is a simple story of an ordinary Zarathushti lady, who possessed an
extraordinary vision. Born in 1852, she was reared in the, then,
traditional fashion, into a Zarathushti way of life. She was well tutored
in the art of knitting, stitching and sewing and adept at creating fine
garments and the decorative borders on strips of canvas for the Sarees of
Zarathushti ladies. She could prepare the finest strand of wool on the
spindle (for the weaving of the Kusti) with great expertise, too. Taught
at school in the medium of Gujarati, as per the norms of the times, she
had the distinction of being offered the services of an English governess,
arranged for by her maternal uncle, Rustomji Jamshetji Jeejeebhai. It was
acknowledged this arrangement would help cultivate her mind in English
literature and her stature in society with English mannerisms. This
would, thus, offer her an opportunity to lead a fairly sophisticated
social life, well suited to her status and to her share of earning through
the entrepreneurial ventures of the family.
Yet, Jerbai had different thoughts. This
lady's heart and mind from early age had been drawn towards a different
life led by the less than average Zarathushtis. She had secretly harbored
a heartfelt desire to offer an opportunity to those Zarathushtis less
privileged than her and had searched for means to the furtherance of their
lives. These were insignificant people (not unlike my own father and
his brothers) wanting to migrate from the small villages and country towns
of Gujarat to the large impersonal metropolitan city of Bombay (akin to
the present exodus to western societies) to improve their future. For
those who had no family trade to follow and those who were not on the
land, the opportunities of pursuing a worthwhile career in such remote
areas of Gujarat were becoming rapidly diluted in the early 1900s.
At the time, there were no major Universities
outside Bombay in Gujarat, which catered for recognized postgraduate
studies in English. Besides, the medium of teaching in schools and even
in the few Universities of Gujarat, was Gujarati, not readily acceptable
commercially or in British circles and in the colonies. There had been an
acute hiatus for jobs in the Zarathushti banks and factories and in
Government departments and for intellectuals in the professions. The rapid
pace of industrialization accelerated these demands. The shortage of
Zarathushti labor and honest foremen was naturally followed by a clamor
for such vacant positions in Bombay.
In 1907 Bai Jerbai's husband, Naoroji
Nusherwanji Wadia, suddenly died leaving her Rs. 900,000 in his
will. She visualized her first opportunity to offer assistance. She was
aware that since tenants in Bombay had lived under the constant threat of
being evicted from rental apartments at short notice, without a
guaranteed security and low cost housing in Bombay, not many families
would venture to leave their secure homes in Gujarat.
Jerbai devised a strategy. She arranged for
land to be purchased at Lalbaug, specifically for the construction,
initially of 8 Chehlis (low cost rental apartment blocks) for these early
Zarathushti aspirants from Gujarat. It has been recorded that she
personally supervised the planning of the apartment buildings, a sign,
clearly of dedicated intent. She made sure the architectural blueprint
incorporated, among other Zarathushti domestic requirements, a Hearth Fire
(Chulaa Waati) in the kitchen of each apartment for the
proper conduct and maintenance of a continuous house fire. It was, then,
traditionally expected of each household that, in the evening when all was
said and done, the embers of coal were buried in the Waati
or receptacle of ashes for the re-igniting of the fire the following
She placed herself responsible for the
allotment of the apartments only to those needy families, who could
present a valid reason to justify leaving their time-honored joint family
homes in Gujarat. She kept a close eye on the welfare and harmony of the
families and the maintenance, hygiene and timely repairs of the
constructions. She herself, after studying the income and family
expenditure, fixed the monthly rental at Rs. 9, 10 and 11 depending on the
size and location of the apartment. On many occasions, she waived the
rental, for a few months, of those who were unable to meet the monthly
payment due to unavoidable circumstances.
After this initial success, Jerbai established
the Naoriji Nusherwanji Wadia Building Trust Fund in 1917.
She named her eldest son, Khurshetji Wadia (later, Sir Cusrow Wadia), Sir
Jamshetji Jeejeebhai, Mancherji Pestonji Kharegat and herself as Trustees
for the building and maintenance of further Chehlis bringing the total to
32 Chehlis. This housing colony of Chehlis was named Naoroj Baug
in the memory of her husband.
On 19 June 1923, through unfortunate
circumstances her youngest son, Rustomji (1876-1923),
died, leaving Rs. 2,947,052 in his will. To this amount Jerbai added Rs.
825,000 of her own to make a grand total of Rs. 3.77 Crores to help
further her dreams.
At first, she ordered the purchase of 40,500
square yards of land adjacent to Masina Hospital to build a colony of
apartment blocks to cater for needy Zarathushti families. The apartments
were graded according to the requirements of each family depending upon
the number of family members. She had 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments
built gradually over a period of many years, as the need arose, to house
168 families. It was named Rustom Baug in the memory of her
In the meantime, there was a smaller piece of
land available (about 13,500 square yards) on the opposite side of the
Masina Hospital, conveniently situated near the Byculla Railway station
and the major bazaar of the district. She reserved a total outlay of Rs.
1.5 Crores, of which the sum of Rs. 670,000 was given collectively by her
sons. Here, a colony of 5 large blocks of smaller apartments for 136
families was constructed. But, she did not survive its completion. She
died on 8 May 1926. The housing colony was named Jer Baug
in her memory.
She was noted for other very generous
donations, each one for the worthy cause of uplifting the
underprivileged and the needy among women, too. Among the horrendous
medical problems of the time that took a heavy toll of Zarathushti
women, were Consumption (Tuberculosis) and death during
childbirth (often, from infection and post-partum hemorrhage). Her
other priorities, therefore, remained the provision for adequate health
Her generous donations in this respect
included the building of or extensions to several clinics and hospitals.
They included: -
The extension to the Khandala
Charitable Clinic, which was built in 1902 by her late husband.
A hostel for Nurses at the Sir
Jamshetji Jeejeebhai Hospital in 1903.
A charitable Hospital on the
grounds of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat at Chowpatty in 1906.
An additional block and a new dispensary for
the Dr. Bahadurji Sanatorium in Deolali in 1909.
A block at the Jehangir Marzban
Convalescent Home in Khandala.
The building of Dr. Rustom Billimoria
T. B. Sanatorium for Zarathushtis.
Annual grants of Rs. 5000 to the Dr.
Tehmulji Narimanwalla Obstetrics Hospital plus a donation of Rs.
51,000 in the Endowment Fund giving a 3.5% annual interest to the
A grant of Rs. 5000 to the Parsi
A grant of Rs. 25,000 to the Bandra
Shirinbai Cama Convalescent Home.
A grant to the Mahableshwar Parsi
Gymkhana and the building of a Badminton Court.
Not taking into account the donations she gave
from her inherited wealth, the donations from her personal income alone,
during her lifetime, exceeded a total of Rs. 800 lakhs.
Jerbai, thus, wielded an enormous influence on
the way of life, aspirations and the future of insignificant Zarathushtis.
If she had not envisaged that providing security and low cost rental
housing in a large city meant offering an opportunity (the first
Zarathushti to do so) many insignificant Zarathushtis would have continued
to struggle to have and keep a roof over their heads. The Zarathushti
fabric in Bombay would not have remained so closed-knit, either. It is
also of importance to note that her dream, which touched the lives of
thousands of Zarathushtis, was, through her influence, kept alive by her
two sons, Sir Cusrow Wadia (born 1869) and Sir Ness Wadia (born 1873)
after she passed away. Among their many important contributions were the
building of housing colonies of Cusrow Baug, Ness Baug
and The Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for Children. Some
philanthropic industrialists, later, realizing the depth of this magical
formula followed suit in other major cities of the Subcontinent and also
of Iran and in the British Colonies.
I would venture to add that it is possible
that some of us would have not been able to attend this Congress if it
were not for the womanly intuition, timely vision and active involvement
of this previously little known Zarathushti lady.
Parsi Prakash: Annual
Volumes of 1823 and 1826, Bombay.
'Parsi Lustre on Indian
Soil': H. D. Darukhanawala, Bombay 1939.
FEZANA Journal: Volume IX,
No. 4 - Winter 1996.