May 29, 2005

Uncle Rat, Dirty Girl

Spent the evening yesterday in Khotachiwadi, the little warren of narrow lanes and lovely old houses and rusting motorbikes in South Bombay's Girgaum area. The Khotachiwadi festival is on this weekend, and though I never lived there, I have some ancestral roots there. So I went. And I urge you to go too, especially if you live in one of those planned grids that pose as suburbs or entire cities, like the JVPD Scheme, or Phoenix.

You get an idea in Khotachiwadi of what a neighbourhood can be. Good or bad, that's up to you, but the sense of space and experience shared, friendships cemented or sometimes smashed, life lived rubbing shoulders with other lives ... that's this place. JSS Road (Girgaum Road), off which Khotachiwadi meanders, is a mess of sound and traffic; yet wander 25 yards into the lane and the noise is gone, and you can listen to that dulcet dulpod wafting from Aunty Mabel's ("Dirty Girl") house.

A friend and I got a personal tour of the wadi from two men: one a current resident, one who lived here 20 years but moved away 60 years ago. So we had a good mix of the old and the new, the way it used to be and the way things have changed. (Which is also how we knew it used to be Aunty Mabel's house, and that she used to be called "Dirty Girl").

So this house is where there were stones flung on the roof every night, making an unholy racket and spooking the family inside. Then they found it was the two spinsters from next door, taken inexplicably, in their dotage, to stone-throwing. Following in their steps, or not, this space is where a family would just as inexplicably toss hot coals about. Here's where the once-resident would jump from his balcony to the next -- only a few feet distant -- and turn off their power switch as a prank, but also to stop the nightly, and painfully loud, piano practices. Nearby lived the man who brought home crocodiles (!) every now and then. Here's the home of Tommy, so small as a child that he acquired an unfortunate nickname that, more unfortunately, stuck to him through his life: Chuha ("Mouse") Tommy. (Which reminds us of the dulpod, "Undir Mama ailo", meaning "Uncle Rat has come").

That house had a man who sent his kids to defecate on the street. When challenged, he would draw himself up and say sternly, "I am Government servant!" He also carried on an affair with the married woman in the second-floor home next door. But always by "remote control" -- they never met, but the woman would lie under her bed (with her husband asleep on it) and make rapturous signals to her Government servant lover.

At this one, I spluttered. "How did you know she did that?" I asked the once-resident. "We could see her from our window!" he replied. (His house was next door). I felt a mild pang of envy. What I wouldn't give to see one half of a secret love affair from my window every day, the woman writhing under the bed and semaphoring passion across the lane!

Khotachiwadi is like that. Flee Phoenix and find out for yourself.

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