A rebel with many causes
IT is intimidating to write a celebratory article about a parent, alas dead now for over three decades. Whilst alive, to use a cliché, so much water flowed under the bridge – currents and cross-currents, sparkle and murk, and if one is to be honest, of like and dislike! The assignment, in cold black and white, is a disturbing one.
And yet if one does not comply, disloyalty and guilt add their unpleasant quota to the roiling waters. Memory haunts me vividly, but the person has vanished to be reborn, perhaps to a calm, and not to a restless, stormy life. A life left so incomplete.
I speak of mother, widely known by her moniker ‘Bapsey’. Christened Meherbai, she was the third and youngest child born to Sir Cowasji Jehangir (1st Bart) and Lady Dhunbai Cowasji Jehangir, in Bombay in 1892.
The Raj rode astride the Indian Empire – and she was a Parsee Victorian. Born to an illustrious and wealthy Zoroastrian family, which was expanding its business interests (cotton mills, real estate, money lending) and consolidating its fortune, it was also learning how to use its wealth wisely and well, through benefaction and philanthropy, thus amply rewarding the city for all that the latter had given to it.
The tradition of charity started with Bapsey’s ancestor, her grandfather, the 1st Sir Cowasji Jehangir (KCIE) and was carried on into her day by her own extended efforts. The family endowed Bombay with schools, hospitals, the University Convocation Hall, the Elphinstone College, the Jehangir Art Gallery, the Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, now the National Gallery of Modern Art – just to mention a few of the memorable landmarks that recall its munificence.
A late child, she was indulged by her parents. Charming pictures exist of Bapsey being cradled between her brother (the 2nd Bart) and her much older, sari-clad sister, Cooverbai. The enchanting early photograph, hand-tinted and reproduced on porcelain, is from Vienna, which city excelled in romantic representation, and catered to a rich international clientele. Later pictures in my possession are of a slim, winsome girl-child – demurely bonneted with bows and plumes, all in white. This was Bapsey at the age of seven, photographed in London around the turn of the 20th century.
Not the slightest hint exists of the maverick, the remarkable woman that was to emerge from this chrysalis. Bapsey in an interview with R.K. of the Current in the early ’50s had this to say – ‘I was born dead, and was a very delicate child, but one that survived, and later, began to look like a ravishing doll.’
Subsequent photographs began to reveal the incipient strength and strong-willed traits that became her hallmark. Bapsey at around eighteen – dressed as a Kashmiri ‘belle’, in a house boat, in traditional headgear, dripping ethnic jewellery. The stance is already bold, the face handsome, portents of the future clearly defined.
As a pre-adolescent, she enjoyed nothing more than dressing up and playing roles. A passion for acting and drama was ingrained in her. Her favourite part was to emulate Lady Lawrence Jenkins, the wife of the then Chief Justice of Bombay Presidency.
Bapsey had the upbringing of an emancipated Indo-Victorian, given the typical Parsee upper class setting to which she belonged. Schooling was more private than public. There were the ‘Mehtaji’s’ to oversee Gujarati, writing, and her calculation skills. And there were English governesses to teach her the language, the arts, and correct etiquette – all a part of her curriculum. A love of music and the theatre was induced under the tutelage of a Miss Schmuck (Bapsey became a good amateur pianist, and the theatre was a consuming passion), and as a young person she was an accomplished horsewoman.
It was one of her governesses, a Miss Dicky, who used to throw the little bundle of joy up into the air, saying ‘Babsy Wabsy darling baby’ and that is how her name Bapsey was coined, to remain with her for all of her life. The sedate ‘Meherbai’ got left behind, and was relegated to official and legal usage only.
Iremember travelling with mother as a boy, always an exciting happening. I especially enjoyed being taken to the theatre, the more so as she had a penchant for demanding entrance to the dressing-rooms of famous stars. She inevitably got her way. Dressed resplendently in flamboyant sarees, and ornately jewelled, a young son in tow – she was indeed a rare sight in the London and Paris of 75 years ago.
I recall the gracious Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Emyln Williams, performing in ‘The Corn is Green’. And in New York, the glamorous Tallulah Bankhead, the lead in ‘The Little Foxes’. Not only did we barge into the latter’s dressing-room, but after the performance, Tallulah escorted us home, in her enormous, chauffeured limousine. Do you wonder that I, all of 17, was totally star-struck? John Gielgud during a visit to Bombay was left speechless when mother invited him to our home, known as ‘Aewan-e-Rafiyat’, on Malabar Hill. Her command – ‘Come and have lunch with me, my house is a symphony in stone!’ He did, and wrote about it in his autobiography.
By the way, to let you in on a secret, her imagined name in ‘lights’ was Zita Lasa. Alas, never used, never marqueed! But she did become well-known on the local amateur stage of the Bombay of those days. She also produced and directed one of the first early films of the ’20s, entitled ‘Darkness into Light’, in which she starred as the ill-fated heroine.
Later came several theatre productions directed and produced by her. Dil-Pazir, which was designed by the Karl Khandalawalla (lawyer, scholar, author of the LKA series on Indian art), premiered at the old Capitol Theatre. He conceived marvellous living cameos reconstructed from ancient and modern Indian paintings. And again in 1940, ‘Fantasy in a Mediaeval Indian Street’ was directed by Bapsey and scripted by Karl.
She was considered a ‘bombshell for orthodoxy’. She appeared on the stage to assert the right of the Parsee woman to act with members of the opposite sex, just when a controversy was raging in the newspapers on the subject.
Resisting all attempts at a good alliance, Bapsey married at 26, late for her time, and against her parents’ wishes. My father Ardeshir Pestonjee Sabavala, was a qualified barrister from the Inns of Court, London, young and good-looking but with no means worth mentioning. He met her there, where she was travelling with her parents. He was well-educated and stemmed from good ‘Surat stock’. She was a lovely heiress. Bapsey married my father, left her luxurious ancestral home, to set up house as an ordinary housewife – which ambition was alas short-lived. They had two children, myself and my older brother Shahrookh. Soon enough the young husband was lured into Sir Cowasji’s patriarchal mansion. He joined the family business and sadly, gave up law altogether.
The marriage was fraught from the start. But following the mores of the times, it dragged on for several long years, till she eventually divorced my father in the mid ’40s. It was one of the early, much publicized, Bombay divorce cases. Somewhere along the line, I suspect, mother enjoyed the high drama and sensationalism of it all. Discretion was not one of her virtues. She was never one to allow the dust to be quietly swept under the carpet. Both my parents suffered the consequences of a traumatic break-up, as indeed did we, their children.
Now minus husband, and with the offspring old enough to fend for themselves, Bapsey was once again a free woman. The encumbrances of hearth and home were shed, behind her once and for all.
Despite the social taboos, the tight reins of male domination, she became what would, in the previous generation, have been called a suffragette. Rebellious, self-willed, uncompromising, she ran afoul of society. She was never the elegant, accomplished hostess that her world wanted and expected her to be.
Bapsey was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, when women of her station were not trained for a profession. Had she been born today, she would have undoubtedly excelled – as an activist, a feminist, and been trained as a social worker, harnessing all that surplus energy in a disciplined manner.
It was as early as 1920 that Bapsey organised her first charity venture for the victims of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. As her personal life ran aground with her parents and her husband, she plunged deeper into a stream of activities.
In the early days she supported Ardeshir strongly in his political ambitions. He stood for several municipal elections and later political ones. Bapsey went all out, canvassing for him, from house to house, street to street, inspite of the growing divide between them. But, it was only after the divorce that she was free to take to social work seriously – full time. The upliftment of the poor and the needy was a cause close to her heart.
Bapsey was responsible for establishing the first ‘Swabal’ (self-help) store in Colaba, the only one of its kind in the city then. Its purpose was to prevent young, unqualified Parsee males from merely loafing, and to give them a feel of the dignity of labour. The store was to serve the needs of everyday lives. There was instant opposition to the scheme from both sexes, especially from men, who felt it demeaning to undertake such work. So, to set an example, it was Bapsey herself who swept the floors of the shop clean. Subsequently, a ‘Swabal’ chain was established in Bombay, successfully.
The Haji Ali Sonavala Andhakashi Ashram for the blind was an early centre that gave physical succour and medical aid to the unseeing, irrespective of caste or creed. Bapsey worked tirelessly to make this early venture work. Eventually in 1938, a functioning home in Andheri was established, inaugurated by Lady Dhunbai, her mother, and in the presence of Lady Blackwell, the wife of the Chief Justice of Bombay.
Bapsey was a staunch Indian, also a staunch Zoroastrian. But this did not prevent her from opening wide the doors of her home to all religions. Every year, on Gandhiji’s birthday, she held an ecumenical evening, when scholars and devotees of every faith addressed the audience and exchanged their views. Incidentally, the nuns of St. Catherine’s Home still remember her warmly, for the enormous support she gave to this Christian Mission house.
The charity fetes – for schools, hospitals, for the sick and the maimed, that she organised were legion, and she collected funds for them almost single-handedly. To the corporate sector, mother was a nightmare. She was ever present, cajoling, demanding of businessmen that they part with their shekels for one of her causes. She had a will of iron and a way with her, and though maddened by her, the city respected her – inspite of the growing eccentricities and brusqueness of manner. I should know, for I grew up amidst this welter of activity and confusion.
Let me enumerate a few of the extravaganzas which she so ably organised. ‘Help our Hospitals’, a week-long fete at the Azad Maidan. The Four Charities Prize Calendar Scheme – this for the Viceroy’s War Fund/the Relief of the Blind/Beggar Uplift/and Parsee Industrial and Agricultural Settlements. The Dil-Pazir Fete. The Punjab Refugee Ball (also known as the Blanket Ball) in 1948. The Bijapur Relief Fund, 1973. And always, till she died, she gave her full support to the Matheran Social Welfare Scheme. Matheran – with which hill station she had a deep and abiding love affair – was her second home and refuge.
Her love of animals was another facet of her personality. It made her espouse many projects devoted to their wellbeing. It also accounted for the menagerie with which we grew up – of dogs, cats, birds, a deer, and even a pet porky. In the days when we lived in Europe, this exotic lady, with her entourage of children, governesses, servants, and pets, was a sight not to be easily effaced. Bombaites of the day will not forget how she made a horse climb the famous staircase of the Taj Mahal Hotel to participate in an animal cabaret.
No mention of Bapsey can ever be complete without referring to her passion for dolls. She had no attraction whatsoever for the conventional cuddly doll. As with everything else she created a fantasy world of these ‘inanimate creatures’ and surrounded herself with them. Every nook and corner of her bedroom was inhabited by them – in cloth, clay, celluloid, china – and the rounder they were the better. Japan was particularly strongly represented in her collection. But it was the ‘Cupie’ doll that had pride of place in her heart. A period piece, which I doubt exists any more, with its coy pertness, mischievous eyes, lipsticked smile, an oversized neon-coloured bow – worn as a dog collar. When Bapsey was invited out to friends, she took along with her one of the favourites of the day as a co-guest. I have always thought of this as extraordinary behaviour, which in today’s world would attract psychological interpretation. It became a badge, an accepted Bapsey eccentricity, a harmless amusing one. But the deeper malaise escaped the attention of most people – and this is quite clear in retrospect.
Bapsey knew no fear. The fact that she was a woman, or her own privileged and sheltered background, never daunted her. She wished to be accepted as she was. I remember the fright and consternation we felt when she collected people off the street – beggars, the sick and the sorry – and packed them into the car, to be delivered to the right quarters. The sensibilities of others was not her forte, and was something that she never bothered herself with. It was incredible and wonderful, of course, but there were at times, elements of bravado and ruthlessness in her missions of mercy.
All of this will perhaps explain why mother was so widely known in Bombay and elsewhere. The legend spread and several appellations were attached to her name. I give you a sampling – by turn cruel and kind – ‘Bapsey – the married widow’/‘the indefatigable institution’/‘Queen Elizabeth-I, minus the lovers’/‘the professional beggar for lost causes’/‘a God-send to Bombay’/and ‘Gypsy Queen’, which was Sir Joseph Kay’s favourite name for her.
Mother was at her ease with the dignitaries and the politicians of her day. Being completely apolitical herself she was trusted by all as the city’s crusader. The erstwhile British governors and their wives were on friendly terms with her not only because of her family background, but more so because of her formidable reputation for social work, for which she was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind medal. As were people of the stature of Kanhialal Munshi, S.K. Patil and Morarji Desai. A special friend was India’s Nightingale, Sarojini Naidu, who used to visit our home when I was a boy. That mother was capable of naming one of her menagerie after a politician may well have been so, but I cannot vouch for this – as memories fade.
But the ravages of time, unhappiness, and I suspect, an unrequited need of companionship – for which neither husband, children, lover, vocation, ever qualified. All of this took its toll, and Bapsey very sadly slid into an isolated world of her own – wilful to the end, but tired and very lonely. Her good looks and dramatic charisma, the flash and the fire, had gone. And I saw a remarkable person disintegrate in front of my eyes. A woman who had lived by her own rules, the way she had wanted to, who did not care for pomp or glory. An apocryphal anecdote about her tells of how she laughingly asked of a government official, who had come for preliminary inquiries about a ‘Padma Shri Award’ to be given her. ‘What kind of a toy is this Padma Shri?’
It was the well-known R.K. Karanjia, the editor of Blitz, who in 1970 remembered that it was the ‘great little lady’ who came to the rescue of B.G. Horniman – famed Irish journalist, who had fought and suffered for India’s freedom – by collecting a purse of Rs 50,000 and even paying his medical bills and rent, when he fell upon bad days.
She was candid and forthright to a fault. I remember an incident that did the rounds of Bombay society. Mother was on one of her habitual missions, and this time she was to meet the wife of one of Bombay’s top industrialists – a charming woman, but a complete waffler, who busied herself lending a helping hand, somewhat vaguely. The good lady was rambling on pleasantly, when suddenly Bapsey boomed – ‘Cut the cackle, is it a yes or a no?’ A gasp and tears flowed.
Bapsey was especially gifted with the younger generation. An able organizer, she enjoyed arranging games, theatricals, parties, with verve and originality. Even the food was somehow different, albeit whimsical, but charmingly decorated, with a personal flair. As an aside, she became a vegetarian in late life, out of conviction. As she loved dressing up she frequently gave fancy dress parties, at one of which she appeared as the Air India Maharaja.
Mother enjoyed the company of the young, being young at heart herself. And they on their part, were drawn to her non-conformism – as to a magnet.
And I end on a well-merited eulogy. ‘No cause or mission… was too small or insignificant, or out of the way for her… To call Bapsey a social-worker or philanthropist would be an insult to her prodigious, titanic passion for serving the poor and the faltering.’