May 10, 2006

Old People's Garden

My third essay on the Sarai fellowship, my theme being exploring the villages in Bombay. (First one here, second one here).

Your comments, as always, welcome.


Old People's Garden

The cliches come easy. The village time forgot. The village that was. Old world air. Time stands still. That sort of thing. When in its life-cycle does a place, a locality, make the transition to cliche?

In Matharpacady, it's easy to wonder. Parts of this little village -- well, it's just one street, really -- look like they must have done for generations. Other parts have unfinished towering raw concrete hulks that erupt from the old world surroundings, that will one day contain several flats. When in its life-cycle does a place start selling out to pressures from builders with rupees in their eyes?

But let's begin with the etymology thing. The name comes from "mhatara" (old man) and "pakhadi", which may be like "wadi" meaning a small locality. Or it may not. Nobody could tell me why it had been named Matharpacady, but in the village, the accepted translation seems to be "old people's garden". I doubt whoever came up with the name could have predicted just how appropriate "old people's garden" would be by the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. I mean no offence to anyone when I say Matharpacady is now home, largely, to old people. Like other Catholic enclaves in Bombay, nearly every family here has seen its sons and daughters emigrate West, or effectively West, to Australia and New Zealand.

So when you visit a home here, you might catch a whiff of longing in the air, for the children lost to opportunity and affluence abroad.

89-year-old St John (pronounced "Sinjin" by one and all) Valladares is lucky. His youngest of four, Julius, did not emigrate like his brother and sisters did. He is a captain in the merchant navy, and thus travels a lot, but home is still their Matharpacady bungalow, "Keep Sake". And Julius has three energetic young sons, whom you are likely to meet riding bicycles about or playing a mean game of football. Not too many other homes here have both a son and grandchildren.

When we stroll through, we find St John sitting in a chair on the porch, smiling genially at us. He is so visibly friendly that we can't resist stopping for a chat; it ends up being two long chats, over two different days.

The first time, about ten minutes after we meet, St John scurries off inside and emerges minutes later with a file. "Here", he says with a guffaw, "this is what keeps me busy these days!" There are 40 or so pages in the file. They are covered in an ornate, slanted hand with great big "M"s and "A"s. This is something of a labour of love. St John has been putting down his memories of the Matharpacady Club, 100 years old in 2006 and a place that he has patronized, even nurtured, for a good fraction of that time. With a measure of quiet pride, he reads for me the short speech he gave at a function the Club held to thank him for his years of devotion, written out and filed among those pages. There's also minutiae from Club elections, Christmas balls and ... snooker tournaments.

From St John's recounting, snooker has been the main pursuit at the Club since at least 1922. That was when it acquired its "first fullsized billiard table" and put it in an outhouse offered to the Club by a favourite son of the Bombay Catholic community, the freedom fighter Kaka Joseph Baptista. The limited space for this fullsized table, writes St John, "necessitated [the] use of a short cue." The table was disposed of in 1924, when the outhouse reverted to the Baptistas. But another one came their way in 1926, as did the space to house it, and over the years since, the Matharpacady Club became a hub for the game.

One of the city's most venerable tournaments -- the Open Handicap Snooker Tournament for the Sushil R Ruia Challenge Cup -- is held here annually (as also billiards tournaments). It has attracted -- and probably been a launchpad for -- "some of the best ever players India produced"; and considering that some of them were world champions, you could say "best ever players the world produced" and not be too far from the truth. And while not quite in that class, St John was no mean player himself. He produces a sheaf of photographs, among which is one of him -- slender, dapper -- leaning over to take a shot, his eyes fixed like lasers on the ball he means to hit: semifinal, 1956.

The Club, and Bombay's Catholics going to the Club: how familiar, almost cliched, is that? This is one reason that, for years, Catholics were disproportionately represented among our top sports men and women. Well, at least in hockey which they learned by dodging through narrow lanes, and in billiards and snooker played in the Club. This one, and others.

Yet of course, the Catholic Clubs also restricted membership. In Matharpacady, writes St John, membership to the club "was initially open to Catholic residents" of the village. Later, "it became necessary to be more accommodating": "non-residents of Mazagon and ... non-Catholics" were admitted in limited numbers. But they were only "associate" members, meaning they could use the Club, but had no vote and could not serve on the Managing Committee.

Had they been more accommodating still right from the start, would we have seen more champion players from more regions and more religions in more sports?

Questions, unanswerable imponderable questions.

Then again, here are some of those "best ever players" who played and won at the Matharpacady Club snooker and billiards tournaments: Percy Edwards, Kenny Durham, Om Agarwal, Babu Kanti, Thomas Monteiro, Shyam Shroff, Ritesh Shah, Howard Oliver, Ashok Shandilya, Yasin Merchant and Michael Ferreira. Over the years, quite a spectrum.

So after reading about, hearing about, this brief Matharpacady snooker history, I knew I wanted to take a look at the Club itself. From St John's house, we squeeze past the chapel, up and then down a few steps, then down a long slope. On the right, at the bottom ... the rambling old building looks like it is about to fall down, and clearly I'm not the only person who thinks so. For the walls and balconies -- through the floor of some of those balconies, we can see rusting, crumbling beams -- are held up by sturdy bamboo poles. It looks like they are the only reason the balconies are still there, that the edifice still stands. The door under the "Matharpacady Club" sign is locked. But somebody emerges from another quarter of the rambling building -- people actually live here -- to tell us the bamboos are preparatory to the repairs the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority (MHADA) is about to make to the building.

We stand before the Club for a few seconds. Not too near the walls, because looking at it, I am actually afraid of getting closer. From St John Valladares's handwritten account, from all he says, I understand how intimate a part of Matharpacady's community this clubhouse has been over the years. Yet looking at it, I cannot help think how appropriate that name -- "old people's garden" -- is to this club as well.

They still hold the tournaments here; they still hold a 9-day "Feast of the Cross" ending on May 1 at the Matharpacady chapel. Yet this is a place that time forgot. In an odd, wistful way, it's also a place youth forgot.

1 comment:

Bombay Addict said...

Superb ! may your essays and your walks and your discoveries go on forever... This reminds me of Chimbai/Chuim Village, the entire area behind my alma mater (St. Stanislaus School).... Places that time and youth forgot, and unfortunately places that those damn builders are probably salivating on now. Sad.

Btw - is the "St" a part of Sinjinn's name really ? he's been canonised ?