Swoop of the Sparrow

Homai Vyarawala
Homai Vyarawala
Age: 96
Profession: Photographer
Deep loves: Baking; handicrafts; playing with gadgets; friends who are much younger – has no friends who are “senior citizens”; non-vegetarian food and hot chillies Photo: Gaurav Shah

HOMAI VYARAWALA might be hard of hearing and her frame might be whittled down by age, but the 96-year-old former photojournalist continues to be a daunting personality. The proud owner of one of the first Nano cars in the country, this Vadodara resident — who has been living alone since the death of her son — wakes up at 6am “so I can take advantage of the three hours of water supply”. She begins her day with a cup of black tea. “After that, I read the newspaper and then devote 15 minutes to a prayer of thanksgiving,” she says. She cooks and cleans the house herself — because, you suspect, no household help could hope to meet her high standards. “I like to experiment with cooking new dishes and I love baking,” she says, adding that she has no free time to “socialise or make new friends.” The friends who drop by to check on her are in their forties and view Vyarawala with a mixture of affection and awe.

“My soul has remained the same it was at 40. It is only my body which has grown old. Now, I have to take a long rest after each activity,” she says, revealing regretfully that domestic chores now have to be planned. “I cook thrice a week and put my clothes in the washing machine once a week,” she says. A great believer “in the usefulness of having hobbies”, she enjoys flower arrangement and watching TV, which she pronounces is “good time-pass, but for the background music, which isbangar (rubbish)!”

So what’s the secret of her boundless energy? “It’s because I live in tune with nature. I don’t go in for luxuries like airconditioning. If the weather is hot, I’d rather perspire. And if it’s cold, I bear it. I eat warm food and live in a warm place. Besides that, I also eat lots of chillies,” says Vyarawala, whose sharp black and white images of political figures, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi are part of the nation’s collective consciousness.

“My personal favourite is a picture I clicked of Nehru meeting his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit at Palam airport after she returned from Russia. That picture was full of emotion. You could see the great affection they had for each other,” she says. One of Vyarawala’s greatest regrets is that she missed clicking the assassination of Gandhi.

What does this admirer of Henri Cartier Bresson think about contemporary photographers?

“I’m no authority on photography, to express my opinion on the subject. There has been so much progress that I have been left behind with my black and whites with shades of grey in between… and I prefer it that way. The only thing I have to say to photographers who are active today is that they should avoid imposing their thoughts on the photograph and the subject,” she says, with her characteristic mixture of humility and firmness, qualities that doubtless help her meet each day with an enthusiasm that’s rare in people half her age.