At four years of age, I spoke only my mother tongue and a little Hindi. The local languages were incomprehensible to me. I missed Roshan and the old ladies. But there was also plenty to distract a toddler. A new house, white and sunny and airy, filled with an amazing new fragrance I couldn’t identify. A sunny, well-kept garden, a garage with a car. We’d never sat in a car in my memory and now we had two at our disposal: big, bumbling Ambassadors, each with a driver. The garden walls were only waist high, making it easy to explore the neighbourhood of more such bungalows. And other children! For the first time in my life, I had friends who lived down the same street, some of whom went to the same school as Jehan. I would join them in the coming year.

That new fragrance that I remember so well? It turned out to be the salty tang of the sea, with notes of coconut and fresh fish always tantalising the senses. I took one look at the blue backwaters framed by the dark green coconut trees and fell in love with this piece of heaven by the ocean. We landlubbers were quickly transformed into seafarers and ocean islanders. Our backyard neighbours were the Norwegian Fisheries, with a retail outlet redolent of fresh seafood. The fisherwomen came around daily, bearing leaky bamboo baskets filled with pearl spots, crabs, prawns, and mussels. The neighbour ladies helped translate the haggling at first, and soon enough, Honey was trying out a pidgin version to loud choruses of approval.

My mother was in her element once she came to terms with her new set of circumstances. She had left her college professor avatar (slinky saris and armfuls of oxidised silver bangles) behind. Now Madam would wear dark glasses and denim skirts, chiffon saris or tie-and-dye kurtas; she would swish into the backseat of the chauffeured car and be whisked off to garden parties or funfair openings, or more prosaically, to the market or the dentist. Leaving behind exam papers and lesson plans also seemed to give space to her latent creativity. She lavished attention on the house and the garden. She returned triumphant from a shopping expedition one day, laden down with canvas, paints and charcoal, and books to teach herself painting. She dabbled with watercolours, oils, and crayons. Her art was tentative at first, and many years later, I was still opening a book or a magazine and finding a scrap of paper with a finely etched lily or canna done in soft pastels. As her confidence grew so did the scope of the projects.

An easel was the next buy and she painted some watercolours of the natural landscapes that were our view from any window of the house. She must have lost interest after a while because the next time she picked up her paintbrushes was almost ten years later. That last phase of her art produced some very enigmatic portraits of old men and women, and the colour palette too was far more sombre, all olive greens and mustard browns. She had experienced the finality of life in those ten years, and she seems to have poured all her despair and anger into the lines on those old faces. Our neighbourhood, Backwater Estate, was in a “nice” part of town.

At the end of our street was the promenade along the backwater and The Fine Arts Hall. Our little colony of six bungalows all belonged to a traditional matriarch. She had built the five bungalows for each of her married daughters and lived in the sixth one herself. Eruch, always charming and friendly, completely bowled over his landlady. We were quite exotic for the Deep South of the mid-1970s. Fair skin was to be coveted in a land of the darkest velvet. The Syrian Christian and Jewish communities could also dazzle with their light skin and striking features. Freckles, bright carrot hair and the bluest of blue eyes made the handful of Jews left in the fortified inner town very distinctive. But while they were exotic birds, we Parsis were the stuff of legend and fantasy.

What made us truly unique was our religion. We were quizzed repeatedly about its antecedents. Not Hindu or Muslim, not Christian either – what were we? When we arrived in town, there was only one other elderly Parsi couple there, who lived quiet lives alongside their Jewish neighbours. A handful of Parsis came and went in the five years we spent there, mostly young naval officers and their glamorous spouses. Consequently, we attended the funerals of many old folk settled in plantation country in far-flung and isolated parts of South India. There was no one else, so we went. To pray and to comfort, to bury and to mourn. Eruch would come over all sentimental, and before he could expound on the loneliness of expatriates far from home, Honey would be packing sandwiches for lunch and instructing Jehan to fill the water jug for the drive.

I remember one such event: a misty afternoon, a shabby house clinging to a wind-swept hillside, Eruch reading the funeral prayers from a prayer book. The deceased being a dour, uncommunicative man, his widow had lapsed into talking to her own reflection in a cracked and cobwebbed mirror, the loneliest of habits in a country where no one spoke her own language. That gloomy house frightened me as much as the old lady, who showed no sign that she knew that her husband was dead.

Eruch surprised no one more than himself by falling passionately in love with his new job. The American collaborators were given short shrift by him. He was the pukka Ubbha Parsi (Ramrod Straight, or morally upright, the reader may choose) cast in the British mould, and had little patience for their bluster and red-faced arrogance. The rest of us were more welcoming, especially (in my case) when they came laden with shiny pink-and-gold tins of Almond Roca (a cheap candy that was my first taste of imported anything and remains a craving forty-five years later) and amazing longplaying records which they generously left behind for Jehan when they fled home to Texas.

I grew to love The Beatles (on a double album), the Eagles and Herb Alpert, playing the records on Eruch’s little turntable when he wasn’t around. After treating the Americans most uncivilly, Eruch proceeded to take umbrage when they upped and left. But he decided that he was going to get this boatyard up and running. And he did. The local engineers, shipwrights and craftsmen were more than capable, and soon, the little yard on the backwater began to produce elegant, ocean-going yachts. When a yacht was ready for export, we would take the day off to celebrate.

The yacht would be launched off the ramp leading into the channel and Eruch would proudly and carefully steer it to the port where a huge cargo ship waited. The yacht would be loaded into the ship, Eruch supervising every detail obsessively. It must have felt like saying goodbye to a kid heading off to college! Meanwhile, Honey, Jehan, Fali (if he was with us) and I would be entertained by the ship’s captain, loaded down with all kinds of contraband goodies and generally made much of. At the end of a long, exhilarating day, Eruch and Honey would hug each other as we walked to the car and we would go home, only to repeat the experience three or four months later.

Excerpted with permission from My World Without Jehan: Surviving a Brother’s Suicide, Liana Mistry, Speaking Tiger Books.