Migrants, Settlers & Originals: Cawas Lalkaka 1
Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Duration: 00:20:46; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 14.234; Saturation: 0.270; Lightness: 0.302; Volume: 0.177; Cuts per Minute: 0.048; Words per Minute: 125.578
Summary: Interview with Mr. Cawas Lalkaka (CLK).
Interviewer Madhusree Dutta (M). Shot by avijit Mukul Kishore.
Cawas Lalkaka is a corporate person. He retired as the vice president of Tata Sons, a leading corporate house in India. He is member of, Zorastrians community - popularly called as Parsees. Parsee community is one of the smallest yet significant minority community in India. They migrated from Iran in 13th century to Navsari, Gujarat. They adopted to the local culture quickly and became an integral part of India's social fabric. Many of them are industrialists, entrepreneurs, scientists and artists of great repute. Parsees are also known for various nationalist endeavors during the British rule and soon after the independence. Though generally they have stayed away from the field politics, except for a few exceptions. The population is mainly concentrated in the city of Bombay. Bombay is dotted with various Parsee institutions and public institutions built by Parsees - TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental research) TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts) J B Petit School, Avabai Petit School, J J School of Arts etc. Many of the popular landmarks and signage in the city are actually named after some eminent parsees - Nariman Point, Khusroo Baug, Wadia hospital, Gazdar Street etc. Various Parsee trusts are still the mainstay of philanthropy and social work activities in the city.
The interview was conducted in the context of exploring the history of migration in the region. Representatives of many communities were interviewed in order to understand the demography and current identity politics of the city. The interview was conducted in his family home in a spacious apartment at Marine Drive in South Bombay. Marine Drive, occasionally mentioned as queen's necklace in memory of the British rule, is the most romantic and one the most expensive real estate zones in the world.
Memories of the house ane the cityscape in 1930s. The skyline was different and train line was upto Colaba. It was the time when we did not yet pushed the sea away to get more land for the city.
(M): Sir what is your earliest memory of Bombay, are you born in Bombay.
(Cawas Lal Kaka - CLK): yes I was born in Bomabay in 1932.
(M): So what do you remember of...
(CLK): Well earliest memory would be when I was about 5 - 6 years old when we shifted into this house in 1939 and since then we've always lived here, my grandfather, my parents and I. I've no brother or sister so that was our family here. Then later...I've always lived here but later we went to school and college over here.
(M): So how was this area?
(CLK): Very different, in the sense there were no lanes...A road, B road, C road..lanes, the opposite skyline was totally different there were no tall buildings and there were only buildings on the sea face. There was no reclaimed area like Oberoi, where Oberoi is just now the Air India building, that was all marsh land. And beyond my time, my father remembers this area also totally sea bound. And it was reclaimed right from queens road which is behind us and there were trains going right up to Colaba. So that was the old Bombay, though....
Air India Building
air india building
Memories of school and college. Mr. Lalkaka had school mates who were children of British army and who themselves were in the army during second world war.
(M): So you have the memory of the trains..early days trains?
(CLK): Very faint memory of trains going to colaba where Wellington Mews now was the Colaba station. I recall churchgate looking very different, the present Churchgate station was like the BB&CI opposite..the Gothic structure and this is a newer version. The Oval Maidan and the high court and all was just as it is today. So I used to go to the Cathedral school and after that to Sydenham college. Thats how I grew up here.
(M): So do you have any anecdotes, stories, memories of those days when you were growing up in early Bombay.
(CLK): Yeah in the Cathedral School at that time for mostly English Boys, the boys school was separate from the girls school and the middle school. They've all merged now and its a co-ed. So in those days people were in the school for a year two years till the parents were transferred in the British army, it was war time. So that was a memory when so many of my school colleagues may have died in the war and very few have still survived and are in touch. College of course very vivid.
bb & ci building
During the second world war - soliders of various race used to come to the city. The time of famous dock explosion in Bombay.
(M): That means you have memory of war time also
(CLK): Yeah war time was 44..the 40's when I was between 10-15 years old. So there were soldiers all over the city...sometimes drunk sometimes otherwise and I remember clearly all the armies, British, Australian, other armies used to come here for a while. Then there was the terrible explosion in the docks where debris came and fell right into our maidan here about 10 ..8 miles away 6 miles away. That was a terrible two days we saw what was happening. So that is one vivid memory. Then of course my parents, grandparents and slowly the change in the generation.
(M): When did your family come here...(Some disturbance) continues..: When did your family come.
(CLK): Ok, my parents were from Ahmedabad. My great grandfather Sir Naoroji Vakil was the founder of our family in Ahmedabad. And...as an amazing sort of career ....he was 6 or 8 years old...maybe 10 he was driven our of school for not answering where the Thames river was, and that was a highlight of his career, because after that he went on horseback every morning at 4 o'clock to the railway offices that time in Ahmedabad...this must be in the mid 80's...1800's and he was so taken in by that life that the Birtish sort of appreciated what he was doing and gave him promotions and then he was responsible for several of the railway lines in Ahmedabad, joining Ahmedabad. Then he became a very big man...he was knighted and he was called Sir Naoroji Vakil and he founded so many charities and when he died in those days ..he had charities of about 10-15 lakhs. Then he founded businesses right upto Bombay and he was my great grandfather...he had five daughters ..two of whom were my grannies...they were inter married. What happened was that he built 5 bungalows in a large area in Ahmedabad and all the daughters had one bungalow each ..so their families grew up so close together that there were lot of marriages within the family, and then they spread out into Bombay. So my parents must have come to Bombay in 1930....thats when they got married in Bombay. Till then it was all Ahmedabad. And most Parsees as you know must have come from Surat, Ahmedabad ..that area. So our ancestors were all from that area.
Most Parsees migrated / relocated from Surat to Bombay. Many of them came to Bombay to expand their business. Some of these Parsee businessmen were known for their philanthropy. They have contributed largely in building the city.
Parsees are a part of the Zorastrian faith. There are some Zorastrian in the world who have never migrated to India. Indian Zorastrians who came from Tehran to Gujarat asking for asylum in 13th h century are called Parsees.
(M): How do you look at Parsee community's contribution in making Bombay.
(CLK): Ok its like this....I don't know if you are aware. All Parsees are Zorastrians but all Zorastrians are not Parsees. Only those that came here around 12 -1300 years ago..running away from Tehran..from Iran...they are called Parsees. So Parsees are only confined to India, and today as per the census maybe there must be around 60,000 Parsees in India. About 35-40 must be in Bombay. And the rest are in England, Canada, New Zealand and of course the United States. So I think the whole lot must be around 80-90 thousand in the whole world. So there are lot of Zorastrians maybe in Germany and other places, but they are not Parsees. So this is what Parsees were.
United states of America
Now in the old days it was very strict and there was marriage only within the Parsee community. Now lot of Parsees have married outside the community. And according to the rules...the children of the girls who married out are not in the community. Fortunately still the children of fathers...Parsee fathers are admitted into the community. So if this goes on, probably the Parsee community will dwindle even further, because a lot of girls want to make their children Parsees, but they are not able to. I personally feel that if their parents..even the non-parsee husband has no objection, the Parsees should admit such children into the community, considering that a large percentage of the community today is consisting of people in the age group of 45 to 60. That being the case, to preserve this community I think we should admit. You asked about the contribution...I think..even though I shouldn't say it myself, the contribution has been tremendous. If you look at the Tata empire, the Godrejs..the charities which are cosmopolitan..the Parsees have contributed greatly to India's prosperity, especially in Bombay. I feel that.
Parsee community does not encourage its members to marry outside the community. Children of the Parsee women whose husbands are non-Parsee are
considered as outsiders and deprived of heritage and privileges. Parsee institutions helped the nation's development and prosperity.
Parsee institutions and bonhomie.
(M): No no of course we all know that. (disturbance)
(CLK): There is also great affinity towards Parsee institutions. Now for instance, as far as I am concerned, I love the Tata organization, not only because I work there but it became my second home. And there was this great camraderie, which is still there and after 13 years that I have retired, this is the 13th year..I am still being called every year on founders day to garland the portrait of Jamshedji Tata in both my offices. So I feel..I won't say proud, but very wanted and I feel very nostalgic. And even now I go to th office quite often, meet my colleagues...whoever are left there and thats how it is..they are very close.
CLK talks about Pasee's arrival at Sanjan coast in 13th century and how they were accepted by the local king.
(M): Many communites came to India..especially from central Asia..there were Bagdadi Jews, Parsees came, Iranians came ..nobody became actually as involved with the development of India as Parsees did. What is so special about Parsees, take it Jamshedji Tata, take it Nariman.. (CLK interrupts to answer)
(CLK): They are pioneers. You see its like this. The story goes that when the Parsees first came the ruler in Gujarat at that time...first he had apprehensions, suddenly this huge group of people coming in ships to the Sanjan coast and he asked them that what will you do if I admit you into the country. So he said, just like sugar dissolves in milk, we will dissolve in the community. We will not have our separate identity and this is the story that went and then the Parsees who came in they sort of lived up to that promise. they've gone into each and every industry now.
Parsees have been the non-controversial minority citizens. Though very active in public life they rarely got involved with any political activities. About Jamshedji Tata building the first large scale industrial township in Jamshedpur in Bihar (now Jharkhand).
(CLK): I think, Parsees have been good Indians. They have not involved themselves in controversies like several communities have, and we have...you must have hardly seen that Parsees have disrupted life anywhere in India. They are not built that way. Then there are pioneers of industry like Jamshedji Tata who not only looked at the Parsee community but in Bihar where at that time it was a very wild area he built this great empire in Jamshedpur and which gave employment to thousands of people. Not only of that area but later on throughout the country, hotel, even now...IT, communications, telecom services, hotel..hotel specially, the Taj Mahal Hotel and then the Indian Hotel group, so...
Taj Mahal Hotel
taj mahal hotel
Parsee have survived by creating a niche for themselves. They adopt to situations deftly.
(M): How it is..why is it that the Parsee people so diferent from other immigrant communities that come here. Is it that so many years back it was differnt or the nature is differnt.
(CLK): Well Parsees have a knack to adapt to any environment. Previously there were the British. Even in the British days they never created any problems for the Birtish, and so many of them merged into that society, that governement. As soon as we got independence people like JRD, Godrej, merged into that society. So I think we have a great knack to adapt to the current situation and the envrionment. That is why Parsees have survied. If we had created some sort of niche for ourselves then probably we would not have survived. We would have been wiped out. Though we have to a certain extent kept to ourselves, at the same time we have merged so well into the society that whereever Parsees are, I think they are quite loved and respected. That how it is.
(M): Ok, I am asking you a question which may not be your forte, it may be Mrs. Lalkaka's forte. You have been here for so many years and lifestyle, language, it has become gujarati but the food is still very distinct, how that is maintained.
(CLK): See parsee food is now only seen at functions, weddings, Navjots and things like that. When we eat at home we normally eat whatever vegetables, whatever dal, whatever, even non-veg food is available. I don't think there is any separate Parsee food in homes. But yes whenever are there are functions, there is separate Parsee food. This has come from Gujarat. And we have kept it and we love it. Even at this age, I look forward to Parsee navjots and weddings, look forward to invitations. Sometimes we discuss among ourselves, arey we still haven't received any invitations this time. So we look forward to going to those functions and eat that food. Yes it is a little distinct and we now don't have as many caterers, Parsee caterers as we used to have. Yes but we still have distinct food and we not only enjoy it, not only we but even non-parsees. We have some restaurants like that in Bombay also.
(M): It not really...considering Parsees are such entrepreneurs, Parsee food has not been marketed at all. (Sound of clock)
(CLK): That clock is also almost 100 years old.
Marketing Parsee cuisine.
(M): so parsee food is not marketed at all..such entrepreneur community) (CLK): In fact this was even tried abroad. In New York they opened a Parsee food restaurant..it didn't work too well. Becasue maybe the foreigners didn't sort of take to it. But yes you are right, it has not been marketed. I don't know if it would be liked but there are now a couple of restaurants, which serve only Parsee food. One which I know about is Jimmy Boy. Now the Parsee caterers who cater to Parsee weddings and things like that they can serve Parsee food, at functions, parties, things like that. There is a club called the Ripon Club..have you been there? The Ripon Club is I think 100 years old, I'm a member there..most Parsees are. Its very well sort of..its very well patronised by the lawyers in the high court every afternoon and it serves only Parsee food. So its a lovely place
Jimmy boy restaurant
Parsees are a miniscule community. Though very outgoing in public life, their social and cultural life is guarded carefully - the only way for a small community to survive.
(M): So here is one community...I am trying to understand, on the one hand very outgoing, scientists, industrialists, musicians who have really gone all over the world and made their name, is always in touch with the development of human civilization, on the other hand is very inward looking also. In the sense that Parsees are Parsees and no one can really become a Parsee. (CLK: yeah you have to be born a Parsee) (M): and also culturally...certain things are maintained in the house..it looks like outgoing community- have been all over the world and at the helm of affairs and at home it is a very closed community. How do you look at this phenomenon, and that makes it a very special phenomena.
(CLK): Probably it is closed because it is so small and culturally I think we have become quite international now, I don't think we are culturally very close. If you see so many top musicians, so many lawyers are all Parsees, so they have taken up culture fro m all over. So they are no longer a closed circuit.
The population of Parsee community is dwindling.
Though decor wise in any Parsee home you can make out that these people are Parsees. Probably because our ancestors and us to some extent are very fond of antiques and things like that, so they come from father to son and we try to maintain them. But otherwise I think now the Parsees are quite outgoing and lot of them have married abroad, married outside the community. So I don't think its a very close community. You are finding it that way because it is dwindling in size. And it is sometimes frightening when you go to a Parsee function and you find that 50% of people are senior citizens. So it is very necessary that Parsees should marry within themselves and increase the size of the population. That is very necessary.
CLK Talks about cosmopolitanism among Parsee industrialists, how some Parsees with talent for public life was not recognized. (Incidentally, the freedom fighter and congress member Nariman, of the Nariman point fame, was slated to be the first chief minister of Bombay. But just before the independence he was elbowed out in order to avoid the risk of getting a premier from a minority community.)
(M): Do you think Parsee community has been recognized adequately for its contribution to this country especially to this city?
(CLK): I think so, people have been decorated, people have been appreciated a lot, but not as Parsees but as Indians. Because if you notice a person like JRD Tata, he never said I am a Parsee or I would favour Parsees, he's a very proud Indian, But unfortunately according to me the assistance of the Parsee was not take in the political scene right from the start. Probably if they had they might have found some very good administrators, I wouldn't call them politicians, but they would have been great..suppose JRD had been the PM of this country, the country would have see much better days and we would not have fallen into some sort of rut that we did some time ago. The basic honesty was there...the basic honesty, integrity, dedication which surprisingly this small community had would have been of great help and assitance to the develpoment of this country. The basic honesty especially, because in the old days all cashiers of all banks were Parsees, I don't know if you are aware, but Parsees in their Parsee dress and topi, they used to be cashiers of most banks. That itself was an indication of how much their honesty was appreciated. This is how is was. Of course its no longer so ...