When two hearts beat as one

This is a love story of two people born almost a generation apart, in two different continents and how the wheels of fortune brought them together.

Ratan D. Tata (nephew of Jamshedji Tata), was in Paris hoping to trade in pearls and silk. He wanted to learn French, so his uncle Jamsetji recommended a teacher to him – Madame Briere.

It was here that he met and fell in love with the teacher’s beautiful daughter Susaune, slim and tall with beautiful golden hair. She was twenty years old.

Ratan informed his uncle Jamsetji about his affection for Susaune and his desire to marry her. He was quite prepared for an angry “No” but instead, was delighted when Jamsetji readily gave his consent. The wedding was held in 1902 and Jamsetji attended the wedding in Paris and gave a speech at it.

After the wedding, Jamsetji took Ratan D. Tata and Susaune (now called Sooni after her golden hair) to Britain and gave a party at Kingston-on-Thames. It was “the largest gathering of Parsis which had hitherto been held west of the Suez Canal”.

Jamsetji spared no expense to make it a success. He took his guests in a pleasure streamer from Westminster Pier to Kingston-on-Thames. An account of the occasion says –

“He played the host to perfection, though he depreciated in courtly manner, the numerous expression of thanks. His friends Jamsetji and Lady Jeejeebhoy had cut short a tour of Scotland in order to be present. Sir Mancherji Bhownagree represented the House of Commons; Mr. Dadabhoy Navroji, doyen of the Parsi residents in England, brought his family.”

At this occasion, Sir Mancherji Bhownagree, in his toast touched on Ratan D. Tata’s marriage to Susaune.

I may recall as an example of enlightened sentiments of our host, that recently an event has happened in his family, which I am told, would have been impossible without his sanction and consent. I have the great good fortune to have on my right hand a lady of French nationality who is associated in life and fortune for the rest of her days with Mr. Tata. If am rightly informed, Mr. Ratanji Tata, the lucky possessor of that bride, had some misgivings as to how the projected union would be regarded by the head of the family. The fact that in spite of his many years of orthodoxy, Mr. Jamsetji Tata gave his ready consent to the alliance, is one more proof of his progressive tendencies and his interest in the social advancement of the community”.

Susaune wrote letters to her mother and these letters give an insight into the love she shared with Ratan D. Tata.

She writes – “I only have to look at Ratan (mon-petit) and I am truly happy! My husband makes me feel safe, content, protected”.

She reveals to her mother that the religious-minded Ratan was planning to do her navjote and then marry her again by Parsi rites – “the official sanction has been given only this morning by the High Priest and Ratan wants the ceremony on Sunday, …………… It will be attended by a whole lot of important Parsis and will take place in Mr. Sethna’s house.”And the navjote and wedding were attended by “60 Dasturs when only one is really necessary”

“I will wear an ‘ijar’ and will be wrapped in a white cashmere shawl. But what is most significant is that at the same time the priest will marry us and then no one will give me another thought. I will be allowed to enter the temple or stay in a house where a Parsi lies dead.”

After the navjote and wedding, she writes describing the event in detail. (courtesy of JRD Tata Papers, Tata Central Archives)

Darling mother …. Here I am, at last a Parsi. Everybody is happy for me and so am I. I spent five sleepless nights filling my head with the prayers I had to learn – now I feel exhausted. Let me however try and recount the ceremonies of my conversion and our marriage that took place at Mr. Sethna’s big house.

At 4 pm I was made to sit in a small room next to the huge salon in Mr. Sethna’s house where the ceremony was going to be performed.

A dastur with his face hidden sat opposite me. I recited some prayers with him, ate a piece of pomegranate and then raised my lips in a gesture of sipping a cup of pewter which contained the urine of the cow. It is supposed to purify but of course nobody really drinks it – not even touch it with their lips – but it is a custom that has existed since the beginning.

Ratan asked me not to tell you about this (he finds it distasteful). Don’t therefore talk of it. Normally, a dastoor is present but this time, he remained on the other side of the partition.

The wife of a dastur and the beautiful Meherbai Tata were with me. They dressed me in an ‘ijar’ and confined my hair in a (matte bonu) and draped a white cashmere shawl around my shoulders. Then feeling very pale and nervous, and with my feet in sapats I entered the drawing room where there were waiting at least 60 dasturs when only one is really necessary.

I was made to sit with my back to everyone facing the high priests and I started to recite the prayers with him. After 15 minutes or so, he placed my hands in the sleeves of the sudra and left, then all the Parsi ladies, the wife of Mr. Kanga, the daughters of Meherbai and the wife of the dastur held up before me a white sheet to shield me from view.

I put on the sudra, my blouse and a white sari with a silver border. When I was ready, the High Priest returned but this time we stood – he standing just behind me.

Then, while I held his little fingers, he tied the kusti around me. Then seated again there were more prayers with the priest showering my head with pieces of pomegranate, coconut.

There it ended and I was led into the midst of all our friends who were waiting to congratulate me.

Soon only our close friends remained, and the drawing room was prepared for our wedding which had to take place before sunset.

I read out aloud, the pledge to the Zarathrustra in French, and then the ceremony began.

Ratan and I sitting side by side and the dasturs started to pray and showering us with rice. It took about 25 minutes. When everybody except the family and Mr. Kanga had left, we all drank champagne and then quietly we returned home.

(From the French original text, 1903)

They were married for 21 years, had five children – Sylla, Jamshed (JRD), Rodabeh, Darab and Jimmy. During WWI, she served as a volunteer and contracted TB.

In 1923, her health was deteriorating but Ratan D. Tata was engaged in the struggle of establishing Tata Steel in India, and she was in Paris. Every day, he would wonder whether he would arrive in Paris in time to see her.

Finally, on the day he got on to the ship to leave for Paris, he received a cable that Sooni was no more. With a heavy heart, he proceeded to France and brought his children back to India where they stayed in the house Ratan was building for his wife. He called the house “Sunita” in her memory.

Photos are courtesy of Prochy Mehta

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