By AHMED BUNGLOWALA
With the exception of a few male friends, all my lasting relationships have been with women. It all really started in the late 60s and early 70s at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. I was a shy and gauche young man who was easily flustered in the company of the opposite sex — fair, brown or dark. After all, my childhood and pre-adolescence were spent in a small town in Madhya Pradesh where everyone was quick on the draw about their opinions on what constituted socially acceptable behaviour. No sex before marriage; that sort of pickled humbug.
All this was to change dramatically for me when our family — broke and foundering — moved to Bombay. For sometime we lived in the house of my maternal grandfather who was solvent, being quite a well-known astrologer and palmist. The fairly big house suddenly seemed very crowded with the addition of my mother and the four children. My father had decided to stay back in Mhow, the small cantonment-town I referred to earlier, to take another shot at his furniture hire business; he would join us in Bombay four years later, penniless. Things were actually touch and go. Though on the surface welcoming, my mother’s two brothers and their big family (who lived there) were not really looking forward to the permanent liability of five additional mouths to feed, especially four fast growing teenagers. To make myself useful I was persuaded by my mother to volunteer to fetch and carry the milk bottles at the crack of dawn, from the milk booth across the house in Masjid Bunder, near Crawford Market. I still remember lugging about 10 half-litre bottles of milk — silver-foil cap (toned) and blue-striped (whole) — up the countless stairs to the fourth floor. The daily milk consumption should give you an idea of the ‘occupancy’ of the house. At night, when the mattresses were laid out on the floor for the 10 children, it could easily remind you of a scene from a railway platform in India.
My maternal grandfather was a wise old man — with a scraggly beard and a piercing gaze, who would smoothen the ruffled feathers in the now ‘extended’ joint family. Among his famous clients was an ex-Maharani of an erstwhile princely state in India who would religiously send him a solid gold rakhi every year, for many years. This precious collection, tragically, became the epicentre of a bitter feud between the brothers and sisters, and their spouses, after he died at a ripe old age. My mother, instinctively, opted out of this whole gold frenzy in the family. She had made up her mind to be poor with honour.
Eventually, my mother, my two brothers and sister, and I moved to a one-room accommodation in a chawl in Nagpada — an address you could hardly flaunt, unless you knew a Don. We didn’t. Here I finished my schooling in an indifferent school nearby and got admission into St. Xavier’s College by pure serendipity. When the SSC results were announced, I looked for my ‘number’ in the pass class category — the lengthiest. No juice. A friend suggested that I look harder, upwards. And there it was, my number, in the much briefer, First class list. What a miracle! Armed with this credential, I entered, for the first time, the intimidating environs of St. Xavier’s College. The admission counter clerk casually said, “Pay your first-year, first-term fees at the counter on the left.’’ I was in a daze. I asked him if tomorrow would be okay. Yes, he said. I caught a bus home and told my mother about the admission and the money. She figured out, under an hour, how to get me the admission money by tomorrow. My father, who by now had joined us in Nagpada, had no useful suggestions to offer: instead, he was querulous about why I wanted to go to college in the first place.
For a small town guy, St. Xavier’s was a testing place for the first six months. The young men and women—strutting their designer clothes and attitude in the gargoyle-festooned quadrangle — made me very self-conscious of the two pairs of shirt and trouser my mother had put together from her meagre earnings as a part-time seamstress. The Xavier’s quadrangle, as it turned out, was the best ‘classroom’ in the college. Here you could observe the foibles and frailties of human nature on glorious display! Inside the classrooms, we had a widely varying quality of faculty—the good, the mediocre and the egotistical. Apart from the quadrangle, the college canteen became, for me, the next best growing-up experience. It was here that I first met Edwina and Vijaya (my future wife) over some excellent beef chilly fry that the place used to dish out in those days. All the waiters were Goan — Dominic, Savio or Peter — living within walking distance in Dhobi Talao, known, then, as the Little Goa of Bombay; now being rapidly gentrified into a mini Connaught Place. I was introduced to the two young women by a mutual acquaintance whose name I can’t remember. Edwina was bluff and friendly as usual but Vijaya was plainly sceptical of a small-town johnnie plying his charms in the college canteen. Anyway, we got to know one another better as the second semester waned. By the beginning of the second year, I became a permanent fixture around Edwina and Vijaya. They didn’t seem to mind my innocuous presence; at times I was a reassuring male figure at the bus stop waiting with them to board their busses — Edwina to Colaba, Vijaya to distant Chembur (and I to Nagpada, last).
Commuting by bus from home to college and back was a déjà vu experience for me. I would often daydream of doing something significant with my life so that we could move out of our claustrophobic one-room accommodation. We might as well have put up a sign outside our door saying ‘House Full ’— we were far more crammed here than at my grandfather’s place. Daydreaming was fine but thinking of practical solutions was not my forte, then. I was caught up in the make-believe world of college, so far removed from the ground realities of Nagpada — raw, tough and relentless. My longish stay here would provide me with plenty of predigested material for the Shorty Gomes detective stories I was to write years later — including a story with the reminiscent title Nagpada Blues.
One day after an early morning class in college, I ran into Edwina who informed me that Vijaya and Alka (another friend) were desperately looking for me (obviously, we didn’t have a phone at home). When I did meet the two in the canteen they laid out their proposition. They were ‘short’ of a companion for their upcoming cycling adventure to Khandala and back, and would I be interested? Bombay to Khandala? It all sounded like Olympics stuff to me but I quickly said yes. I had no choice, really, face-to-face with two differently attractive women with a wild streak. I didn’t want them to think of me as a weak-kneed sissy. The other guy in the foursome was an athletic type, whom I knew vaguely. The trip was obviously his brainchild. Anyway, I managed to hire a bicycle and met the three of them at Alka’s apartment at Five Gardens in Wadala. As we set out on this cycling marathon, there were no crowds to cheer us, no TV crews asking stupid questions. Might as well.
Within a couple of hours it became quite apparent that cycling was not Vijaya’s and Alka’s cup of tea. They were wilting fast. Our athletic friend was unfazed — he was pedal-fixated and began singing ditties to revive the girls’ sagging spirits. It didn’t work. After another hour or so they threw in the towel, and so did I in a gesture of solidarity. Our athlete-companion sulked, but went along. We packed the cycles in a mini-truck and took a ride to the seminary in Khandala, where we were to spend the night. Vijaya and Alka spent a very ‘wakeful’ night because of the unwelcome verbal and physical advances from the sportsman.
We woke up with sore limbs and aching backs and the idea of the return ‘adventure’ was generally greeted with minimum (zero) enthusiasm. Nevertheless, after a frugal breakfast at the seminary, we got onto our cycles and did the perilous downhill descent on the (old) Ghat. It was an eerie experience. Somehow we reached Kamshet or thereabouts, where we stopped for lunch; and we decided 3 to 1 that we will continue our journey to Bombay in a truck. And that’s what we did. Throughout the cycling trip, I noticed, to my mild dismay, that Vijaya had a wide range of swear words at her command. They were directed mainly at our sportsman companion and used to generally cope with the strenuous situation she found herself in. This was my first inkling into Vijaya’s volatile and unpredictable nature. Maybe, that’s why I married her.
St. Xavier’s had a full and fascinating display of characters on view — from ordinary people to the high-profile Page 3 types like Shobhaa De, then Shobha Rajadhyaksha, who would make it a point to ‘mark’ all the good looking and flamboyant guys. Then, there was the late Goolam Vanahvati, a top legal eagle of India. What made St. Xavier’s special for me were the ordinary, but kinky, people like Vijaya, Edwina and Alka. And ‘Jungle’ who sadly died early of an ‘overdose’ of country liquor, or ‘Grassie’ who could drive you up a wall with his long-drawn arguments; not to mention ‘Lalu’, the compulsive gambler, who’d desperately try to pass off as a bona fide Xaverite which he was not.
Besides Vijaya, the swearing, non-conformist, Edwina, friendly, talkative, but elusive, Alka, the ‘Venus’ of all male fantasies, there were two other women in this charmed circle — Fatima, Goan to the core, a rapid flutter of her eyelashes would signal that she liked someone, and Lalita. extrovert extremis from a diamond family in Malabar Hill, Bombay. This ‘famous five’ were some kind of an institution within the institution! Of St. Xavier’s I was the sixth (male) member of the group — with an amorphous, ever-changing relationship with the others.
To supplement our minuscule ‘allowance’ from home, Vijaya and I would often do surveys for market research companies — cigarettes, shampoos, sanitary napkins and soft drinks were the perennial favourites for gleaning consumer insights. Soon, we became pros at this form-filling ritual and could churn them out blindfolded in our sleep! Eventually, we were promoted from the field to office staff — doing tabulations and coaxing conclusions from the raw data recorded on street corners or sometimes at peoples’ homes. Edwina and Fatima, both majoring in Sociology, also caught the survey bug and worked, from time to time, for a well-known social scientist; collecting data on the social mores in the metros and smaller towns. I remember them doing a study on the sexual preferences of Indians that confirmed — not surprisingly — the supremacy of the missionary position. The income from these part-time pursuits was spent in the canteen or sometimes at Samovar, the Way Side Inn or Kailash Parbat; for buying movie tickets or a pair of jeans, paying back small loans, and some overnight trips to the beaches around Bombay -Murud Janjira, Kihim and Mandwa were our favorite destinations — the longish ferry ride from the Gateway of India to Rewas, to reach Mandwa, was a truly invigorating experience.
By the third year of college we were a fairly cohesive group — going to the Xavier’s sponsored summer camps to build small dams and dirt roads with the adivasis of Dahanu; or hitchhiking to Panchgani, where Edwina went to boarding school to escape the escalating domestic violence at home. Otherwise, I would be hanging out at the incredibly spacious apartments of Edwina, Lalita, Vijaya or Alka — where serious music-listening sessions was the unwritten rule: with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ella Fitzgerald, among others, offering fresh insights into love, authority, longing and loss. I, of course, didn’t invite them home because I was unduly embarrassed about the reality of my situation and I was not sure that Nagpada was the ideal place for five nubile sophomores to visit. Like me, Fatima (Fats) was loath to invite any one of us to her small, old-world digs in Girgaum. Her place was overrun by free-range hens and cocks — kept there by her mother who missed her ancestral home in Goa: where domestic pigs, goats, hens and turkeys are a common sight in the villages, even today.
By now, the third year of college, Vijaya and I were in a serious relationship. I would ride the late evening number 9 (limited stops) bus to Chembur and would catch a bus back to Nagpada. As you rightly guessed, B.E.S.T. buses became the vehicle of our romance and the much needed escape from our families: who were unwilling or incapable of understanding the emotional and sexual compulsions of a young couple in love. One night, after walking Vijaya to her building I was ambling back to the bus stop when three plainclothes cops accosted me. The wanted to know where I was headed. I’m going home, I said. Where’s home? Nagpada. That did it! Without rhyme or reason, they said I had to come to the cop station with them. Once there, they asked me all kind of stupid questions. Did I know so-and-so don? What did I do for a living? What was I doing in Chembur at this hour? I told them the simple truth. I had come, as usual, to drop my girlfriend home. Take us there, they insisted. Oh, God! I didn’t fancy the idea of waking up the Agarwal family to vouch for me at this late hour. What happened was even more bizarre. When I rang the bell, Vijaya’s sister opened the door a chink on the security chain. “ Do you know this man?” one of the cops barked. “No,” my future sister-in-law responded. That was the limit! Now, I was in for some serious third-degree trouble. In a flash, Vijaya appeared and without fear or hesitation announced that she knew me and that we were in college together and could they please stop harassing me. The cops (not stupid) got the message that this was a ‘family’ matter; they drove me to the bus stop and explained that there had been a spate of burglaries in the area of late. This incident resulted in a serious face-off between the sisters. Years later Vijaya’s lawyer sister would claim, in her defence, that she didn’t have her specs on, on that fateful night and hence couldn’t recognise me. But what about my distinctive voice that she’d heard before?
My maternal grandfather — with the penetrating eyes — had a quaint office in bustling Grant Road in central Bombay; crammed with exotic paraphernalia that is a future-diviner’s stock in trade. The place was straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. One night Vijaya, Edwina and I decided to spend a night there trying to ‘cram’ for the impending final college exams. The atmosphere, though, was just too eerie and overpowering to concentrate on the heavy weights at hand — William Shakespeare, Margaret Mead and John Galbriath. We gave up trying and went to sleep. The next morning, after an Udipi breakfast, we went our different ways, fervently hoping that the spooky night will not be our academic nemesis.
The building that housed his office came crashing down one evening — like so many old structures in Bombay — and my mother’s brother and his family, who had made a home there after my grandfather’s death, had a providential escape. There was more to the ‘collapse’ that met the eye. It was a cleverly engineered plot by one of the tenants of the building to grab ownership of the valuable land on which the structure stood. This ground-floor tenant, it seems, financed the ‘supari’ ‘killing of the legitimate landlord after tampering with the foundations of the building so that it would give way. So far so good; but things didn’t work out as planned. Now, he’s behind bars on a murder charge and the collapsed building case is in limbo. This is just another example of what really goes on in a city like Bombay, behind the scenes, while the populace is engrossed in a mindless serial about a mother-in-law and her latest acquisition — a simpering daughter-in-law who can cook chicken biryani. Of course, the son/husband, in the serial, is the true male specimen of evolutionary regression.
By now, an academically-inclined good (Xaverite) Samaritan and I had started conducting impromptu stair-case classes in Economics for guys and gals who were struggling to come to grips with the demand and supply theory and monetary economics. They would look at us in utter fascination while they tried hard to absorb the basics. One of my special ‘students’ was Dhamu. We didn’t meet on the stone-cold stairs of St. Xavier’s but in the cosy confines of a steak joint in Napean Sea Road (the place is now a laundry). This teaching arrangement suited me just fine—economic gyan for pepper steak. Except that before I could get started from my notes, he would light up a joint and then everything would become a fluid continuum — Dhamu, the steak and the universe. After a few attempts I gave up on him and the steaks. Teaching Dhamu economic theory was like driving a car with faulty brakes on a highway — a risky enterprise.
After we graduated from St. Xavier’s the future loomed large before us, like a giant blank canvas. Vijaya and I didn’t want to go back to doing market research on sanitary napkins or condoms and the avenues for ‘gainful’ employment were fairly limited (and limiting) in those days. Though over qualified, Vijaya was offered a housekeeping job in the Taj group of hotels; but her financially moribund family, like mine, couldn’t rustle up the Rs. 5,000 security deposit that the job entailed. Meanwhile, I did some odd jobs that didn’t amount to much. So we decided that it was time to break free — from the shackles of family, jobs and conformity. At this stage of our lives we got in touch with an NGO, run by Dunu Roy, who had a different take on life. He had a sense of humour, while he wanted to make a dent in the crushing poverty of rural India. We joined him as volunteers and travelled to many distant places in India. Once we were in Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh (Vijaya, Edwina and I), dispatched there by Dunu to do a cattle census in some of the villages. The couple in charge of the Hosangabad unit were a big let down for us. They talked and behaved like the Page 3 types in Bombay we were trying to escape! The upshot was that we were politely asked to leave. To be fair to them, we did spend a disproportionate amount of time playing poker and eating watermelons with some American volunteers instead of counting the livestock. After the sack, we spent a few wonderful days in Panchmari, the charming hill station of M.P and made our way to Bombay. I still have a blanket from Dunu’s FREA India as a souvenir.
Now what to do? We couldn’t figure out anything interesting so Vijaya and I collected all the money we had and took a train to Assam and then hitchhiked all over the North East for three months. This trip gave us a life-long insight into this verdant and beautiful region and its hospitable people who welcomed us into their homes with momos and steaming bowls of soup in the freezing ambient temperatures. We even managed to visit our first ‘foreign’ country — Bhutan— where the royal family kept track of the country’s Gross National Happiness! The sight of monk-archers in Thimpu, hitting their long-distance targets with Zen-like calm, is still vivid in my mind.
By now our friends, one by one, were figuring out what to do with their lives. Edwina, after doing an intensive French language course at the Alliance Franciase, packed her bags and flew off to Paris, where she still lives for part of the year. Alka chose to become a flight attendant to see the world. Lalita also moved to Paris, and from there to settle in Canada with her French-Canadian husband. Fatima joined advertising to sell things people didn’t really need. That left Viji and me. We were late bloomers.
The gargoyles, which keep a watchful eye on the quadrangle of St. Xavier’s, are unblinking and unchanging. The multitude that has passed through the portals of this institution often meet in formal or informal groups around the world. There’s a loosely knit alumni group in Goa (where Viji and I now live and Edwina visits) that meets from time to time for lunch or dinner. Marion, who used to zip around on her Rajdoot ‘midget’ in her college days in Bombay, is usually the organizing force of these gatherings; their leitmotif being to recollect and narrate some incidents from our time in St. Xavier’s. Vijaya’s favorite is when she was summoned to the Principal’s office for wearing a ‘shocking’ micro-mini skirt (designed and stitched by her). The padre was stern and moralizing: “You can’t wear such outfits to this college, young lady.” Viji looked at him squarely and asked, “Why?” The Principal was at a complete loss for word
I too was at a loss for words when I joined St. Xavier’s. By the time I graduated I had a familiar ease with social interactions — largely thanks to Vijaya, Edwina, Alka, Fatima and Lalita. They helped me clear the cobwebs of my mind. And the many books that I would read by candlelight (so as not to disturb the other family members in our small room in Nagpada) reinforced my late blooming understanding of my self-worth and social context. When you mix J. D. Salinger, B. Traven and Dashiell Hammett, it’s a potent antidote to humbug — sometimes for life.
Banner image of a flueron at the J. J. College of Arts, Mumbai.
Ahmed Bunglowala is one of the pioneers of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction writing in India; he is the creator of the iconic private eye Shorty Gomes. He lives in Goa with his wife. His book Shorty Gomes: Vintage Indian Crime Stories (Goa 1556, 2015) can be purchased by contacting Frederick Noronha.