A Santacruz girl

I left my home in Santacruz West, a suburb of Bombay, in 1976. The anticipation of moving to Kerala did not diminish the pangs of saying goodbye to the only home I had known. For my mother, who had moved to Bombay with my father, this would be a homecoming. For me, it would be a series of temporary spaces till I found a place to call home again.

Three years later, I returned to study creative writing at Sophia’s College in South Bombay. In the years I was away, I had carried a mental map of home and the immediate neighbourhood with me: Main Avenue and its arterial side lanes; Khar, where my old lending library stood; Bandra, with its shops and theatres; Juhu, where we spent summers on the beach. Its scope did not extend beyond Santacruz and the immediate localities: my world—except for the occasional foray into “town” with my parents—was in the suburbs.

That first homecoming was not about nostalgia; I was there to reclaim the city as my own. I was in Bombay for the first time alone, now an adult, rediscovering the city and expanding the landmarks on my map.

Evening classes ended by 10 PM, and after wandering around Breach Candy with my new friends, I would take the train or bus home by midnight. Travelling alone at that hour was unimaginable in most cities then. But Bombay was alive and pulsing with life at night, and I felt safe and anonymous in the crowds.

It was a carefree and exhilarating year. This was the first time I caught that distinctively Bombay state of mind, a certain attitude that comes with the privilege of calling one of the world’s most captivating cities home. You could plunge in and be a part of the city, or you could be an outsider. I was in.

During the day, after pottery classes, I went to Leopold’s in Colaba Causeway and Cafe Samovar at the Jehangir Art Gallery, where you never knew who you might see—M.F. Hussain, Mario Miranda? There was jazz at Venice and Talk of the Town, places my brothers frequented, and Bombelli’s, where I discovered cappuccinos.

I splurged on brunch at the Shamiana at the Taj, feeling chic and sophisticated, dining alone with a confidence I hadn’t known I possessed. I shopped at Vamas and bought a vintage clock from Chor Bazaar, feeling like a true Bombayite at last.

On weekends, I went with my schoolmates to faraway Madh Island, as the Juhu Beach of my childhood, full of beach shacks and vendors, was now passé; so was Macronals, the only restaurant in the suburbs that served anything close to international cuisine.

I also discovered a darker side of this era of freedoms when a childhood friend nosedived out of a window in his apartment, too high (on cocaine, we heard) to realise he was on the seventh floor. The fallout of drug abuse was hitting close to home all across the city.

That year, I went to the Jazz Yatra with a friend who had complimentary tickets. It was a magical evening with international jazz musicians as well as local stars like Asha Putli and Louis Banks. I had been surrounded by music, and especially jazz, all my life. In Bombay, it was all over the suburbs, at neighbourhood socials and jam sessions.

In his book Taj Mahal Foxtrot, Naresh Fernandes writes, “When I was exposed to jazz, I realised that in India it was being performed at a very advanced and sophisticated level.” Jazz in India, he estimates, started in the 1920s, around the same time as in America.

Santacruz was a predominantly Goan and East Indian neighbourhood that sprang up around a cross in Khulbowri village, on what was then the edge of the city. The name “Santa Cruz”—“Holy Cross” in Portuguese—stuck, and the Sacred Heart church now stands in its place.

Most residents of Santacruz were migrants who moved to Bombay in the mid-1800s from Portuguese Goa, bringing with them a profound love of music and dramatics; the suburb soon boasted an amateur dramatic society that staged Gilbert and Sullivan plays and held an annual music competition in which the four zones of the area competed.

Strains of jazz drifted out of open doorways including my own

The entire community participated, and zonal practice sessions were the high point of our lives for the months leading up to the event. There was music all around—the hesitant tinkle of piano from children at practice and the more assured notes of a virtuoso on a trumpet or violin.

Strains of jazz drifted out of open doorways including my own, along with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Patricia Rozario was well on her way to becoming a world-renowned soprano, and it was rumoured that Hal Lopez, one of the Santacruz boys, had been gifted a guitar by John Lennon.

***

If my first homecoming was a frantic discovery of a Bombay that I had little access to earlier, my subsequent visits were marked by observing the changes in the city.

The cottages and bungalows were vanishing fast, and with them much of the greenery. Many houses in the suburbs had been replaced by buildings, and Henleen, my own home, once an English suburban cottage lookalike, had also added three floors to its original structure.

I would often stop by the tall buildings, remembering the old bungalows that had been torn down and the inhabitants. I felt like the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami did when he revisited his childhood home in Kobe, destroyed by the Ashin earthquake; “home” didn’t exist anymore.

My mother said it all started to change when the man with the shiny black briefcase appeared. He would turn up in a taxi and work his way down Main Avenue, stopping at each house with his visiting card. He would open his briefcase, her friend had informed her, flashing bundles of money. He said he was a builder and got straight to the standard offer—two or even three apartments when the new building came up, and cash enough to go around for all the children.

Few residents could resist this offer, and as many of their children left for Australia and Canada, each got a little cash to get them settled. It was a “win-win” deal for the homeowners, the builders and even the city that was spilling over to the suburbs and villages.

Santacruz West did not remain an exclusively Christian community for long, assimilating like all city neighbourhoods—from long-ago years when foxes roamed the fields to the appearance of the cross and the first homes.

Our Goan neighbours had new tenants one year, a large Sikh family who had arrived from the refugee camps of Delhi; piano music trickled down from the house above, while sturdy turbaned boys ran about the yard with catapults.

The Malkanis arrived from Sindh with fine china and crystal and built a large mansion called Krishna Kunj. The occupants of Rajpipla building were members of the former princely state who had moved to the city under mysterious circumstances, we heard. The newly built Ramakrishna Mission’s temple stood in a landscaped garden surrounded by houses named Felicity Park and Norman Haven.

I was dimly aware that my own family, though Catholic like most of our neighbours, was different. For one, my mother often visited the temple library. At Sunday mass, her crisp silk saris made an interesting contrast to her Goan friends’ dresses and skirts. And as we were Syrian Christians from Kerala, at home, our prayers were in Aramaic or Malayalam.

***

Murakami believes that while some people are constantly drawn back to their hometown, there are others who can never go back. I was definitely of the first variety, returning frequently and discovering pockets of Bombay on each visit, captivated by its infinite diversity.

On one stopover in the city, I stayed with a friend in a plush bungalow near the Hanging Gardens. The tranquil backyard was edged by a tall chain-link fence that overlooked a forest. And, far beyond, were the Towers of Silence, or Dakhma, where dead Parsis were set out to be devoured by vultures in a final act of charity; the birds had been known to fly low with grisly remains, sometimes dropping a bloodied hand or foot in the houses nearby.

Now, corpses were piling up in the Dakhma as the vultures had stopped coming, on view for the occupants of the tall apartment blocks in the vicinity. The increasing usage of the potent drug Diclofenac, in humans and cattle, had caused the decline of the scavenger birds.

On another trip, I stayed with a friend near Marine Drive and participated in a South Bombay ritual—an early-morning jog along the broad promenade by the sea. I took in the classic lines of the familiar art deco buildings along the curved bay, unchanged over the years. But across the city, I noticed the peeling paint and the cracks in the walls, the grime and squalor. I had planned to visit the slums of Dharavi, which were once a faint reality, later brought to our doorsteps by Slumdog Millionaire, but never made it. By then Bombay had become Mumbai, and I realised I had lost my city forever.

I stayed with my artist niece in Bandra’s Pali village during one visit. The overpowering smell of drying fish permeated the air, but she was oblivious to it. Her neighbours were designers and artists like her, all elated at finding living space in this old fishing village. This was the real Bombay, she informed me, not its suburban bungalows or high-rise buildings.

I watched a Koli wedding procession from her tiny balcony, with all the rituals and fanfare of a village wedding. Down the road was a medley of quaint Portuguese-style cottages with gables and porticos, holding out.

“We were the bad boys of Santacruz. With no money or prospects to ask out the girls we had crushes on”

I met the “culvert boys” who had been a permanent fixture in the neighbourhood in the 1970s. They had appropriated the stone culvert on Main Avenue and would congregate there after hockey practice. “We were the bad boys of Santacruz. With no money or prospects to ask out the girls we had crushes on, we watched the slicker boys from Bandra or town steal our girls,” said Norbert wistfully, when we met recently. Now, like most of his former gang, he lives abroad but still dreams of the old days when life was uncomplicated.

Last year, after a school reunion, I went with my old schoolmate Gloria to the Elephanta Caves across the bay. All along the ferry ride, a flock of seagulls accompanied us, waiting for the tidbits that were thrown at them. At the pier, we bought boras, green mango and ripe guavas, and sprinkled rock salt and chilli powder over them, remembering the hawker outside school at recess. After returning, we stopped at the Apollo bar for paan cocktails. The multi-layered Bombay sandwich was just as delicious, and our neighbourhood chaatwala still served the best pani puri in the city.

Bombay monsoons still retained their magic, when rain made muddy puddles in potholes that reflected the sky. One of the most fun things to do when I was younger was to throw a bundle of pitpit seeds (ruellia tuberosa or popping pod) into a bucket of water and watch them explode. Those were the years when a good book and lying in bed with the rain pattering outside was my idea of bliss.

***

When I returned to Santacruz to write this, I met an old classmate. Feroza lived in a dilapidated cottage in Willingdon Colony, one of 25 constructed in a large field opposite the convent school.

The six-acre colony was by far the most picturesque space in Santacruz, or even in Bombay. The shaded country roads, the village green, the hedges and low fences, the houses with bay windows and flower boxes were like the images evoked by our Enid Blyton books. It had an otherworldly air, and now even Feroza, the last of the colony’s occupants, seemed like a ghost from the past.

Builders had been eying the potential goldmine that was Willingdon Colony for years. Eventually, a deal was struck to evict the tenants with a sum of “goodwill” money or an apartment in a new building. Feroza had been one of those who refused the offer even as the builders and their goons threatened to evict her forcibly or worse. Her room still overlooked the old village green, now filled with debris.

Bent with arthritis, isolated in her falling-down house, her former neighbours now relocated, Feroza told me she had heard a large evergreen tree call out to her when someone cut it one night, while she was sleeping. The familiar shops and bakeries had shut down too. She said, “I’m fortunate that the old Vienna bakery with its battered red tin box of cakes, puffs and chicken rolls still delivers home, for you can still have a chicken roll and a mutton puff with cake for dessert for Rs 100.”

***

One evening, I went to see Gloria’s former home, Felstead. It was named after her grandmother’s horse that had won the derby one year and financed the gracious bungalow set in a tree-shaded garden. I peered in, remembering evenings spent here for choir practice. Earlier this year, the Santacruz Amateur Dramatic Society (SCADAMS) was restarted in a bid by the residents to pull their fragmented community together. In the past, theatre and choir practices had extended through the year, interspersed with exams, deaths and marriages. There was much talk now of recitals and theatre being resumed.

As I returned, walking down Main Avenue, I found my mind turning to 1971. India was at war with Pakistan again. Santacruz with its name and proximity to the airport was undoubtedly a target, and we, the inhabitants, were sure we were directly in the line of fire. There was constant talk of victory, relief packets and cards for the troops at the border.

The first air-raid siren had sounded an hour before, its familiar wail signalling “lights off”—and time for us to dive under beds and tables. There was a frisson of fear and excitement as the neighbourhood went dark, every window covered in blackout paper so that not a crack of light would emerge.

My friend Luana was over from next door, swapping stories with us. That the fishermen of Danda had been flashing multi-coloured lights out at sea to trick the enemy into believing they were flying over a city; and that there was a spy in our midst who moved through the neighbourhoods, blending in and collecting secrets which he passed on in the dead of night. Who could it be? We made wild guesses.

It was quiet, so quiet that we could hear the loud whispers from the house next door.

The next siren signalled the end of the drill (which we preferred to imagine had been a furious battle by brave troops to protect our beloved city). People poured out of their hot and muggy homes into the cool night air in relief. It seemed like the entire neighbourhood was out on the streets that night, including the glamorous airline crew members, still in uniform.

Someone was humming Ray Charles’s I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now. Melville de Mellow’s smooth baritone announced the night’s events on a radio set. Light flickered on the faces around me.

The entire cast of my little world was before me, as in the finale of a SCADAMS musical

These were the people I had grown up around: the men and women who sang and cooked and quarrelled, and the children who walked to school with me. I knew the mulberry bush with the sweetest fruit, the best playground, the mother with the tastiest treats.

The entire cast of my little world was before me, as in the finale of a SCADAMS musical. I didn’t know then that this evening, this street and even the city would soon be a distant memory.

I thought that when the war was over—as had happened in 1965—the emergency rations that my mother had hoarded would be brought down. The cans of corned beef, cocoa and condensed milk would be opened with an uncharacteristic display of largesse. We would have survived another war—though years later, we would learn that no enemy aircraft had ventured near Santacruz.

That evening, seated on the culvert by Henleen, we had watched the tracers illuminate the night sky. Thousands of stars had appeared as we sat there staring, fixated—for we knew that the longer you stared, the more stars emerged.

Each time I visit, there are fewer people I know. Home, on that mental map which has expanded like an amoeba, reduced to a handful of dusty memories. But this is always the place I will be known as one of their own—a Santacruz girl.

Leave a Comment