Family and Descendants

From the Sanj Vartaman, a Gujarati language newspaper in Bombay. This is the only known image of Dadabhai Naoroji’s wife, Gulbai.

Dadabhai Naoroji came from a long line of Zoroastrian priests in the southern Gujarati town of Navsari, a Parsi stronghold. His ancestors included notable Zoroastrian priests, including two mobeds who met the Mughal emperor Jehangir in 1618, and some of the wealthiest merchants in south Gujarat. By his grandfather’s time, however, the family had been reduced to relative poverty: both his grandfather and his father, Naoroji Palanji Dordi, worked on a farm in Dharampur. Sometime in the early 1820s, Naoroji Palanji and his wife, Manekbai, decided to follow countless other impoverished Gujaratis and make the journey south to a new hub of prosperity: Bombay. On 4 September 1825, their son, Dadabhai, was born in Khadak in Bombay. He was their only child.

As in Dharampur, the Dordi family (Naoroji eventually dropped the surname) lived in poverty in Khadak, which was one of the poorest and most congested parts of Bombay’s “Native Town.” When Naoroji was about four or five years old, his father passed away, leaving the family in a desperate lurch. His death had one important consequence: it likely relieved Naoroji of a priestly career, as first-born sons were expected to keep up the hereditary priestly line. Instead, his mother, Manekbai, enrolled the young Dadabhai in a free, publicly-supported school, where he soon distinguished himself as an exemplary pupil.

Naoroji grew up in an entirely different world from Navsari and Dharampur: the cosmopolitan, chaotic world of an emerging metropolis, described in wonder by a contemporary Indian chronicler as “fifty-six languages and eighteen castes with different head-dresses.” He nevertheless maintained strong ties with south Gujarat, where many of his family members continued to live. In later life, he traveled to south Gujarat in order to research the conditions of local peasants and was in close touch with the leadership of princely states in the region. There remains, to this day, a belief that Naoroji was born in a small house in Navsari that still survives. This is not the case. During his lifetime, Naoroji repeatedly clarified that he was born in Khadak in Bombay (no trace of his house here survives). The Navsari house is likely an ancestral property.

The house in Navsari erroneously believed to be Naoroji’s birthplace. It is, nevertheless, a remarkably old house, and was likely to have been ancestral property of the Dordi family.

Around 1836, when Naoroji was eleven or twelve, he was married to Gulbai Shroff, a seven year-old girl. The marriage did not seem to be a very happy one: Gulbai was illiterate and, apparently, possessed little interest in learning. We have hardly any information about Gulbai, and she rarely features in Naoroji’s voluminous correspondence. Their union, nevertheless, lasted for over seven decades and resulted in three children. A son, Ardeshir, was born in 1858. He was followed by Shirin, a daughter, in 1864 or 1865 and Maki, born in 1868.

For much of the time during the childrens’ youth, Naoroji was an absent father. He pursued business and politics in London while his wife and children lived with Naoroji’s mother, Manekbai, in Bombay. The Bombay family members were very close to two other Parsi families, the family of Behramji Malabari, the social reformer, and the family of Mancherji Merwanji Dadina, one of Naoroji’s former pupils when he was a professor at Elphinstone College. Eventually, Naoroji’s children each married one of Dadina’s children, resulting in even closer bonds between the two families. Ardeshir, Naoroji’s son, and his wife Virbai had eight children before Ardeshir died of a sudden heart attack in 1893.

In spite of Naoroji’s prolonged absences from Bombay, the family remained very close, as is testified in correspondence, and his children and grandchildren eventually joined him for long periods of residence in Great Britain. After Naoroji retired from politics in 1907, the family resided in a large bungalow in Versova, which remained in the family after his death in 1917.

As far as I have been able to determine, Dadabhai Naoroji has no surviving descendants today. Incredibly, none of his eight grandchildren through Ardeshir had any children. Sarosh Naoroji, his grandson and likely the last surviving descendant, passed away in 1980, and any surviving family possessions were lost thereafter.

You can click on the image below to see a family tree.

Several of Ardeshir Naoroji’s children had distinguished careers. Meher Naoroji was likely the first Indian female medical graduate from the University of Edinburgh. Kershasp Naoroji was commended for his bravery while fighting in France during the First World War.

Other siblings took up nationalist vocations. As a student in the Sarbonne, Perin Naoroji was influenced by Bhikhaiji Rustomji Cama, the Indian revolutionary, and was associated with V.D. Savarkar. A Polish revolutionary apparently taught her how to assemble a bomb. Perin seems to have pulled one of her other sisters, Gosi, into revolutionary activities, which made them both targets of British surveillance during the early twentieth century. Both Perin and Gosi, however, renounced revolutionary nationalism after befriending Mahatma Gandhi after 1915. Along with another sister, Nurgis, they became known as the “Captain Sisters” (they married three brothers of the Captain family) and plunged into Congress work, especially khadi promotion (an organization they helped found, the Gandhi Seva Sena, still survives, with a store in Mumbai’s Nana Chowk selling khadi items and village-produced products). Perin was imprisoned on numerous occasions. One of their brothers, Jal, who was a Tata executive, was very close to the Nehru family.

Ardeshir Naoroji’s youngest daughter, Khurshed, pioneered a particularly unique role for herself in the nationalist movement. A classical soprano who trained in Paris, she abandoned a promising musical career in the 1920s to work with Gandhi. During the Civil Disobedience Movement, she led the picketing of liquor stores in villages around Ahmedabad. Beginning in the 1930s, Khurshed decided to spread Gandhi’s message of nonviolence in the rugged and dangerous North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). She was particularly committed towards promoting Hindu-Muslim unity and, to this extent, counseled Muslim dacoits (criminals) to free Hindu captives, many of whom were abducted and probably sold into semi-slavery in Waziristan. After several months of walking through the countryside around Bannu and meeting villagers, Khurshed achieved a marked drop in the number of abductions, something that was recognized even by British authorities in the region. One wonders how Pashtun dacoits reacted to a highly-educated, unaccompanied Parsi lady foraying into their camps in order to talk to them about ahimsa.