By Berjis Desai
If we may be pardoned an unscientific generalization, Parsis fight with their relatives — spouses and siblings, parents and progeny, aunts, uncles and cousins — more than members of other communities. While money and marriage are the major reasons, allergy, eccentricity and simple dislike also lead to courts and police stations. The orphan Mako, who lost both his parents when the state transport bus to Valsad overturned, was brought up by his spinster maasi (maternal aunt) who doted on her rather healthy ward. Maasi was secretly overjoyed at his resolve never to contemplate matrimony until she discovered him with the maid in their tiny bathroom. His decent wages, as a booking clerk with Air India those days, bankrolled maasi’s house and put him in a commanding position. Mako did not permit maasi to terminate the domestic’s services thereby threatening maasi’s dominance.
Great affection was soon replaced by great hostility as aunt and nephew declared war. The dining table was agreed to be divided into two equal parts demarcated by a rope. Maasi would send Mako’s doodh ni tapeli (utensil holding milk) flying off the table if it dared to trespass upon her section. In retaliation, the nephew would lock her in the bathroom, the original battle ground, and leave the house. They routinely filed criminal complaints against each other, and one Friday night the harassed sub inspector locked both up for two nights until Mako, who had a phobia about lizards, fainted in the lock-up.
In the very early days of our impoverished legal practice we foolishly agreed to mediate between two middle-aged sisters staying together in Cusrow Baug, both spinsters of course, and both working for the same bank. Their exotically wild allegations and counter allegations would have made Harold Robbins blush, and even 35 years later, publication of the charges would be deemed obscene. Neither would let us recuse from the mediation and taught us the virtue of infinite patience. Years later, one of them sent us half-a-dozen Lookmanji’s malai na khaja (a fresh cream filled philo sweetmeat), with a note saying that our services as the mediator were no longer required as her sister had died the previous evening!
Like Westerners, Parsis believe that divorce at any age is acceptable. After decades of unpeaceful coexistence, Parsis sue their spouses for divorce before the matrimonial division of the Bombay High Court aided by the so-called delegates of the “jury system.” Most of these geriatric delegates cut a sorry picture before an audience of regulars who come armed with a bhona no dabbo (tiffin box) to be devoured in the recess after enjoying the salacious details of matrimonial lives made public. The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act does not recognize irretrievable breakdown as a ground for divorce. Many cussedly do not agree to divorce by mutual consent to prevent the spouse from remarrying, which results in contested cases lasting for years. Those who have been married long, take longer to divorce. Often the non-Parsi judge hides his exasperation with the litigants, exacerbated by inane comments from the delegates, behind a polite countenance, out of deference to the collective goodwill for our eccentric community.
Shapurji, a gentleman at large, who spent his life between the courts and Ripon Club, refused to settle a dispute with his cousins regarding some old furniture worth Rs 17,000, and thought it very unsporting of his cousins who refused to appear in court, thereby denying Shapurji the pleasure of a contest. He gladly paid his solicitor’s bill for Rs 70,000. We recall his quaint little solicitor, in his late 1980s, taking a goodly 30 minutes to finish the arduous journey from his easy chair at the Ripon to the washroom, and ambling back.
We were also privy to an acrimonious dispute between three Parsi Irani brothers in the bakery business. Every morning, they baked fresh bread and also fresh disputes, mostly banal. The eldest, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, insisted that we reduce our fees and that he would soon “please” us. Our doorbell rang at 5.30 in the morning, and there was our client with a huge walnut cake, for our gustatory pleasure. His middle brother, who had an uncanny resemblance to the hero of Taras Bulba, would apply ginger paste on his sweating bald pate to keep it cool and saunter into the High Court, setting a hundred noses twitching. The youngest brother complained to us that our client’s wife was so jealous of his wife that when the latter had her hysterectomy performed by a noted obstetrician, the former too went to the good doctor with a request that he do her hysterectomy.
In the Parsi DNA, there is an as yet unidentified litigation gene which is transmitted from one generation to the next. For these families, filing a suit is as common as having breakfast. Consent terms are for cowards; settlements are for sissies. Parsi ladies and gentlemen of leisure litigate for sheer pleasure. In their unending quest for justice they care not if their opponents are of their own blood. Mako died prematurely before his maasi who honored her errant nephew’s memory by refusing to untie the rope which divided their dining table.
Berjis M. Desai, managing partner of J. Sagar Associates, advocates and solicitors, is a writer and community activist.