Love knows not age, nor time, nor blood. Sessions of tea and conversation have kept that truth alive for many decades now…
She tells me we first encountered each other in front of Hanson Lodge at Bedford Circle (how quaintly colonial are those names?) in the late 1980s. She and her husband, Uncle Eddie, as I call him, were driving in to visit a friend who lived there, and I was emerging having paid a visit to the five resident dogs there. I apparently opened the gate and shut it after them… and that was the beginning of the most beautiful friendship that has grown in love and respect steadily over three decades. I went on to become friends with her son Navroze as well, who was the sweetest little seven-year old boy you ever saw, with impeccable manners, and a pink bow tie… the impeccable manners have remained, but he has since discarded the bow ties, which is a shame.
Shireen Sethna took me under her wing decades ago and it all started in her marvellous home that she welcomed me into every single day for the duration of my holidays back in the Nilgiris. She always had tea and snacks and food waiting for my ever ready appetite. And when I got tired of the younger set, I would trot off towards Aunty Shireen and thus it began… This cup of tea I had with her, snuggled up, legs tucked in under me on one of her white-painted cane chairs. And powered by the brew that powers the Nilgiris, all those years ago, we began those wonderful conversations that took away the divide of age, religion and circumstance. We have over the years discussed dogs, food, men, relationships, books, religion, politics… I doubt there is any subject we have left untouched and we are yet to run out of things to say to each other. She was the first person to introduce me to the benefits of Ayurveda, she was the first ‘grown-up’ in Coonoor who let me have a smoke in front of her and she was one of the few people who never took my runaway mouth personally.
She is a storyteller of some ability, and regaled me with tales of an era gone by. From her I got to know a very personal side to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – her father was his personal naturopath, and listening to her life growing up around those figures from history was like watching a history book come most wonderfully alive.
Her home, oh her home… that beautiful old Colonial bungalow that seems to sit almost at the Centre of that quaint, old-fashioned town… it is such a warm and welcoming place. Its white walls and soft red roof glow in the morning sun, inviting you to step in and forget the world outside. Filled with memorabilia from another time, each piece has a fascinating history that she will recount in her soft and elegant voice. We once spent an entire afternoon pouring ourselves cups of tea and poring over old black and white photograph albums. The old leather-bound books themselves were the legacy of a family friend who had travelled all over India, and who had recorded his travels through the lens of that (then) still-new-fangled bit of technology – a camera. And over tea, one summer morning, in her home, we retraced his journey well over half a century later, marvelling at his adventures and the views that peered out at us from the carefully preserved pages of these wonderful pieces of life.
Each cup, each pot, each knickknack in this home is a treasure, each little piece takes you back in time when life was slower and gentler, when people dressed up for dinner and left calling cards, and had high tea. Aunty Shireen’s home is reminiscent of all that. And more. It is, above all, a home. A place where love and acceptance and loyalty mean something still, and where one can be assured of a warm welcome and fine conversation. The warm welcome always starts with the dogs, of course for this is, and has always been, a home filled with dogs… strays that have struck the canine lottery. And like me, they too find an abundance of love, care, protection and excellent food to come back to, no matter how far they roam.
It was always a home filled with young people… Navroze’s friends, and I include myself in this list, regularly made for Aunty Shireen’s house like a flock of well-trained homing pigeons. For most of us it was a second home, and for many it was a first, and a lot of it had to do with the lady of the manor.
Her own personal journey, which she was good enough to share with me, has been inspirational. She taught me that it was important to stick to your guns on important issues, to follow my heart and passions, and her belief in me made me believe in myself. Her love for her son and her husband taught me the value of committing to the little things in everyday life, and to being true to the ones who you care for the most. She taught me the importance of working and earning, and she taught me this by example. She also taught me that four spoons of sugar in a small cup of tea was not to be tolerated, at least not in her presence. I can’t thank her enough for that.
We are not all destined for great heroism or fame. Not all of us will make millions or have books written about us. In fact, most of us continue through life, getting on with the compelling business of making it through the day. And somehow into this daily tapestry we manage to weave in humour, kindness, friendships, jobs, partners… and in the case of the Nilgiris, we douse all of it in tea. Some do it better than others… Aunty Shireen is certainly one of those.
Today I live far away from Coonoor. But I go back once a year, and in that visit, the one non-negotiable is my morning session with this lady. We meet, mostly in her lovely bungalow, shut the door, shut out the rest of the world and it’s just the two of us. A no-nonsense yet soft-spoken, beautifully articulate Parsi lady and the harum-scarum half-breed Maharashtrian-Tamilian girl… and we talk and share and exchange and laugh in the way only the two of us can, drinking in each other’s company and the inevitable cups of tea, made all the more delicious courtesy the very fine company it is drunk in.
Photographs by Greaves Henriksen