Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist, passed away on Sunday at the age of 98. Vyarawalla is a significant figure for any student of modern Indian history: pick up any book covering Indian politics for the period from the 1940s to the 1970s and you will find at least a few of her photographs.
I met her only once. In May 2008, when Vyarawalla was a sprightly 95, she traveled to London, Boston, and Chicago along with her biographer, Sabeena Gadihoke, for a lecture tour. It was her first trip abroad. She spoke briefly at a lecture at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum after Gadihoke delivered a lecture on her pioneering work. Below are some of my reminisces of her visit.
On 8 May, I helped organize a dinner in her honor with the Boston Zoroastrian community. While Gadihoke was visibly suffering from jetlag and nodding off to sleep, Vyarawalla was alert, relatively talkative, and quite enjoying drinking a Coke. She responded in a no-nonsense fashion to the questions put to her by the attendees. Did she have any message to give to enterprising Zoroastrian women, somebody asked. “No,” she responded. When we gave her a picture book of Boston as a gift at the end of the dinner, she looked at it and then politely handed it back. “What use will I have for it?” she asked us. From the little I got to know of her that evening in May, it was abundantly apparent that Homai Vyarawalla was part of a now all-but-vanished part of the Parsi community: those who knew real poverty and grew strong from the experience, exercising extreme frugality and self-reliance in all aspects of their lives.
Before we went to dinner, I had a chance to talk to Vyarawalla in her hotel room in Harvard Square. She told me that was enjoying her trip and liked how Boston was so clean in comparison to India. I asked her a little bit about her family background. Vyarawalla was related to the priestly Meherjirana family of Navsari but she grew up in Tardeo in central Bombay. Her mother wove kustis, which took about eight days to make, and sold them for Rs. 3½ each. “We were in abject poverty yet we were happy and healthy,” she remembered. Later, she was admitted to St. Xavier’s College, where the tuition was a princely Rs. 72 for three months.
As Gadihoke’s book did a good job covering her experiences interacting with various world leaders, I asked her about some more obscure matters, such as what she remembered from her childhood (it is not every day, after all, that you can meet someone who remembers the 1920s). She had some memories of the Prince of Wales Riots that broke out in Bombay in November 1921, when Vyarawalla was a schoolgirl. These were the last major riots where Parsis were participants; it is one chapter in Parsi history that the community has chosen to forget.
Late in November of that year, the Prince of Wales visited Bombay and, in keeping with the non-cooperation movement, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party called a hartal or strike. A number of Parsis and Anglo-Indians broke the hartlal, attended ceremonies for the prince’s arrival, resulting in them becoming the target of Hindu and Muslim mobs over the next few days. Vyarawalla recalled that many Parsi schools staged garbas on the day that the prince arrived at Apollo Bunder. Hindu and Muslim Congress supporters, she continued, spread rumors that the Parsis were against Indian independence and, in particular, targeted the Parsis’ involvement in the liquor trade. She remembered a liquor shop in Tardeo being pelted with stones by rioters. Hindu and Muslim rioters had only these stones, lathis, and aerated soda bottles as their weapons—though Vyarawalla noted that the marble stoppers used in the bottles could be especially deadly projectiles. Parsis had more options at their disposal: she remembered that a Parsi police supervisor provided brickbats to Parsi rioters on Wadia Street, who had also dragged out desks onto the streets to be used as barricades.
Perhaps these early memories of nationalist-inspired violence influenced her political views. Vyarawalla said that she studiously avoided politics and political movements—somewhat ironic, considering that she captured on camera some of the seminal political moments in the nationalist and post-independence periods. Regular people, she noted, could not afford to be involved in politics; only wealthy people such as the Captain sisters, Dadabhai Naoroji’s grandchildren, could. Gandhi was “a show.” “I would not call him a Mahatma,” she argued. How did Gandhi have any authority to tell men to go to their deaths in order to achieve Indian independence? This left many broken and grieving families, she noted. Vyarawalla had slightly more positive views about Nehru.
Vyarawalla was downbeat on the Parsis. “Parsis are always lazy,” she complained. The Parsis had lost their sense of pride, and how could the community survive when this had departed? Charity, she believed, had done the most harm to the community. Vyarawalla recalled that she used to give money annually to around eighteen families in Baroda, but she stopped this practice once one family demanded in writing that this dole be given early. She now isolated herself from Parsis in Baroda, where she lived.
With that, I ended the interview and she invited me to visit her in Baroda the next time I was in town, although she warned that the children living next door were particularly loud and rowdy. I did not get a chance to meet her again. But her humility and frankness has left a very strong impression on me.