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A Life In A Box

07/12/2014 2:46 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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Rahul Khanna

This post first appeared on Rahul Khanna's blog, Rahulkhannaonline.

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I got my first sartorial review one autumn afternoon when I rang the bell of the garden flat of a stately Victorian townhouse in Kensington, London. It was the early-1990s and I had on, what I considered to be, the most stylish outfit I owned: acid washed jeans, a thrift store, plaid, flannel shirt under a distressed, leather motorcycle jacket and my prized Doc Marten boots. But the elderly gentleman who answered the door, immaculate in a dark, pinstriped suit, clearly thought otherwise. He took one look at me with his cloudy eyes, and shook his head with undisguised disdain. "Dear boy," he sighed, wearily, making not even the slightest attempt at any kind of traditional greeting. "You always dress so workman-like."

He was in his late seventies at the time and had only ever met me once before, so I was understandably bemused by his conclusion that I "always" dressed in this fashion. In addition, he was almost completely blind. But I suppose when one has a truly discerning eye, perfect sight, or the lack thereof, is inconsequential.

I stood frozen in the hallway, suddenly alarmed by the possibility of some sort of corporal punishment for my attire but he just shook his head with resignation and gestured for me to follow him. As I gingerly trailed him into his living room, he issued a stern directive over his shoulder, "You should only be wearing suits -- from Saville Row!"

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Darius was, easily, the most mysterious and fascinating relative I ever had. He was my maternal grandfather's youngest brother and I only met him twice. He'd immigrated to London as a young man, where he had since remained, aloof from the family. Whenever his name came up at dinners, it was always with much controversy and a heavy air of intrigue. So few people had actually met him (and he'd succeeded in slighting almost all the ones who had) that he'd evolved into somewhat of a mythical character -- the stories of his outrageous affectations and adventures veering into folklore.

There's a wonderful Parsi Gujarati expression, "Maran noo karun -- dhakara" which roughly translates to: "Cause of death -- pretentions." A phrase I'm sure was used more than once to predict how Darius would ultimately meet his end.

In conversations around various relatives' dining tables, he was portrayed as a complicated, Tom Ripley-esque oddball -- part eccentric snob, part globetrotting playboy. He never considered himself Indian, we were told, and would often introduce himself as a Persian prince. He'd even Anglicized the spelling of his last name, changing it from Taleyarkhan to "Talyarken" so it would rhyme with Interlaken! My mother, in particular, always had plenty of eye-rolling to contribute to the topic because, ever since she was born, he'd refused to use her real name -- Gitanjali -- which he found much too "Indian". Instead, to her intense annoyance, he had only ever referred to her as "Tanya".

While my grandfather's lifestyle was modest, revolving around family and his charitable work, Darius's was completely the opposite. Gifted with exceptional taste, he dealt in antiques and art and was said to move in stratospherically high social circles. Although he possessed neither the titles nor the vast wealth of the people he kept company with, the one thing Darius had never seemed to lack in was influence.

An anecdote my grandfather enjoyed narrating was about how once, during World War II, Darius had overstayed his visa in New York. He was carted off from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he had set up residence, to Ellis Island to await deportation and was allowed one telephone call. With great relish, my grandfather would describe how Darius dialed a number, explained his situation to the person on the other end of the line and then, with a flourish, handed the phone to the immigration officer. Through the receiver, it was none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, herself, who instructed the official to, "Release my friend, immediately!"

But Darius's most enduring hallmark, and the reason I was terrified that afternoon in his doorway, was the deep, horizontal scar my grandfather had just above his hip. As children, we'd beg to see his "piggy bank", as we called it (because it was so deep, it could hold a coin). My grandfather would sportingly pull up his shirt and theatrically recount how he got it.

Apparently, growing up, as was the norm in those days, the rule in their home was that, every night, you dressed in a jacket and tie for dinner. One evening, brimming with teenage rebellion, my grandfather came down to dinner in just an undershirt and refused to change. Darius, a stickler for etiquette, even back then, raised objection and a heated argument ensued. In a fit of rage, he snatched a decorative axe off the wall and swung it at my grandfather, leaving him with a gaping wound and a deliciously grisly story for his future grandchildren.

And there I was, that afternoon in London, standing unarmed, defenseless and aesthetically offensive before this man, renowned for his violent temper and stylistic principles he was so devoutly committed to, that he'd established, decades earlier, he was far from unwilling to resort to bloodshed to defend them. And, although my grandfather had always brushed the incident off as "boys being boys", realistically, if wearing an undershirt to dinner had earned him a lifelong scar, couldn't I suffer a similarly gruesome penalty for wearing this allegedly blue-collar getup to tea?

Had I, in fact, been permanently disfigured that afternoon, I would have had only myself to blame. You see, when I began studying in New York, I often broke journey in London on my way to and from holidays back home in Bombay. On one of these stopovers, curiosity got the better of me and I plucked up enough courage to telephone Darius. I introduced myself and asked whether it might be possible to meet him. There was a brief, suspenseful silence on the other end while he considered this and then, in his grand accent, he invited me to tea.

We'd arranged to meet at the exit of the nearest tube station and, as I emerged from the Underground, I was greeted by the sight of an impossibly elegant, silver-haired gentleman. He was standing under a shop awning, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie, a felt trilby perched on his head and his hands resting on the burnished handle of a wooden cane. I was instantly star-struck. Here was the inscrutable, volatile, mercurial Darius -- world famous around dining tables, the length and breadth of South Bombay. I stood speechless in front of him for a moment before realizing he was almost blind and hadn't registered me. So, I nervously cleared my throat and made my introduction. We exchanged polite greetings and then he led the way to his home, his cane tap-tapping the way before us.

His flat was simple but sophisticated, decorated with antique furniture and heavy drapes. Every direction you turned, light glinted off silver photo frames and, as we walked through the living room, he introduced me to his monochrome friends, looking out from their shiny casings: Lord Soandso, The Baroness Someoneortheother, The Earl of Whatchamacallit. All top-hatted and tiara'd, minked and medalled, no peerage seemed to be unrepresented. There was even a signed one of U. G. Krishnamurti.

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The one picture I remember particularly was an inscribed and signed portrait of an aristocratic young man in a decorated military uniform. Darius had picked this one up and dusted it with his handkerchief, for added emphasis. He introduced him as "A dear friend from Russia" adding that he was, "One of the men who assassinated Rasputin" -- undoubtedly aware of the effect of the words, even though they were uttered with the same nonchalance as one might say, "He was one of the best wicket-keepers on our county cricket team."

The rest of our meeting was brief and formal and we discussed nothing of great depth. He conversed civilly but coolly, elbows on the armrests of a tall wing-backed chair, fingertips lightly touching in front of his face. There were many things I wanted to ask him -- How did you make all these fancy friends? In total, how many assassins are you close to? Have you disfigured anyone else for flouting a dress code? Did you ever send Mrs. Roosevelt a "thank you for thwarting my deportation" card? -- but I was much too intimidated to. Once we finished our tea, he unceremoniously dismissed me with a handshake and saw me to the front door. Thus concluded our first meeting.

The second time I met him (the afternoon of my doorway dressing-down) was just after my grandfather had passed away. Returning to the States from the funeral in Bombay, I had stopped in London and was granted another teatime audience with Darius to condole. It was, again, a short meeting and unremarkable, save for the fact that it would be the last time I saw him.

One summer, a few years later, our family received the news that Darius had passed away. He'd left a meticulously detailed will which stipulated that all his belongings were to be liquidated at auction and all his photographs were to be removed from their frames and, along with all his personal letters and documents, buried in his coffin with him.

Thus, with gong-like resonance, a significant part of our family history was laid to rest and this chapter closed, forever.

Or so we thought.

Over a decade later, however, the personal website of a gentleman named Chris, an art professor from Cambridge, was brought to my attention. Chris had happened to purchase a box of old photographs and ephemera at a car boot sale, found them interesting and put them up on his website in a section he titled, "Life in a box". The pictures showed a dapper gentleman at various stages of his life, and the documents all bore some variation of the name: Darius Talyarken.

I immediately made contact with Chris and explained my connection. It turned out, ever since he'd published this page, he'd had several emails from art collectors who owned some of Darius's art collection (works of early Russian constructivism and costume design, and pieces by Kandinsky and Modigliani bore his stamp) and wanted to buy these documents to add provenance to their paintings. Chris was not interested in selling them and was initially wary as to whether I was even actually related to Darius. But, several months of communication later, I was able to convince him I was who I said I was and he generously agreed to send me all the effects he had.

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And so, in a way, Darius finally came home. His intriguing life, spanning one of the most exciting periods in modern history, distilled down into one large DHL Express envelope. The contents were few but fascinating. It was like peering through a tiny, new crack in a door that has always been locked. All yellowed with age and tattered, out floated handwritten invitations to royal dinner parties, visas and alien registration cards, pictures aboard ocean liners, a newspaper clipping about being witness to a friend's dramatic suicide off the roof of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and even a notorised affidavit attesting that Darius was of "pure Aryan origin" and descended from "Persian settlers of Caucasian stock."

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My favourite among them are a series of cryptic telegrams about a vulnerable safety deposit box filled with jewels from, what appear to be, the Dinshaw siblings -- a Parsi brother and sister from Bombay who had settled in New York shortly before World War II and were known as much for their legendary art collection as they were for their extravagantly luxurious lifestyle (they supposedly owned a Bentley upholstered entirely in leopard and their dog wore a collar of diamonds!).

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How these photos and documents escaped and ended up on the market, despite his will mandating they were to be entombed with him, I still don't know. And, although they afford only a fleeting glimpse into his world, the contents of "the box" remain the only records of Darius's life - and I, their unlikely custodian.

Obviously, most questions are still left unanswered. While one might hope that someday, perhaps, more pieces will emerge, make their way to me and bring a picture of his life, like a jigsaw puzzle, closer to completion -- it's more likely, they won't. And a part of me feels that's exactly how he might have preferred to remain -- immortalised in enigma.

I also wonder whether he would see this piece as tribute or transgression. He hardly struck me as someone seeking frivolous acknowledgement or desirous of leaving any kind of legacy. I'm not even sure he'd care that the seed he planted all those years ago took root. Because, while I don't think I will ever only wear Saville Row suits, I have found myself thinking that, someday, it might actually be nice to own one.

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All images provided by Rahul Khanna.

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