December 02, 2004

Essence of a Queen

Before my Uncle Joe died at 90, Mr Reis was a regular Friday morning guest at our (Uncle Joe's, actually) flat in the Bombay suburb of Bandra. Tall, ramrod straight and hearty, he would spend an hour with Uncle Joe, saying the rosary or chatting about the relatives or the weather. For me, he always had a cheery greeting and a question or two: did you get the record-player fixed? How's the new niece in California? Ah, I wish I could play tennis with you!

Mr Reis, 70-plus and a heart patient himself, visits Bandra's older residents, working up a brisk pace as he strides through its tree-shaded lanes and past the ever fewer old bungalows. The times I saw him with Uncle Joe, I couldn't help feeling touched by his effort. I also couldn't help thinking that this simple thing he does -- spending evenings with lonely older people -- is a little morsel out of the essence of Bandra.

That may not be saying much, except that morsels like that are getting scarce. Mr Reis was very far away the evening I saw my neighbour, a burly thirty year old, thrashing a slender teenaged boy with a long stick in public. Mr Reis was also very far away the day I found out that the residents of building I live in once decided not to sell flats to Muslims.

Bandra has changed. Thankfully, Mr Reis has not.

In Bombay, they call Bandra the Queen of the suburbs, and with good reason. It has always been a cooler, slower, leafier escape from the dirt and pace of the city. If Bombay throbs with life day and night, Bandra, 10 miles north of the city centre, seemed forever where the throbbing muted, life became gentler. People came here to breathe the clean air, to enjoy the space and the sea, to relax. There were rolling rice fields here as recently as fifty years ago, something a current resident would find simply astonishing. Mrs Reuben, who moved here about then, recalled that the fields were interrupted only by an occasional sprawling bungalow built by the intrepid Bombayite who realized living here was even better than just visiting. Neighbours were too far away to shout across to. "Anyway," Mrs Reuben offered with a smile, "shouting didn't fit in with life in Bandra."

Not that life was always peaceful. The Portuguese and English fought hard over Bandra, and there are 16th Century reports of Jesuit fathers, we shall presume Portuguese sympathizers, throwing "bomb-shells" at English ships. Such priestly unfriendliness took its toll. Relations between the two European powers -- at least in these parts -- went steadily downhill. Of course, England became the colonial masters of India for the next few centuries; Portugal was confined to the small enclave of Goa.

But in matters less military, the joint influence of both countries is apparent even today. Catholics in Bandra invariably have authentic Portuguese family names: "da Cunha", "Heredia" and "Costa-Pinto" are some; and yes, "D'Souza" too, even if the Portuguese would really spell it "da Sousa". But given names are usually very properly English: "John" and "Rosebud", "Nigel" and "Lorna", are common. I don't know where in the world you would find a name like "Colin Pereira" -- except in India's Catholic enclaves, like Bandra.

Yet nobody gives this curiosity a second thought. The Cyril Noronhas, the Jonathan D'Abreus, the Glynis Carrascos you find in Bandra -- none think their names at all unusual. And as Indianness has asserted itself over the last couple of generations, some Catholics have given their children Indian names. This makes for even more unusual combinations. "Javed Ferreira", "Naresh Fernandes" and yes, "Dilip D'Souza" are, again, names that could not exist anywhere but in this strip of India.

The names alone hint at the cultural mixing which, despite its Catholic image, has always characterised Bandra. Catholics aside, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Parsis have all lived here; as also people from every level of Indian society.

But today, there are signs that the mixing only goes so far. I found one in, of all places, a book of minutes. It belongs to the "cooperative housing society" where I live. At a meeting a few years ago, the members passed a resolution that barred them selling flats to Muslims. At a subsequent meeting held to reopen discussion on the resolution, they exchanged wild, vile stereotypes of Muslims.

Ah yes. Mixed names, the thoughtfulness of Mr Reis -- there are times when those markers of a gentler, more liberal Bandra seem very far away. Bandra has changed. Maybe we all have.


Anonymous said...

To the best of my knowledge, that "resolution" is illegal under the current law.

Anonymous said...

Lovely. I always enjoy cultural interfacing. It makes the world richer, and the women more beautiful :-)


इंद्र अवस्थी said...

This is very nice account of cultural changes happening in Bandra. In broader perspective it might repesent the reality of whole India.

The mixed kinds of names have always intrigued me. You have addressed this very nicely here. I always enjoy knowing about different cultures, their legacies etc. in our country. Probably sharing this kind of stories may help the cultures more comfortable with one another. just a wild thought!

livinghigh said...

very interesting to note that about bandra names. ure right there about charm - sad to note though, that bandra's as congested as the rest of bombay now.
so, yea - u obviously have a good dictionary - ;-) - and a great style. overall, impressed....
PS: does this also count as 'back-patting'? *grin*

Janaki said...

fabulous! liked ur bit on blogging on desimediabithcfest too. am in a perpetual quandry what to write. nice to see others also struggle with similar issues. said...

Where can I meet Mr, Reis?