Category Archives: History

Love story of Ratan D. Tata & Susaune Briere


Ratan D. Tata


Susaune Briere

This is a love story of two people born almost a generation apart, in two different continents and how the wheels of fortune brought them together.

Ratan D. Tata (nephew of Jamshedji Tata), was in Paris hoping to trade in pearls and silk. He wanted to learn French, so his uncle Jamsetji recommended a teacher to him – Madame Briere. It was here that he met and fell in love with he teacher’s beautiful daughter Susaune, slim and tall with beautiful golden hair. She was just twenty years old. Ratan informed his uncle Jamsetji about his affection for the beautiful lass, and his desire to marry her. He was quite prepared for an angry “No” but instead, was delighted when Jamsetji readily gave his consent. The wedding was held in 1902 and Jamsetji attended the wedding in Paris and even gave a speech at it.

After the wedding, Jamsetji took Ratan D. Tata and Susaune (now called Sooni after her golden hair) to Britain and gave a party at Kingston-on-Thames. It was “the largest gathering of Parsis which had hitherto been held west of the Suez Canal”.

Jamsetji spared no expense to make it a success. He took his guests in a pleasure streamer from West Minister to Kingston-on-Thames. An account of the occasion says –

“He played the host to perfection, though he depreciated in courtly manner, the numerous expression of thanks. His friends Jamsetji and Lady Jeejeebhoy had cut short a tour of Scotland in order to be present. Sir Mancherji Bhownagree represented the House of Commons; Mr. Dadabhoy Navroji, doyen of the Parsi residents in England, brought his family.”

At this occasion, Sir Mancherji Bhownagree, in his toast touched on Ratan D. Tata’s marriage to Susaune.

“I may recall as an example of enlightened sentiments of our host, that recently an event has happened in his family, which I am told, would have been impossible without his sanction and consent. I have the great good fortune to have on my right hand a lady of French nationality who is associated in life and fortune for the rest of her days with Mr. Tata. If am rightly informed, Mr. Ratanji Tata, the lucky possessor of that bride, had some misgivings as to how the projected union would be regarded by the head of the family. The fact that in spite of his many years of orthodoxy, Mr. Jamsetji Tata gave his ready consent to the alliance, is one more proof of his progressive tendencies and his interest in the social advancement of the community”.

Susaune wrote letters to her mother and these letters give an insight into the intense love she shared with Ratan D. Tata.

She writes – “I only have to look at Ratan (mon-petit) and I am truly happy! My husband makes me feel safe, content, protected”.

She reveals to her mother that the religious-minded Ratan was planning to do her navjote and then marry her again by Parsi rites – “the official sanction has been given only this morning by the High Priest and Ratan wants the ceremony on Sunday, …………… It will be attended by a whole lot of important Parsis and will take place in Mr. Sethna’s house.”And the navjote and wedding were attended by “60 Dasturs when only one is really necessary”

“I will wear an ‘ijar’ and will be wrapped in a white cashmere shawl. But what is most significant is that at the same time the priest will marry us and then no one will give me another thought. I will be allowed to enter the temple or stay in a house where a Parsi lies dead.”

After the navjote and wedding, she writes describing the event in detail. (courtesy of JRD Tata Papers, Tata Central Archives)

Darling mother …. Here I am, at last a Parsi. Everybody is happy for me and so am I. I spent five sleepless nights filling my head with the prayers I had to learn – now I feel exhausted. Let me however try and recount the ceremonies of my conversion and our marriage that took place at Mr. Sethna’s big house. At 4 pm I was made to sit in a small room next to the huge salon in Mr. Sethna’s house where the ceremony was going to be performed. A dastur with his face hidden sat opposite me. I recited some prayers with him, ate a piece of pomegranate and then raised my lips in a gesture of sipping a cup of pewter which contained the urine of the cow. It is supposed to purify but of course nobody really drinks it – not even touch it with their lips – but it is a custom that has existed since the beginning. Ratan asked me not to tell you about this (he finds it distasteful). Don’t therefore talk of it. Normally, a dastoor is present but this time, he remained on the other side of the partition. The wife of a dastur and the beautiful Meherbai Tata were with me. They dressed me in an ‘ijar’ and confined my hair in a (matte bonu) and draped a white cashmere shawl around my shoulders. Then feeling very pale and nervous, and with my feet in sapats I entered the drawing room where there were waiting at least 60 dasturs when only one is really necessary. I was made to sit with my back to everyone facing the high priests and I started to recite the prayers with him. After 15 minutes or so, he placed my hands in the sleeves of the sudra and left, then all the Parsi ladies, the wife of Mr. Kanga, the daughters of Meherbai and the wife of the dastur held up before me a white sheet to shield me from view. I put on the sudra, my blouse and a white sari with a silver border. When I was ready, the High Priest returned but this time we stood – he standing just behind me. Then, while I held his little fingers, he tied the kusti around me. Then seated again there were more prayers with the priest showering my head with pieces of pomegranate, coconut. There it ended and I was led into the midst of all our friends who were waiting to congratulate me. Soon only our close friends remained, and the drawing room was prepared for our wedding which had to take place before sunset. I read out aloud, the pledge to the Zoro faitehr, in French, and then the ceremony began. Ratan and I sitting side by side and the dasturs started to pray and showering us with rice. It took about 25 minutes. When everybody except the family and Mr. Kanga had left, we all drank champagne and then quietly we returned home.

(From the French original text, 1903)

They were married for 21 years, had five children – Sylla, Jamshed (JRD), Rodabeh, Darab and Jimmy. During the war, she served as a volunteer and contracted TB.

In 1923, her health was deteriorating but Ratan D. Tata was engaged in the struggle of establishing Tata Steel in India, and she was in Paris. Every day, he would wonder whether he would arrive in Paris in time to see her.

Finally, on the day he got on to the ship to leave for Paris, he received a cable that Sooni was no more. With a heavy heart, he proceeded to France and brought his children back to India where they stayed in the house Ratan was building for his wife. He called the house “Sunita” in her memory.

Courtesy : Prochy Mehta




Tawarikhe-Dastoor Jamasp Ashana.

Tawarikhe-Dastoor Jamasp Ashana [History of the Jamasp Ashana Family] (Bombay: Mumbai Vertman Press, 1912), 146-53 (translation from Gujarati by Homi D. Patel).]

Sardar Dastur Kekobad Aaderbad

With the end of the history of this Dasturji, the history of the decedents of the Late Dastur Behmanji Jamshedji ends here.  He was the youngest son of Dastur Behramji – the fourth son of the first Head Dastur of the Deccan – Dastur Jamaspji Edulji, but since his paternal cousin the Late Ervad Aderbad was adopted by Dastoor Nosherwan, he is associated with his name. He was born at the Dastur hall at Poona on Roj 11th Mah 2nd 1231 Yezdezardi dated 3rd  November 1861, Samvat 1918’s  Kartik Sud 1 (date according to Hindu calendar), it was a Sunday.  He acquired the training of “Naaver Martaab” (i.e. training to be initiated into priesthood) under the able guidance of his maternal uncle and then on Roj 22nd Mah 7th Yezdezardi 1243 dated 10th April 1874, Samvat 1930 acquired the advance training of Ervad at the main Dehermeher of Navsari.  Under the guidance of same teacher, he studied further and did the advance study of “Paav Mahal” and “Barashnum”.  He followed the profession of “Yozdathragiri” for quite a long time.  He was trained in Marathi, Farsi and English languages at Poona’s Government High School, and studied Sanskrit under one Pandit.  He achieved excellence in the languages of  “Zend” and “Pehelvi” by taking up its advance studies under the guidance of his able paternal uncle Late Sardar Dastur Hoshang Jamasp.

Right from his childhood, he had inculcated hobby of drawing portraits, and he gradually developed that ability in him.  Many a portraits, drawn by him still adorn his present day residence, giving the idea of his artistic brush.

After his appointed as the Head Dastur of the Deccan, the prominent ceremonies performed by him included the laying of the foundation and bringing into the service – the “Dokhma” at Igatpuri.  The foundation laying of the aforesaid “Dokhma” was performed by the help of his maternal uncle, Dastur Khurshedji Jamshedji of Mhow under the supervision of his elder paternal uncle – Late Sardar Dastur Nosherwanji Jamespji – on Roj 19th Maha 8th in the year 1253 Yezdezardi dated 4th May 1884.  Thereafter, the ceremony of “Parthavani” – i.e. consecration – was performed under the supervision of his second (the Gujarati word used here could also mean “Other”) paternal uncle, Sardar Dastur Hoshang Jamasp on Roj 16th Mah 9th in the year 1254 Yezdezardi dated 31st May 1885.  The Anjuman of Igatpuri felicitated him with a Shawl, on his accomplishment.

He was appointed the Head Dasturji, on the day of the “Uthamna ceremony” (the third day’s ritual since the demise of a Parsi Zoroastrian) of his eldest Paternal uncle, the Late Sardar Dastur Nosherwanji Jamaspji – which was on Roj 12th Mah 2nd in the year 1254 Yezdezardi, dated 29th October 1884.  Five shawls from the following greeted his appointment:

  • From the Trustees of the Late Sheth Sohrabji Rattanji Patel’s Charitable Trust.
  • From the Anjuman of Poona.
  • From Dastur Jamshedji Rustomji Jamasp Aasha.
  • From Sheth Hormusji Sohrabji Todiwalla.
  • From Sheth Dhunjishaw Jamshedji Ankleshsaria.

During March 1895, he was appointed as a Government nominated member at the Municipal Corporation of Poona and presently he adorns the post of its vice chairman.

Before being appointed as the Head Priest, he published many books.  In June 1896, he translated “Karname Ardeshir Babegan” from Pehlvi to English and Gujarati and published it along with the original narration of “The Shahanama”.  Thereafter in December 1899, he published “Jande Behmanyesht” with its Pehlvi text and Gujarati translation and the translation of “Mino Khered” from Paazend to Gujarati.  The Pehlvi text of “Behman Yasht” was printed by the  “Photozinco Process”. All the above three books received critical appreciation from English and Gujarati newspapers.

“Mr. Cama Memorial Volume” which was edited by Shamshul Ulama Ervad Jivanji Jamshedji Modi in the year 1901, as a token of remembrance on the seventy-first birthday of the late scholar Sheth Khurshedji Rustomji Cama – included “Avesta Shabde No Mool” (The origin of the word Avesta) a write up by him.  The famous scholar of the Pehelvi Language – Doctor West – termed that write up as “— of requiring extreme attention”.  The issue of the magazine “Raast Goftar” dated 8th September 1901, carried the following citation: –

“Dastur Kekobad Noshirwan Jamasp Aashana, has undertaken a very informative topic of exploring the root of Avasta and we are of the opinion that he has more or less reached the point of success; so also will be acknowledged by our Parsi as well European Scholars.”

During July 1903, the Honourable Government granted him the respect of appointing him the Honorary Magistrate of Poona.

The “Parthavani ceremony” of the Dokhmas at Devlali was accomplished solely by himself on Roj 19th Maha 3rd in the year 1277 Yezdezardi on date 1st December 1907, on that day he was honoured by the Anjuman of that place, by bestowing a shawl.  Thereafter he set out to inspect the :Panthaks” (undertaking of offering religious services by junior mobeds) under him and had to visit Bhusaval, Akola, Badnera, Nagpur, Kamli and Igatpuri.  At all those places, he received pomp welcome along with scrolls of honour and shawls. Some gents also arranged for a function of tea party.

He ascended the throne of High Priest of Deccan of Roj 15th and Maha 8th in the year 1277 Yezdezardi dated 25th April 1908, after the demise of Sardar Dastur Hoshang Jamasp.   A resolution supporting his appointment, made on behalf of the Trustees of the Late Sheth Sohorabji Rattanji Patel’s Charitable Trust was read out before the Anjuman – which was as follows:-

“Gentlemen of the Anjuman, The Trustees of the Late Sheth Sohorabji Rattanji Patel’s Dehermeher and Charitable Trust, note with utter grief the sad demise of one of our Co-trustee and the Head Priest of this Dehermeher – Dastur Hoshangji, who during the course of his life had brought about a progress in facilities at this Dehermeher and all the charitable trusts by his tireless efforts and that is how they have been able to reach the present state of excellence.  Now, in accordance of the authority vested in us – the existing trustees – by the Trust deed and by consensus, nominate our present assistant Dastur Kekobad Saheb Aaderbad Dastur Nosherwan in place of the Late Dasturji Saheb Hosangji for the management of the Dehermeher and keeping updated all the arrangements.  We sincerely hope that our Anjuman will also like this appointment.  The Late Dasturji Hoshangji’s dedication of his entire long life to his pious post and by the ardent services offered had won over the hearts of all; Dastur Kekobad will also follow in his auspicious steps and will give sufficient satisfaction to the Trustees as well as the Anjuman, of that we are very much sure.”

Dastur Kekobad had acquired quite an art and gained a vast experience having functioned as an assistant to the Late Dastur Saheb Hoshangji.  In the similar manner, with a view to keep up the tradition of this Dasturi throne, we trustees have arranged for the son of Dastur Kekobad, Bhai Nosherwan – who is presently under extensive  training – that after he completes his training he will be appointed as the assistant Dastur.   We believe this arrangement will also meet the approval of our Anjuman.

Within only three months after ascending the throne – that is during July 1908 the Honourable Government bestowed upon him the title of the First Grade Sardar of the Deccan and by virtue of that, his inclusion was made in the Levy that is held in the Government Palaces.  The excellent quality of Dasturi and his nobleness was highly appreciated in the Government circles and he was conferred the title of “Private Honorary”.  The manner in which this honour was carried in the English as well as Gujarati newspapers – will be appropriate – if mentioned here: –

(The English passage appears here)

“The Head Priest of Deccan Dastur Kekobad Aaderbad Dastur Nosherwanji has been appointed as the Sardar of the 1st grade by the Honourable Government.  The rank of a Head Priest should be considered more then any other Governmental honours despite this fact the Parsis of Poona and Deccan will not be able to conceal their joy upon the achievements of their Head Priest.  Dastur Kekobad is truly worthy of this honour.

*** He has given substantive services in the legislative assembly also. ***

“We convey our heartiest greetings to Dasturji Saheb Kekobad for such a magnificent achievement and wish that he keep on getting more and more such adornments”

(Jame Jamshed: 21st July 1908)

In the Parsi community presently there are three Baronets, two Knights and a Sardar and to that there is the addition of one more Sardar.  The Honourable position of the Head Priest of the Parsis of Deccan and Malwa has been graced since many years by the descendants of Dastur Jamesp Aashana.  Two Dastur Sahebs – the last of this clan – Dastur Nosherwanji Jamaspji and his brother Dastur Hoshangji held the position of the first grade of the Dasturs.  Presently their successor, the new Dastur Kekobad Aaderbad has also been conferred with the honour of being decorated as the Sardar of the first grade by the Honourable Government and has spread joy and cheers in the community.  We have been observing that this Dasturi family of Poona has won the laurels and honours because of their wisdom, ability and determination.  The native place of that family is Navsari and as a rule, the Athornan tribe of Navsari has been a success wherever they have been because of the wisdom of their heart.  However, the Jamesp Aasha family of Poona have gained their fame due to their knowledge of the religion, their progressive habits in keeping with the current trends, and considering it as their ardent duty to make their fellow tribesmen achieve progress.   Dasturs could be found in plenty today, but those that guide their tribe in accordance of the advanced knowledge of their religion to stride on the true path, are not known to us to be found except – those daring Dasturs from Poona.

* * * Dasturs should of course be of clean conscience and of advanced knowledge  * * *

Dastur Kekobad had a pragmatic mentality; he was an archenemy of superstition, fanatics and obstinacy and believes in keeping up the pace of progress along with the world.  We heartily congratulate such a religious scholar for having achieved the rank of a Sardar from the Government. [italics mine] (Raast Goftar – 26th July 1908).

The presentation ceremony of the scroll was presided over by the Agent of the Sardars – Mr. Ropar on 22nd July 1910, the day that was also celebrated as the birthday of His Highness the King, at a pompous gathering at a Darbar at Poona.

He was appointed to preside over a Zarthoshty conference called by some prominent Zoroastrians in Bombay, on 16th April 1910.  An agitation arose amongst the Parsis, as a couple of Bombay based Parsi newspapers tried to create a hindrance to holding such a meeting and quite an effort had been made by them for creating an obstacle.  However, due to the perseverance, patience, tact and far-sightedness of the organisers they overcame this hindrance and the conference was successfully held.  Whilst delivering the Presidential address, the Dasturji impressed the crowd so much by use of his rational and mature words, that they created a miraculous effect on the audience.  After hearing the lecture, an arch opponent who was against this conference right from the beginning – an eminent Sheth of Bombay – Sheth Shapurji Behramji Katrak, even dared to withdraw his earlier hostility.  Not only that, but in order to laud that conference, a dinner was arranged on the night of 30th April at the Grant Road bungalow of Sheth Nusserwanji Maneckji Petit which was presided over by Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit Baronet.

The performance of the consecration ceremony of the Adarian at the Madras Dehermeher on Roj 29th Maha 11 1279 Yezdezerdi on 7th August 1910 under his leadership.  On that occasion, the Anjuman of that place – with a scroll of honour and a shawl, graced him.  During that occasion, he took a chance to call upon the Government of Madras Sir Arthur Lolly at the Government Palace resort in Oatacommud.

On 17th November 1910 the Honourable Government appointed him as a delegate of

“Parsi District Matrimonial Court”.  ( Extract from the History of the Jamasp Ashana Family)

In  October 1912 he concecrated the Late Ervad D B Mehta Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran in Calcutta.He was the first Head Shenshai Dastur of the Atash Adaran and the trust deed of the Agiari states that Shams- Ulama Sardar Dastur Kaikobad Adarbad Dastur Noshirwan shall examine into regulate and control the religious rites, ceremonies and services of the said Atash Adaran. An annual donation was to be sent to the revered Dasturji Saheb.

In 1914 Dastur Kaikobad went from Calcutta to Rangoon to perform Bella’s (daughter of a Parsi mother and non-Parsi fathers) navjote. He was in Calcutta with his wife attending the wedding of his brother -in-law. He and his wife then went by ship to Rangoon where he first performed Bella’s adoptive mothers navjote, then the wedding of her adoptive parents by Parsi rites and then Bella’s navjote. He was of the view that Bella was a Parsi because “her mother was a Parsi”. He believed in the universality of the Zoroastrian Religion and was an independent priest firm in his religious beliefs.


At the Parliament of Living Religions held at the Imperial Institute, London, September 22nd to October 3rd1924 in a report by William Loftus Blake, he writes,

“A short description of the Parsi religion is given by Dastur Kaikobad who addressed the audience “


“They are Persians by race and religion, and preserve the faith taught in the sixth century BC by Zoroaster. Here again the conference was well served by a lucid paper by Shams-ul-ulema Dastur Kaikobad Aderbad Dastur Noshirwan, Ph. D. first class Sardar and High Priest of the Deccan. Poona. India, whose simple exposition of the basic principle of Zoroastrianism, a universal religion, was much appreciated.”

“The Dastur’s paper though short, was simple and clear, and removed, I thought, the whole subject from the realm of controversy in which it is so often wrapped. The whole paper was interesting as evidence of the way in which the followers of so many religions nowadays, have given up the exclusive demands of their faith. For it is upon the principles that harmonize with the idea of a universal religion that emphasis is laid. Within all the faiths, as with all the nations, the desire for union is being increasingly felt. After a brief account of Zoroaster as a religious reformer of ancient Persia—or rather of Iran of which Fars was one province only—he affirmed that the Zoroastrian theology was a monotheism…….The ethical conceptions of Zoroaster were described, followed by a view of the hereafter.”

The original Made in India success story: a soap so good, even Tagore modelled for it

In 1919, an entrepreneur responded to the call for Swadeshi by inventing the world’s first Ahimsa soap

This is the story of a feisty entrepreneur who paired business acumen with a higher purpose, and proved to the world that Made in India brands can stand the test of time.

Meet Ardeshir Godrej

For various reasons, including unimpeachable integrity, Ardeshir Godrej’s career as a lawyer never took off. And so, in 1895, he set up a company to make surgical equipment. But when his most prominent client refused to accept a “Made in India” branding on the tools, Ardeshir backed out. Two years later, Godrej went on to set up a lock-making factory which gave him his first taste of success.

World’s first vegetarian soap

At the turn of the century, Godrej got involved in the Indian freedom struggle. Among the many things that piqued his interest was soaps. Now, soap is a relatively modern invention—the first soap was manufactured in Europe some time in the 19th Century. Ardeshir noted that all soap used animal fat, a substance deeply resented by a large section of the Indian population.  (The Mutiny of 1857 was triggered by the use of fat in rifle cartridges, remember?).

Up until then, it was considered impossible to substitute lard and tallow in the soap-making process. But Ardeshir seized upon the opportunity and in 1919, launched the world’s first pure-vegetarian soap, made from vegetable oil extracts. The brand was called Chavi, a nod to Godrej’s lock-making venture, and was pitched as cruelty-free and a Swadeshi alternative to sacrilegious foreign soaps. Naturally, it worked.

The Turkish Bath Soap from the Chaavi range of soaps
The Turkish bath soap from the Chavi range of soaps. Courtesy: Godrej Archives

The Godrej marketing genius

Godrej also had another marketing trick up his sleeve. The first Chavi brand of soaps carried the tag “Godrej No. 2”. And why not “no.1”? “If people find No.2 so good, they will believe No.1 to be even better when it launches,” Godrej reportedly said. Three years later, he launched Godrej no.1, and proved himself right.

The Swadeshi soap

By this time, Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement was in full steam, and Godrej was an active contributor to the cause. While several leaders believed that Indians must adopt homegrown products even if they were inferior, Godrej believed this wasn’t sustainable, and that Indian entrepreneurs must up their game and offer comparable quality to consumers. On this, he publicly crossed swords with some of the leaders.

However, Gandhi deeply appreciated Adershir’s contribution to the struggle. Perhaps why he rejected a request for an endorsement from a rival soapmaker. “I hold my brother Godrej in such high regard… if your enterprise is likely to harm him in any way, I regret very much I cannot give you my blessings,” he wrote. (Another reason could have been that Gandhi himself didn’t use soap—not in the latter half of his life at least. For more than 25 years, he used a stone scrub gifted by his associate Miraben. That’s a story for another time.)

But another national icon did endorse Godrej No.1. It was the man who gave Gandhi the title of Mahatma. “I know of no foreign soaps better than Godrej’s and I will make a point of using it,” read the ad starring Rabindranath Tagore.

The Guru wasn’t the only one to swear by Godrej No.1. Dr Annie Besant and C Rajagopalachari also endorsed the Swadeshi soap.

Dr Annie Besant's endorsement
Dr Annie Besant’s endorsement. Courtesy: Godrej Archives
An ad for Godrej soaps featuring Rabindranath Tagore
An ad for Godrej soaps featuring Rabindranath Tagore. Courtesy: Godrej Archives

Now, over a hundred years after it was launched, Godrej No.1 is among the most popular soap brands in India, with over 380 million bars sold each year. It is among the longest-running Swadeshi brands. And it all began with one man who truly believed in the power of Make in India.

How the name of a Gujarati language printer and publisher who died in the plague lives on in Mumbai

Jehangir B Karani’s business rose, fell and then rose again posthumously.

Jehangir B Karani (1850–1897)

Descending the broad steps of the Town Hall of Mumbai after spending a few hours at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai has always felt like walking on history. The layout of the roads branching from the grand circle laid out in front of the building is exactly the same as it was in 1860, when the vast open space called the Bombay Green was truncated into the Elphinstone Circle, later the Horniman Circle. Many of the buildings also date from the same period, while a few are older. The roads and buildings might have new names, but the old ones linger on.

As I walk past the Mint, built in the 1820s, turn on to Pherozeshah Mehta Road, and head towards Dadabhai Naoroji Road, I am transported to an almost mythical Parsi Land. Both these political heavyweights have been dead for over a hundred years, but their presence still looms large in the city. On my right is Modi Street, a name which can be traced to the last decades of the seventeenth century, when the Mody or Moody family were ship-chandlers to the East India Company.

Further up is Bazaar Gate Street, now Perin Nariman Street, which leads to one of the main exits of the erstwhile Fort of Bombay whose ramparts were demolished in the early 1860s. To the right is a structure, part-clock tower, part-water fountain, erected in 1880 in memory of the businessman Bomanjee Hormusjee Wadia.

Topped by a flame eternally burning in stone, guarded by lamassu – larger than life sculptures that are part-animal, part-bird, with a heavily bearded human face – and adorned with cuneiform inscriptions of the Zoroastrian credo, it was the first attempt to leave a Parsi architectural imprint on the city. On my left is Homji Street, “an old street, named after Behramji Homji (died about 1750), a rich Parsi Merchant,” according to Samuel T Sheppard in his Bombay Place-Names and Street-Names (1917).

Right ahead is a major intersection where the road meets Parsee Bazaar Street. As its very name suggests, it was a market in which most of the shops and establishments were run by Parsis. In the 1890s, the neighbourhood was populated by printing presses, bookshops and newspaper offices, many of them owned and run by Parsis, such as the Frasho-gard Printing Press and the Fort Printing Press.

Most of these names have long disappeared but there is one that is still around: the ground-floor shop at Behramji Mansion bearing the name Jehangir B Karani’s Sons. A prominent printer and publisher of Gujarati books in the nineteenth century, Karani was struck down by the plague in 1897. How has his name survived for over 120 years?

The present shop at Pherozeshah Mehta Road | Image credit: Ganesh Raghuveer

A Bombay childhood

Jehangir Bezonjee Karani grew up in a city which was rapidly transforming itself into a metropolis of the British empire. After experiencing an unprecedented boom in the first half of the 1860s, which swelled its population to over eight lakhs in 1864, the city’s economy collapsed in 1866 but was on the path to recovery by the early seventies when Karani entered business. Karani’s childhood, representative of that of most lower class Parsi men in the mid-nineteenth century, is best described in his own words, which appeared in the introduction to Jehangir Karaniwali Navi Arabian Nights.

“I was born in 1850. My father was a respectable merchant and my mother was a sweet-mannered, innocent soul with a measure of intelligence. As the youngest son of my parents, I was showered with love but in no way was I ever pampered. As was usual in those days, my early education was in a local school run by a mehtaji…In spite of being quite a mischievous boy, I managed to reach the fifth grade under the guidance of a mehtaji named Baldevram.

With some luck, I was able to join the Seth Rustomjee Jamsetjee School at Dhobi Talao with a scholarship. I started learning English in the class of Hormusjee Master. Though he was good in every other way, this Hormusjee Master had a great fault. Once he worked himself up into a mood, he would administer beatings on any student in his line of sight. It did not matter whether you had done your lessons or not; if his jaundiced gaze fell upon you, there was no escape, no argument! Having survived this onslaught for about six months, I was promoted to the class of Dadabhai Dorabjee Master. Under his excellent tutelage, I was able to acquire a little knowledge of English and was generally ranked either first or second in the class.

Around this time, I had to pitch in quite often at my father’s shop. The business was not doing too well at that time and as my presence seemed to be rather useful, I used to take leave from school. My father was toying with the idea of making this arrangement permanent but my mother had other ideas. She was keen that I study further and disapproved of this proposal. However, my father’s resolve was getting stronger by the day, and after the summer vacation in 1868, he never sent me back to school. When he began to take me with him every day to his shop on Parsee Bazaar Street, my distraught mother tried to dissuade him…My dear mother’s protests were swept aside by my father who soon transferred the entire responsibility of the business to me.”

Within two years, Jehangir Karani bought out his father’s stake in the shop at Parsee Bazaar Street and started a small bookshop in 1870. There were perhaps two other independent bookshops in Mumbai for locally published books in Gujarati and Marathi at that time.

Karani initially catered to the school market and stocked a wide range of textbooks and exercise books. He quickly built a reputation such that his name became shorthand for a bookshop among school-going children. Soon enough, author-publishers began to stock their books in his shop. By the mid-1870s, Karani began to enter into pre-publication deals with them and his name began to appear on the title pages as sole bookseller of the book.

Within a few years, Karani had acquired the appellation of “Book-Seller”. If this had happened a few decades earlier, it might well have become the family surname like numerous other trade-based Parsi surnames.

Becoming a publisher

Even in the 1870s, when printing had been established in Mumbai for nearly a century, there was little or no specialisation in the literary food chain. More often than not, the printer doubled up as the bookseller, while the author or creator was the publisher who underwrote the expenses. Sometimes, all these roles were subsumed in one person. Furdoonjee Murzbanjee, the pioneer of Gujarati printing and publishing, whose literary career spanned over three decades until his death in 1847, was also the creator of most of his imprints as author, translator or editor. Furdoonjee printed, published, and sold his own books.

Most authors, however, had to publish their own books and pay printers to get them printed. Alternatively, the author could extend an advance to the printer and in return would get an agreed number of copies, while the rest of the print run could be sold by the printer on his own account.

The three biggest printing presses in Mumbai which focused on Gujarati – the Bombay Samachar Press, the Jame Jamshed Press, and Duftur Ashkara Chhapakhana – were all owned by Parsis and had been in existence for several decades. Their mainstay was a portfolio of magazines and eponymous newspapers. Though they had been publishing books, mainly related to the Zoroastrian religion, on their own account, most of the books printed at these presses were commissioned print jobs.

It was only in the 1870s that the role of the publisher began to evolve in Mumbai when the city experienced a fresh phase of growth. Besides the construction of public buildings, private investment in real estate and industrial infrastructure provided an impetus to all sectors. The increase in the city population from 644,000 in 1872 to 773,000 in 1881 was ascribed by the Bombay City Gazetteer (1909) “to the general progress of trade, particularly of cotton spinning and weaving industry, the extension of railway communication, and the advance of urban administration.” The increasing demand for books in a variety of genres created conditions where publishing could become a profitable business.

For Jehangir Karani, it was just one more step from being a sole seller of books to becoming a publisher. There was a thriving market for guides and tutorials and Karani first began publishing these books which had an assured market among students. Perhaps the first popular book that Karani published on his own account was Hindustani Gayan Sangraha in 1879catering to an insatiable demand for Urdu poetry among the Parsis.

Jehangir Karaniwali Navi Arabian Nights (published 1897)

This was followed by many others in the coming years on topics as varied as the constitution of England, Indian classical music, folk tales and popular stories, medicine, history, astrology, and Zoroastrian religious texts. Many of these books sported titles which emphasised his personal brand; for example, Karaniwalo Ragastan (1882) was a collection of ghazals, lavanis and other musical pieces.

Karani also began to build up a portfolio of periodicals as part of his publishing business. In 1880, he acquired the Gujarati monthly magazine Dnyan Wardhak, which had been in existence from 1873 and was already popular for its articles on drama, history, literature and practical skills. In January 1882, Karani started a weekly newspaper titled the Mumbai Punch, which was intended to provide a humorous take on the week’s events with cartoons and satirical pieces. It, however did not last more than a year.

In 1888, he acquired the Pakhwadiyani Majah, a fortnightly magazine in the same genre. Occasionally, his longer books, like Gujarati translations of classical tales like Don Quixote and Arabian Nights, would first be issued in monthly segments before being published as a book.

A publishing conglomerate

Karani had been getting his books and magazines printed at various Mumbai presses, such as the Nirnayasagar Press and Ripon Printing Press. By the mid-1880s, his publishing business had grown large enough for him to consider setting up a printing press. In 1886, he established the Standard Printing Works, where he printed his own publications besides doing job printing for others. This venture was so successful that he set up a type foundry in 1889 to support the press. Karani’s business was now comparable to that of the three largest Gujarati print establishments.

His original trade of book selling seems to have paled in comparison to the meteoric growth of his printing and publishing business. Karani however had bigger plans. In 1892, he acquired the printing press of the magazine Indian Spectator, owned by the Parsi social reformer BM Malabari, and recast the entire business into a joint-stock company, Jehangir B Karani & Co. According to the prospectus published in The Times of India (4 April 1892), Karani hoped to “bring greater profits when aided by the capital and resources of a company than by the limited means and resources of a private firm.”

While the other directors of the company were Parsis, Karani was the chief executive officer of this company. His family firm Jehangir B Karani & Sons, the designated managing agent of the company, would receive a ten per cent share of the profits besides a percentage of the sales. It had all the makings of a large publishing company with interests across genres, a portfolio of periodical publications, and control of all aspects of the business from printing to distribution.

Gujarati translation of Gulliver’s Travels (1930s edition)

However, not all his associates were happy with this development. They felt that he had relinquished control over an established book selling and publishing business for too little a consideration. The Kaiser-i-Hind (3 April 1892) noted that it was rather courageous of “Mr Karani, who had started his business on a very modest scale, and grown it to its current size by his personal efforts and dedication, to convert it into a public limited company to accelerate its growth.”

Karani began with a bang by establishing branches at Medows Street in the southern part of Fort and on Kalbadevi Road besides the main bookshop at Parsee Bazaar Street. As he had acquired a printing press with expertise in English, Karani began printing and publishing books in that language, besides expanding his Gujarati offering. He also started dealing in books imported from England and began issuing advertisements in newspapers like the Times of India. It did seem that the Karani brand would become a major presence in the Indian publishing industry.

Reversal of fortunes

Towards the end of 1894, however, Karani’s business imploded, likely caused by too rapid an expansion and a mismatch between cash receipts and expenses. Perhaps the other investors were not happy with its prospects under Karani. The business was taken over by three Bhatia businessmen through their company, D Lakhmidas & Co, and Karani had to completely disassociate himself from it in 1895. To ensure that he had a regular income, he began managing the Saraswati Printing Press on behalf of its proprietors from February 1896.

Karani was now neither a bookseller or publisher, but his personal brand name still had a cachet in the Mumbai market. In March 1896, he decided to make a fresh start by restarting the small bookshop at Parsee Bazaar Street under his own name. Like his father did thirty years ago, he installed Manekshah, his eldest son, who was just sixteen then, to handle the shop which was named Jehangir B Karani’s Sons.

He also began to consider publishing projects and decided to issue the third edition of the Arabian Nights, which had been one of his most popular books. But he seems to have had a premonition of worse things to come when he wrote the introduction to the book in April 1896.

“The circumstances under which the first edition of this book was published were very different from my current situation. However these things cannot be helped; change is the only constant. Everybody has seen the changes which have taken place in the fortunes of Jehangir Karani and only God knows what the future holds for him!

If he is still alive, Jehangir Karani will write the introduction to the fourth edition of this book, else my heirs will do so.”

Much of the printing for the book had been completed when the city of Bombay was swamped by the plague epidemic in September 1896. Most of the working population of Bombay under the colonial government was “migrant labour”, whose employment conditions and minuscule wages precluded even a toehold on the city.

They fled the city at the first sight of the disease with its characteristic symptoms: high-grade fever accompanied by swelling of the lymph nodes. Many printing presses had to shut down as there was no one to work the machines. The Saraswati Printing Press also shut down in January 1897. Karani was out of a job and his book project also had to be suspended.

Meanwhile, on 29 November 1896, his wife Deenbai died suddenly. She might have died during childbirth as was the fate of many women during those days, or perhaps she was an early victim of the plague. Karani did not have much time to mourn the loss of his wife, as he had to take care of his eight children.

He moved them to Baroda for their safety but did not stay there for long himself. He returned to Bombay on the 24th of January when the first wave of the epidemic was at its peak. By the 31st, he was afflicted by the disease. When his condition deteriorated steeply, he was admitted to the Parsee Fever Hospital at Byculla where he died on the 4th of February 1897.

Seal of Jehangir B Karani’s Sons

Afterlife of a publisher

The bleak situation of the eight orphan children who had lost their parents in quick succession can best be imagined. However, Jehangir Karani’s eldest son, Manekshah, stepped up to fill the breach. With the help of his father’s friends, he completed Karani’s unfinished book project and published it in June 1897 as Jehangir Karaniwali Navi Arabian Nights.

The firm continued to publish Gujarati novels and books connected with Zoroastrianism on a modest scale. In 1911, Manekshah started the New Art Printing Works, where he printed a variety of greeting cards to be sold at his shop. Designed specially for Parsi festivals, these cards in the Gujarati language proved to be extremely popular.

Hormusjee Bomanjee Memorial (erected 1880) | Image Credit: Rajesh Agrawal

In 1937, over forty years after Karani had lost control of his publishing business, Manekshah purchased the defunct D Lakhmidas & Co so that he could acquire the rights to the books published by his father before 1895. By the time Manekshah died in 1940, the focus of the business had however evolved to stationery, diaries, and cards – embroidered, perfumed, photogravure, Indian views – for every occasion from Christmas and New Year to Diwali and Navroze.

After moving across a few locations on Parsee Bazaar Street, the shop settled at its present location on Pherozeshah Mehta Road in the 1920s. Drawing on the prestige of its founder, it has always retained the name Jehangir B Karani’s Sons, thus becoming one of the last links connecting the city to a time in the nineteenth century when Parsis played a major role in the printing and publishing world of Mumbai.


This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.

MEHERWANJI NANABHAI MEHTA, 1-10-1857 – 15-7-1928



Meherwanji was born in his maternal grandmother’s house on the day of Dhanteras 1-10-1857 Roj Ram, Mah Farvandin,1226Y.Z. As it was Dhanteras his grandfather was cleaning money when he got the news about the birth of his Grandson. He immediately proclaimed that, real wealth has come with this boy and he will be rich enough. Instead, Nanabhai suffered a huge loss in his work on the Railway line as the contractor who was entrusted with their funds 50,000 rupees disappeared with the money. He had taken money on loan from his uncle Cawasji, and that too was lost. At that time King Malharrao came to Navsari and he had an astrologer with him. His uncle Cawasji asked the astrologer, why their condition had become so poor; the astrologer asked if there was a birth of a boy in the family. He asked to see the horoscope of the child. He saw the horoscope and replied that this difficulty has fallen due to the birth of the boy. But, when he will become 21 years of age, he will be the benefactor of the family. This prediction has proved true in his case.


Edulji Navroji Mehta



Meherwanji studied in Bombay till the age of 13 until hard times fell on the family and they shifted to Navsari. He and his brother Dorab studied at the Sir Cowasji Jehagirji Madrasa in Navsari. When he was 17 years old his uncle Edulji Navroji Mehta came to Navsari from China. Edulji was impressed with Meherwanji and he sent him to Calcutta where he studied at St Xaviers College for 3 years. His uncle Edulji gifted him 10 sets of clothes when he left and Meherwanji  had to manage with these for the 3 years he spent in college .After graduating he worked in a commercial firm for a meagre salary of Rupee’s 7. He was not happy and he wrote to his uncle Edulji to call him to China, in the hope of starting his own trading business. In reply his uncle sent him 13 crates of gold-plated bangles worth Rs 4000. These Chinese bangles were very popular in India and in 1879 he started his own business and soon became The Bangle King of India. Together with bangles he used to sell other articles from Japan, England, Germany and Austria. In 1897 he went to China and opened a branch of his business there leaving his brother Dorabjee in charge of his affairs in Calcutta.



Meherwanji Nanabhai Mehta


Ratanbai Meherwanji Mehta



















Nalibai Meherwanji Mehta (1st Wife)


Firozshah Meherwanji Mehta (Son)

















In 1914 Meherwanji was trapped in Germany in World War 1, however he managed to escape and make his way back. In 1915 he went to Japan and opened a branch of his office and put his nephew Manaji in charge. He also opened a branch in Mumbai in 1916. He started a glass factory in Calcutta named MN Mehta Glass works and a Match Factory in Ootacamond. He had a business in hosiery Goods and electronic Goods. People said he had the Midas Touch and anything he touched turned to Gold.

Meherwanji contributed over 1.5 crores to charity. In addition, every month he would donate Rs 350 for helping the poor Parsis and Rs 1000 for the muktad fund. Moreover, he would give gifts on the navjote and wedding of poor Parsis, and also for the education of poor Zarthusti boys

His charitable donations included: –

  • Rs700 for Tarapore Nasakhana
  • Rs2,000 for Calcutta’s Late Ervad DB Mehta Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran.
  • Rs4,000 for Calcutta
  • Rs 4,000 for Dharamsala in Calcutta.
  • Rs2,400 for buying the house Navaz Baug in Zampa Street.
  • Rs 4,000 for building Mehta Club in Lunsikui in Navsari in memory of his uncle Edulji Navroji Mehta
  • Rs 2,000 for giving shelter to poor Zarthostis in memory of Seth Pestonji Edulji Mehta
  • Rs 20,000 for gifting a building for Seth R.J.J.A.V. School
  • Rs 1,00,000 for the D N Mehta Parsi Maternity Hospital and its maintenance
  • Rs 500 to build a well at Mogar village in Jabalpore


The wells of Navsari were of salty water, hence people brought water from outside.

The people from Navsari brought water from a big well with steps inside it, which was outside the city. But there was only one well and Parsi women would quarrel with Hindu women. A new well was built for the Parsis.




  • Rs700 to build Navsari Sayaji Vaibhav Library compound wall
  • Rs 500 in Ratanji Faramji Dabu general Hospital Fund
  • Rs 500 to build a Parsi block at Kunoor
  • Rs 20,000 to build a separate building at the Navsari Atash Behram
  • Rs 1,200 for an extra wing at Sir R J J A N School
  • Rs 2,300 for repairing Navazbaug
  • Rs 2,500 for an additional wing at Navsari Mehta Club
  • Rs 1,000 for building Hat Bana Club
  • He established a building called Navazbaug at Zampa Street for the functions of Zarthustis


Inscription at Navaj Baug:-

This building was bought by Meherwanji Nanabhai Mehta in memory of his late mother Navajbai and his Late father Nanabhai Manaji Mehta 26-12-1899


Inscription at Mehta Club

This building was built by Seth Meherwanji Nanabhai Mehta in memory of his uncle Edulji Navroji Mehta and wife Nalibai Merwanji Mehta. It is built for the use of the members of the Club.16-6-1906 AD



Mehta Club Navsari


He gave his own residence at Dudha Street for the Seth R J J A N School

Inscription on the building of the school

This building was built by the citizens of Navsari and the businessman of Calcutta Seth Merwanji Nanabhai Mehta in memory of his late wife Nalibai Merwanji Mehta.

D N Mehta Maternity Hospital 


Mehta Bldg. – Parsi Orphanage, NavsariInscription at the D N Mehta Parsi Lying in Hospital

The D N Mehta lying in Hospital (erected by M N Mehta) was laid by Rao Bahadur Khaserao Balvant Jadav, 3rd March 1913 AD.

The building was built in memory of his brother Dorab N Mehta who died young. At first it was a twelve-bed hospital but as the concept of women going to a hospital to deliver became popular a huge building was added with 40 beds. The orthodox Parsis did not want a maternity hospital at Navsari as they thought it would pollute the area which was a “Dharam ni Tekri”. But public opinion was in favour of the hospital and permission was granted.

The Maharaja Saheb of Gaekwad of Baroda awarded him the gold medal of ‘Datar Mandal” on the occasion of his birthday in 1916.


When he died at the age of 71, he left behind 6 buildings in Calcutta, 5 in Kobe and Canton and a large palatial home in Navsari.


A meeting of the entire Parsi Anjuman of Navsari was held in Khurshedwadi to mourn his death and to record the community’s appreciation and gratitude, under the chairmanship of the Head Desaiji Saheb Ardesher Maneckji. A decision was taken to include his name in the list of those remembered in Zoroastrian prayers, and to place his oil portrait in the main hall of the Atash  Behram and to install his statue at the  maternity Hospital. His admirers and well wishers raised funds for the statue and portrait and on 25th January1930 Sir Phiroze Cursetji Sethna unveiled his statue and portrait. Two such statues must have been ordered. I have the privilege of having the statue in my house. Samara Mehta Vyas, Nirvhan Mehta Vyas, Ariyanah Mehta and Viviana Mehta (pictured below with the bust of Meherwanji) are the youngest descendants of his brother Dorabji.


All the above from Mehta Vanshavali – Courtesy: Prochy Mehta

Mehta Vansavali – in Gujarati

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Mehta Vansavli translated in English




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