In 1988 when we were the only inhabitants of our large apartment complex, a pig strayed into the play area one evening. This wasn’t as remarkable as what occurred next, an old lady in a colourful skirt-blouse apparel came running, panting with a rolling pin in hand and asked my mother pointedly ”Where’s that lil rascal? You seen ‘im? I got im proper now, he cant exape. Clive D’Silva, husband of that Gonzales baykoo, gave me galees. Twentyvees times and now he’s made my poor pig run off”. My mother then new to Mumbai, put it down to the city’s exceptional character and let the matter be except for reciting it at family gatherings.
Growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay it hardly seemed out of the ordinary to have a Meryl or Douglas as best friends, learn math from Anu Fernandez and get our cable connection from the very honorable abovementioned Clive D’silva. There was a thriving Christian community all around me, yet I only saw them as individuals, like coloured stones in a mosaic and not as part of a community. The inkling that they might be different from other Christians came to me much later, and therein I found a fascinating community, not a few feet away from home.
Half a kilometer from very snazzy high rises that house us, lies an ancient village and the fact that it has survived as a village to this day gives testament to the grit and fortitude of the people who occupy it. The East Indians are one of the earlier Christian communities of India, and native to the Mumbai area. Different from Goans, theirs is a chequered history that begins before the Portuguese arrived in this part of the world. They are scattered across the city in several parishes and to the outsiders appear only as old ladies dressed in gay skirts, going to church. Or as the local pao-walla. Once a year students of all creeds crowd at the fair outside the Mother Mary church in Bandra, the legendary goddess who is said to influence marksheets, regardless of performances.
Having known them at closer quarters I can attest to some more facts, their mouthwatering marzipans, their succulent plum cakes and the special Christmas rum cakes, their ‘bottle masala’ that only fussy old ladies know the recipe of. But the piece de resistance has to be their pao. Their pao making is elevated to an art, and the airy beauties make breaking bread somewhat of a fulfilling gastronomical experience. Then again maybe it’s their special singsong Marathi-konkani language whose mellifluousness permeates within the food. Hungry Mumbai that gobbles up pao by the kilotonnes scarcely pauses to reflect on this small humble slice of heaven.
Last week as a made my regular trip to Anthony bakery to get bread, “I’ll give you fresh sona pao, if you care to wait young man”, he said. So I took a walk into the small bylane and in an instant was transported into another world. Large coconut trees rose gracefully, amidst thick clumps of green shrubbery. An old house stood still, oblivious to the ravages of time and modernization that occurred not a step away. “Marjoram” it said in a faded red stencil, 1912. Further ahead lay “Marys abode, 1936”. Similarly sprawling pieces of history rose up on both sides of the lane which had become cobblestoned. Suddenly a bench materialized, with it two old ladies in their typical skirt-blouse dress gossiping about errant offspring. An old koli woman cried out “bombil” and soon there was a curious crowd about her. “Bombil already? Good good, get the masala ready Fiona” someone cried. Firangipani came next, this house seemed to be restored, painted white looking classically Goan, with a small altar of a benevolent Jesus raised on the outer wall, candles burning beneath it copiously. The lane continued occasionally littered with a car or two, with closely spaced houses, more palm trees and several wooden crosses on the roadside. An anachronistic aberration appeared to my left, in the form of a pani puri cart, only this one said “Mini-Vini Idlis”. Intrigued I inquired and was met by Mini Kurien, who married Jose Furtado from this very parish, at the local Holy Cross church (now housing a large convent school that invites Salman Khan to its annual day celebrations each year). Love converted Mini Kurien from Malyalee Syrian Christian to East Indian, and this was her evening pastime. Besides, idlis go very well with xacuti she said casually.
Lending a touch of surrealism was the fact that all this was happening in the midst of a bustling metropolis, but then the East Indians have always been here, we are the intruders in their world.