Review by Selma Carvalho
Family historians manage to combine anthropology, sociology, genealogy and oral history without the usual academic jargon which leaves readers feeling as if they’re wading through molasses. In the book, The House at 43, Hill Street (BombayKala, 2018), Brenda Rodrigues proves to be a diligent family historian whose unearthing of records going back to the 1700s has produced a remarkable narrative.
Rodrigues follows in the path paved by Ivan Arthur with his book, A Village Dies (Speaking Tiger, 2016), documenting the lives of that small but curious community in Bombay, loosely grouped as East Indians. She investigates the fortunes and eventual hardships of one particular family, that of Braz Rodriques and his descendants, Braz being her husband Joe’s great-grandfather. She traces their genesis to the ‘slopes of Calgary Hill which was to the north of Pali Hill,’ part of the original clans of Bombay, Kunbi farmers by occupation, and early converts to Christianity.
Of immediate interest is the etymology of the term ‘East Indian’ ironically coined for a community which lives on the west coast of India. The popularly accepted explanation for this term is that they comprised of people either allied with or working for the East India Company. Brenda, quotes respected sources, challenging this notion. By the time the term came into common use, the East India Company had been disbanded and, by 1874, power transferred to the British Crown. In fact, the first coming together of the community under this banner was in 1887, following the creation of the Bombay East Indian Association. It is likely that East Indian was used to classify the mixed-race progeny of English servicemen (mostly army) employed by the East India Company and their native Christianised mothers. Their off-spring often did not have official recognition. If they were lucky enough to be European looking they were ‘shipped’ to England for their education, but the vast majority remained back in India, offered basic public assistance and placated with jobs in the British administration and railways. It is this community, made from groups as disparate as the agricultural farming Kunbis, the fishing community of kolis, the Bhandaris (toddy-tapers), Agris (salt pan owners), kumbars (potters) and Sutars (carpenters), that is known today as East Indians. Steadily, they adopted European mannerism, customs and traditions, and although never quite allied politically, there was a grudging solidarity with the Anglo-Indian community (also biracial offspring), Goans and Mangaloreans. At certain times in colonial history, these groups were pitted against each other, competing for second to third tier administrative jobs. This is possibly, another reason why East Indians initially differentiated themselves from other Portuguese subjects, particularly Goans.
Another interesting facet which emerges from this book are the sort of occupations which Indian Christian communities, were prone to engage in. Braz Rodrigues, the chief patriarch, was born in 1811, to Luis and Maria, inhabitants of Parwar, one of the 25 villages which comprised Bandra. Braz’s probate referred to him as a ‘Bandra Portuguese inhabitant,’ (and although it is likely there might have been some mixing of blood, it was not unusual for Christians converts by the Portuguese from Goa and Bombay, to be referred to as Portuguese or Black Portuguese by the British). In fact, Goans routinely identified as Portuguese in travel and other official documents of the era. A minor clarification stating them to be ‘person of colour’ would be added by officials.
Braz owned three businesses: a soda factory operating under the name B. Rodrigues & Sons, a chemist shop on Meadows Street in the Fort area, and he managed real estate. Soda factories and chemist shops were widely favoured as business ventures by Christians, and when they emigrated to East Africa, a few Goans grew these enterprises into successful retail empires. The precursor to the chemist shop was the ‘compounder’, a sort of physician’s assistant who ground medicinal compounds and in many cases prescribed them. Indeed, the British administration in their colonies relied heavily on Goan Christian compounders who had good knowledge of local pathology in the tropics.
Braz, in time, became an immensely wealthy man owning two houses in Pali, two on Mount Mary Hill, three coconut groves in Juhu, one mango grove on Pali road, at least 50 rice fields in Pali-Khar, shops, jewellery and a swelling bank account. But it was plot no. 36 on Hill Road, midway between Bandra railway station and St. Andrew’s Church where Braz decided to build the palatial, family home. It came to be called burra ghar, big house.
Braz’s first wife, Luiza Catharina d’Abreo died, possibly in childbirth. He remarried Luiza Antonia Alvares, a woman 22 years his junior. During the course of her research, Brenda observes, that many men remarried after the demise of their first wives. Indeed, this aspect of older men remarrying young women can be observed in other Christian Indian communities including Goans. The general understanding of such a marriage is for the woman to be a caretaker, both of the household but particularly of the man in his later years. While Hindu families relied on the extended family to provide support, the mobility of the Christian Indian, often meant he lived away from family, and had embraced the idea of a companionate marriage, a nuclear family with clearly demarcated roles.
The waxing and waning fortunes of the Rodrigues family leads the reader to the second part of the book, the fight to save the house. Following the death of Anthony, Joe’s father, Rustomjee, a tenant involved in nefarious activities, began harassing the Rodrigues for ownership of the house. Long years of litigation followed with several parties. The trials of the Rodrigues family are a good case study which should lead to closer examination of property laws in Bombay and the corrupt nexus between politicians and property developers. The Bombay Rent Act of 1947, for instance, suppresses rents to such an extent landlords, ironically, end up expending more in maintenance expenses.
Overall the book provides a good first-hand account of Bombay instantly recognisable to Mumbaikars.
Brenda Rodrigues is committed to documenting her family history. She has previously written Lydia Brides (2010) to honour her mother-in-law, a famous dress-maker, and a travelogue My Journey Through Wonderlands (2012). The House at 43, Hill Road can be purchased here.