The Strange Castes of British India

Christie Davies

In March 1974, the University Grants Commission of India assigned me the task of giving lectures at the Punjab University in Chandigarh.  It was congenial work with delightful colleagues.  At the end of each afternoon we would meet for kala chai and talk about our academic work, the latest iniquities of the politicians and about India.  But there was also joking and gossip and banter and I would always join in.  Continue reading

Different Shades of White

Christie Davies

When staying in a hotel at Bhopal I found in the bathroom, nestling next to the shampoo and the shower gel, a third little jar marked “Ayurvedic Skin Lightening Lotion”.  As a pale skinned Welshman designed for a gloomy climate, it was the last thing I needed.  After a day of walking in the fierce sunlight of India, I was only too conscious of the problems encountered by people with Celtic skins.  I knew of course that it was not intended for me, or indeed my English wife, but for the many Indian ladies striving to become a slightly lighter, comely shade of brown.  My Indian readers will know the matrimonial advertisements – filling entire pages of Indian newspapers and magazines – where parents try to stress how fair skinned the would-be bride is.  The phrase “wheat-coloured” is particularly popular. Continue reading

Contribution of Parsis in Building India’s Infrastructure

FF Digital received two separate write-ups from two contributors on a similar subject.  The first one from Dr. B. N. Mehrish on the role of the Parsi community in nation-building and the other on Jamsetji Tata from Dr. Ali Khwaja.  The story-line of the two topics being the same, we bring them to you as one post.  – FF Digital Group


Role of Parsis in Nation-Building

Dr. B. N. Mehrish

“Parsis in India are fighting a battle with dwindling numbers and orthodox, insular mindsets as reported from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana” states Brunch Hindustan Times of June 28, 2015.  At the same time, Dr. Shernaz Cama of Parzor Foundation, New Delhi writes “….. in 2013, there were just 195 births and 950 deaths in India”.

The Early Days

Parsis came from Iran and landed on the shores of Gujarat around the seventh century.  They came to Bombay to work as ship builders in 1640.

Parsis pioneered chikoo farming in Dahanu, Maharashtra in the later part of the 19th century.

At Delhi, the Parsis worked in the Mughal courts as clock-keepers in the 16th century.  In Calcutta (now Kolkata), the Parsis came to trade in opium and cotton in 1839.  In Hyderabad, Parsis worked in the courts of Nizams in the 19th century.  In Ooty and Coonoor, Parsis went as tea planters in the  early 19th century.

At present, in Telangana, the Parsi community is small but enterprising. In the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, Parsis are “an invisible minority” and today they are lawyers, doctors, academicians and business people.

Parsi Stalwarts in Indian Politics, Industry and Sports

The educated elite among the Parsis have been a significant part of the indian political scene.  They have been instrumental in establishing political associations and paving the way for India’s independence.  Dadabhai Naoroji is regarded as the grand old man of Indian politics.  He was India’s voice in the House of Commons in England.  Others who took active part in politics and in shaping India’s future are Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinshaw Wacha, Khurshed (Veer) Nariman, Homi Mody and Minoo Masani.

Several Parsis made path-breaking achievements in the field of commerce and trade.  These include renowned industrialists like Jamsetji Tata and J.R.D. Tata, members of the Godrej family, entrepreneurs  like Shapoorji Pallonji and notable institution builders like Ardeshir Dalal who was associated with the Tatas, Shapurji Billimoria who promoted integrated education, Cooverji Bhabha, businessman and A. D. Shroff, staunch advocate of free enterprise and who was responsible for evolving a code of conduct for businessmen.  There are many other visionaries who have laid the foundation of institutionalized philanthropy.

There has also been the pioneering contribution of Parsis in the field of sports.  The well-known Parsis who played cricket for India are Nari Contractor, Polly Umrigar and Farokh Engineer, and among the ladies, Diana Eduljee.  Sensei Pervez Mistry has made a mark in karate.

These are just a few names and still fewer fields where Parsis have made their mark.  There are many more.  Their contribution in nation building may inspire future generations.

Reference: “Enduring Legacy – Parsis of the 20th Century” (four volumes), 2005, edited by Dr. Nawaz B. Mody.


Jamsetji Tata : Creating Wealth through Ideas and Action

Dr. Ali Khwaja

The Times of India of 13th April 1912 wrote, “He was above all a patriot, who made no public speeches.  To his mind wealth, and the industry which led to wealth, were not ends in themselves, but means to an end, the stimulation of the latent resources of the country and its elevation in the scale of nations.” The newspaper was recognizing the services of Jamsetji Tata.  Born in 1839 in the small town of Navsari in Gujarat, Jamsetji started off as a trading entrepreneur and went on to become a visionary nation builder.

The Tata Legacy

Jamsetji and his successors believed that there is a difference between making money for oneself and creating wealth for others. He decided to set up a steel plant when he could have made much more money trading in British steel. He politely declined when England offered to make him a Baron.  Five years before his steel plant in Jamshedpur was to go into operation, he told his son Dorab to “….. lay wide streets planted with shady trees, with plenty of space for lawns and gardens.  Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks.  Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques, and Christian churches.”  And this was from the son of a Parsi priest! (Jamsetji himself was ordained a priest, though he never practised priesthood – FF Digital group.)

It is interesting to note that Sir Frederick Upcott, Chief Commissioner for the Indian Railways went on record to say, “Do you mean to say that Tatas propose to make steel rails to British specifications? Why, I will undertake to eat every pound of steel rail they succeed in making.” In 1912 when the Tatas exported 1500 miles of steel rails, Dorab Tata dryly commented that if Sir Frederick had carried out his ‘undertaking’, he would have had ‘some slight indigestion’.

Entrepreneur with a clear foresight

In today’s age when there is so much  hypocritical talk about uplifting the downtrodden, Jamsetji had a different vision altogether: “What advances a nation or community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, as to lift up the best and the most gifted so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”  The Tatas nurtured top scientists through the Indian Institute of Science (in Bangalore), and every fifth Indian ICS officer, at one time, was from the Tata scholarships. Jamsetji sold fourteen of his buildings and four of his personal landed properties, more than half his entire wealth, to establish the Indian Institute of Science.  The Tatas always recognized talent and put the most deserving managers at the helm, with no desire to create their own heredity. Today there is not a single Tata in the entire conglomerate, but the Tata empire continues to be a shining example of entrepreneurship, values, justice and vision.

The Tatas’ commitment to progress was so high that when they harnessed hydro-electric power for Bombay (now Mumbai) they bought off the old steam engines from the textile mills, their largest customers, to encourage them to switch over to electricity.  The steam engines were sold as scrap.  All this was possible because Jamsetji had set clear guidelines on putting progress and evolution above profit or short-term gains.

Even an avowed socialist like Jawaharlal Nehru admitted publicly, “When you have to give the lead – in action, in ideas – a lead which does not fit in with the very climate of opinion, that is true courage, physical or mental or spiritual, call it what you like, and it is this type of courage and vision that Jamsetji Tata showed.”

A True Visionary

Amazingly, a committed and busy industrialist like Jamsetji was also a naturalist and an agriculturist.  Tata Silk Farm was set up by him in Bangalore in 1893.  He invited Japanese experts and the entire region became prosperous with sericulture.  Foreign trees and plants were brought by him and planted at various locations.  He would ensure the safety of his workers by setting up humidifiers, fire-sprinklers, provide pension fund and accident compensation.  His concern for the workers went far beyond the stipulated regulations, and that is the reason why third and fourth generation workers of Tata Steel are proud to remain part of the group even now.

Today the Tatas are India’s largest integrated steel company, largest commercial vehicle manufacturers, largest integrated tea and coffee companies, largest IT consulting services of Asia, largest hotel chain, one of the world’s largest producers of synthetic soda ash. They are India’s second largest software developers for the domestic market, leading international telecom service providers, and the world’s sixth largest manufacturers of branded watches, just to name a few. This does not include the innumerable philanthropic institutions like Tata Memorial Hospital, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, National Centre for Performing Arts, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, National Institute of Advanced Studies, and many more.  Since the charitable Tata Trusts own more than 65% of the Tata companies, the profits will continue to reach society at large.  It is up to the nation and its citizens to give due recognition to the great patriot who laid such strong foundations and to ensure that the legend lives on.


Dr. B.N. Mehrish, retired Professor of Politics, University of Mumbai; now a Gurgaon resident.  E-mail:

Dr. Ali Khwaja, counsellor, columnist, life skills coach; Chairman, Banjara Academy, Bangalore.  E-mail: