Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Magical Memories

By Vimla Patil

I was born, brought up, educated and married in South Bombay. I have lived in the verdant bylanes of this area all my life. I think I have been very fortunate to see its many avatars — as a hub of the colonial government’s activities, as the karmabhoomi of passionate freedom fighters and as an elite residential area where the rich, khandaani families have striven hard to conserve India’s culture and heritage.

Memories are like bricks —they often help to build the life-graph of a person. As far as I am concerned, I think my memories — indeed a whole life lived in south Mumbai — have shaped my character and more important, my search for that moment of truth that gives direction to my life.

I was born in a nursing home in Opera House, which I am told, was a vast, spacious area around the heritage Opera House Theatre where dance and music shows would take place every weekend. The road further led to the busy Girgaum area where the rich community of Pathare Prabhus owned wadis, where khandaani jewellers created diamond items for the rich of the city, and Goan communities lived in their picturesque village-style cottages.

Further down, along the railway line, was Queen’s Road running parallel to the dignified Marine Drive which eventually led to the Fort area with its famous Revival Renaissance-style cluster of 26 utility buildings. There was the University with its landmark Rajabai Tower, the Convocation Hall, the High Court, the Elphinstone College, Kala Ghoda and the art deco theatres called Regal and Strand. The one-major-road then led to the Colaba Cantonment where British officers and army personnel lived in quiet houses with red roofs of Mangalore tiles.

The area where I spent my childhood was not much different. There were tile-roof houses spread all over the Chowpatty sea face and the beach in front was the official playground for all children going to local school and colleges like Queen Mary’s, St. Columba’s, Robert Money, Gokhale Education, Fellowship School and, of course, the Wilson College. In those years, Chowpatty was a real beach not a muck-topped dirt area as it is today. The sand was pristine, and building castles near the lashing waters was great fun. Our mothers and aunts would sit around talking while we children from the family and their friends would run around into the waves and cover ourselves with the clean sand.

Reaching our schools in the area around Chowpatty was easy with a tram or bus ride. The BEST trams jangled from Grant Road Station to the Gowalia Tank Maidan and also had a service from the Tardeo Tram Terminus into the stomach of Bombay to Thakurdwar. But we still avoided the cheap ride to walk along the quiet roads to school so that we could enjoy the familiar sights on the roads. The old temples around the area were our favourite haunts especially in the rains when they would become pools of water. The Nana Sunkerset Shiva Temple on Tardeo Road fascinated us because of its stone courtyard and the nearby cottage where Lata Mangeshkar and her family lived in the early years of her career. The Gamdevi, Taddevi and Mumbadevi temples gave us a glimpse of the seven islands which formed the city of Mumbai a few hundred years ago.

Around this area, too, grew many music schools the Maharashtra Sangeet Vidyalaya (where I learnt the nuances of Hindustani classical music from masters like D V Paluskar and Prof Datar), the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, the Deodhar School of Music, the Marwari Hall, the Lakshmi Hall and many others held regular music programmes with the young and painfully handsome Ravi Shankar, Mogubai Kurdikar, Bismillah Khan, Kishen Maharaj, Sitara Devi, Vilayat Khan and the stalwarts of the Agra Gharana like Vilayat Hussain sang or played all night concerts to present the glory of Indian music to huge number of devotees. As a schoolgirl, I tagged along with my father or his friends and thus have great memories of listening to these great masters well into the wee hours of the morning in fact, until the milk train forced listeners to return home.

As a young girl in South Mumbai, I shared two worlds my father’s and my mother’s. With my father, who was a book publisher, I worked on history, language and culture. I read many books, learnt music, art and met hordes of people who made news at that time. I travelled a lot with him to get to know Indian culture and history. Watching him, I learnt that the truly rich person is not the one who earns a lot of money but a person who spends it wisely to enrich his or her life. His way of life taught me to enjoy every shade of green that came to the local markets in the monsoon and winter season and every nuance of gold and bronze that came to the trees in the autumn and summer.

The other world that I shared with my mother included my extended family with aunts and their children and all of us had innocent fun with movies, chaat and vadas in Chowpatty and walks along Malabar Hill and Breach Candy or the deserted Worli Sea Face. My mother, afraid to leave a daughter alone at home, also took me to innumerable kirtans in the nearby temples in the bylanes of Gamdevi and thanks to her efforts, I am well versed in the Bhakti literature of India today.

Looking at these areas today, you would never imagine what they looked like in the fifties. Breach Candy was a rocky beach where pools of water would offer great opportunities for gentle fishing after the tide had receded. Sparsely populated, the roads were clear and well lit. A quiet stroll or a game among the rocks was delightful. The climb to the Hanging Gardens from Kemp’s Corner, where there was a real Kemp’s shop, was verdant with all kinds of birds warbling in the late evenings. So these were familiar areas for me and my friends. The Gowalia Tank Maidan and Chowpatty were celebrated venues for the political rallies where I was fortunate to hear leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and, later, Indira Gandhi. Gowalia Tank Maidan was also the playground where I had my first cycling lessons from my unwilling brother.

Nevertheless, the most wonderful part of my childhood in South Mumbai was the expeditions which I shared with my mother to find medicinal herbs in the wild patches in out localities. My mother believed strongly in herbal medicines having come to Bombay from her village in the Kanara districts after marriage. Understandably, Malabar Hill and Breach Candy interested her because of the forests of herbs and plants that grew there. My family was as quaint as the city of Bombay in those days. My mother was one of four sisters. The four women, whom marriage had brought to Bombay, were thick as thieves and took all decisions jointly. One of the decisions my mother and aunts took was to use their rich knowledge of simple, wild-growing medicinal plants for curing most ailments, which we children were prone to suffer from. Thus, for colds and coughs we had a kashayam made from lemon grass and ginger or a brew made from aniseed, onion slices and a seed called alsi.

Soon after the four sisters settled down to life in Bombay, they made a wonderful discovery. They found that many parts of South Bombay had patches of greenery where the same wild medicinal plants grew as did in their native village in coastal Karnataka. With their sense of wonder, they often took us children on a voyage of discovery to Breach Candy or Worli to sit among bushes and to look for the plants and leaves which gave them a sense of belonging to their village world and enabled them to cure not only their children’s maladies but also those of their grateful neighbours and friends.

Breach Candy, Worli, the Gowalia Tank Maidan or even the bylanes of Tardeo and Girgaum in those days were not heavily populated as they are today. By evening, silence would reign supreme along these roads and there was little fear of roadside Romeos or pickpockets. We wandered in the far-stretching green patches, learning about herbs and plants, which we would collect with an air of glee which only children could understand. Many of the leaves we collected were used in making gentle coconut curries for health. Other plants were plucked, dried and preserved for medicinal use as and when needed. I remember plucking the tender leaves of tendli creepers in Worli for a curry, which worked as an excellent digestive. I recall squatting down in the grassy undergrowth in Scandal Point to collect bhui awale plants for those who had jaundice. Doodh panki leaves, with their attractive shades of mauve and green, were taken home for making a cooling brew during heat strokes. Ek paani or brahmi leaves were used for making hair oil. The saw-edged leaves of ningri boiled in water made a soothing bath for swollen hands and feet. A neem leaf brew cured all infections. The tubes of the eranda (castor seed) leaves made an excellent brew to cure fevers and the cool leaves were used to cover the head to bring down high temperatures. The jelly-like pulp of cacti, called lolsar, was also used as a cooling agent during fevers. Poultices were wrapped in turmeric leaves to cure cuts and infected wounds.

Somewhere in those years, we also learnt to recognise trees, which offered us rare, unusual food. The tender leaves of the shevga tree (drumsticks) made a wonderful bhaji. So did the young flowers of the same tree make dainty bhajias for teatime. In the monsoon, we went collecting leaves of the taikila plant for making bhajias or a green upkari with shredded coconut.

Today, those halcyon days of my childhood seem to belong to another world. Bombay has become a city of stress, daily challenges and incredible opportunities for millions of dreamers. The plant patches have vanished and rubbish heaps or slums have taken their place.

One of my greatest regrets is that I did not write down the recipes of the brews and delicacies made from wild plants while my mother and aunts lived. Still, even after living a hectic life in Mumbai, I cannot pass by Breach Candy without glancing at the weeds by the roadside to experience those moments of excitement, which were scattered so generously in my childhood years. Even now, I can recognise some of the plants and know how to use them to cure minor maladies. I am happy that I have passed on some of this knowledge to my children, who use it in dealing with their children’s health problems.

Had my mother and aunts been alive today, they might have sagely nodded their heads in approval because their prediction, that these plants would one day make researchers sit up and wonder at their magic, has come true. With new international research on the plants which my mother so lovingly collected, I think my life has come a full circle. I am still a South Bombay addict and I still believe that many magical plants still wait to be discovered in my part of this wonderful, fairyland-like city.


Anonymous said...

The facts are informative but the essay tends to get a bit self-indulgent towards the end when she starts talking about medicinal plants. I think this kind of nostalgia should be handled a bit more crisply, so the reader can delight in the facts – a “less-is-more” kind of feeling.
-- Murzban F Shroff (certin@vsnl.com)

Anonymous said...

Great to read about you - honestly you are kind of linked in my memories - days just after my school - remember the glamour associated with you - those femina beauty contests you sponsored (Kolkata - but I do not live there now)...
a tiny incident I'll never forget that took place at backstage where you offered with a lot of affection to your team - (saying eat, eat as much as you can - the delicious dishes to feel satisfied and happy) smiling chubby face (full of want to do good to people)
The few minutes of interaction has left a lasting impression on my mind!
My schoolmate took me along with her to be there - her mother Mrs Agnes Rodrigues (working for stock exchange adv) was known to you ...
Strange but true, your cheerful face pop in now and then in my thoughts wearing a smile and inspires with the infectious smile ...
Enjoyed your lovely write up on Mumbai ...
It is true that we were not smart enough to keep our home remedies with plants registered - lost forever now ...
Perhaps it is not too late - maybe some cared to learn and kept them as documents ...
It was really nice - never thought to communicate with you, thus feel very nice ...
Thank you for the nostalgic, informative writup ...

Jayati Gupta