New article Nov 2005 Struggling to keep the sacred flame alive...

A Parsi in Amritsar. The very last one

She rebelled when it was unheard of for a girl not to conform. Ninetysix-year-old Tahmi Bhandari is a woman who was much ahead of her times. Rashmi Talwar meets the last Parsi in Amritsar and comes back full of admiration.

NINETYSIX-year-old Tahmi Bhandari, the last Parsi in Amritsar, has lost none of her indomitable spirit. Born in a conservative, rich Parsi family, Tahmi was the second child in a family of five sisters and a brother. Her father, Adeshwar Bogga, was the owner of ice factories in Amritsar and Ludhiana in 1906. Her daring was evident even in her youth.

She was, perhaps, the first woman to own and drive a car. She drove it herself for her sojourns to Lahore and back before the bewitching hour. Tahmi ‘drives’ down memory lane as she remembers: "I owned a Lincoln 12-cylinder car with a soft-top. I loved the wind as I drove in the open car to Lahore, shopped at Anarkali, went for silent movies and loved the coffee with cream at the well-known Falleties restaurant, which is still there in Lahore. My uncle, Rustomjee Mulhaferot, always chaperoned and accompanied me." He later bequeathed his favourite niece, the house she loved so much.

During Partition in 1947, Tahmi stitched clothes for "lakhs" of refugees who arrived in Amritsar and were given shelter in the Govindgarh Fort and other camps. The cloth was provided by the government and the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). "I worked with nearly 25 tailors at my residence in the cantonment and made clothes for the young and old. I saw ‘kaflas’ of refugees in hordes penniless and semi-clad cross over to Amritsar. However, the ostentation of women in the organisation who dressed up in their finery while distributing charity put me off. There was a genuine conflict of ideas and I disassociated myself", says Tahmi in her finest English, with a sparkle in her eyes.

Tahmi grew up with friends like HFJ Sam Manekshaw, India’s first and only Field Marshal. "Alongwith Manekshaw’s family, there was another Parsi family, that of Tammy Master whose only daughter Ms Sherene is living in the USA," remembers Tahmi. Exquisitely beautiful, she was lovingly called guldasta by her friends and admirers, among whom, besides the Manekshaws were famed writer Mulk Raj Anand, Surjit Singh Majithia who went on to become Deputy Defence Minister of India in 1958 and G.R. Sethi a veteran journalist. However, she fell in love with and married a Hindu gentleman Padam Chand Bhandari, while she was studying for her Masters in English at the Khalsa College, Amritsar — something unheard of in those times. An executive officer (EO) in improvement trust, she says: "The famous "Bhandari" bridge was named after my husband in 1954. He had executed the marvellous vision of a multi-lane bridge, a modern concept of a flyover, which connected the walled city areas with the civil lines after converting a small bridge called uccha pul built before Partition."

Ostracised by many, including family and friends, for a love marriage, that too outside her community, Tahmi had to fend for herself and her family after her husband died of a heart attack when she was just 48. She had three daughters and a son to look after. Undeterred, she rose to the challenge and converted her palatial ‘red bougainvillea home’ into a guesthouse with the help of an engineer D.D. Kaila.

She became the first woman in these parts to run a business. That is when she became a ‘spitfire’. Her abusive language brought her many a brickbat. Tahmi’s defence is: "What was I supposed to do? I had three beautiful daughters, if I had not used the abuses to fend the men away (who understood only this language) my daughters would have been sold in the namak mandi!" She provided the best of education to each of her children who are all well settled abroad and take turns to look after her.

However, running the guest house was not easy, earlier the rooms were rented out to teachers, army captains and officers "Each disturbance affecting India affected her and later our guest house," says her daughter Rattan, who lives in Germany and comes to Amritsar half the year to look after Tahmi. A veritable storehouse of information and an eye-witness to numerous historical milestones, talking to Tahmi is like watching a movie being re-run.

Tragedy struck when she was 13. Her elder sister expired. That is the time when the Jallianwala Bagh episode occurred in 1919 "I heard the guns boom in the silence that prevailed as a curfew was clamped preceding the massacre I was in school when somebody came to fetch me due to the curfew. The Jallianwala Bagh episode became a turning point for the Quit India Movement".

Four years after losing her first husband, Tahmi remarried at a time when remarriage of widows was unheard of. She married, D.D. Kaila, an engineer, who provided the transportation and conveyance service to her guest house. Besides, he was also a loving father to her children.

In 1962, during the Chinese aggression the flow of tourists lessened and Tahmi’s business suffered. The 1965 Indo-Pak War too took toll of the guest list. She lost her second husband to a heart attack just before the Indo-Pak War of 1971. Family and friends urged Tahmi to move to a safer place. She was adamant and asserted: "Lains naik Raju used the anti-aircraft guns from behind my house (which is in the cantonment) and we saw blood-chilling fights in 1965. Why should I run now when India is in a much superior position? Besides, I have to ready my swimming pool for the guests who would come in hordes after the war".

During the Emergency in 1976, there was an income tax raid in her house. The officials who hoped to find mounds of dollars as many embassy personnel stayed with Tahmi, found just 8 dollars and Rs 28. To the question: " Where is the money?", Tahmi replied spend it on my house and table. I like to live well, treat well and serve well!" A fact recorded by journalist Jonathan Gregson in the Sunday Telegraph. He wrote: "Her guesthouse has an old-world charm. It boasts of Italian bathroom tiles, Burma teak furniture, brass switches and a grand piano. The art deco touches, surrounded by an English garden with brick paths, pergolas and arches makes an apt setting for "the jewel in the crown"

The decade-long terrorism in the 1980s caused a loss to Tahmi’s business. She struggled to maintain her guesthouse for more than ten long years. To keep the hearth burning, her daughter, Rattan, worked as an escort for German guests who visited other parts of India. Foreigners were barred from Punjab which had been declared a disturbed area. Rattan recalls: "During this period, my mother, then about 80-years-old, used to commute by rickshaw. Once, she went to the bazaar and loaded the rickshaw with vegetables, fruits and eatables and brought them home. To a query as to who would eat all that much when there are no guests around Tahmi said ‘we all will eat it’. She paid for the eatables over the next six months!"

Though wrinkled and frail, Tahmi does not take a single pill. She has lost none of her bubbling spirit although she has finally let her guard down as years caught up with her. Though mellowed with age, her memory is still razor sharp. Immaculately dressed in a white salwar-kameez, a spotless white handkerchief by her side, Tahmi changes the TV channel with her perfectly manicured hands to watch the WWF wrestling which is, but naturally, her favourite channel!

Saris, marigold garlands and poached eggs…

There are two good reasons to visit Amritsar.  One is to see the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs; the other is to stay at Mrs. Bhandari’s.

This perfectly preserved late-Raj family residence is situated off a leafy road in Amritsar’s Cantonment area.

It’s presiding spirit, Mrs. Bhandari, is now aged 91. She has been living in the house since 1930 and takes pride in the fact that “nothing has changed” – apart from such newfangled additions as air-conditioning in some of the guest rooms, and a fax machine in the office.

It is true: to go through the red brick gatehouse marked No.10 is to enter a time warp. The main house is in colonial style with Art-Deco touches, softened by climbing bougainvillea.  It is surrounded by an English garden with brick paths, pergolas and arches, the whole screened off from the hubbub of the outside world by mature trees.

The guest wing is a long single-story affair, with a verandah looking onto lawns.  The layout of the rooms is similar to “chummeries” – the bachelor quarters allocated to junior Raj officials and box wallahs.  Furnishings are simple, almost Spartan, with colonial-style furniture and faded prints.  Dinner was served in the parlor.  With its Army&Navy Stores’ stoneware water filter, its orderly piles of patterned crockery (including Mabel Lucy Attwell children’s plates, circa 1945) and vast soup tureens, this   room would have made an impeccable set for The Jewel in the Crown.  And the menu was pure Anglo-Indian; cream of vegetable soup, butter chicken and roast potatoes with three veg, followed by crème caramel.

Back in my room there was a new bundle of wood to build up the fire.  The sheets were fresh from the dhobi and had the sun on them that afternoon.

Breakfast at Mrs. Bhandari’s tends to be a leisurely process. We sat on a terrace beside the sunken rose garden, watching a flock of electric-green parakeets   assemble on their favorite branch, while plates of papaya with fresh lime, and toast with home-made jams, and perfectly poached eggs followed each other in slow succession.  Then Mrs. Bhandari put in an appearance.

She may be old enough to have heard the shooting on April 13, 1919, the day of the infamous Amritsar Massacre, but Mrs. Bhandari remains, a very lively lady.  I sat entranced as she spoke of the “old days”, before the partition of India and Pakistan, when she used to “pop over” to Lahore for shopping and a the-dansant. “Oh, Lahore used to be such a beautiful city,” she sighed, “but those days are gone.  I haven’t been back since 1947…It’s like a dream now.”

Yet, in the enclosed world that Mrs. Bhandari and her daughters have created, something of that dream world lives on.

Jonathan Gregson