A dear old Parsi friend who is no more, once told me proudly, ‘My car is not for my service. I am for my car’s service.’ No really, he meant it. Then there are the other Parsi friends who, um, park their old-timer car or bike inside their living room during the monsoons. Speaking of monsoons, one classic specimen in Pune actually disassembles his old motorcycle, lugs it up several floors and stores the parts here and there around the house, after nicely greasing them up of course. Another family considers their Morris 8 as, what do you expect, an integral part of their family. So much so that when they had to shift to Sri Lanka in 1980 for a year to manage a fire temple there, they drove it down from Nagpur to Rameshwaram, put it on a ferry and took it to Colombo. And did the same thing to get back home after a year.
I’m sure you would have heard, or read, numerous stories of the same classic in the same family doing duty as a regular car for decades on end, serving generations. Another senior Parsi gentleman chooses a car from his massive vintage collection for his daily commute to his office in South Mumbai. And, of course, there is this veteran automotive journalist who could open his own painstakingly-built world-class scale model museum if he so wished. Another obsessed character started taking down car numbers in a diary when he was a kid, today has an archive of ALL the classic and vintage cars and motorcycles in India. Also, a Parsi lady, who was India’s first female press photographer, acquired a Fiat 1100-103 in 1955, which she drove around everywhere. She eventually had to replace it with a Nano because she couldn’t drive it anymore – she was over 90, you see. I can give you many, many more examples of these quirky Parsis and their obsession with old-timers, but, as you can see, calling them mere Mad Bawas does not do them justice.
Why am I writing about the legendary Parsis now? Well, it’s August and that’s when my favourite community celebrates its New Year, so there’s no better month for me to celebrate them! Of course, they also deserve their place in the sun for keeping the vintage and classic movement in India alive, kicking and, of course, to put it mildly, interesting. Hanging around with people from the vintage and classic car community is guaranteed to make half a Bawa out of you, because half the machines are owned by them. This reminds me of a joke:
At the annual Vintage and Antique Collectors’ Dinner, a Columbian drug lord, a Russian oligarch, an Arab oil tycoon and a Parsi were sitting together having dinner. The Columbian says: “I am here to buy ten of the world’s rarest pens.” The Russian says, “I am a watch collector and look forward to getting myself 20 of the world’s most valued antique watches.” The Arab adds, “I want to build a collection of great vintage cars, I am all set to buy 50 of them.” The Parsi, who was quiet all this while, finishes off his dessert, takes a sip of water, dabs his lips, leans back and says, “I am not selling.”
What really explains why they are the way they are? My theory is that the Parsis, over centuries, have been hardwired into treasuring their legacy and their way of life, so much so that it has become part of their DNA. This instinct for preservation – starting with their lives, when they escaped from Persia to their distinctive religion, identity, culture, roots and genetics in their new wildly diverse homeland – has manifested in different ways, be it their unique spiritual practices or their material objects, whether cutlery or cars.
More than me telling you about the Bawas and their quirky obsessions, have a look at Why India’s Parsi Community is Automobile Obsessed. It has an accompanying video which you can see above, and most of the abovementioned examples of Parsi idiosyncrasies are here, so you can see how mad they really are – just in case you think I’m lying. The video captures the emotions of my friends so well – Adil, Karl, Anosh and Fram Dhondy, Kooverji and Faridoon, Marespand, Niki and Kaizad, Cyrus, Rishad… And there are many more like them, whose tales deserve a web series on their own! The video has been conceived and put together by my friend, Berlin-based Vaishali Dinakaran for the German broadcaster DW, highlighting the obsessions of this community to a larger, global audience. Don’t miss it!