Keki Daruwalla’s Ancestral Affairs follows Parsi constitutional lawyer Sam Bharucha who is heading to Junagarh (a town in present day Gujarat, once Saurashtra). It is a princely state yet, under the suzerainty of British India, which had been ruled by a Muslim dynasty for 200 years.

At the time of partition, states with princely heads as rulers were given a choice to either remain independent, or to join the new Dominion of India or the newly formed Pakistan. Junagarh was surrounded by India on all sides and its own populace was overwhelmingly Hindu. But the Nawab is unready to face a future in which he would have to answer in a native tongue to dhotiwallahs replacing the British political agents who spoke Anglo Saxon and cricket.

Sam is to advise Junagarh’s fraught Nawab, Muhammad Mahabat Khan III, as an attorney at law. HH, a grotesque man unfit for statesmanship by some accounts and shy and reclusive by others, accedes to Pakistan to join it by sea – a most impractical scheme that ultimately fails.

The accession to Pakistan is reversed and the prince is not allowed the privilege of Hari Singh, the Hindu King in Jammu and Kashmir who ruled a Muslim majority, or the independence allowed to the Nawab of Hyderabad. The Junagarh prince flees to Lahore with his followers, five wives, children and many pet dogs. This leaving is seen as a plane flying over the town – an unusual sight in Junagarh, but not, believes Sam, an important failure for anyone but the royals whose time was done.

Once firmly away from the fish-sodden marshes of Bombay, Sam proceeds to settle into this slow, quiet mofussil town, or what his wife believes is a “village”, and have an affair with a horse-riding Londoner widow stationed there.

Why the form matters

Ancestral Affairs is a quiet book about the unquiet arrival of democracy – the riots and police shootings in Bombay and Punjab are not visited but mentioned. The main theme running through the book is a meditation on form.

“Form” is a preoccupation of both poets and policemen – and Daruwalla has been both. At times the book seems to be a moderate’s polite appeal for resolution with the minimum of political or personal strife. But none of the book’s spirit is thwarted for the lack of melodrama – it is a funny, clever book with mature prose that provokes hilarious dry amusement throughout. The prose especially comes alive through Sam’s son Rohinton who is painted as a jester, a lovable buffoon.

Daruwalla wrote in the poem, Migrations (2002):

Migrations are always difficult:

ask any drought,

any plague;

ask the year 1947.

Ask the chronicles themselves:

if there had been no migrations

would there have been enough

history to munch on?

The question seems a like taunt: would there have been enough history to munch on without the high emotion supplied by droughts, plagues and partition? Daruwalla is telling a big story through the fine print of personal relationships and the feelings of the people who live through difficult times. The final picture can be anti-climactic. There was no triumph in making the British leave – they wanted to. There was no settling of dues, no riddance of caste wars but the creation of new divides.

If there were a triumph it would be the Constitution. It would be too facile to call this book a Parsi family saga, though with a title like Ancestral Affairs, what else could it be? Preventing such labelling is the fact that it is really the story of two main characters, a father and a son. It is other things too: a questioning of correctness and compromise, the maintenance of form through a written constitution, or keeping family ties tight across a dwindling but important minority community.

And what about the Parsis?

From the mid 1950s onwards, the action moves from the story of the decadent prince who called himself a Nawab to that of Rohinton’s. He too is a kind of lost prince who inherits from the father his decency, but none of the work ethic.

He is growing up in a newly independent India, studying medicine in Kanpur – a fish out of water away from cosmopolitan Bombay, the natural habitat of Parsis,. Here, his casual wit, braggadocio and love for Anglo Saxon is at marked odds with old-fashioned, sanctimonious small-town India. Ultimately, his refusal to go native costs him.

Rohinton, unlike his father is missing “form”. He angers his school authorities by seeming overly casual and impertinent, unbecoming of a future doctor. His Anglo-Indian boarding school upbringing is irrelevant in the more Indian India.

The Parsis have settled upon a clear identity through assiduously keeping strong community ties though they abhor the gossip and claustrophobia of circles within social circles. They are also rebels in a way – hiding in plain sight, letting their women educate themselves and dress as they pleased. They were favoured by the British for their identifiable ways and ambition.

The attributes most closely associated with Parsis – the stereotype, if you like – of Zoroastrian righteousness and purity, served Sam well. When he cheated on his wife, there was no question of him hiding it as a “good” Parsi, he said – though he knew it would end his marriage.

This for a Parsi is form, though divorce may be taboo in India. Rohinton’s deviousness gets him in trouble repeatedly. The relevance of form is everywhere in the book – especially when there is disruption and upheaval.

Daruwalla resists being labelled a “Parsi Writer”, finding such nomenclature bunk, though he writes intricately about Parsi identity. He once said identities have roots hidden in the dark and rejected labels as “billboards”, superfluous and superficial. His poetry does not bring his Zoroastrian roots to plain sight; equally it reveals little of his history as a policeman with the Indian Police Service – his day job until retirement.

But the slow forgetting of something that is important to you and you took for granted is painful, like one’s “Parsiness”, or one’s mother’s face. Like Daruwalla does at the end of Migrations:

Mother used to ask, don’t you remember my mother?

You’d be in the kitchen all the time

and run with the fries she ladled out,

still sizzling on the plate.

Don’t you remember her at all?

Mother’s fallen face

would fall further

at my impassivity.

Now my dreams ask me

If I remember my mother

And I am not sure how I’ll handle that.

Migrating across years is also difficult.

In this book Daruwalla migrates across the years to dig for his roots or the grandmother’s face in the poem about leaving, and, worse, about reminders of your slow and tragic forgetting.

Ancestral Affairs, Keki Daruwalla, 4th Estate.