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Recollections of Phiroz

The following extracts from The Light is Ours by Phiroz Mehta’s sister Avabai Wadia are reproduced here with her kind permission

After my father Dorabji Mehta settled in Colombo, he sent for my mother. She travelled with a lot of household baggage like utensils, foodstuffs and, of course, clothes, in a ship which called at various small ports along the western coast of India and reached Colombo after 12 days. My father had prepared a small house in what was then a remote suburb of Colombo, Bambalapitiya, with a young servant, and she set up housekeeping. My father was put on 24 hours’ duty at a time, and she was alone and quite isolated, with coconut groves all round and no near neighbours, but she was a very courageous young woman and bore it all with determination.

When my mother became pregnant her father came and escorted her back to Bombay and her mother insisted on going to her ancestral village of Cambay (on the west coast of Gujarat) for the delivery, where ‘good food’, meaning mostly milk, cream and ghee, were in abundance. (The question of getting good medical help did not even arise in those days.) My mother did not agree with her mother’s old-fashioned views either on food or managing deliveries but submitted to them, and my brother was born there on 1st October, 1902. In due course, my mother returned to Colombo with her baby, escorted by her father. My father was overjoyed to see his baby son, Pirojsha.

Once a year Mrs Siedle, her husband, son and best pupils gave a concert at the Public Hall in Colombo (the only hall in those days) and it was packed with the elite of Colombo. My brother played the piano — solo and also in ensemble — and was greatly applauded. He was already noted for his musicianship. I can remember that my six-year-old self fully basked in his glory — not so much by listening to him, alas, but by walking up and down the side gallery where coir carpeting deadened footfalls and where a few people overflowed, and by proudly proclaiming to them: “That’s my brother”.

My brother passed all his music exams with honours and he qualified for a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. But the girl who came second had a champion in one of music’s leading local promoters, Mr S.P. Foenander, and along with the examiner from London, the two of them came to see my brother and persuaded him that Carmen’s need for the scholarship was much greater than his, as his future career lay in a different direction, whereas hers was to be a musical one. The upshot was that Carmen was declared the winner instead of my brother, received the scholarship and went to London for further studies. I think my brother was rather disappointed but he adhered to the idea that to help another is part of right doing.

It was true that he was not expecting to make a career in music although music was his love. He was aiming at Cambridge University. In the Junior Cambridge examination he had come first in the whole island and came second in the Senior Cambridge. But here, again, came a disappointment. One of his closest school friends was Roy, a very hard-working boy from a poor family. My brother’s tiffin was taken to him every day at school by Sebastian or another servant. It was a full lunch — rice, curry, plantain, etc. — and it came naturally for Pirojsha to share it with Roy who brought no food. He also shared studies with Roy. When the exam results came, Pirojsha was second and it was Roy who qualified for a scholarship to Cambridge.

However, after surmounting several obstacles including funding and obtaining a birth certificate (a minor saga in itself since he was born in Cambay in Western Gujarat, a small Indian state ruled by a Nawab where birth certificates were unknown), my brother eventually departed for England on the P&O ship, the SS Mantua. What a time that was, as far as I could experience it! My parents were shattered at having to part from their only son, but were keeping up a good face since they fully desired a great future for him. I didn’t like it either, and my seven-year-old fingers hemstitched all four sides of a handkerchief for him. He was also agitated with contradictory emotions. He had lived a very sheltered life, protected by loving parents and affectionate friends, without a clue as to how to be independent.

After spending a month in Bombay meeting relatives and friends (including my future husband whom I had earlier met in London), we sailed for Colombo in early 1939. We had a much longed for reunion with my father, found a house and settled in. A baby grand piano was installed and my brother restarted his practising. He soon gave a recital at the Royal College Hall, attended by the Governor, and received great encomiums on his interpretation of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, his very feeling rendering of Chopin’s Fantasie in F Minor, the Revolutionary Etude, and other pieces. His training as a concert pianist for nine years in London under the great Solomon had been a dominating period in his life and Solomon had become a friend as well as master teacher.

Phiroz had joined Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1921 and was reading natural sciences. But he suffered badly from living in digs, especially as he was vegetarian. He cut short his course and moved to London to take up music seriously. He had the good fortune to study with Solomon; in all, he spent nine years with this concert pianist who became not only his teacher but a firm friend.

Phiroz gave recitals in Lahore, Delhi, Bombay and, later, Colombo as well as lecture-recitals. He acquired quite a following, for his musicality was of a high order. He and Mehli Mehta, the violinist and conductor of the Bombay Philharmonic orchestra, became friends and Phiroz even gave Mehli’s son, Zubin, piano lessons. Zubin Mehta later became a world-famous conductor. Sadly, Phiroz’s concert career was cut short by fibrositis in his arm, although he continued to teach.

During the second world war, the British Central Office of Information recruited Phiroz as a lecturer. His subjects were philosophy, religion and music and his eloquence was such that he gave more than 3,300 lectures in the six war years. Afterwards, he completed his degree at Cambridge and became a schoolmaster. But long hours in the chemistry laboratory took their toll on his health, and he was offered long leave and a passage to a “warm country”, which brought him for some months to Bombay.

Thereafter he devoted his time to writing — publishing five books on religion and philosophy — speaking to learned societies and conferences, and counselling people on problems of a religious or spiritual nature. A Phiroz Mehta Trust was established to preserve his lectures on cassette, and to study his teachings on the disciplines of great religions.

Phiroz made innumerable friends of many nationalities, including some Tibetan leaders who visited London soon after the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. Indeed, Phiroz counted the meetings he had with the Dalai Lama in Dharmshala, India, as a highlight of his life. Phiroz was a gentle , humble man, helpful to all, who tried to live up to the highest of precepts. He was never rich but had great wealth in his friends and admirers. Silvia, whom he married at the outbreak of war in 1939, was a medical doctor. She was a gem and my great friend.


Tim Surtell
Website Developer and Archivist

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