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Parsi Tea Parties for Two

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.

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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.

Sam Manekshaw's statue in Coonoor.

Sam Manekshaw’s statue in Coonoor.

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

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  • Sangeetha Shinde
    Sangeetha Shinde is Managing Editor of The Business Innovator, a European business magazine. She has previously edited and written for lifestyle and culture magazines, including the Times of India, Reader's Digest and Femina. She is also the author of "A Moral Murder and Other Tales from the Blue Hills", a collection of snapshots of life and legends in the Nilgiris, where she grew up.
  • All Posts from Sangeetha Shinde

30 Comments

  1. João Pedro Trindade says

    I read this over a cup of tea. Beautiful text. So colourful and vivid.. Thank you…

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Thank you so much…so glad you liked it. Come to India for a a cup of tea sometime. :-)

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Thank you, Rita. I hope you’ll keep coming back for more. Warm regards from all of us in the Blue Mountains.

  2. Beautiful expressed by the author! I can actually picture these wonderful men and backdrops of blue mountains in my mind! What a rich experience that must have been to actually meet men of honour humour and style and of course all this backed by the epic love for ever hot steaming cup a tea!

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Alka…they don’t make them like that anymore, more’s the pity. But luckily most of us have these wonderful memories to share… And so these grand and gracious characters live on. :)

  3. Stephen Gardner says

    Having not been to Nilgiris or drunk tea for many years, I now feel like doing both!

    This is a blog I will read again and will look out for the next one, there’s something special when a writer can take you away to a new destination even though you are firmly planted in your own ‘now’. This story did just that. I feel enlightened

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Hi Stephen… What wonderful feedback. Here’s to tea and the fine men who drink it… Enjoy your cup. And keep reading.

  4. Susana Coelho says

    beautiful, you made me travel, chat with those Parsi gentleman and feel the comfort of those tea moments…

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Susana, delighted I was able to bring back those folks from long ago… Even for a brief moment. A writer gets no greater pleasure than the enjoyment of a reader. Thank you. :)

  5. Arijit says

    Lovely article, beautifully written and evokes long lost memories. My father attended ‘that college of international distinction’ many years ago when I was a little more than a toddler.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Arijit… That college has a few more buildings these days…but it stands firm and strong in its long held traditions… You should go back for a visit…glad this little piece brought back a good memory. Thank you for reading.

  6. Sharing your nostalgic column with friends, l’d like to share with you a few of their responses.

    1. So wonderful to read. In today’s ugly election season, my heart melts to read about these great, moral Parsi gentlemen.

    2. What a lovely reading at breakfast. Now I want to know the identity of that teenage narrator of this account.
    Such green scenery. We have not been to Conoor.

    3.Beautifully written!
    Rusi, this poignant piece is simply beautiful… I’m happy these sweet old gents had a wonderful restful and enjoyable retirement, God knows they deserved it. And yes, this standard of charm and goodness is what we have to live up to! It’s what gave us parsees and Zarthushtis the fine reputation we still enjoy.

    I will copy my parents so they can also enjoy it.

    4.What a delightful rendering of times I can almost picture. And all were Parsee, even though she is not!

    Thanks
    Rusi Soeabji.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Rusi… I have replied to you further down, by accident. Do take a look if you can. x

  7. Subhag Singh says

    Thank You so much for giving us to read a truly beautifully written article. I’m envious but also very happy for you to have spent your childhood admist the beauty of the hills and in great company of these very few true gentlemen known to our country.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Subagh…thank you for taking the time out to write to us at teabox. I was lucky with some of the influences I had growing up but it took decades to realise it… I’m sure you have similar stories from your youth… :)

  8. Sangeetha Shinde says

    Rusi… Thank you for taking the time out to let me know this… I have an affection for the Parsi community that words can never express… It is a community that accepted and loved me like no other has. Despite the dark history that drove you to Indian shores… I am personally so glad your people came to India. Thank you. All of you. For all you are and all you have… Quietly. Elegantly. Graciously. :)

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Rusi… that last line was meant to read, “all you have achieved…” x

  9. Sajani Gm says

    Sangeetha!

    Every time I read your work, it takes me to places, people and experiences that have added value to my life. This time it was a flurry of faces, memories, tastes and the sound of the lovely lilting accent as they said Darling and Dikri.

    From Dr. Nazir, who’s cottage in Coonoor we lived in, and who’s wry sense of humour I thoroughly admired. To “Dusty” and Aunty Mahrukh who were some of the best friends my parents had. Not to mention the fun and camaraderie of growing up with Adershir and Maneckshaw Dastur, even though we were far removed from Coonoor, here in a Chennai that was once the Madras our fathers sped around and raced in.

    I wonder how many people still remember Mary Clubwala for her yeoman service to women and children or Mrs. M. K. Belgamwala for the awesome clothes, linen, embroidery work and the myriad other goodies her little boutique displayed. The latter property is now a parking annexe to the Taj Coromandel Hotel (A Bawa Enterprise as well).

    For a people to uproot themselves and retain their equanimity as they move to new lands and settle in with new cultures, shows grace. The word that comes to mind is ‘Genteel’. It would behoove us all to learn what it means.

    Love and Peace,

    Always…

  10. Sangeetha Shinde says

    Sajani, thank you for writing in. I’m so glad my article inspired happy memories for you. The Parsis are a unique community and I was glad yo be able to honour them in some small way.

  11. Bharath says

    Hi Sangeetha,
    Some articles make you feel nostalgic, some emotional, some curious, some inspiring but i found this one to be very interesting in its own way because i experienced everything while reading. I simply second your view on the Parsis. Our common friend Murad Shahuna will be in cloud nine after reading this article :-). The article took me to Nilgiri and has again made me wonder if i should have planned for my retirement there. Keep writing!
    Best

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Bharath… Thank you for your feedback. And for sharing this with your friend. I do hope he will be as pleased with it as you are. Do think of making the Nilgiris your home… We welcome good people from all over… 😉

  12. Jimmy B. Mistry says

    Hi Sangeetha,
    What a beautiful article-so well written.
    I am a tea drinking, biscuit dunking Parsi. Your description of Parsi gentlemen of yesteryears makes me very proud. I am glad to read your comments about Parsis and your love of our community.
    Your apt description about the Hills was a pleasure and a delight to read. My travelling days are over but reading your article brings back nostalgic memories when my wife and I had travelled in the Nilgiris.
    Keep on writing!
    Please let me know if you have a collection of your articles which I can read?

    Jimmy B. Mistry
    Melbourne, Australia

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Dear Jimmy,

      Thank you… I’m so delighted that the article brought back happy memories.. The Nilgiris is much changed and yet so very the same… And there are many wonderful Parsis who carry on the fine tradition, I assure you. If you want to read more by me and the Nilgiris… Give my book a whirl. ‘A Moral Murder and other tales in the Blue Hills by Sangeetha Shinde Tee. Currently only available as an eBook – hard copies sold out nearly three years ago. I’d love to hear what you think…until then we have luckily have Teabox. :)

  13. Ellen Wanser says

    what a beautiful and heartfelt article. I would have loved to know these gentlemen and now I feel that I do. Thank you for writing from your heart. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Hi Ellen. Teabox does s wonderful job of pouring out a range of articles. Thank you for reading and taking the time and effort to write in to us. Your courtesy is greatly appreciated.

  14. Sangeetha,

    Loved the read. Beautiful!

    While not Parsi and while definitely not as dapper as the Field Marshal and his ilk, I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t offer you a cup of tea whenever you and/or David are up to it. All you need do is to roll down to Kattabettu where with this rather scruffy human being (me) I daresay you’ll get a better cup of tea than what you used to be plied with.

    As to the stories, there I admit defeat.

    Indi

  15. Sangeetha Shinde says

    Indi… You’re as dapper as the best of them. And a cup of tea with you would make for a fine little column someda so that trip to kattabettu needs to get into the diary on my next trip in.. Thank you for reading and taking the trouble to write in. I’m both honoured and grateful… :)

  16. Dear Sangeetha,

    What a mesmerizing narration. It takes us into your charming little world of the Niligiris and your Tete-a-tete with those illustrious Gentlemen. Makes me want to head back to Coonoor. We were there last year. I am buying your ebook from Amazon

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Dear Anuj, thank you. I hope you’ll head back to Coonoor and hopefully our paths will cross. Do let me know how you liked the book…do leave a review on amazon if you can. Us writers live for that sort of backpattimg. :)

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