My father never joined the rat-race in Bantwa because he considered the system inhumane and worked for a Parsi firm in Mumbai.
Apparently, he was due to meet an Englishman in the course of his work. In anticipation, he asked an English-speaking friend to write on a piece of paper, ‘I am sorry, I can’t speak any English’. He handed it the Englishman when he met him.
I presume the visitor smiled and made some polite remarks in the only language he knew but my dad made a momentous decision there and then; his children would never suffer a similar humiliation. He decided that all of us would speak English and since knowing the language was synonymous with higher education, he made up his mind that all his sons would go for university education.
The die was cast when he steered my eldest brother toward a university in the country to obtain the degree of B.A. Bachelor of Arts, on his way to become a lawyer. As his younger brothers, we simply followed suit and all five of us ended up as professionals, elder three as lawyers and younger two as doctors, my younger brother, a brainy chest physician and me a mere surgeon!
At some point in his business career, my father ran a cashew nut factory in Mangalore, in south India in partnership with a Parsi gentleman, who he met while he worked in Bombay. He called his family to stay with him in Mangalore because one of his objections to the system prevailing in Bantwa was that it ripped families apart for 10 months in a year.
In that connection, he had to find schools for all his children with English as a medium of instruction.
In the course of his search for a school for my sister, he visited a convent and liked what he saw there. He was impressed by the Irish nuns in their ankle-length habits, their flowing black veils and their wimples. Their purity, their kindness and gentleness and caring attitude left a lasting impression on him.
He was impressed that the convent not only produced academic high flyers but also turned out ‘wholesome’ girls of strong moral fibre.
My father applied for my sister and he was very pleased that the application for Zainab was accepted. Emboldened by this quick acceptance, he applied for me because he did not see why I should not receive this excellent education as well.
He had another motivation too. Perhaps he thought that Zainab, after her secluded life in Bantwa, might feel like a fish out of water in the strange surroundings of liberal Catholic education and I, younger by four years, might serve as her sparring partner.
So my father made a special plea to Mother Superior to enrol me in this exclusively girls’ school and happily for me, he convinced her that at the age of six I was harmless to my schoolmates!
Mangalore in general and the convent in particular proved to be the first turning point in my life. They were a far cry from Bantwa and opened up a new world to me, expanding my horizons and broadening my vision. The three years I spent there, greatly enriched my childhood, gave me a totally new outlook and laid a fresh foundation on which to build my life. It fired me with ambitions, aspirations, dreams and ideals, which could never have sparked my life in the parochial atmosphere of Bantwa. Except for the tragedy which occurred, mercifully at the end of our stay, Mangalore will rank as the happiest period of my childhood.
Reverting back to my father, who made this available to us, it is more impressive if I add that he had only four years of schooling, during which time he learnt the three Rs. He could read and write Gujarati fluently but he excelled in the third R — Arithmetic and could do mental sums with speed and accuracy that would leave modern calculators reeling!
He tendered two pieces of advice which I still remember. One was that God has given us one tongue and two ears for a good reason; we must listen twice as much as we speak.
He did not always practise what he preached! No wonder, because he had the gift of the gab and was often carried away by his own verbosity. The other was a Gujarati proverb; translated in English it literally means that if you want to go to paradise, you must die yourself! In practical terms it implies that if you are aiming for perfection, you must do the job yourself.
I must relate an incident here which culminated in me receiving a hard slap on my face. There was an All India Memon conference to be held in Jetpur, a Memon stronghold near Bantwa and all such meetings were opened with a recitation from the Holy Koran. There were about 5,000 delegates, all men, expected to attend and my father proposed my name to recite a surah from the Koran. I was five at the time and too small to be seen by the congregation and so it was agreed that I would stand on a chair. My father was at home to attend the conference and made me rehearse the recitation every morning. One morning as we were going to start, the milkmaid arrived to deliver milk. Distracted by her tight bodice and jingling bells around her ankles, I couldn’t start despite my father’s repeated urging. He lost his temper and slapped me hard on my face. As I screamed with pain, my mother came out of the kitchen, where she was making chapattis and took me back with her. Later at breakfast, I saw a very contrite father! Despite this episode, all went well at the inauguration. As evidence of my father’s foresight, my brother Sattar, elder by six years rehearsed with me in the last few days and stood beside me on the crucial day, in case I faltered at the last minute!