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Showing posts with label byculla bridge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label byculla bridge. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…



The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Goan Retrospective

Pictures at an Exhibition

Watercolors


Sitting on Goa’s northern Morjim Beach one Monsoon morning, the solitary man on the horizon gazed dumbstruck at the turbulence of the waves, crashing ashore in 20-foot walls of water and giant sprays. He thought it was a spectacular Impressionist water color, with a streak of menace that would be difficult for even Claude Monet to capture on canvas.


Entranced, he gaped at the scene: steel grey skies pregnant with black water-laden clouds lit up by jags of lightning; thundering brown water bearing down on the beach with giant whitecaps and a compelling surround-sound roar of thunder and angry thumping water that eclipsed the soaring Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sometimes called “a memorable page in universal culture,” this masterful last movement celebrates the human spirit and exhorts man to higher achievement. But the Monsoon tableau on display that morning made any achievement of man look and feel shallow. It was an epiphany, a darshana, a terrifying revelation of divinity.


The drama that unfolded before his eyes would not let him be a mere spectator; he was commandeered as a participant. The pounding surf, the ominous thunder and the streaky lightning compelled him to acknowledge the sinister majesty of Nature; sinister because violence was its central core.


For a moment, he thought he’d go into the roiling water. Just then, the rain started pelting down and he stood petrified. The rain disrupted his trance, luckily as it turns out, for to have ventured into the ferocious sea could have been fatal.


Beating viciously on every surface in sight and beyond, the downpour blurred his vision. The incessant sound of the rain and the breakers mixed rhythm and melody like the jazz drummer Max Roach. As the rain came down, he looked around and debated running back to the shelter of his car, decided against it and simply sat there, transfixed.


The man could do no more than to surrender to the storm. Stretching his arms out, he turned his head skyward and let the rain beat down on his face and his body. He seemed to be shouting, not that there was anyone there to hear him. He was the only person on the beach; it was him and the Monsoon, an atavistic one-on-one encounter.


His clothes, his body, his very insides were drenched. But he was like a child, shouting to be heard over the storm. Still the rain kept pouring, and like Credence Clearwater Revival, he wondered if anyone could stop the rain, even God. He felt helpless and yet strangely, deliriously happy. This was sheer abandon: unprecedented, sensual, liberating, joyful, glorious and magnificent. To succumb to the majesty of Nature like he did that morning on Morjim Beach was to assert that the soul is immortal.


***

Portraits


But we have fast-forwarded the story by about 50 years. What was the man doing at Morjim Beach? What circumstances led up to that Monsoon morning in Goa? Why had he been coming to Goa for 27 years? What led him to buy a house there some 10 years ago? Answers to those questions paint a portrait of the life and times of the Goan diaspora in Bombay and elsewhere.


So let’s pause and go back to the 1950s. We are in Bombay, looking at a pre-teen boy standing of an evening in his living room verandah. Let’s call him Marco, as in Marco Polo because over the next 50 years the boy would travel far and wide, literally and metaphorically. For the moment, chin on the railing, Marco is looking through the window of a neighboring apartment. He sees a family at prayer. They were his friends from the neighborhood, kneeling with their parents at the evening rosary.


His friends were Goan Catholics. They could be found in the city’s cosmopolitan, culturally diverse neighborhoods. The middle classes tended to cluster in the western suburbs of Bandra and Santa Cruz and in city neighborhoods like Dhobi Talao and Byculla Bridge.


The verandah on which Marco stood was part of a large and airy apartment on the second floor of Court Royal, an apartment building in Christ Church Lane in the Byculla Bridge precinct of central Bombay. It was a middle class neighborhood of breath-taking cultural diversity including Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. A large number of its Catholic residents were Goan, including the family that Marco saw kneeling in prayer that evening. There were a number of Protestants as well, mostly Anglo Indian…and an occasional Hindu family


Named after the school it abutted, Christ Church Lane had the characteristics of cultural diversity balanced by traditional conservatism that Montstuart Elphinstone would have approved. A Scottish statesman, who was appointed governor of Bombay in 1819, Elphinstone was widely respected for his thrust on education. He established the Bombay Education Society that set up schools such as Christ Church.


(For the record, the Elphinstone Road station on the Western suburban line of Bombay’s commuter train service was named for his nephew, John, who was governor of the province in the 1850s.)


Living in Christ Church Lane through the 1950s, Marco came to believe that India was a culturally diverse, tolerant project, little knowing that outside Byculla Bridge, it was racked by caste, ethnic and religious conflict.


The neighborhood was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. Growing up there, the only disagreements Marco had with his friends were about Elvis versus Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone. Yes, he was a fan of Hindi film music and his family was the only vegetarian in the building but the neighborhood was so culturally diverse that his food habits were accepted as part of the diversity. He was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on.


At day’s end, his Goan Catholic friends would go home to be in time for the family prayer. Then they would sit at the dining table and have a convivial evening meal. Marco found it comforting that the family came together every evening to pray and to dine and to talk. Sundays, they dressed in their best and drove in the family car to church and returned to have lunch together.


In the summer vacation, they all set off in a ship from Bombay to spend two months at their home in Goa. On their return, they would regale their friends with tales of the sea journey and talk about singing and dancing on the boat with many others like them. They told stories of their sojourn in Goa: loafing on the beach, splashing in the waves and of guitar-strumming, singsong picnics.


A picture of this wondrous place that was at that time not part of India began to form in Marco’s mind. It got entangled with his impressions of England derived from the novels of Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton (of “William” fame) and countless other schoolboy books: of country lanes, green pastures, bicycles and tea shops.


Christ Church Lane was widely known for its gorgeous girls. Marco and his friends called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, “I’m so young and you’re so old…” They were innocent of sex then; they knew only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl who walked down the lane. It was romance at a distance; they eyed them and generally behaved in an idiotic manner. Forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all they craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that could keep them going for days.


Embroiled in this vivacious diversity, Marco began to believe that all of India was the same. It was far from the truth. This became apparent in the early 1960s; he had to leave Christ Church Lane because his parents were transferred to the new state of Gujarat that was formed when the old Bombay state was bifurcated. Like a refugee, Marco was forcibly relocated to Ahmedabad, a moffusil town that was the designated capital.


And so it came about that on a warm April evening, Marco stood on a train doorway, teary-eyed and desperately unhappy, waving goodbye to his close friends, bound for an unknown future


Plucked from the crucible of cultural diversity, he struggled to grow up in a milieu of moffusil values and suffocating conformity. His teenage years were turbulent as the reality of the hinterland began to cow him down; the comfortable middle class milieu of Christ Church Lane seemed to recede. It seared his mind, the awakening that the drivers of life in India were prejudice, disruption and division.


***

Landscapes


Last year, I made my first trip to Goa in the Monsoon.


One morning, I took time off to cruise the northern beaches. Ominous dark clouds were gathering low in the sky. As I wandered up and down the coast, I finally settled on Morjim to watch the fury of the sea. Virtually hypnotized by the tableau, my mind floated back to the first time I came to Goa.


My wife and I, along with our infant daughter stayed with her family at their house in north Goa. They introduced me to the place that was just a notion in my head for all the years I had spent with my friends in Christ Church Lane. The experience plunged me headlong into the earthy robustness of Goan life, including food, mindset and scenery.


I still remember vividly my first visit. As we came out of the (still) chaotic Dabholim airport, Goa burst upon us with sweeping vistas of the Arabian Sea and the mighty Zuari River as the car wound its way up and down the hilly highway. Since then, I have probably traveled the road at least a hundred times but to this day, the beauty never fails to amaze me


What adds to the visual experience is the promise of time snatched from the world to luxuriate in the serene green of Goa: long drawn out days in which the major decisions you are called on to make include mostly sensual delights: whether to have prawns or fish for a meal; beer or some other aperitif, perhaps even a slug of Goa’s lethal cashew feni, which can stay in your system for days


Goans call the experience sussegad; a state of mind in which each morsel of fish and every sip of beer is an eternity. There is impermanence about sussegad; it is an altered state of consciousness in which time is stretched to make every nanosecond count.


Given my wife’s umbilical bond and my own fascination with the place, we got our own house in Goa. Then we began to see another dimension not always evident to casual visitors. Suddenly, Goa was more than palms and sand; now there were bazaars and repairmen; rambling drives through quaint villages and glimpses of impressive white churches that dot the landscape. The concept of sussegad also changed; from an eternity on shacks on the beach and frolic in the sea, it became an unhurried pace of life in which things must get done without demanding schedules and dictatorial appointment books.


Every now and then, when the day’s hurly burly’s done, we repair to a small cafĂ© on the backwaters of the Mandovi River. There, we sit and watch the sunset paint the water and the mangroves with the spiritual hues of color: magenta and crimson, purple and black. It feels almost like a high mass in an awe-inspiring cathedral. We sit quietly but the birds don’t seem to get the message: swallows, gulls and various other avian creatures zoom in and out of the mangroves with sharp cries and the sound of fluttering wings. Thus, we let Goa spread through us like a mood-elevating balm.


Sometimes we head off to Panjim, the capital, at the mouth of the expansive Mandovi River. Decked up in lights at night and by day resplendent with gorgeously painted buildings, Panjim is unrivaled in its big city feel and its small town ways. It feels like an India that should have been but got lost somewhere in the transition to modernity


To many Goans, this restful capital is the big, bad and stressful place. So in what havens do they live? For one thing, there’s our small village that is less than ten minutes away from the busy National Highway 17 from Bombay to Kerala. Anchored by the white splendor of St Elizabeth Church, it is the capital of quiet.


Nestled between river-riven paddy fields and a picturesque hill, our village does not feature on a local map of Goa. Of an evening, residents gather at the church piazza, which has a bucolic view of the paddy fields and an unnamed river in the distance. There, they while away the evening with a snifter or two of feni, watching young people play volleyball in the church compound and talking about things that I would dearly like to know about.


It is an appealing scene. We don’t participate in it but simply in observing it and waving to the people as we drive past the plaza, we feel part of it. In a vicarious way, we feel we belong there. That is the attraction of Goa.


***

Gallery


The reason I was in Goa last Monsoon was to sort out arrangements for my daughter’s wedding later in the fall. Fittingly, the ceremony was held in our village church, a stone’s throw from our house.


We had a traditional Goan Catholic wedding with Goan cuisine, band, dance and cocktails at our house. The event represented my traverse of a full circle from the pre-teen years when I first encountered Goan Catholics in central Bombay’s Byculla Bridge neighborhood and the end of my teen years when I met my wife, also a Goan Catholic to my part Goan daughter’s nuptials last year.


The trip to Morjim Beach was special alone time for me, an opportunity to take stock. Mesmerized by the Monsoon tableau and lost in thought, I could feel the hard rain falling on me. I thought to dash to the car but was drenched. I looked up at the sky in abandon. With the rain in my face, the spectacular jags of lightning in my eyes and the roar of thunder and crashing surf in my ears, I yelled at the top of my voice, “Thank you.”


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ruby Tuesday

Yesterdays Don't Matter If They're Gone

Forty-eight years ago, on April Fools Day, I was a stripling, just 11 years of age. That day was momentous; it sank into me that I would have to leave my beloved Bombay, my precious Christ Church Lane in the city’s Byculla Bridge, Bombay 8 precinct. It was very important not to call it Byculla, which was Bombay 27. It was our awakening class consciousness; the postal codes told the story of middle versus working class neighborhoods.

On April 27 of 1960, as I stood on the train doorway waving goodbye, I already began to miss all my friends, who were much closer to me than I ever imagined: looking back on those years, I believe they changed my worldview. They made me appreciate the vibrancy of diversity. On that day, however, I was not just tearful but envious. They got to stay behind in this wonderful slice of India while I was hustled on to a train to Ahmedabad and to a moffusil life of sarkari hierarchies and the search for more and more exclusivity.

Christ Church Lane was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. As a boy growing up in Court Royal, a wonderful old apartment house with large airy flats and lots of balconies, the only disagreements I had with my friends were about Elvis versus Cliff versus Pat Boone. Yes, my family was the only vegetarian in the building and I, the only Hindu and Gujarati kid. My friends constantly urged me to eat meat but in the end, accepted my cultural hangup.

This was significantly different than my later experiences, where I was often put down because of my beef against eating meat. In Christ Church Lane, there was such a cultural diversity that my food habits were accepted and I was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on. My friend Ruby Rodrigues, now Patrick, told me the other day that we actually had lamplighters, which I found hard to believe.

We met Ruby on Tuesday, April Fools Day. The last time I had seen her was when we bade goodbye at the train station some 48 years ago. The story of how Ruby came to be at our house to dinner that night is about the currency of nostalgia in which modern technology enables us to span gaps of time and reach out to people we have known at different phases of our lives. Ruby is the older sister of my friend Peter with whom I hung around 365 days a years from age six to age eleven.

Ruby was this sophisticated girl from the Clare Road Convent with many good-looking friends. That apart, Christ Church Lane was widely regarded as a happening place with gorgeous girls. We called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, which went: “I’m so young and you’re so old…” We were innocent of sex then, only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl that we saw in the lane. It was pure romance but at a distance; we eyed them and then fantasized, forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all we craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that we were alive.

When Carole Fraser, a green-eyed, brown-haired goddess once said hello, our knees turned to jelly and the only way we could recover is by indulging in physical horseplay, where mostly Peter and Teddy and various others jumped on each other. Because I was the smallest, I usually bore the brunt of it with a stoic grimace…it was for Carol, after all. All those years, we learned through the biblical and cowboy movies that he who is set upon ultimately wins the girl.

Ruby’s older brother Victor was everyone’s hero…he sang, danced and had an easy way with girls; plus he has a hairstyle like Elvis that was in vogue those days. He emailed me when he read an article I’d written about Christ Church Lane and set up this meeting with his sister Ruby. He called the night Ruby visited us…it was the first time we talked in 48 years. He said Teddy was in Bombay. Teddy and his brother Alan Oscar, who was my absolute icon, lived on the ground floor of Court Royal. They moved to Australia and next thing I knew the next day I was talking to Teddy at the Taj in Bombay.

Ever the skeptical writer, the been-there -done-that variety, I am floored by this currency of nostalgia. It turned out when Ruby visited that our old friends Ivan and Ingrid Arthur were there and they also knew Ruby and her family. Ivan was for many years a colleague on the executive committee of HTA (now JWT). How does all this happen? The standard response is that India has a small elite community in which everyone knows everyone by six degrees of separation.

That may be a Western view but this is something of a phenomenon. It’s not just this encounter but over the past few months as I have written about reunions and other nostalgic moments, I have had an outpouring of responses from people I knew from the various phases of my life. I feel fulfilled even though some of my best friends today are people I knew in in high school and university in India and the United States. But these are a new crop of old friends. It is a wonderful feeling to know that over the next few years I will strike up in my life, like John Lennon, renewed acquaintances with “people and things that went before.” It is a wonderful closure. Peter, Victor, Ruby, Teddy, Alan and I have led different lives since we grew up together. Now we will catch up and exchange notes. There is a sense of security and comfort and joy that life is coming to be a full circle.

copyright rajiv desai 2008