December 31, 2004

Polyester? No thanks

The old woman lifts up a polyester dress, holds it against herself, shakes her head, and drops it back into the pile. No, it won't fit. No, it's not me. No, I don't like polyester. No, I wear saris, not dresses. No, not even a tsunami will make me wear want someone else's discards. Which is it?

Your guess. The dress lies there on the ground.

Yesterday -- Thu Dec 30 -- the Tamil Nadu coast was thrown into a frenzy by a sudden warning of one more tidal wave. Driving to some relief camp in Chennai, we were turned away by cops who didn't want people using the beach road. In the smaller towns and villages -- like this one, Seepudupettai -- the people ran. As they had run five days ago, with a wall of water gnawing, snarling, at them. But this time it was just the scare, and no wall came. But still, the village emptied out in no time.

An unknown team of relief workers in their truck, presumably oblivious in the truck to the tsunami warning, drove into Seepudupettai at this time. They had a load of used clothes to hand out. But with the village empty, they had nobody to hand the stuff out to. So they dumped it -- the whole load -- around a statue in the centre of the village, a statue of the great Tamil Nadu hero, Annadurai. (The nearby MGR statue was left unclothed).

The villagers came back. They found this pile of clothes miraculously in the heart of their village.

When we got there, we found several young men lounging in and on the clothes, eating bread by the loaves some other team had handed out, hamming for my trusty Contax. And we found the old woman, curious about a polyester dress some unknown Indian woman in Bombay or Calcutta or Trichy or Jaunpur had swept from her wardrobe as her response to a distant monstrous wave.

Curious, but uninterested. Tsunami or no tsunami.


In the once French enclave of Karaikal, south of that other once French enclave of Pondicherry, two policemen directed traffic across a bridge. I noticed two things: one, their bright red kepis, a reminder of that French heritage; and the traffic crossed very gingerly.

Why gingerly? Because the bridge has been damaged. Traffic flows in only one direction at a time, for part of the way over metal plates laid over whatever cracks there are in the bridge. And why was the bridge damaged? Three large boats, lying to the side below the bridge, are the answer. Five days ago, they were borne up the creek that leads out to sea, borne up like some all-conquering champion sportsman might be borne, and flung bodily at the bridge. As if to wreak vengeance at this French-built bridge.

That flinging, from the tsunami. Of course.

My mind quails at the strength of this beast from the depths below, that it slams boats into bridges like this. I try desperately to find an angle for my photo that will capture that quailing, that strength. And then I see it.

At the end of a pole that sticks out from somewhere on one of the boats, there's a small plastic holder. In it, there's a bulb. A glass bulb. Intact.

In Nagapattinam, we see a repeat of this boats at bridges trick. This time, on a scale that leaves me breathless. Numberless boats, in every size possible up to a solid long barge, crashed up against the bridge like so many toys tossed aside by a bored kid. Some have evidently sailed over roofs to land right in the middle of town, by the road. Keeping them company are oerturned trucks and roofs shattered as boats flew. How this destruction? Better question: who is going to clear it all? How? Fluttering proudly from most boats' masts are tattered Indian flags. Dozens of them, streaming and waving in the mellow afternoon sun. And then I see it.

On nearly every boat, there's a cabin. Glass panes. Most of which are intact.

Fire down below

From the fire behind me, there is an awful "pop". Something has exploded in it, and given that I know what's in the fire, I know what the pop is likely to be: some part of a human body, consumed by the flames. I've watched those bodies being piled onto the pyre, and the last thing these poor twisted rigid souls look is human -- but they burn nevertheless, and it's the last chapter in what must have been a terrifying, whirling end.

We are on a wasteland -- there's no other word for this vast empty soulless landscape of rotting slush, debris, mud, nets and dog and cat and human carcasses -- just outside the town of Nagapattinam. It has taken us nearly 90 minutes to negotiate our way through the slush and stench to where D Lakshmi Narasimhan, a tall gentle doctor from Salem, greets the dusk with his team in the only way that makes sense in this post-tsunami zone. They pick up and burn the bodies. We are only 500 metres from the town, but nobody except this team is out this far -- and from what we hear, there are dead bodies strewn all the way in fron of us, 5 km in front of us, all the way to Vedaranyam. Nobody seems interested in coming out this far. So what will happen to those bodies? How will they go through that final chapter in their agonizing end?

We can believe that there are those bodies out there. In getting here, we've seen at least three others being burned, at least five others lying around. One's a little form, sex or age or even humanity eroded beyond belief, lying in a carton. Nearby is another -- brother? mother? cousin? -- sprawled in the mucky sand. Bodies everywhere.

The pyre I mentioned is really a collapsed hut; one body lies on top of it as if he (she?) was sleeping. Calmly after the storm. The team lifts up the collapsed roof and there are bodies below. They pull one out -- a young boy, I think -- and put him on top with the other one. Then they light the roof. Incongruously, three cats emerge from below the hut, alive and running. The family cats? Here since the tsunami? Just sheltering here? Who knows? But we stand there, as Veerappan, his wife Parvati, their daughter Pasupati, and their sons Ganesh, Dinesh and Abhi -- the names listed in a sodden exercise book nearby, their photos in an album nearby -- go up in flames.

Popping to sicken my heart.

Walking back, it's dark. I can't see what's around me, so I just step into everything. Slush, rot, whatever. Seems hardly to matter. Seems appropriate. I don't know how to have a happy new year.

December 28, 2004

Early warning

My article on the tidal wave disaster on

Violated norms

From a friend who has worked for years on the Andaman/Nicobar islands. He repeated this when I called him.

This might sound premature and callous, but every developmental and environmental norm has been violated in the isalnds over the last couple of decades. A lot of the loss of life has been due to this. I think we owe it to the residents there to ensure this doesn't happen again.

How many places/disasters can we say this about?

I head for Chennai tomorrow (Wed), and am thinking about heading for the Andamans afterwards. Let's see. Tidal wave disaster updates from there if I can manage it, here and/or on the excellent SEA-EAT. Visit there to find out about helping.

December 27, 2004

TV, tsunamis and too many dead

My father, who doesn't have cable, called up Doordarshan, the TV channel you can still get through the air. Anxious to know out more about the tragedy that slammed into South and Southeast Asia, he was hoping to find it on his TV. "When will you carry your next news bulletin?" he asked.

"Oh, we don't know," was the reply. "We have to wait for the one-day match to get over." That's Bangladesh and India, cricketers going at it while tidal waves do their worst, killing in both countries (though only 2 in Bangladesh, last heard). Hours later, my father was still steaming: No news about this huge disaster because there's a cricket match on.

What if, I wonder, the tidal waves had swept away some of the cricketers' homes? I have a feeling Doordarshan might have interrupted the game for a bulletin.

Then I called family and friends in Chennai. Everyone is fine. If they answer the phone, they've gotta be fine. But without exception, they made a point to tell me who the greatest sufferers were: the poor. The street and slum dwellers, the fishermen's colonies along the coast. "As always", they said. Indeed, as always. You look at the pictures and you know: the wailing mothers, the families carrying their dead, the people lining the roads asking for news of their missing -- if not entirely, these people are overwhelmingly our poor. Not the investment bankers or the Page 3 dudettes.

The same in every disaster.

Though it sometimes takes months to comprehend the true magnitude of that sameness. In Kutch in 2001, a gigantic quake killed by the thousand. In particular, several high-rises collapsed, killing their middle-class residents and leaving the survivors to spend nights on the streets. But when I went back exactly a year later, travelling across Gujarat showed me just who was still feeling the after-effects of the quake. All over Bhuj, for example, I found hundreds of people still sleeping in the open, on the rubble of their hovels and tenements. Still waiting for what their government had promised them by way of help, so far unable to right their own lives, living on a generosity shared by their fellow residents of the rubble.

So yes, nature's cliched fury knows no lines of wealth or class. On Chennai's Marina beach as on the Sri Lankan and Thai coasts, joggers and tourists were swept away just as surely as fishermen in their huts were, if in smaller numbers. But go back in six months, go back in a year. The fishermen's colonies will still look like disasters, their residents will still be trying to pick up their lives.

In these globalising times, nobody likes to hear the old shibboleth from the past. This is the era of the markets and how they will improve everybody's lives, after all. But it takes a disaster like this to remind us how true the shibboleth still is: our poor are our most vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they are poor. They are vulnerable because, at a profound level that goes beyond the labels of "socialist" and "leftist" and "rightist" and anything else, nobody really gives a damn for them.

Here in Bombay, "over 30,000 huts" have been destroyed in the past few days. This includes 6200 shanties razed in Malad on December 24, the greatest such destruction "ever recorded in an area in a single day"; in the rest of Bombay, 1400 more were destroyed that day. (Times, December 25).

What did this damage that, except for a death toll, is comparable all around to what's happened in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka? Another tsunami? A quake? A cyclone?

Nope: the Bombay Municipality. The Municipality that is on a drive to destroy "illegal shanties." The same Municipality that is funded, in great part, by taxes that those very shanty residents pay. You see, our Chief Minister wants to make "a Shanghai" of Mumbai -- globalising, didn't you know -- and apparently the road to that Shanghai is paved with the wilfully destroyed homes of our most vulnerable people. (Aside: suppose a tsunami had done what the Municipality has done, here in Bombay. What kind of headlines would it get? If different, why do the Municipality's efforts not get those kinds of headlines?).

The road to Shanghai is not paved, you will note, with the wilfully destroyed homes of our urban middle- and upper-classes, many of which are also illegal.

And until it is, or far more preferably, until it isn't paved with anyone's destroyed homes; until DD decides disaster in Chennai hutments is a little more important than a cricket match; until the poor in this country and others find a measure of security from the ravages of both man and tsunami; until these things happen, allow me and many like me a measure of scepticism about globalisation.

Questions: did December 26 in Chennai see that Malad record (6200 shanties) topped? What will December 27 in Bombay bring? Whatever the answers are, I know I won't find them on Doordarshan. India and Bangladesh are playing again today.

December 25, 2004

Tales From Some Baug

I'm not a fan of posts that contain just a pointer or three. But Sue Darlow's photographs of Parsis (on that site till January 11) are simply outstanding. I found them deeply moving, and was also captivated by her use of light and colour. Don't miss the delicate shot of five seated women.

December 24, 2004

Notes for a standup routine

My wife, she teaches French. Likes all things French. Most especially, cheese. In France, cheeses come with these crazy names that leave me baffled.

She'll yell "Do you want chevre cheese?" And I'll say "Sure I want to share cheese, but watch your grammar!" And she'll say "Leave my grandma out of this, OK? My grandpa too!" Which is how we get into a fight.

Then she'll say "Camembert cheese?" And I'll say "If you cannot bear cheese, why the hell are you eating it?" And we get into another fight. I'm coming to the conclusion I cannot stand cheese. Camembert cheese, actually.


Thing is, even if she teaches French, I don't learn much of the language. Gives me a complex sometimes. Had dinner the other night with one of her students, and she asked him in French, "Didn't you get a good grade in your exam?" And he said "Si!", and she turned to me and said "Look, he really knows French, he didn't say Oui, he said Si!" (There's a difference. Trust me). This, to prove to me how good a teacher she really is, and it's my fault that I can't learn the language.

But hey, it might have been the Spanish "Si", showing how confused the man is, can't distinguish between Spanish and French. Or he might have meant "C!", meaning the grade he got, showing how mediocre his French is. Or he might have been saying "See!", meaning here's my marksheet, see for yourself.

But I'm supposed to applaud this stuff.


Woke up this morning and was shocked. Someone had stolen ALL our furniture and left identical copies in the same spots. Can you imagine?

I have a map of India at home, scale is 1:1. They stole that too. Left an identical copy too, in the same place.


College days, I was never much of an athlete. Our wing of 12 guys formed a cricket team for a tournament. I was 12th man.

So I signed up for football. The coach was very good to me. First match, he told me I was going to play right back. Great, I thought. Match time, and he was right. I was right back indeed, twiddling my thumbs behind the goal. Next match, he told me I would be full back ...

But for the third match, he stopped fooling around. Told me I would be left out. Sure enough, I was. Left out of the team. So I returned to my cricket mates. Our first match, they made me point. Why should I point, I wanted to know. Later, I was long off. So long off the field that they called the cops.


My wife, she has something of a problem with American accents. The other day, our neighbour was walking his dog, and Vibha asked what his name was. The dog's name, that is. Now the neighbour grew up in the US (come to think of it, so did the dog). He replied, "Saaks".

Vibha thought, oh, must be some connection to that famous Fifth Avenue store. But imagine naming a dog after a department store! ("Shoppers' Stop, sit! Stay!"). These Americans! Later, she overheard the watchman talking to someone: Kya hai, voh kutta hai naa, uska pair pe voh safed hai na? Voh moja jaisa dikhta hai, moja. Iske liye, uska naam rakha hai Socks. Moja ka matlab socks, samjhe? [Gotta get the accent and intonation for the Bambaiya Hindi down right.] (Translation: You know that dog, seen the white on its legs? Looks like socks. That's why he's called Socks.)

December 19, 2004

Moments of Epiphany

Complete darkness, and I'm walking along in driving rain, through mud and fields, unable to see any kind of path, unable to see my companion only a few feet ahead of me, heading for a town called Bargi Nagar. It's next to the Bargi dam on the Narmada river in central India. From here where I'm trudging, about a mile away, I can see bright lights on the dam, and also in the town.

But here where I'm trudging is in utter darkness.

Which is OK. Why should fields be lit?

Two things happen almost simultaneously. I hear a cough pretty much in my ear; then a dog begins barking at my feet. When my nerves stop leaping, I understand what has happened. In this blanketing darkness, I've walked right past -- or through, who knows? -- someone's village home. He has coughed to alert me.

And now I understand something else. People in this village -- like this coughing man -- can see the gigantic dam that's only a mile distant, they can see bright lights powered by electricity from that dam. But if they can do that, they themselves sit in darkness.

We build dams. We supply electricity from them far and wide -- to homes such as mine, hundreds of miles away. But not to this village, only a 15 minute walk away. Where people sit in the same darkness that has lain on this land since the times of Ashoka and Julius Caesar.

That was one moment.

I'm at an anganwadi (creche) in Joda, a mining town in Orissa. Most of the mining here is done by migrant labour, much of it tribal, most housed in company-built shanties at one end of Joda. Usually, both parents work in the mines: they can use the extra salary. But this means that their kids are on their own. The anganwadi is run for these children. Two dozen bright-eyed, if skinny, kids play and sing around me. As they do, I pore over a sheaf of charts: monthly weight records for the first five years of each child's life. And I learn...

Every single kid who has been through here -- hundreds of them -- was malnourished, most seriously. The heaviest five-year-old listed weighs a full five kg less than my son -- by no means overweight -- weighs at two months short of four. This is hardly unknown. In a report to the Supreme Court -- for which he traveled in this area too -- a bureaucrat called NC Saxena noted that India remains one of the most undernourished countries in the world, with about half of all children suffering from undernutrition.


I look more closely at the charts. Printed by the Government, they have a title and instructions in Oriya, a grid of lines. And one more thing. Or four more. Four curves that stretch across the grid, marked "1", "2", "3" and "4". Four grades of malnutrition. Grade 1 ranges from 2.75 kg at birth to 15 kg at 5 years old; grade 4 from 1.5 to 9 kg; 2 and 3 are in between. Four malnutrition curves, preprinted on these sheets.

The presumption here is that tribal kids will be malnourished. And every child is indeed malnourished; most hover between grades 3 and 4. So hey, why not preprint those curves?

That's the second moment.

On a hilltop in Kashmir, I visit a monument to soldiers killed in this area in fighting with Pakistan. "Hall of Fame", it's called. It's a quiet, lovely spot. The actual HoF is a squat building right at the top. Below it, all over the superbly manicured gardens on the slopes, are memorials and stirring inscriptions.

Thus "Slain thou shall obtain Heaven, Victorious thou will enjoy the earth" from the Bhagavad Gita. And from Horatius, "How can man die better, than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his father and temples of his Gods." And a large sculpture of Sikh soldiers planting a flag, clearly modelled on the famous US Marine photograph from Iwo Jima.

Rising from the grass are several large black granite panels. From the left, they list the names of the soldiers killed in this sector, every year since 1948. 169 died in 1971. 16 in 1991. 28 in 1994. 52 in 2003.

One soldier dead each week in 2003. When in the year did Rajinder Singh go? Raghothaman C? Surinder Dattarwal, Sheik Akbar, Ram Dhan Boro, Nissar Ahmed Rishi?

As I read their names, I realize there's nothing to the right of 2003. No names, that is. What there is, is an expanse of blank black granite panels. Blank, and ready to be engraved. Waiting for soldiers to die. Knowing they will die. Might as well set aside the space for their names now.

That's the third moment.

I have them every now and then, those moments. When something ordinary suddenly says a lot. What do they say to you?

December 13, 2004

Look to the Stints

Through my window, through the trees, I can see them. In their blue and white uniforms, arms and legs scissoring in attempted unison, they make their ponderous way around the nearby park. They try hard, but really they cannot coordinate their movements, and the arms, specially, are a blur of out-of-time swinging.

It's that time of year, of course. Readying for sports meets in the New Year, schools all over Bombay send their students out to practice ... marching. Left, right, left-right-left, bang the drum slowly, E-Y-E-S RIGHT! That time-honoured rhythm must be engraved in the minds of generations of Indian school students, few of whom ever really managed to synchronize their steps with their next-in-line or further-down-the-line comrades, but all of whom went at it with teenaged enthusiasm. This is the only time of the year schools do this, so the hope that they will achieve synchrony in these few sessions is a futile one. But yes, they go at it.

Like this blue skirt and white shirt girls' school, clomping around the park.

I raise my eyes just a little bit, looking over their heads at the rocks in the sea beyond. There, a small cloud of birds mists across my line of vision, wheeling so they catch the sun and are suddenly a gleaming white, then as suddenly back to dull brown and barely visible against the rocks. These are stints, known for this behaviour. They wheel in perfect unison. No drums to guide their flapping wings, no left-right-left. Just smoothly coordinated flocking.

Why is it so easy for birds, so difficult for blue-skirted girls? (Not that boys do any better).

But if that's a question without much of an answer, the really interesting question is, why do this at all? Why do schoolchildren need to demonstrate, once a year, how well they can march past a podium, eyes right to where their principal, or some other starched chief guest, salutes? Little else in our school curriculum has this vaguely martial tinge to it. The marching proves nothing, demonstrates nothing, it's not important enough for somebody at the schools to take the kids in hand and really get them moving as one.

So why do it?

By now, someone reading this is angrily muttering, but it teaches the kids discipline! Inculcates a feeling for the Army (soldiers march about, after all), thus a sense of patriotism. What's wrong with that? In fact, there's everything right with it!

Yet ... if that's really the reason, I wonder: is patriotism built by marching practice? By the connection made, via marching, to the Army?

I have a 1996 publication from the School Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra (GoM). This glossy booklet, Landmark Decisions On School Education, lists various then-proposed steps: creating additional primary school teacher posts, free education upto the secondary level, a free bus pass programme for schoolgirls, making NCC (National Cadet Corps, a military training programme) compulsory for one year, more. For all these steps, the GoM set aside Rs 1.34 billion that year.

Of which, the largest chunk -- by far -- is for the NCC scheme. How large? Rs 1 billion.

Free secondary education, in contrast and for example, will get all of Rs 30 million.

Now according to the booklet, the money for the NCC scheme is money well spent, for it will help students "imbibe values like leadership, nationalism and discipline."

The military connection again, to promote those values. Is such a connection the only way to teach them? Is it working?

Looking at marching students just as uncoordinated as I was in my time, I have at least part of an answer. Thinking about such other values as corruption and injustice and flinging garbage about, I have another part of an answer. The birds may have the rest.

December 09, 2004

Alfalfa: The Naked Truth

Party at a friend's place. Several new faces there; I met most as the party went on. One was, I found at one point, surrounded by a small group. As I strolled up to listen to what was going on, I heard him asking, and this is verbatim: "Which is the only word in the English language that follows the pattern 'x-y-z, x-y-z', repeated till infinity?"

Ignorance quickly got the better of me. Reluctantly, I had to admit that I had no answer. The rest of the group, more persevering, muttered on a bit. But they too gave up. Our questioner, pleased to score a triumph of the intellect over us, grinned triumphantly as he announced the answer.

"Alfalfa," he said. Which is produced, he said, by repeating "a-l-f" till infinity. Though, I thought, it works better if you chop after the third "a". Who wants to be saying "alfalfalfalfalfalfalfalfa..." till the cows come home?

But now I'm puzzled as well as ignorant. "So what?" I ask hesitantly. At least to me, "alfalfa" doesn't appear to have "a-l-f" repeated till infinity, it's only seven letters long. Besides, so what?

"This is not my research", he says, curled upper lip firmly in place, "it's Isaac Asimov's!" This, it seems, is the knockout punch. How can I possibly argue with the fruits of Isaac Asimov's research?

I banish from my mind a fleeting image of Asimov in a dingy lab, spending years researching the patterns in "alfalfa", then revealing the secret to an adoring world: that it "follows the pattern 'x-y-z, x-y-z', repeated till infinity." Not quite Nobel prize winning research. But what do I know?

The rest of the party went by in a daze, and not just because of my drink. With research on my mind, I remembered a professor I had read about only days before. At an Illinois university in the US of A, the man spent years and great sums of money investigating one of Science's most Remarkable Phenomena, a Field of Fundamental Importance to the Survival of Mankind itself.

Nude beaches.

I am not making this up.

You will agree: this was difficult, pioneering research. Nevertheless, he stuck to it manfully, with passion. He spent long periods on said beaches, observing people there, noting the shape they were in, particularly the feminine shapes. Months and years went by in this endeavour to further the Frontiers of Human Knowledge -- or is that Fronts? -- but he got nowhere near finished. He needed many more long hours to study many more nudes at many more beaches.

Aren't you glad that someone put in the effort to conduct this research? Well, lots of people were as glad. Including that university in Illinois and the agencies that funded his work. Oh, they were thrilled when this man's field of study was revealed, when they found out for the first time what their money had been used for. Overcome with joy, they got the professor, now sporting a healthy tan and bulging eyes, fired. Last heard of, he was heading for the beach, determined to serve Science some more.

Nude beaches and "x-y-z." I spent the entire party batting these about in my mind. Eventually, inspired by these noble research efforts, but also by my vodka and karela juice, I decided to make my own contribution.

The group is still gathered around the Asimov Alfalfa man, still hanging on his every research-laden word. By now, he has moved on to other weighty Questions of our Times. I fight my way to the front. Summoning up all my courage, and bolstered to no small extent by alcohol, I ask, parentheses included: "What about 'tutu' (meaning a ballerina's skirt)? Doesn't that also repeat till infinity except that it is chopped short (the word, not the skirt and certainly not the alfalfa)?"

I am proud of myself. Isn't everyone looking at me with new respect?

Alfalfa man brings me quickly down to earth. In tones fairly dripping with contempt, he says: "'Tutu' is only 'x-y, x-y' repeated till infinity. There's nothing worth researching there!"

Tail between shaking legs, I slink away. I feel like I've been stripped naked. Research will do that to you. Or nude beaches. Gotta remember not to step in the alfalfa.

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.