It’s Parsee New Year today. But on this Navroz day, we also find ourselves mourning the passing away of ex-Prime Minister Shree Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a great statesmen and orator amongst other things.
Allow me to tell you this day, an unusual Travel Story for Kids. A story about another great stalwart, a Parsee who was responsible for Ice-cream travelling to India! And hopefully through the tale, you can discover a fascinating slice of History.
As is only too well known, the city of Mumbai stands upon the glorious contribution of many enterprising souls. Several amongst these early pioneers were Parsees.
One Parsee in particular, who had a big role to play in laying the foundations of India’s financial capital was Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, one of the richest, most charitable and influential men of his times.
Jeejeebhoy was the first Indian to be knighted by the British
While there are several stories to be told about the great man who gave the city of Mumbai many of its landmarks like the Mahim Causeway, the JJ School of Art, JJ School of Architecture, Bhau Daji Laud Museum and so on, let me tell you today about his one contribution children will feel thankful for.
Jeejeebhoy brought Icecream to India!
The story begins many thousands of miles away…in the other end of the world.
On a freezing winter’s day in Boston, sometime in the early 19th century, a man named Frederick Tudor looked about in puzzlement at the large quantities of snow and ice that lay piled up all around him. What a great business it would be, thought Tudor, to ship that ice to parts of the world that didn’t have any!
Naturally, people thought he was crazy! Who in the world would want to buy ice? And how in heaven’s name does one go about collecting, packing and shipping it?
Not one to be bogged down easily, Tudor broke the ice! Quite literally!
Tudor had chunks of ice cut from the icy ponds of New England and prepared for shipping it out. He researched and figured out a way to transport the ice and discovered that wrapping ice in sawdust was the best way to keep it from melting.
Building the necessary infrastructure he required, he quickly turned his idea into a roaring business and by the 1930s, Tudor was shipping out a 130 tonnes of ice every year!
Think he was an eccentric? Well…not exactly. Tudor quickly became one of the richest men in Boston and came to be known as the Ice King!
Shipped ice from the United States began making its way to various parts of the world. Large consignments of this ice also made their way to India.
The first consignment of ice was imported into India in September 1834 by a firm owned by a Parsee named Jehangir Nusserwanjee Wadia. Needless to say, the strange item of import was greeted with great curiosity.
Several centuries earlier in India, the Mughals had used ice from the Himalayas to cool their drinks (sherbet) and cold deserts were not entirely unknown, but what in heavens name was one to do with all the ice that was being shipped in? And how was one to keep it from melting in the soaring Indian heat? It wasn’t so plainly obvious back in those days.
Tudor then got Ice Houses constructed in India to store the imported material so that his precious Ice could remain Ice!
The Ice House of Bombay was a spherical building (as seen above) accessible from the top by a circular iron stairway. It was built by public subscription and contained regular shipments of ice coming into Bombay from America. This ice was sold to the public for 4 annas (25 paise) per pound.
But what was to become of all this ice? Not many uses were known for it back then.
So in order to create some use and demand for his ice, Tudor came up with another ingenuous idea.
Yes! He created ice cream!
But so exotic was the idea of ice-cream for Indians back in those days, that it needed more than an Ice Baron’s ingenious idea and his massive supply network to have it flying off the shelves.
An enterprising risk-taker, willing to give the unusual and exotic dish a try, was needed.
Stepping into the scene at that moment in time was Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, one of the foremost businessmen and entrepreneurs of Bombay.
It so happened that sometime in 1834, Jeejeebhoy was to throw a house-warming party for his new house in Bombay and decided to serve the exotic ice-cream to his guests.
Believe it or not, that dinner where Ice-cream was served was such a big event that it found coverage in the Bombay Samachar, a leading newspaper of that time!
The paper reported that the guests as also the host, had fallen ill with cold due to consuming some exotic dish called ice-cream! It was noted with great consternation, that they were all paying a price for having consumed an unknown foreign substance!
Thankfully, Ice-cream did succeed in rising up from its dubious debut performance in the city.
Slowly but gradually, Ice-cream became more popular on the tables of the wealthy. With time, it was to become a symbol of sorts where the rich and the famous would serve ice-cream to their guests to assert their social status.
It was to be many years however, before ice-cream became the common man’s desert.
Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy did much more than bring ice-cream to the shores of Bombay. He played a large role in building the foundations of the city.
Few people in Mumbai know much about Charni Road near Chowpatty Beach apart from its location as a railway station on the Western Line.
The word Charni – means Grazing and is a remnant of what the area was used for many years ago when it was a Grazing Ground for Cattle. This Grassy area was purchased by Jeejeebhoy for being used as a grazing ground, when he learnt about the exorbitant grazing fee the British were charging cattle owners to graze their cattle in the Fort area. In order that the starving cattle may graze without a fee, he donated a large sum from his own pocket to purchase the grassland.
The Charni Road area holds a special place for me as that is where I was raised and my family has lived for many years. But Jeejeebhoy left his mark on several other places in the city as well.
This was a time Bombay was no more than a set of seven islands and one would need a boat to cross over from one island to another.
Jeejeebhoy donated over Rs, 1,50,000/- from his personal funds to construct the Mahim Causeway, that is still used by those driving to and from the city to the western suburbs.
In 1853, Jeejeebhoy endowed Rs. 1 lakh towards an art school in the city. The JJ School of Art is today a landmark as also one of the most prestigious schools of Art in India.
Lest one think the man was born with a silver spoon, let me set out briefly the roller-coaster story of his life.
It is said that Jeejeebhoy lost both his parents at a young age and had no formal education. He spent his early years working as an apprentice with his uncle Mr Batlivala, who sold empty glass bottles outside a shop. Quickly learning the ropes of business and educating himself in English and Accounts, he impressed a Parsee moneylender named Mr Readymoney (yes…some Parsees have such quirky surnames!) to loan him a princely sum of Rs. 40000 when he was only a young boy!
He then made his way to China and got involved in trade, including in the trade of Opium, and quickly amassed a lot of wealth. In the course of his trading life, he was taken prisoner, survived shipwrecks and storms and lost all his wealth in a great fire that gutted much of Bombay in 1803 reducing his wealth and home to ashes.
Like a phoenix however, Jeejeebhoy rose from the ashes!
Towards the end, so influential was Jeejeebhoy, that when he wished to build a house for his son next to the Mumbai Fort and found the space between the new house and the fort wall too narrow, he managed to induce the government of the day to break down a portion of the Fort wall and rebuild it a few yards away in order to widen the road!
This work was of course carried out at his own cost but it displays the kind of influence the man wielded with the authorities back in the day when the mighty walls of the Fort could be moved about for his convenience!
Inside the green lanes of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai (one of the many legacies of Jeejeebhoy), is a bunglow where a baby was born in 1875 to the then Dean John Lockwood Kipling. The newborn would go on to become a well-known writer. The world knows him as Rudyard Kipling, author of the famous The Jungle Book.
While it is no secret that many of his time, including Jeejeebhoy built their empires on the illicit Opium trade that destroyed the lives of many (particularly in China), it is also true that the foundations of Mumbai as the financial hub of India stand upon the broad shoulders of giants like him.
On a personal note, through school and college, some of my closest friends have been Parsees. I count several Parsees amongst my friends, colleagues, seniors and acquaintances. Without exception, they are all free spirited and large hearted!
And from all the tributes pouring in for Shree Vajpayee today, what strikes out most is how across party lines, people eulogize him for his moderate positions, his empathising nature and his large heartedness.
So this Parsee New Year, as we also mourn the demise of a great political stalwart, let’s remember their Free Spirit, their Large Heart and their Sprit of Philanthropy.