Thursday, June 02, 2016


At some point in the late 1880s or early 1890s, a young man left the little town of Visnagar, then part of the northern division of the territory ruled by the Gaekwads of Baroda in western India, and traveled to Bombay, to make his fortune. And that he did, in the gold bullion trade of India's commercial capital. He married and had one daughter, before being left a widower. Several years later, he married again, and had seven children with his second wife.

That man was my maternal grandfather, Sheth Dosabhai Maganlal Parekh. My mother is the youngest of his four daughters, and along with a younger brother, the only living children today. My grandfather died in 1935, when my mother was four years old, leaving the care of his business, and his children, to his 29 year old widow, Jasumatiben. My mother has very faint memories of going to his pethi (office), in Bombay's share bazaar (stock exchange) as a little child. The family home -- Dosabhai Mansion in Khetwadi, as well as the later Chandan Niwas on Chowpatty (of which I have fond memories from my childhood) have both long gone the way of so many of Bombay's old buildings -- razed, to make way for modern condominium skyscrapers.

Sheth Dosabhai had a philanthropic heart. In Baroda, he donated money to set up an agricultural institute, which still exists (I visited in 2007). In Bombay, a boy's hostel is still operational -- set up originally for boys from Visnagar who came to Bombay for their education. There is a dispensary (medical clinic) in the stock exchange itself, which he founded. And in Visnagar, he donated land for a city park, Dosabhai Baug, as well as for a kanya shala, girl's school. The old haveli (mansion) where the family stayed was eventually sold, and now houses a public school, grades K-10, with some 600 boys and girls enrolled.

Some thirty or more years ago, when we lived in Ahmedabad, we had made a day trip with one of my uncles to Ambaji (a place of Hindu pilgrimage), stopping in Visnagar on the way back. I have very few memories of that visit (I was barely ten years old). A few years ago, upon learning that not only is there a park named after my grandfather, but also a statue of him, I had a desire to visit this little nondescript town of northern Gujarat, a desire which came to fruition earlier this week, when, with my 85 year old mother, we made a road trip to Visnagar.

The gate to Dosbhai Baug (park)

The enclosure with the bust of Sheth D.M. Parekh

Swing sets and monkeybars

The nicer, better preserved part of the city park

The statue of Sheth Dosabhai Maganlal, datarvir (honored donor)
The dates of his life are given in the Hindu samvant calendar (1930-1991), i.e
A.D. 1874-1935

In preparation, I looked up the phone directory which my mother had received a few years back, published by the vanik mandal of the nath (Hindu subcaste) to which my family belongs, and called the secretary, one Mr. Maniar. He was delighted to hear of our desire to visit, and welcomed us warmly to his home when we arrived. His elderly mother-in-law was a wealth of information about a whole host of relations from my grandfather's generation whom I'd never heard of. Most interestingly, this family was actually distantly related, through my mother's half-sister, i.e. the only daughter of my grandfather's first marriage, Kantaben (whom my mother never actually met).

At the city park itself, a welcoming committee of officials from the municipal government awaited us, with flowers and garlands. We proceeded to the statue of my grandfather, and with the aid of a chair, I clambered up to garland his statue and thus honor his memory, as the assembled folks chanted datarvir ki jai ("long live the memory of the honored donor"). A host of different folks lined up to be photographed with us, then chairs appeared, and cool, fresh sugarcane juice was served and pleasantries exchanged. We went on a brief tour of the garden -- a separate area with swings and monkey bars for children ("it's always crowded in the evening") and a small building which houses a public lending library ("a favorite of senior citizens"). Large parts of the park, however, were in a state of rather poor repair. One section had several fallen trees. We were assured that the trees were to be auctioned through the forest service, and there were plans to clear up and develop the park. A wall separated the garden from a city fire station, which, our host Mr. Maniar had explained, the city government had built on land originally belonging to the park, donated by my grandfather. As is not uncommon with such public places which are now prime real estate, there are occasional pressures to convert them to lucrative commercial use. As descendents of the donor, we made our views clear, that we wish that the land be continued to be used for its original purpose, as a city park open to all citizens.

The old Dosabhai haveli, now housing a public school

Stone carvings on the wall

This portion is still a private residence

Doorway with bust of my grandfather
Elephant busts top column capitals

Original tilework

The main entrance to the old haveli, with ramps for horse-carriages to enter the courtyard
Window frame with my grandfather's name
The next stop was a visit to the girls' school next door, a vast complex, with some 1400 students. The school is named for a Diwaliben Dosabhai Parekh, which, we're now sure, is actually the wife of a different Visnagar Dosabhai, also a wealthy philanthropic merchant. Part of the confusion lay with the fact that my grandfather's mother was also named Diwaliben! There was a pleasant meeting following this with the trustees of the vanik mandal (which runs the school), and then lunch and an afternoon nap back at Mr. Maniar's residence. Following the obligatory post-nap cha-nasto (tea and snacks), we ventured into the crowded pols (alleyways) of the old town, where the haveli where my grandfather would have stayed on visits back to Visnagar, still stands. It now houses a public school. Located in a densely crowded section of the old town, off a street too narrow for cars (a clear indication of antiquity, that the roads are built to accommodate horse-carriages, not automobiles!), the original woodwork, stone carvings, and art work on the walls is still visible, many still bearing my grandfather's name, his initials (DM), or his bust. The principal happened to be around, and we were again, warmly welcomed, ushered into his office (in a small section of the old house, with nearly 100 year old wood pillars and beams) and offered kasu thandu (something cold, i.e. soft drinks). It was nearing 6 pm, and my mother had had an exceptionally long day, so we finally bid farewell to our kind hosts, and got back on the road.

It was a beautiful day -- certainly for my mother, who had herself not been to Visnagar in decades -- but also for me. I never knew my maternal grandparents at all. I have no idea what my grandfather would make of this grandson, who has left the ancenstral ways to follow a different panth, the panth of Jesus, even as a priest of the Yesupanthis! The Good Book says, "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous." (Proverbs 13:22) To know that he was a civic minded successful businessman, who had a heart for good works, is a beautiful legacy to receive.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow! It's so amazing to see such differences in ages for the same generation's ancestors. We are only a few years apart in age, but all my grandparents were born in the 1930s, except my paternal grandfather, who managed to see 2 days of 1929 (his birthday is just before yours!). Your grandfather died within a few years of mine being born!

Of course, your mother was a youngest of many and both my parents were the oldest of many. That does make a difference. My great-grandparents were born about the time of your grandfather! Just boggles my mind.