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Issue No.: 571 | January 2015
 

ALTAMONT ROAD AND OTHER TRUE STORIES

Sheryar Ookerjee
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"The book contains anecdotes of Parsis whom he (Professor Ookerjee) personally knew or were narrated to him by people who knew them.” 
ALTAMONT ROAD AND OTHER TRUE STORIES by Sheryar Ookerjee ● published by The K. R. Cama Oriental Institute Mumbai, 136, Bombay Samachar Marg, Mumbai 400023 ● 2014 ● pp ● Rs.750.

Reviewed by S. V. Raju, Honorary Secretary, Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom and editor Freedom First.
My first ‘encounter’ with the Parsis goes back to 1945 to two classmates in the 3rd standard of Don Bosco High School in Mumbai. We did not become ‘close’ friends, but ‘good’ classmates. Both were better students than I was, but the two were like chalk and cheese; one studious, serious minded, had to make an effort to stay on top and slightly ‘standoffish,’ the other easy going, warm, social and a topper with ease. The first was obviously from the upper crust of Parsi society and the second typically middle class. The first migrated overseas and the second became a much sought after architect whom one could meet outside professional hours at his hangout at an Irani Restaurant in Khodadad Circle, Dadar, Bombay. Alas that Irani restaurant has disappeared replaced by a shop selling cloth and shoes and have lost touch with him. I could trace replicas of my classmates in Professor Sheryar Ookerjee’s Altamont Road and Other Stories!  

Muncherji N. M. Cama, President of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, the publishers of this volume, observes in his brief Foreword, "The book contains anecdotes of Parsis whom he (Professor Ookerjee) personally knew or were narrated to him by people who knew them.” In fact records the Professor, Cama encouraged him to write this book.    

I had the privilege of counting Professor Ookerjee among my friends, apart from being the occasional contributor to Freedom First. My regret is I came to know him, so much more closely, so late in my life and his. Soft spoken, modest to a fault, I was overawed by his intellect and his humility. What amazed me was the ease with which he could explain Plato and Arthashastra and with equal ease recount humorous exploits of Dali the "Renaissance Man” and his wife Avabai (Chapter 3 page 62).

In his preface Professor Ookerjee writes "The original plan was to write about the Cursetjees (among whom I was born), but I have expanded it to include other families and individuals who have had some connection, in some cases rather slender with the family. "Family” of course includes (as in the Opera – Gilbert and Sullivan’s H M S Pinafore), a man’s "sisters and his cousins and his aunts, and also his brothers and his uncles, and their sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles.” 

"I write of times”, he adds, with nostalgia, in his preface "that were very different from the present times. Life moved much more slowly and the theatre, in which it unfolded, was much more spacious. There was not, I feel sure, the mad craze for amassing absurdly high piles of wealth. More people seemed to care for other things which make life worth living, things not to be bought with money”.   

The teacher in him cannot resist instructing us at the very beginning that it is "Altamont not Altamount” Road, as an aside, when narrating a ‘minor’ hiccup surrounding his birth in the Masina hospital. His delightful anecdotes begin with this clarification and go on with numerous other "true stories”, some more amusing than the others, going back to his great grand-fathers, paternal and maternal, and beyond the family, generally the upper-crust of the Parsi community sometimes described as the Parsi aristocracy; in the process providing glimpses into the tenor of life in Bombay in the last century. Prof. Ookerjee skilfully weaves into his tapestry these anecdotes and true stories which, in a non-intrusive manner, also tell us in passing his birth, his school and college education, his experiences as a teacher and  of course the fun, foibles and frolics of his extended family and his community at large.

The stage in which he and his dramatis personae ‘perform’ extends to Bombay south of Byculla and Matheran, Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani, ( known to be favoured holiday resorts of the Parsis) and of course England. 

Fun and frolics apart, the Cursetjee’s gift to Bombay is the Alexandra Girls’ English Institution founded by Manockjee Cursetjee, the maternal grandfather of Prof. Ookerjee. He also draws attention to the spelling of Manockjee – which his maternal grandfather decided would sound better than the normal ‘Maneckji’! Regardless of the spelling, this school, which began in 1863, is flourishing. It is one of the more sought after by parents of middle and upper class girls across all communities in the city. Professor Ookerjee writes: "The Alexandra Girls’ School (with "Institution” in the proper title in place of "School” in the fashion of the day), began to give girls a modern English education from 1863. Manockjee was pelted with raw eggs and stones by the orthodox…It has had eminent people on its Board of Directors, the two most eminent among them being Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The school has been completely cosmopolitan and secular from the very beginning. The word "Native” (which then carried no pejorative implication) was later dropped.” The School celebrated its 150th anniversary through the year and on 31 March 2014 the school buried, in its compound, a Time Capsule to be opened 50 years later when the school celebrates its bi-centenary.
 
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CONFRONTING THE STATE

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ALTAMONT ROAD AND OTHER TRUE STORIES

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