Thought Box

An Accidental Martyrdom

An Accidental Martyrdom

by Piroj Wadia May 5 2014, 1:20 pm Estimated Reading Time: 2 mins, 58 secs

In April 2010, I returned home late evening to find a family friend had left urgent messages for me to call back. The next morning, before I could return her call, she was on the line. There was an advertisement in the Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly, a publication dedicated to the Parsi community, seeking the heirs of one Mr Hormasji Kharshedji Mistry, who lived at Shellim House in Khetwadi. We were to contact some doctor or the other. My friend urged me to call the person, as the said gent Mr Hormasji Kharshedji Mistry was my mother’s first cousin. Having seen the ad very cursorily that Sunday, it didn’t register that the reference was to Homi uncle. I contacted the person who inserted the ad and went with a cousin to the office of the NCP (the Nationalist Congress Party) as they wanted to honour my uncle for his martyrdom.

At the party office, my cousin kept reminding them that our uncle wasn’t a martyr. That he was struck with a stone by rioters outside the mill where he worked. The NCP official smiled and pushed the tea and biscuits towards us. “Hormusji Kharshedji Mistry is the only Parsi martyr. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Maharashtra State, we want to honour those martyrs who were from the minority community and your uncle is the only Parsi martyr.”

So on May 1, 2010 my cousin and I went to the NCP office. Clearly, preferential treatment was accorded to us among an assemblage of Muslims, Christians and even Sikhs. After tea and biscuits, we were driven to Veer Nariman Road where a stage was constructed. Seated in a particular order, we were to go on stage as each martyr’s name was called out. We were presented with the standard shawl, the auspicious coconut and a replica of the Martyr’s Memorial which stands at Hutatma Chowk.

To back track to January 1960, the separatist violence in the then State of Bombay for Maharashtra and Gujarat must have claimed countless innocent lives. My uncle worked with Century Mills and was a keen tennis player; he usually partnered Jimmy Mehta, later a Davis Cup player at the Parsi Gymkhana and inter-club matches. That day in January, as he got into his Hillman with his tennis kit, a neighbour sounded him off about a hartal and raging violence in the mill areas specially. He said he would just go in for a while to sign a few papers and then go to the Parsi Gymkhana to play a game of tennis.

At the mills, he got into the car and as he started driving out a mob surrounded the car, shouting anti-Gujarati slogans, a lethal stone struck him on the head. His workers admonished the rioters that he wasn’t Gujarati, but a Parsi. The rioters were mistaken about Homi uncle’s identity as he used a glossy hair pomade and wore horn rimmed glasses, just like the Gujaratis did.

On May 1, 1960 as the new state of Maharashtra celebrated its identity, my mother, my aunts and grand aunts bemoaned the unnecessary loss of a young life. Each time we passed the Hutatma memorial my mother would rue having lost a cousin she so loved. If I went to receive the mistaken honour, I did so knowing my mother would have wanted it so. As for the NCP, it was a vote bank exercise. The party volunteer, admitted that, he was hoping to get a ticket for an upcoming election.

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