Parsis and hill stations are irrevocably connected. Where you find one, you will find the other… And they make for the most delightful conversations and the most uplifting friendships.
One of the nicest features of growing up in the Nilgiri Hills is running into the most fabulous men… The kind they don’t seem to make anymore. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with some of them as a young girl… and it inevitably involved a cup of tea.
Wellington is this cheerful army base in the Nilgiris. It is home to a Defence College of some international distinction that draws students from all around the world, a quaint military hospital, the awe-inspiring Madras Regimental Centre and a clutch of golf-playing, moustached generals and colonels living out their retirement, still impressive in their military bearing and discipline. But of all these men… I salute that most elegant and charming of officers, whose statue adorns what was once called Black Bridge, apparently thus named for the number of men who had hanged themselves from it in times gone by. Back in the day I was the awkward, rebellious teenager, stuck in a small hill town and where the pinnacle of excitement was the story of the woman who gave birth to a snake. That particular rumour was enough to keep minds and tongues busy in speculation throughout a whole year… But that’s a story for another day… For now, back to the men I knew and still love.
His house sat elegantly on a hillside that I regularly walked by everyday on my way back from college. I knew him as my parents were his friends, and I, loving dogs as I did, was firm friends with his canine companion. So every now and then I would waltz up the slope to his house, and stare in wonder at the view from up there. The sweeping, tea-laden splendour of the Nilgiris lay before my eyes… Either sparkling in the mountain sunshine, or glistening in the wetness of its Monsoons. And the dog was there;a massive German Shepherd with the disposition of a particularly docile lamb, and every now and then his wonderful, wonderful Parsi master was there too. And he and I would sit in his sunken living room and we would discuss books, and the colour scheme of his beautiful home, and he would tell me stories from his military days… He said he used to call Indira Gandhi ‘sweetie’ and that always made me giggle. He was an international figure, a national hero and yet somehow he managed to make an insignificant teenager feel special and important and never once did he make me feel less than welcome on any of the many times I showed up at his home – windblown, scruffy and uninvited. Those cups of tea with Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw’s at his spectacularly beautiful home were a special time, and he, like the other Parsi gentleman I got to know, opened my eyes to a world beyond tea gardens and misty mountains.
But before I got to know Sam Bahadur, and his dog Irish, I often spent my mornings visiting Major Fally Vakharia. Uncle Fally was a Parsi man too. And he had retired from his military career and lived in a small rented, one-roomed house at Bedford Circle in Coonoor. It was a small, sweet cottage set beside the fabled Hanson Lodge… Home to a pair of Anglo-Indian sisters (again a story for another day) and there he lived out his retirement listening to the radio and drinking more tea than I had ever seen anyone drink before and holding forth articulately on global politics. I read him his morning paper and made him breakfast, normally toast and butter, and he would correct my pronunciation and make sure I said Nicaragua correctly… It was in the news a lot those days. He always knew exactly where everything was, to the millimetre. From his radio, to his bar of soap, to his spoon and bowl of sugar. From him I learned to make the perfect cup of tea – strong, with a dribble of cold milk, a spoon of sugar, and accompanied with hot, buttery toast. He said it was the only way to drink tea and to this day I concur. And he guided me in the making of his breakfast with military precision from his little living room while I stumbled around his kitchen… You see, Fally was blind, but I still think his soul saw all his eyes could not, and all the more clearly because of it.
I also discovered another great accompaniment to tea were Marie biscuits and this was thanks to one of the loveliest humans to ever grace this planet. Erach Avari was your quintessential, dapper Parsi gentleman. Impeccably turned out, I was convinced that he rose from bed with perfectly combed hair and the perfectly knotted tie smelling of mint and powder. We had a standing date during summer holidays to take tea together at 4 pm on a Thursday afternoon. I would trot off from my home and on the short walk to his pretty, storybook bungalow I would pluck whatever wildflowers I could find as an offering for this benign soul. And he would be waiting, normally in a cheerful red tie, a waistcoat and brown tweed jacket, beaming at me as he opened the door. We always made the tea together, and then he would open up a packet of Marie biscuits and thus armed we would set off into his library. And oh, what a library it was. It had an armchair and shelf upon shelf of books, hardbacks most of them, with that splendid smell that only old books can have. We would randomly select one, and read passages to each other, but mostly they were too erudite for my feeble teenage imaginings. And so our conversations would inevitably drift to his days in Mussoorie and the times he spent with Jim Corbett teaching that famous writer how to shoot. He regaled me with tales of battles with giant, twisting snakes and cunning and clever tigers and I would listen to him in awe, dunking my biscuits sporadically in hot tea, transported back in time and space…
They’re gone now… These lovely Parsi gentlemen from another lifetime, and I miss them so. But every so often with a cup of that red-gold brew I am reminded of them and the lessons they taught. That hospitality should be gracious regardless of the recipient, good manners is not what you do, but who you are. That a thirst for knowledge should be everyone’s goal and that a cup of tea transcends the generation gap in the most exquisite way. So I raise my cup to those fine gentlemen and others like them who once walked the Nilgiris, and I remember with gratitude those wonderful tête-à-têtes in those beautiful green and blue mountains and the rich tapestry of life they introduced me to… always over a cup of tea.
Photographs by Greaves Henriksen