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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bombay Journal 3

Street of Dreams

On a recent swing through Bombay, I came face-to-face with my past. First, on the way to the St Xavier’s College campus to meet an old friend, I passed the Raj Mahal restaurant on Kalbadevi Road. My mother took me there one day in 1956, June 8, when I was admitted to the nearby and much coveted St Xavier’s High School. As we drove past it, I could almost taste the sense of accomplishment and the masala dosa and sweet lassi I had with my mother. Wind forward to 2012, as I drove past the restaurant; I was agog to see it:  It is still there, middle class and all, 56 years later!

On the way back north, the chauffeur took me past Victoria Terminus (now perforce called CST because of the thugs who run Bombay) onto the elevated road that takes you past Crawford Market (the thugs have renamed it Mahatma Phule Market) and Mohammed Ali Road, past the JJ Hospital and got off at Victoria Garden Road and into Byculla Bridge, a once-genteel neighborhood where I grew up in the shadow of Christ Church School.

We drove through Christ Church Lane, where I lived as a pre-teen and commuted on the weekend with friends to our family home in Juhu Beach to enjoy the Goa-like ambience. The Lane was an eye opener. Living there, I came to appreciate the sheer cultural diversity of India: living among Goans and Anglo-Indians, Bohras and Jews, Muslims and Parsis; I also learned how it felt to belong to a minority: Hindu, Gujarati, vegetarian.

Driving through Christ Church Lane, I saw that it is not as wide as I imagined.  With cars parked on both sides, it was a bit of a struggle driving through. The buildings of my childhood: Court Royal, Lobo Mansion, Blue Haven and what have you are still there; they look somewhat weatherworn. Around the corner on Victoria Garden Road, the storefront Linnet Tailor still stands after all these years. This was the establishment a little boy badgered for delivery of his clothes within 24 hours of being measured up.

It was like a riding in a time machine. This pre-teen boy was leading me through this street of dreams. I was a visitor from the future being led by the little boy through the clouds of a past that shaped my worldview: to nurture diversity, to embrace cosmopolitanism.

My pre-teen guide from the past reminded me that every evening, hormonal young teenagers strutted through the Lane; eyeing the gorgeous “dames” the Lane was famous for. There was a guy, spitting image of Elvis, who would strut and fret his hour upon the Lane, with girls swooning all over him. In my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of a little boy, in his bathroom, wetting his hair trying to swirl up the trademark Elvis pompadour.

The traveler from the future could envision also the same little boy, his companion on the journey through time: perched dreamily in his balcony, listening to the troubadour family that came to sing Friday nights. The song that touched him was Tony Brent’s “Little Serenade” and the green-eyed teenage daughter. “Just a little street down in Portofino,” they sang. An Anglo-Indian, Brent grew up and lived in an apartment house on the tree-shaded Spence Road, just south of the Lane. Though he left India for England a decade before I lived there, he was a legend and his songs were fiercely popular.

In Christ Church Lane those days, there was a sense of urbane sophistication and above all, a feeling there could be no better place than this Bombay. As a pre-teen, the little boy fantasized about cricket but also about football and athletics, Hollywood films, Goa and Gorai. He was, however, always on the margins; restricted in diet and Gujarati conservatism.

These memories surfaced as I drove through Christ Church Lane, the venue of my renaissance. It was as if the little boy from the 1950s took me by my hand and helped me relive a time when my mind opened up. The kid got me all emotional; he reminded me of its beautiful girls, its rock and roll, and its diversity.

In America, in the early 1970s, I used to identify with a monster-hit television show called “Happy Days.”  My friend David Swanson was always befuddled. “How does that work?” he asked me. “It depicts a typical American suburban experience.” It was difficult for me to explain. “Just believe it; for me, the show works because it reminds me of Christ Church Lane,” I would tell him. It wasn’t just the incipient rock-and-roll music of the time but also a shared middle class heritage of work and achievement, play and leisure.

The trouble with memories in India is that the present-day situation mostly always turns out to be grim, nothing like what you remember. In America, nostalgia is treasured and old things are not just preserved but made better. In 2008, citizens of Milwaukee gathered to applaud the unveiling of the bust of “Fonzie,” an unforgettable character in “Happy Days,” which was based in the city’s golden suburbs of the 1950s. Wouldn't it be wonderful if residents of Byculla Bridge did the same for Tony Brent?

And so I drove through the street of dreams with the little kid, who liked to sing in his tuneless monotone Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock,” pant after the gorgeous girls in the Lane and listen to “Binaca Geet Mala” with its Hindi film tunes in addition to the Binaca “Hit Parade.”  Those pre-Beatles-era songs still remain with me; I married a gorgeous Goan girl (who didn’t live in the Lane but hey, nobody’s perfect) and I troll the net to find the Binaca shows (no luck yet).

Soon we turned onto Clare Road (wonder what the thugs call it now?), west of the Lane. As the car got swallowed up in traffic headed north, the little kid disappeared into the haunting memories of Christ Church Lane and I returned to the dreary ordinariness of 21st century Bombay.

A version of this article appears on The Times of India website.


Rajiv N Desai said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roland Francis said...


It was a pity you came from a conservative, vegetarian, Gujarati background and had to confine yourself to Raj Mahal's masala dosa. Not that they are bad at all -I ate my first masala dosa ever, there - but if you were born in a liberal Goan family like mine, you would have walked a few steps north or west and come across those forbidden-to-you smells from all those Goan soul food restaurants that made Dhobitalao famous. If you felt like walking a little more, you would have traipsed into Vienna's, another fine Goan restaurant, where you would have got into conversation with the friendly owners who might have told you, if they could look into the future, that you were going to one day marry a girl whose family came from the same Goan village as they did. But you wouldn't have believed them then at all would you?

I didn't know we shared a Byculla background too as well, in addition to the school and college. In school I remember you as a quiet, studious well mannered kid with a mischievous glint in your eyes that betrayed a desire for fun but from too strict a household to indulge in it. I was quite like you except I indulged in my fantasies when I could, making friends with the rough, mean, lords of the last benches who were doing things we could only dream of. Remember the nurses that were quartered in the GT hospital behind the school. I mean these guys were actually meeting them while we were merely waving our hands and getting our thrills if they waved back. I got back at them for that during the Tata Sports at the nearby University stadium when I was in the front stands as their sports gopher while they were on the tracks and field. I sat with all the lovelies from the convent schools while they were sweating it out in the sun. The gopher job was forgotten and they were hopping mad but I made it up with doing their homework assignments for the next one week. Small price that.

Wasn't Christ Church Lane a thrill?And the whole of your side of Byculla for that matter. Wonder why you forgot to mention the Convent of Jesus and Mary and the St Agnes girls schools which was the center of gravity for all of us. Wonder why you didn't mention the Orphanage, a wee bit south of the Lane where all those rosy cheeked repressed Anglo Indian girls from Bhusaval, Itarsi and Ratlam were waiting to be asked out. I am sure you were making a beeline to the Readmoney Buildings and Berkeley Place too. Your budding hormones and Elvis pompadour would not have allowed you to be kept in check. Again pity you would missed the Sarvi Restaurant at the south end of Clare Road where the kebabs off the grill and the paya gravy would have been a meal fit for a nawab.

OK I am taking this out on you for those years you had fun in the USA while I was toiling in the sands of the Arab Gulf. And yes indeed, in Byculla we had so many American life similarities and culture without knowing it, the place could have been a small US town in the middle of a getting-crowded city.


Ravi Dharwadkar said...

Dear Rajiv,

Thanks for sending this to me. I have had many a wonderful dosa lunches at Raj Mahal with my friends (and my dad) when I attended St. Xavier's High School and College in the seventies and eighties.

Ravi Dharwadkar

Prakash Desai said...

This is a fabulous walk down the memory lane. Your lane does come alive, and explains, besides the one explanation I've given, your difficulty in identifying yourself as a Hindu, Gujarati, vegetarian.

I was so with you when you wrote about the neighborhood Elvis, all the gorgeous girls(and for a preteen it can mean only one thing), and the preteen going to the bathroom. Then I lost you when you said that he tried to do something with his hair in there!


Bosco said...


Your narratives are fantastic......just fantastic!!!

Thoroughly enjoy reading you.

Hope you are keeping well.

Best - Bosco

Gautam Adhikari said...

Beautiful. Loved it.

Shoshana Pereg said...

Your article really took me down memory lane. I am Jewish, non-veg but had almost the same memories of a magical childhood in 1950's Bombay. One of my earliest memories was listening to the Binaca Hit Parade downstairs with all the kids from the building from a radio which the ground floor neighbour placed near the window. I still remember the electricity in the air while we were waiting for the opening "It’s the Binaca Hit Parad —ta da da da da --- Pure bliss.

I also remember the striking troubadour—it may well have been Tony Brent—who used to sing "Irene Good Night" and "You are my sunshine" in such a beautiful voice that I have never been able to forget him. I used to stand on the verandah and listen to him while the sea breeze from Marine Drive swayed the coconut trees.

We didn't have a car but I remember the rides on the red BEST buses as being fun-not the dubious pleasure they are today.I remember the delicious faloodas opposite Crawford Market, and the days at St.Xavier's college where we didn't learn very much but had a great social life.

I grew up in this lovely town where I had friends from all religions and never experienced a hint of anti-Semitism. Where a young girl and a friend in scruffy play clothes could walk into the wedding reception being held at the nearby temple and scoff on lemonade and icecream and no one would bat an eyelid.

I left Bombay in 1968 and have been back a number of times. Indeed Crawford Market no longer wields the magic that it did when I accompanied my mother there with the hired coolie and the tokri but it is still a city that holds a special place in my heart.

Thanks again for a lovely article.

Rajiv N Desai said...

Prakash: I wonder at the value of mining a "travelgia" piece for psychological insights. As for your bathroom comment, I was a pre-teen in Christ Church Lane All consideration of the female gender was platonic and the "panting" was really lust free.

dennis said...

Dear Rajeev
What a splendid description of life in Christ Church lane and Byculla. I went to school at CCHS and after finishing would return to play badminton in the evenings with school friends. On our way home we would all stop off at the Gunnar juice stall at the end of the lane. What a treat that was. My mouth waters every time I think of it.
Unfortunately times have changed, and somehow I could not relive those memories whenever I revisited this vibrant city.

Luke Shenoy said...

Thanks for a trip down memory lane. Victor and Peter Rodrigues were in school with me - Victor was my senior and Peter my junior. I still remember their family at St. Mary's. I left Bombay in 1978 (after seeing where it was headed)and would like to walk the old stomping grounds, but have always been disappointed after hearing comments like yours, as I don't want to find the old world gone!
Do you remember the Price family
- Ben, Minnie, Gordon, Brian and Janice?
I would love to meet the old gang again - probably in Toronto.

Luke (Ajit) Shenoy
St Mary's class of '63

Anonymous said...

The memories are wonderful. I lived in Lobo Mansions BUT to day Byculla particularly Clare Road and Christ Church are full of Muslims as are Duncan Road , Shankli Street.

There are no good memories now as the place will remind you of a Muslim place in all respects.

Lucky Restaurant has closed, Johnny Cold Drinkwall is no more
Perry's cormer is gone Duncan Street is a mess and there are no Angol's around.

So the memories are wonderful the place is no longer what it used to be. Byculla has died and that is so sad.


Unknown said...

Rajiv n.desai makes a good job of describing our road. We left in 1956 and I think I mention quite a bit of this in my Autobiography that I am writing and will be doing for some time to come. I note he also picked up on how we all lived and played together regardless of religion or community. He is also quite correct that the whole area is now Muslem and Christ Church are not allowed to chime their bells, one day they will take the church over and turn it into a mosque, if they have not already done so. I think we were privileged to have lived there at that time. I went back in 2000. Even the onetime beautiful Berkley Buildings has been torn down and made into ugly concrete towere blocks. It is sad. But at least we have the memories.We lived in Mohamedi Chambers at the top of Christ Church Lane. I well remember the 'jam sessions' we had sing all those songs from the 1,000 and 1 songs book.Wonderful

Donald Edwards, Ruislip London

GG said...

Rajiv Desai, thank you for this wonderful, nostalgic trip down memory lane….. sorry, Christ Church Lane, and other favorite haunts. We were, indeed, fortunate to have grown up in Bombay in the 50s and 60s - we did not need riches, we got along with everyone, and enjoyed our friends, good food, music and dancing! All the bands provided us with good music, we enjoyed healthy, platonic relationships with the opposite sex and all in all, it was a great time!

Going back to Bombay and Goa is always fun, mainly to be with family and long time friends, not many left as they are all scattered around the world; but the place has changed so much, it is very sad.

I live in the U.S. and just today I was with a friend in a store and there was a couple from Hong Kong who wanted a picture taken but they forgot to carry their camera. We took a picture of them and e-mailed it to them - they were thrilled! They told us they had traveled to India years ago but do not like going there any more. The lady then turned to me and said: "I can detect a little bit of a British accent when you speak." Our parents, grand-parents and teachers who were taught by the British gave us that legacy I guess!

All the best! Kind regards,

Anonymous said...

Reading Rajiv's Blog took me back to those unforgettable days of our youth... I have marvelled all my life of how we just played with everyone .. religion etc. had no part in our lives... Byculla was so much an A I Hub ... Spence Lane, Berkley Place on Victoria Garden Road... I lived in F-17... Christ Church, Christ Church Lane. Clare Road ... Byculla Mechanics where all te function were held... St Mary's School and St Anne's Church.... I remember little village called Marthaparcardy ( not sure of spelling )... another lovely area close to Byculla and Mazagon... the Pound parties and the terrace shows!! So many familiar names ... thanks for the memories... I shall never forget those wonderful days. They made up a part of my life I shall never, ever forget.... Carolyn!

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