A long life
NUVART PARSEGHIAN MEHTA
HEREWITH begins the second half of the narrator’s life, in the humble service of Uncle Sam. What a jump from the city of skyscrapers to a good sized metropolis surrounded by water and being December, cool and comfortable. And what perks. I was lodged in a comfortable bedroom-sitting unit at the Oxford University Press building in Colaba. My hosts were a German couple, the Shaffers who were to become faithful friends. For the first time I was exposed to servants as an adult. A car picked me up and delivered me after office hours. The USIS office was at Adelphi, Churchgate, in an old-fashioned building. Eventually we moved to The International, next door, and many years later USIS on New Marine Lines became a permanent centre to spread the good word about American culture, study opportunities and ways of making the world shrink a bit.
I hardly caught my breath in my new environment when I was invited, to be precise on 22 January 1953, to a cocktail party in one of the charming bungalows of New Marine lines. Among the guests was a dapper middle aged man with whom I danced. At the end of the party, he offered to take me home.
When we left in his little Austin, he was anxious to show me the city from the Malabar Hill heights (considered the classic approach). When he finally left me at my door, I did not have an inkling of how the encounter would change my life. For a gregarious person, my job was made to order, meeting not only Tom, Dick and Harry but academics, artists, and the general culture-vulture types! Each day was a challenge to serve the spirit of this American programme and on top of it to be paid for it! Of course there were times for rigorous self-restraint, not to blow up at unreasonable requests and attitudes but you learn soon if you want to keep your job.
We old timers refer to the ‘golden fifties’ when reminiscing of the social and cultural life we led in Bombay. It was gracious and perhaps conservative, as the present generation would think. We did not use the current (in the nineties) lingo of glitterati, literati (add illiterati!) for the genuine article was there in the personalities of very literate and creative men and women. The centre pieces of the fifties were the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Society Room at the Ambassador Hotel, not counting gracious private homes in the hills and Marine Lines. Lunch at the Society Room was a ritual, presided over by the genial host, Jack Voyantis. Now that I think of him, he was very much in the mould of Aristotle Onassis, Greek like him, if only physically. Food was excellent, atmosphere very high thinking assisted by liquid refreshments. The pianist gave us provocative music, no discos, thank you. Jack and I, both of Near East origin, exchanged recipes and more than once he supplied me with special ingredients flown in from Greece.
And conversation? It could not be dull with such luminaries as Frank Moraes, editor of The Times of India, soft spoken and of few words but a treat to listen to. Shawn Mandy, editor of The Illustrated Weekly, the Irishman of the twinkling blue eyes and naughty humour; impish Laxman, the cartoonist – the list can be a long one but years have slowed memory.
In the five years of my USIS assignment, the cultural scene was very active and very classy. The legendary Marian Anderson was among the first to perform as was Leontine Price, at the time a young unknown singer who attained international repute. I remember putting 500 chairs in the Taj Ballroom for a concert as there was at that time no large hall even for a few hundred persons. For Marian Anderson a local orchestra was put together by the western music aficionado, Vere da Silva. Rudolf Serkin was next. Then Martha Graham and her troupe, not to mention the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra with Anton Dorati and then the San Francisco Ballet. Those were the days for western classical programmes.
Along with my work, something was brewing on the romantic front – the protagonist being the Parsi gentleman who had showed me the Bombay skyline on 22 January 1953. It was too early to forecast the romantic future because of family obligations on my part and restrictions in the foreign service rules. The latter would change drastically with women’s lib.
Somewhere along this time, 1954, the greatest and most thrilling event was my reunion with my brother in Melbourne – over 12,000 miles by air. Three decades had gone by since we had been together. For the first day he was like a handsome boy friend until we caught up our childhood threads again. Although we had both developed differently, me international, he very faithful to his Armenian roots, we got along very well. He had launched a project to establish an Armenian Apostolic Church in Melbourne.
Just as you see in the movies, there was a mistake in arrival time and after all kinds of palpitation for the great reunion, he was not there to meet me. When we finally did, his first comment was ‘My, how you have grown!’ Indeed, I was 14 when my father left us and took him along, and 44 when we met again.
After returning to Bombay from home leave for a second term in 1955, serious thought had to be given about the future as there was no doubt that a third term would not be granted. 1957 was a decisive year. Both of us, confirmed bachelors and already middle aged, took the plunge and decided on marriage. A request for permission, accompanied by a letter of resignation went to Washington headquarters. The letter of resignation was accepted: That was it.
We announced our official engagement on June 13 (considered my lucky day since my American citizenship was granted on 13 November 1947). We arranged to have the engagement party in the USIS offices where my Indian and American colleagues and I had worked together very happily for five years.
There was a bit of hue and cry from my family, devout Armenian Christians. They remembered the religious wars of the fifth century in Iran. Zoroastrians, the faith of my husband to be, and Armenians had clashed in the fifth century when the former tried to convert by the sword. The enemy was 220,000 strong. Armenians mustered 66,000 soldiers. The general, Vartan, in spite of a small army, saved the faith. To this day he is honoured as a saint, in the month of February. The irony, historically, of this event is that about two centuries later these same Zoroastrians fled Iran when the Muslims invaded the country. That is when the Parsis landed on the western coast of India. And this is the minuscule minority which has done so much for the general progress of India.
To come back to happier events and to add that Nari’s family’s attitude was impeccable, Uncle Sam did not get his money’s worth in the next six months as I plunged into preparations for the big event. There was much discussion on the date. Parsis have imbibed Hindu concepts such as position of stars, auspicious days and what not. We also had to consider the inconvenience to golfing friends if our big event was to take place on a weekend.
One comment still makes me laugh. When we announced December 21 as the wedding day to the wife of the Consul General, a very proper and dignified lady, she exclaimed: ‘Oh my, Nuvart, that is the longest night of the year!’ True, the solstice, as June 21 is the longest day of the year.
Nari and his family graciously agreed that in addition to the civil marriage, I could have a religious service. But where? I started shopping for a church. My Armenian church said yes, but first we must baptize him. I said nothing doing. The Church of England said the bishop would only bless the rings. And wonder of wonders, the Wesley Church in Colaba said since one member is a Christian, a full ceremony could be held. Once this knotty problem was solved, we plunged into much socialising and getting details worked out. I dashed to beat import restrictions to purchase pale pink Chantilly lace. It was stored away in a friend’s air conditioned bedroom to protect it from the tropical weather. The dress turned out well but the petticoat was so stiff, I did not sit down once.
In spite of partying, I had been swimming and playing badminton to keep some semblance of a waistline and to obey my volatile Italian dressmaker’s instructions ‘Hold it in, pull it in.’ ‘But Madame Bussi I can’t breathe.’ ‘I don’t care, you must look right on that day’ – all this in priceless Italian English. I did not care for a bouquet, as I had always cherished my grandmother’s prayerbook. It was covered with dull satin, two gladioli buds and my family heirloom, a jewelled butterfly pin. There was a minor crisis before I left for church when we discovered that I had given my keys to Nari earlier who was already at church and I could not get to my engagement ring. That solved, the next contretemps in my mounting excitement, I made Nari take the wrong ring, so I could not push his all the way down when my turn came. But fortunately a prayer followed during the ceremony and we quietly changed our rings.
The reception was held at a maharajah’s palace which eventually became Lincoln House, the home of the American Consulate General. By Indian standards, it was a very small reception, only 300. The pink cake was catered by Bombellis, a Swiss old-timer. The Indian gift giving is a welcome change from bits of odds and ends – cash. What was collected took care of our honeymoon and then some.
Before we left for our honeymoon the next day, my special passport had to be changed to an ordinary one by an officer on special duty for me on a Sunday.
Having been a spinster for so long, it took time for me to refer to Nari as my husband. I practised during the trip to the Nilgiris: Ooty at 7500 feet, at a farmhouse in the slopping downs, still a British Raj mellow atmosphere. When we visited again some years later, the whole area was ugly and commercialised. This has been happening in all of India, and Bombay is a prime example of what I mean. Our romantic sea shore has been reclaimed and skyscrapers vie with each other for height and dullness. The private homes, bungalows, in tree shaded lanes, have been replaced by commercial establishments. Along with the physical change, what about the leadership? How tall they walked, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain, men of learning, morality, dedication. And now? Instead of being statesmen, to be a politician now is a ‘profession’, like being an engineer or a doctor, to make a living out of it. Patriots? They are only legends now. For one who has lived here for half her life, it’s to have witnessed a dream, now lost.
Iwas doing all housekeeping chores on our return to our Bombay home. I can well see the grins on all faces when I am mourning that I have no servant! Shopping in Bombay means that one brings a chicken home from the market practically intact, except for a slit throat. Fish comes with all scales and bones on. The biggest struggle at the time, however, was how to make poached eggs which Nari liked for breakfast. It is tricky. The second struggle was to find enough room for Nari’s ‘junk’. If they say women collect, I know how it is exaggerated. Pipes galore, hooks and buttons, cigar boxes, wall calendars, aeroplane models, torchlights – a veritable thieves market.
In mid 1959 I became a working woman again. The Fulbright Foundation in Delhi had opened a regional Bombay office and I was asked to take charge of it. Fortune was smiling extra for the Department of State at this time wanted to borrow me for a period of three months to handle a project under the President’s cultural programme. Inasmuch as I had never been a TV enthusiast, I had never heard of Red Alexander’s Dance Jubilee. But I was in a dilemma. My mother had come from Istanbul to live with us; she was recuperating from an illness. As Nari was to handle travel arrangements and go around the country ahead of time, it meant mother was to be alone. Gutsy woman that she was, she told us to go ahead. I flew to Teheran to get acquainted with the troupe. While struggling with artistic temperaments, I enjoyed the compensations; caviar (black not red) and services in the Armenian Church, complete with cymbals and musical bells.
Ireturned to Bombay with ten dancers, five musicians, one singer and five stage crew. They performed 38 times all over the country. Each move needed one chartered plane for the equipment and one for the personnel. Nari’s buddies were quite envious since the personnel included three young blondes, one gorgeous Mexican and some of the time I was not on the trip! On this particular project I discovered that among his many virtues, my husband was a very efficient businessman.
My memories of a successful tour are marred by tragic ones. Mother attended one of the shows but while going down the steps she fell and broke her hip. But we were blessed by the quality of the doctors and nurses. Dr Rani, the eye doctor, was a handsome tall Parsi who had studied in England. Dr Amson, a German refugee, a saint who walks the earth – one of those unusual doctors who phones in for a report on the patient if one has failed to phone him!
In spite of all the loving care, I lost my mother in May 1960. To honour her wishes, we arranged to take her remains to Istanbul to be buried next to her parents. As we were to board the plane, it was announced that the Istanbul airport was closed due to a coup. Deep in sorrow, we returned to the city and buried her in the Armenian cemetery which dates back to the 18th century. The Fort area is the old stamping ground of those who founded the city. The Armenian Church was founded in 1796, a few lanes away from Bruce Street, the area commonly referred to as the Tata headquarters. The cemetery, however, is in the far suburbs, Wadala.
To anticipate, let me narrate that my mother’s wishes were honoured some twenty years later when her remains were, accompanied by me, flown to Istanbul. Incredible as it may sound in modern times, the airlines lost the box containing her remains and sent it to cargo in New York. For six weeks we had no news. To lighten the poignancy of our anxiety, we resorted to humour and said mother always enjoyed travelling. Eventually the box was found and interred next to her parents in Istanbul.
1962 was the year when India had a border confrontation with China. When we returned from one of our periodic trips, the barrage of patriotism engulfed us. We read daily lists of cash and gold donations for the defence fund. ‘Ornaments and Armaments, give generously to the National Defence Fund’, ‘give India your blood, gold and work – she needs it now’, ‘talk less, work more’, I was particularly happy with the Air India cartoon at a main Bombay thoroughfare. It showed a boyish Kennedy and a dignified Macmillan being profusely garlanded by a delegation of two men and two women, a non-vegetarian rolly-polly Parsi woman, a streamlined Hindu woman, a skinny Congressman and a grinning Sikh, saying in union ‘Bless you both.’
After the ceasefire, we faced uncertainty, politically and militarily. No uncertainty, however, about the welfare of the jawan, the simple, semi-literate but sturdy soldier is the Man of the Year. Nothing is too good for him: society ladies purl one, knit two at their bridge tables, in between deals. 2000 booths sprung up in the city, to ‘vote for victory’ – each vote costing one local unit, a rupee.
Whether as a result of the political and military situation I don’t know, but new import restrictions were announced. I don’t know the difference between ball bearings and bolt nuts, but I do know the difference between White Horse and Black Knight. My connoisseur husband insists that if you add a peg of sherry to Black Knight, the local brand, it improves. Foreign cars, iceboxes, electric appliances were on their way to the museum. Our newly acquired General Electric icebox was enthroned in our Americanised kitchen, as precious to me as a walky talky doll to a Fiji child.
Again USIS removed my ennui after coming down to earth from spiritual heights. NASA sent an educational venture to India – a space-mobile van, gaily decorated with American and Indian flags, with realistic models of Titan, Explorer, Echo, Mercury, etc. I who have flunked every science course, had to understand all this. The team consisted of an American lecturer, three Indian scientists, two drivers and me, the mother hen.
Variety being the spice of life was not a banal expression in my life. From space, I began to swing to jazz, when Duke Ellington and his orchestra came to Bombay, again under the USIS sponsorship. Again I had to pretend – to be a jazz buff. At the time I had not realised that Indians were crazy about jazz. Ticket lines formed in the night, just like at the Met, the only difference being that one does not shiver waiting in line during the night and we can send servants to keep our place in the line, both considerable advantages.
The biggest administrative problem was to get the group to keep to the schedule, all prima donnas. Each member needed an attendant to insure appearance at functions, even at concerts. One would collect five, go after the next five, and return to discover that the first five had disappeared. Concerts were sellouts, and held in an outdoor theatre, seating 3000. October is a dry month in Bombay, but it had been raining. We consulted the weather bureau, offered prayers to all the gods of the pantheon, kept all kinds of charms around. Result: dry days and a first class downpour ten minutes after the last concert!
On our reasonably frantic calendar, pretty good for quite an elderly couple, was the visit of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, and its Bombay born conductor, Zubin Mehta. We have basked temporarily in reflected glory. Whether in the States or in Europe, we were always asked if we were related. There are some thirty pages of Mehtas in the telephone directory. The closest ‘relationship’ was the fact that my husband and Zubin’s father sat next to each other in college, doubtless an alphabetic convenience! At another time when attending Zubin’s Lucerne festival, we went backstage to meet him. When we gave our name to his secretary, with a sneer, she said ‘Really?’ Without a sneer we answered ‘Yes, really, Mehta.’ All male Parsi children, born during his visit in India, in November, were named Zubin; but not ‘Zuby baby’ bestowed on him by American admirers, if we were to believe press stories. Among this great orchestra of 110 musicians, I proudly spotted one Armenian, the assistant concertmaster.
One night we came home and found a car parked in the space reserved for us. It was a neighbour’s car, the chauffeur dead drunk, giggling, and a dead body in the back seat. He had knocked down the man, cruised around at a loss what to do and eventually landed in our compound. At this time Bombay was supposed to be a strictly dry city!
Major and minor events in our daily lives in Bombay interested and amused me. One day in September I was a full-fledged Christian in the morning and a ‘Hindu’ in the afternoon. Our car was piled with pilgrims to St. Mary’s Cathedral for its feast day: two Americans, one Parsi, one Roman Catholic and one Hindu. In the evening, Rauji, our Hindu servant and I witnessed a Ganapati immersion, the half-man, half-elephant god who removes obstacles. Clay models are worshipped for ten days and then immersed in the sea with much pomp and circumstance.
Although we have been blessed with faithful and uncomplaining servants, at one ladies luncheon for ten, there were two vegetarians but one of them did not eat eggs on that particular day, one was a Muslim who did not eat pork (therefore two quiche lorraines, one without bacon) the rest meat eaters but no veal! But no complaints from our good servants.
My daily laughs came free from the matrimonial ads in our morning paper. Here is one: ‘Wanted intelligent bridge for twenty-five years tall (174 cms) handsome, enthusiastic, accomplished, cultured world travelled professor and consulting engineer with Doctor of Science (USA) and British education with over Rs 15000 per month income. Girl must be very beautiful over 160 cms, tall with pretty figure with good nature and habits. Hindi speaking from a good sociable family between 21-24 years; slim, about 50 kg, minimum education BA or BBS, cultured, loving, mature and would like to continue her education in USA for the next two years. No bars or other requirements. Early marriage. Please send full details in confidence to box 28106.’ Any takers?
As if this ad was not enough to saturate us, there was a delicious language mix-up when a dear Swiss friend who knows three other languages fluently, wrote to us ‘I must have caught something which the stomach did not very much appreciate. On the way I collapsed and I was away for about five minutes.’ Soon after we found the following note from Luis, our cook ‘Mr. Natesan bring package for Sahib. Not giving to servant. Jesus Christ.’
The high of the year was a birth: the import of our New York car. Nari says it was like having a baby, inasmuch as it took nine months of work, uncertainty, plus two trips to Delhi, mountains of paper work and 110% duty. We garlanded this new arrival, a 1962 Mercury Comet, in the Indian traditional way, and for added measure, stuck on a Near Eastern charm ‘a blue eye bead’, a ‘nazaar’. In the midst of small domestic cars, it really looks and acts like a Cadillac. Up to now I had to be content to be wife two, golf being one. Now I am third. If I cough all night, Nari says take some syrup, but should the car sneeze, ah…!
* Extracted from Short Stories From A Long Life, the author, 1994.