Childhood Memories of Phiroz
By William Grice
I was about five or six years old when I first met Mr. Mehta, the father of John and Robert, my new friends from Primary School.
When Rosemary Monk learned that I had known Phiroz from such an early age, it was gently hinted that my childhood memories of him would make an interesting article for the Newsletter. It seemed a simple enough matter to rummage though the archives of my mental filing cabinet, and I could see that much of what I had taken for granted just might be of interest to some. In any event, to refuse such a request would be churlish, and I promised to produce a draft in a week or two.
Confession being good for the soul, many moons have waxed and waned since the third metaphor in this mixture, the good intentions which are paved to somewhere or other. Several attempts were actually started and finished — in the wastepaper basket where they belong; writing anything about Phiroz seemed to be far from the simple matter I had supposed!
The main difficulty arises not from an inability to recall too little from those times of some fifty years ago. Far from it, once the process of recollection began, the flood-gates opened. If the resultant inundation came as a surprise, the complexity of influences, unseen at the time, were more of a revelation.
Perhaps the fondest memories are of the times when “Phiz-Pop” (and here I must apologise to John and Robert for divulging the delightfully inventive term of endearance coined for their father) would take the three of us to the local park to play cricket. The image of “Mr. Mehta” — I have always felt awkward calling him Phiroz — joining in our games with such obvious enjoyment has remained vividly, and occasionally would come to mind at our meetings at Dilkusha. With hindsight, it must have required a high degree of skill to consistently bowl to us with such pace, line and length to enhance our enthusiastic batting. This, combined with some remarkably dextrous dropped catches, ensured that at close of play honours were even, irrespective of any differences in ability, and in particular my lack of it.
One incident serves to illustrate his qualities of equanimity and indefinable aura of gentle strength, of which we are all aware. This “effortless aura”, for want of a more appropriate term, was evident to me, even as a small boy, but I saw it demonstrated so powerfully, it left an indelible impression. During one of our games, a group of older boys threatened a quite hostile attack. My instinct was to grab the cricket bat as a weapon, but Mr. Mehta was leaning on it. The ringleader approached him, shouting and taunting. What followed was something I could never have expected since I had never before experienced such response. Mr. Mehta had the full attention of the leader, because he was paying intense attention to him, perfectly quietly and dispassionately. It seemed that all eyes were held by that gaze, and, as if the non-sense of their behaviour was revealed to them and acknowledged by them, they grew quiet and just walked away. The game was resumed as if there had been no interruption.
It is quite astonishing that the memory can produce so much, and so clearly, of events thought to have been lost in the mists of time. Once triggered, a whole chain leads from one to another. To recount just a few, I can picture small boys squatting under the piano in Phiroz’s study. I can’t remember why we were, but the room certainly had an atmosphere of tranquillity which held a strong fascination. Our combined capacity for mischief was aptly summed up by a rhyme which Silvia (Mrs. Mehta to me) would recite with amusement: “One boy’s a boy, two boys are half a boy, and three boys are no boys at all.”
There was usually a measure of inventiveness to this mischief, which developed (or degenerated) into some dramatic experiments, as our curiosity about the nature of things grew. There were some spectacular investigations into the explosive nature of coal-gas when combined with the appropriate mix of air. Inverted biscuit tins full of gas were carried into the garden, where a lighted match was applied to the plume allowed to escape from a small hole. Retire to safe distance and await desired mixture to arrive and interact with the flame! Watch with satisfaction as tin was propelled skywards by the explosion! What Mr. and Mrs. Mehta really thought of the pranks of those dear little boys, I shall never know. I did however suspect that the duly delivered admonishment was not made any easier by an element of suppressed laughter.
For most of the time, my friends’ father was rather a remote figure, clearly preoccupied with matters to which he devoted his complete attention with a rare single-mindedness. Although this may have seemed unusual at the time, it is now perfectly understood. Phiroz was not one to ever do anything in a half-hearted manner. Paradoxically, he had a tremendous sense of humour, especially for the absurdities of life, which would be revealed fairly frequently. One example I recall particularly was of him coming out of his study quaking with uncontrollable mirth. He explained with difficulty that the reason for it was coming across the Gregorian prayer “Lord, make me chaste — but not just yet!”
If these anecdotes do provide a slightly different viewpoint of Phiroz (without differing overmuch from how my fellow young rascals John and Robert remember them!), “mission accomplished.” For my part, the exercise has also served as a reminder of the extent to which my life has been enriched by the family Mehta in general, and by Phiroz in particular.