was neither an exhibitionist nor a pervert. He mostly kept indoors and had mastered the art of shielding himself from prying eyes. Nevertheless, he was in neurotic Navsari, not on the French Riviera. A couple of toughies decided to teach him a lesson. Gangs stood outside his windows and abused him. When he did not react, they pelted him with stones and threw garbage in his house. His domestic help was compelled to leave his employment. He was then seldom seen moving in the house until it was dusk. He sat at home, without lights. They released a mongoose at night, but he did not panic. He remained unprovoked, but clothes were just not meant for him.
One morning, on a rainy day, a lout pulled him out of the ghora gari and threw him on the street. His femur was fractured. They put his leg in some sort of crude traction, until hyperstatic pneumonia got him. Some men entered his house, bathed his body, and dressed his corpse in a shroud. Dozens of respectable ladies and gentlemen offered their last respects by bowing before his fully clothed body.
Someday, if you have not already figured it out, we will tell you as to why they called him Derki. 

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