On a recent swing through Bombay, I came face-to-face with my past. First, on the way to the St Xavier’s College campus to meet an old friend, I passed the Raj Mahal restaurant on Kalbadevi Road. My mother took me there one day in 1956, June 8, when I was admitted to the nearby and much coveted St Xavier’s High School. As we drove past it, I could almost taste the sense of accomplishment and the masala dosa and sweet lassi I had with my mother. Wind forward to 2012, as I drove past the restaurant; I was agog to see it: It is still there, middle class and all, 56 years later!
On the way back north, the chauffeur took me past Victoria Terminus (now perforce called CST because of the thugs who run Bombay) onto the elevated road that takes you past Crawford Market (the thugs have renamed it Mahatma Phule Market) and Mohammed Ali Road, past the JJ Hospital and got off at Victoria Garden Road and into Byculla Bridge, a once-genteel neighborhood where I grew up in the shadow of Christ Church School.
We drove through Christ Church Lane, where I lived as a pre-teen and commuted on the weekend with friends to our family home in Juhu Beach to enjoy the Goa-like ambience. The Lane was an eye opener. Living there, I came to appreciate the sheer cultural diversity of India: living among Goans and Anglo-Indians, Bohras and Jews, Muslims and Parsis; I also learned how it felt to belong to a minority: Hindu, Gujarati, vegetarian.
Driving through Christ Church Lane, I saw that it is not as wide as I imagined. With cars parked on both sides, it was a bit of a struggle driving through. The buildings of my childhood: Court Royal, Lobo Mansion, Blue Haven and what have you are still there; they look somewhat weatherworn. Around the corner on Victoria Garden Road, the storefront Linnet Tailor still stands after all these years. This was the establishment a little boy badgered for delivery of his clothes within 24 hours of being measured up.
It was like a riding in a time machine. This pre-teen boy was leading me through this street of dreams. I was a visitor from the future being led by the little boy through the clouds of a past that shaped my worldview: to nurture diversity, to embrace cosmopolitanism.
My pre-teen guide from the past reminded me that every evening, hormonal young teenagers strutted through the Lane; eyeing the gorgeous “dames” the Lane was famous for. There was a guy, spitting image of Elvis, who would strut and fret his hour upon the Lane, with girls swooning all over him. In my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of a little boy, in his bathroom, wetting his hair trying to swirl up the trademark Elvis pompadour.
The traveler from the future could envision also the same little boy, his companion on the journey through time: perched dreamily in his balcony, listening to the troubadour family that came to sing Friday nights. The song that touched him was Tony Brent’s “Little Serenade” and the green-eyed teenage daughter. “Just a little street down in Portofino,” they sang. An Anglo-Indian, Brent grew up and lived in an apartment house on the tree-shaded Spence Road, just south of the Lane. Though he left India for England a decade before I lived there, he was a legend and his songs were fiercely popular.
In Christ Church Lane those days, there was a sense of urbane sophistication and above all, a feeling there could be no better place than this Bombay. As a pre-teen, the little boy fantasized about cricket but also about football and athletics, Hollywood films, Goa and Gorai. He was, however, always on the margins; restricted in diet and Gujarati conservatism.
These memories surfaced as I drove through Christ Church Lane, the venue of my renaissance. It was as if the little boy from the 1950s took me by my hand and helped me relive a time when my mind opened up. The kid got me all emotional; he reminded me of its beautiful girls, its rock and roll, and its diversity.
In America, in the early 1970s, I used to identify with a monster-hit television show called “Happy Days.” My friend David Swanson was always befuddled. “How does that work?” he asked me. “It depicts a typical American suburban experience.” It was difficult for me to explain. “Just believe it; for me, the show works because it reminds me of Christ Church Lane,” I would tell him. It wasn’t just the incipient rock-and-roll music of the time but also a shared middle class heritage of work and achievement, play and leisure.
The trouble with memories in India is that the present-day situation mostly always turns out to be grim, nothing like what you remember. In America, nostalgia is treasured and old things are not just preserved but made better. In 2008, citizens of Milwaukee gathered to applaud the unveiling of the bust of “Fonzie,” an unforgettable character in “Happy Days,” which was based in the city’s golden suburbs of the 1950s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if residents of Byculla Bridge did the same for Tony Brent?
And so I drove through the street of dreams with the little kid, who liked to sing in his tuneless monotone Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock,” pant after the gorgeous girls in the Lane and listen to “Binaca Geet Mala” with its Hindi film tunes in addition to the Binaca “Hit Parade.” Those pre-Beatles-era songs still remain with me; I married a gorgeous Goan girl (who didn’t live in the Lane but hey, nobody’s perfect) and I troll the net to find the Binaca shows (no luck yet).
Soon we turned onto Clare Road (wonder what the thugs call it now?), west of the Lane. As the car got swallowed up in traffic headed north, the little kid disappeared into the haunting memories of Christ Church Lane and I returned to the dreary ordinariness of 21st century Bombay.