The hosts

Berjis Desai

In 1980, discontent with the Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s (BPP) housing allotment reached fever pitch. A section of the Parsi Press leveled allegations of corruption and nepotism. The controversial B. K. Boman-Behram (BKB) was under siege. The very thin cucumber sandwich eating elite with thinner pursed lips formed the Committee for Electoral Rights (CER) and decided to contest the elections to the electoral college which elected BPP trustees. The elite was hugely networked and resource rich but not street smart to match the wily BKB and the electoral machine of his ally, Dr Nelie Noble (of impeccable integrity herself). Dinshaw Mehta emerged to provide brawn. Bright lawyers like Edul (Eddie) Bharucha provided legal strategy. However what the CER lacked was organization. Our man, with the large home and a larger heart, then stepped in.

His sprawling house in one of Colaba Causeway’s back streets became the CER’s headquarters. Hordes of volunteers moved in and out, ate, drank, slept, even stayed overnight. The smiling hosts were most indulgent. They were accustomed to extending such hospitality. The gentleman designed, created and sold lamps and chandeliers of a thousand colors and kinds; mostly to finance charity. Prospective purchasers freely roamed the house, helping themselves to coffee and snacks, admiring the creative work of this Parsi. His home was also used by an American network, the Toastmasters, for its weekly meetings. The childless hosts were gregarious, bubbly and warm. The CER had its share of freeloaders who used their home like a sanatorium. There was this lady professor from Poona who virtually moved in and usurped one of the many bedrooms. Then there was this odd-job man called Sutaria, who was employed by the CER, who had all three meals there (our hero, not very familiar with Gujarati, called him Mutaria, which meant one who urinates). Even the cucumber sandwich eating brigade dropped in to down several single malts in the evening. Our man was truly generous. We are all trustees of our wealth, he said. His ever smiling lady wife concurred.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Late evening, he drove his jeep loaded with CER workers through the baugs and colonies, exhorting Parsis to vote for the CER candidates. They shouted slogans, most of them palpably defamatory, against the then trustees on megaphones. He enjoyed it to the hilt. Once when an errant cabbie refused to give him way, he repeatedly drove his jeep into the cab’s bumper until it was reduced to pulp. At public meetings, there were impassioned speeches. He never spoke. He stood at the back of the hall with his trademark perpetual smile, relishing the abuse heaped upon the opposition called the CUZ (Committee for United Zoroastrians). Tall and hefty, he looked like a bouncer about to pounce on a heckler. After the meeting, there would be an impromptu dinner at his home, comprising mouth watering sea food from the cold storage he ran at Sassoon Dock. His guests devoured the giant lobsters, prawns and crabs. All on the house. For weeks.

In an overheated atmosphere, on the first day of the elections, a burly giant from the CUZ tore down a CER poster, as the CER volunteers meekly watched. Our man ambled across to the poster tearing giant and, without any warning, knocked him cold, with a deadly jab on his jaw. The tone was set. If provoked, CER won’t watch quietly. Of course, by noon, the real thing called Mehta arrived, and the CUZ knew its time was up. That’s a story for another day. At the end of the day, our man was the hero. Though the cucumber munchers thought he was politically incorrect, the rank and file worshiped him. Barring a lone homeopathic doctor, each and every candidate of the CUZ lost.

One after another, the cucumber set became BPP trustees. At every election, the same scenario was repeated. Our man’s home became an open house with the same unstinting hospitality. Yet none bothered to consider him as a candidate. Too unsophisticated. Not intelligent. Anger management problem. Great organizer but not trustee material. He never even remotely threw his hat in the ring. He remained the silent backroom worker. The gentle host. The provider of much comfort. Compassionate, honest, caring, a people’s man but not BPP trustee material. Of course not, trustee material. That is until the bloodless takeover of the CER by Mehta. Silloo Kavarana and Mehta were the only ones to acknowledge his stellar contribution and even offered trusteeship to him. He politely declined.

This writer became the editor of the CER’s newsletter called The Zoroastrian, but none of the worthies was ready to be named as the publisher, knowing that trouble would inevitably follow. Our hero readily agreed and we went into print. We wrote a couple of uncharitable things about the then trustees. Some of the adjectives were unkind but certainly not defamatory. A pomposity, who then chaired the board of trustees, was furious and threatened to wreck our one-year-old legal career if we did not unconditionally apologize. They served a notice for criminal, malicious defamation on both the publisher and the editor. Our friend seriously considered barging into the boardroom and hammering the pomposity, at which stage we panicked, knowing that he would execute his threat, which would have certainly terminated our legal career. We asked him for a week. He agreed but insisted that we must publish all the defamatory statements on the first page this time. If we did so, he would gift us a beautiful lamp. We went up to the delighted pomposity and agreed to unconditionally apologize. Although he was a solicitor too, he was the kind you would wish to see as your opponent’s lawyer. "Young man," he grunted, "you will have to prominently publish your apology on the front page and reproduce each of those horrible statements and say sorry again and again." We appeared to reluctantly agree. When the next issue was published with each of those horrible statements printed in bold black monotype, the pomposity actually phoned to thank us for our courage. All those who had missed the article earlier, read it with great interest. We still have that beautiful lamp.


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