R.D. Mehta (1849-1930): A Leading Calcutta Parsi

This October, the Calcutta Parsi community will conclude year-long celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the Ervad Dhunjeebhoy Byramjee Mehta’s Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran, the only functioning fire temple in the city and one of two fire temples in eastern India (the other is located in Jamshedpur). In November 2011 I was invited by the community to give an address on Rustamji Dhanjibhai (R.D.) Mehta (1849-1930), a prominent leader of the community whose generous financial contributions enabled the fire temple to be built. This short article will briefly consider R.D. Mehta’s life and career, including some interesting documents that I have found in the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers in Delhi. A longer article on R.D. Mehta and the Calcutta Parsi community will appear in the agiary’s souvenir publication, to be produced later this year.

Image from the Cyclopedia of India, vol. 1-2 (Calcutta, 1907).

R.D. Mehta was born in Bombay to a family that already had Calcutta connections: his father, Dhanjibhai Byramji (D.B.) Mehta (1826-1907) was based in the city due to his involvement in the “China trade”—a loose euphemism for the opium trade—and in 1860 he decided to relocate his entire family to the eastern metropolis of India. After completing his schooling, Mehta was first apprenticed to an Armenian trading firm (Parsis enjoyed close connections with the city’s prosperous Armenian community) before joining his father’s company. As the China trade began to slacken, R.D. Mehta helped reorient the family business: having secured special equipment and machinery from England, in 1878 he helped set up the first truly modern cotton mill in Calcutta, the Empress Mills, located upriver from Calcutta in Serampur. The common belief in Calcutta was that this expensive, highly-technical mill would be a commercial flop. Empress Mills, however, soon became a roaring commercial success, helping diminish Bombay’s absolute hegemony in the cotton industry. The Mehta’s later diversified into jute as well. Evidence of their commercial success is found in—of all places—the New York Times. In an article on the Parsis, published on 12 October 1902 under the headline “Millionaires of the Orient,” the Times declared “The Petits and the Wadias had captured the cotton on the Bombay side. It remained for the Mehtas to cross over to the Bengal side and capture the jute.”

In 1890, D.B. Mehta, by all accounts a very pious Zoroastrian, decided to set up a private dar-i-meher at his residence at 65 Canning Street, located in north-central Calcutta. Priests from either Bombay or Navsari (there are two differing versions) carried the alat—ritual implements—by foot across the subcontinent. There was already a functioning fire temple in Calcutta, the Banaji family temple (1839) located close by on Ezra Street, but, as I’ve stated in an article shortly to be published, there appeared to be some definite rifts between the Mehta and Banaji families. In any case, D.B. Mehta had long expressed his wish to establish an agiary for the public. After he passed away in 1907, R.D. Mehta and his widowed mother donated a liberal sum—and collected additional funds from the community—to erect a grand structure on Metcalfe Street in Bowbazaar. The foundation stone of the atash adaran was laid on Sunday, 17 September 1911, heralding a new chapter in the history of the Calcutta Parsis.

Today, R.D. Mehta is primarily remembered for his connection with the agiary as well as for the trust in his name. What is less known is that, from the 1880s until the early 1900s, Mehta played a prominent role in emerging nationalist politics in Bengal. While sifting through the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers in the National Archives of India, I have come across several letters between Naoroji and Mehta. Mehta, it appears, functioned as a right-hand man of sorts for Naoroji: Naoroji utilized Mehta’s connections with the Bengali elite in order to coordinate political activities. In 1885, for example, when the new secretary of state for India, Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father), visited Calcutta, Naoroji reached out to Mehta in order to encourage a formal meeting between Churchill and prominent Calcutta citizens. Similarly, Naoroji communicated with Mehta about a British politician or journalist planned a visit to the capital of the Indian empire. In many ways, Mehta was an important conduit between the Bengali political elite and Naoroji—and, through Naoroji, the Bombay political elite.

Included below are some interesting few letters from the Naoroji-Mehta correspondence:

1. R.D. Mehta to Dadabhai Naoroji, 29 January 1885

D.B. MEHTA & Co.

CALCUTTA.

55, Canning Street

29th January 1885

My dear Sett Dadabhai

You will kindly accept my most sincere thanks for your favor of the 21st instant.   I had circulated your letter amongst a number of my friends who I assure you have read with intense pleasure & interest.  We are organising an Evening Party at the India Club for Lord Randolph [Churchill] & have telegraphed for his consent.  No reply is yet received but there is no fear of his refusing the invitation.  An attempt is also made to secure a private interview with him.  Do you think we might impress on Lord R’s mind the desirability of admitting natives to the Commissioned ranks of the Military Service?  If I could be of any use to you here I would indeed be very glad.  Some time ago you wrote to me 2 or 3 letters in connection with the “Voice of India” & I was extremely sorry for not replying to them, & I am sure you will excuse me when I tell you that my father was very sick at the time, in fact his condition was most precarious, & owing to that cause I was not in a fit state of mind to attend to any business.  Mr. [Allan Octavian] Hume has written a letter to Narendra Nath Sen & the question of establishing telegraphic service with England weekly is on the carpet.  What do you think of Lal Mohun Ghose’s candidature for the Parliament?  I sincerely wish that he gets in, he or any one from India if once gets in the Parliament then I think the time has fairly come for India to raise a hue & cry for having representative parliaments Councils.  The matter then should be agitated thro’ the length & breadth of India & not allowed to drop till we have gained our points.

With my best wishes for your health & happiness.

Believe me

Ever Yours Sincerely

R.D. Mehta

Dadabhai Naoroji Esq.

5th Khetwady Lane—Bombay

Lal Mohun is a good speaker no doubt, but he lacks in figures & unless he makes that his special study he will not be very successful.

2. R.D. Mehta to Dadabhai Naoroji, 5 March 1885.

THE EMPRESS OF INDIA COTTON MILLS Co. Ld.  CALCUTTA.

55, Canning Street,

Calcutta, 5th March 1885

My dear Mr. Dadabhai

I owe you apologies for not having sooner answered your very kind letter.  Lord Randolph beyond visiting Sir Jotindro Mohun Tagore at his private residence did not accept anybody’s invitation nor did he grant any interview.  But from the little we saw of him we found him to be a man full of information upon almost every topic.  We expect Mr. Hume here shortly.  He will be the guest of Mr. Nundmohun Ghose,—Lallmohun’s Brother.  It is the intention of our Bengalee Friends to establish a weekly or fortnightly telegraphic service between here & England independently of Bombay, & with that in view they have I think succeeded in securing some Rs. 20.000.  It is a great pity that our aristocratic class remain quite aloof from the Reformed Party, & do not give their desired support.  Our Lieutenant Governor seems to enjoy their confidence & his advice they act upon.  The public utterances of our Governor are beyond all question hostile to the native community & in spite thereof I cannot understand why our rich Zemindars should cling to him.  The Europeans are beginning to dislike our present Viceroy who they fear is more for the Natives than for his own class.  I am afraid he will retire with the change of the Ministry.

Enclosed please find my subscription—No. M68 55013 Bombay 1st August 1881 for Rs. 10—to the Voice of India for the Current Year.

Trusting you are keeping good health & with kindest regards

I am, Yours Sincerely

R.D. Mehta

            How is your son Ardesir?  Has he got over that defect in the leg?

To Dadabhai Naoroji Esq.

Ketwady [sic] 5th Lane

Bombay.

3. 24 September 1906, R.D. Mehta to Dadabhai Naoroji. The letter refers to the moderate-radical split in the Congress as well as to Naoroji’s recent acceptance of the presidency of the Congress for its 1906 session in Calcutta. 

55, CANNING STREET,

CALCUTTA.

24th Septr. 1906

My dear Seth Dadabhai

We are pleased to learn that you have accepted the Presidentship of this year’s Congress.  The Bengalees are fighting among themselves & any one & every one poses as a Leader.  In the lot we have some very good men & some self seeking.  I am sure your presence would tend to settle the matter down smoothly.  We will take it as a great favor if you will put up with us as you so very kindly did on your last visit.  Pray accept this as an invitation from my dear old parents & all of us.  We would not say how very pleased we would be to put you up and to show you your likeness gracing and ornamenting our agiary.

By last mail I have sent my fifth son Khusroo for medical tuition with his eldest brother Maneck, the barrister whom I dare say you know.  My barrister son Maneck aspires to a Judgeship of an High Court & I have to solicit your kind help in the matter.  Need I say how grateful we all would be by our helping him & putting him in the way.

I sincerely trust you are keeping well & with our united kindest regards & best wishes,

I am,

Yours Sincerely,

R.D. Mehta

Further Reading:

Jesse Palsetia, “Parsi Communities ii: in Calcutta,” Encyclopaedia Iranica.