February 28, 2005

Relic of the Raj

In Bombay's Raj Bhavan, small stalks fallen on the ground look just like the street lamps there. On a nature walk once, a naturalist told me cheerfully that the stalks belonged to the fruit of the "wild bhendi". It was a terribly mundane explanation for the wonder I felt whenever I picked up one of the stalks and looked bemusedly up at the street lamp, towering silently above me. The naturalist didn't know it, but he had just pricked one of the last balloons left from my childhood.

They're going fast, those balloons. But there were plenty from the years at Raj Bhavan. We lived in the estate two different times, which, I'll admit, makes me feel distinctly privileged. Nothing else about my growing up years was quite as special as Raj Bhavan.

The routine part, actually, is that Raj Bhavan is a unique part of Bombay. It has lush vegetation, birds, butterflies, a gorgeous beach and a spectacular view of Marine Drive and the sea. Besides, it is kept spotless. And all those trees effectively keep out the noise of Walkeshwar, of the rest of Bombay. This is Bombay as it must have been a long time ago, before cars and trains and cellphone jabberers.

But that is the routine part. Even without entering the Governor's estate, you probably know he lives in a spectacular corner of the city.

No, for me it was the littler things that made Raj Bhavan special. Like the wild bhendi stalks. And if I looked up from them at street lamps, kid sister was looking up from red seeds at drongos.

We all had a passion for the little red seeds that lay about. She specially liked the tinier egg-shaped ones with black caps. More so because every time she found one, there was a jaunty drongo sitting somewhere above, forked tail twitching merrily at her. It was the drongo that was bringing her those seeds, she just knew.

The sea wall was always a delight. It was crumbling into a pile of rocks. Pigeons nestled in the nooks, cooing gently at us. Races down the beach with Amma -- she always won -- ended at the rocks. We would then pick our way over them and continue along the wall to the end of the promontory, urged on by the pigeons. There, three plaques in pale marble, embedded in the rock face. "Me-Shoo: There is not enough darkness in the world to put out the light of one small candle." "Lindy Lou: Her tail still wags in our hearts." "Tilly, 1938 -- 1942."

Sadness trickled down my spine as I stood thinking about Lindy Lou, Me-Shoo and Tilly. For we too had dogs, and my memories of Raj Bhavan are never without one or another of them.

Dumbo was an early and much loved doggy member of the family. Stories of Dumbo's clashes with cobras on the doorstep of our Raj Bhavan house are still related with fond respect. On the beach, he was tireless. He'd swim out with us to the boat, strong and steady, swim back, chase a mongoose in the undergrowth, swim out again.

Later, it was Milou, our snowy Samoyed. At the best of times, he wasn't a big fan of water. One afternoon, I carried Milou into the waves to make him swim. For a few minutes he did. But suddenly he began a ghastly yowling. In panic, I ran back to the beach with him. On dry ground again, he limped about for a few seconds, favouring a front paw. Then, a quick furtive look in my direction, and he began tearing around the beach joyfully. The trickster!

But at least he recognized his lack of swimming talent. I didn't bother. There was the time I leaped off a boat into several feet of water, somehow unaware that I couldn't swim. Floundering and spluttering, I had to be rescued by Amma. I did eventually learn to swim, but even today, she tells the story through clenched teeth: "I was so ANGRY!"

The sea wall at Raj Bhavan is still home to guttural pigeons, but it's no longer crumbling. The pile of rocks has gone. On top, tarred and everything, is a regular boulevard. You can drive over to Me-Shoo's and Lindy Lou's plaques in your air-conditioned Scorpio, if the Governor will let you. The leafy path from the road down to the beach is now a grand staircase.

And the beach itself, that gleaming stretch of sand? On that nature walk morning, it was inches deep in the detritus of Bombay in the Page 3 era. Frooti boxes, thermocole, milk cartons, condoms, an unbroken 60-watt bulb, plastic bags, pieces of glass.

I know, I know. Progress. Dumbo would have cut his paws on the glass.


Anonymous said...

drongos in india?

I had the same admiration for the 'red seeds with black caps' as a kid. Small world Aye!


Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks Ullekh and Eklavya! How did you guys find out? I will post the essay here eventually, but for now I think I should let Outlook publish it first -- in their next issue.

Carkit, I see drongos outside my window nearly every day. Very definitely in India. And those red seeds with black caps, pretty as they are, are getting harder to find.

Anonymous said...

**Off Topic**

Congrats on winning the Outlook/Picador's NF award! Hope to see more of it here.

Anonymous said...

wow.. i can hardly imagine bombay like that.. wud've been simply amazing..!

the last time i walked down marine drive the only emotion that filled me was pure disgust.

Anonymous said...


This is about ur most recent rediff column "Go light a bulb"...

This article of urs is typical. You start off with a valid point - in this case that the Indian Government has failed to provide all the Indians with the basic facilities like electricity.

Then you narrate in a heart rending way the difficulties of fellow Indians, which I am able to appreciate and feel very much.

But then ur usual writing comes up towards the end. You always have anti-Indian & anti-Hindu undertones in all ur articles - like the subtle para against the "sanskrithi and parampara".

It is true that the state of majority of Indians is bad now. But that is NOT because of our Culture. It is mainly because of the rape of Indian economy done by Europeans, who , incidentally were Christians.

FYI, it is because of the great Indian/Hindu culture that most Indians (men and women) are faithful to their marriage unlike the Europeans who have sex in the bathrooms of trains and consider that a non-issue.

If you are happy that ur wife is loyal to you, know that to be the result of the Culture that u degrade in a subtle way in this article and in all ur other articles. If your son respects you and takes care of u when u r old, know that to be result of the same Hindu Culture that you abhore.

Hope u get ur screwed up cause and effect right. India is indeed great for having such a great Culture. Mera Bharath is indeed Mahan. Probably it is not financially great, but culturally it IS.

Readup about the economic prosperity of India before the Arabic and British invaders ravaged India. That will help u 2 see things in the proper light.


Anonymous said...


Seems like you recycle ur articles very well.. little has changed in the article that u just posted from ur 1998 article on rediff:


u cud hav just given us the link instead of taking the pain of copy-pasting it here :-p

Dilip D'Souza said...

u cud hav just given us the link instead of taking the pain of copy-pasting it here.

Why? I hate following links all over the web, and I imagine others do too. Besides, I knew you would stop by and do your job anyway: you posted the link.

Incidentally, this was first published in 1994, not 1998. (Please go find the link). It remains one of my favourite bits of writing.

Anonymous said...

Dilip says "Besides, I knew you would stop by and do your job anyway: you posted the link....It remains one of my favourite bits of writing."

good ability to get out of tight spots Dilip. And keep up ur great job of recycling old bullshit.