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Half a century seemed little more than a few torn calendar sheets gone; and now, looking at that face, not yet coffin-covered for eternity, Kitty felt that Change was no more than a thin translucence over the remembered past. Not much had changed. Now a visitor in her own parish (Muscat, and then Dubai, being the home she couldn’t quite call home for the past two decades), Kitty looked for changes every time her taxi brought her from Santa Cruz airport to Amboli naka. She looked up from Hanging Gardens’ face and turned her gaze towards the church, St. Blaise’s. That was no change. That was replacement. It was no longer the church she knew. A conjuror’s trick. Pouf! Gone, and in its place, something else. She neither liked it (as she had liked her four-century-old church) nor disliked it. She felt a little more at ease inside the church, however. They had maintained the same old gilded, ornate altar. Yes it was her St. Blaise’s, all right.
She visualized the scene outside the church: Caesar Road, that asphalt artery that ran from Amboli naka through Kevni and then Amboli village, past Andrew D’mello’s Doris Terrace to join the Andheri-Versova Road. She remembered it as it was in the mid-1940s, when her family had moved to these parts, a narrow tarred strip, as much a footpath as village highway for bullock carts, the occasional hossgary (that Anglo-Marathi translation of ghoda gaadi or horse carriage) and very rarely a motor vehicle. Pedestrian, vehicle, carriage and cart gave way to each other in response to yells and, at times, that impolite new sound: the motor horn. Feast Day cuisine roamed the streets cluck-quack-grunting their promise of kuddi, moile and sorpotel, the chickens and ducks having learnt when to cross the street; the pigs luxuriating in the slush of the gutters on both sides of Caesar Road. The gutters took preference over the need for pavement space and served as Kevni-Amboli’s poultry farm and piggery.
Caesar Road was asterisked with reminiscences for Kitty. At the entrance, where the road met the main S.V. Road (originally Ghodbunder Road) the police chowki stood to attention as you turned the corner. Modestly constructed of asbestos on wooden strips, it served more as a phone booth than as police junction. It housed the only phone in the neighbourhood for many years, and of course a havildar who slept all day with eyes half open. To hell with those village boys for whom a rollicking fight was adult lollipop. Let them bash each other for mutual punishment and reward; let them be their own police for all he cared.
Kitty remembers: she was just ten then. She and her mother had gone to the chowki to make an urgent telephone call. The door was partially shut. Her mother pushed it open to find, to her shock and embarrassment, our havildar with his fly open and his navy blue short pants half lowered. With a thick needle and thread, borrowed from the mochi, he was trying to sew on a button, those being pre-zipper days. The sudden appearance of two females was startling and left, to say the least, policeman and needle quite shaken. The needle’s point totally missed the button. The two intruders saw the man grimace while he let out a painful ‘aaiieee,’ followed by a ‘chi-kit-kit,’ which we will politely render as ‘Ouch!’ Kitty and her mother sped homeward lest they be booked for assaulting a policeman.
More asterisks. Down the road, a few metres away on the right, Kevni village had received its first gift from the new municipality—a public tap in place of the old well. There was much jubilation and pride among the housewives of the chawl opposite the new installation; a sense of having arrived at the threshold of modernity; no more straining of those womanly muscles to draw water from depths that could, in the hot months of April, May and June, be punishing. The ladies took their brass and copper handas, now polished to a respectful shine, and walked with an exaggerated sway to the new tap. It didn’t take them long to realize that while the circumference of their old well, now covered with mud, stones and cement, could have ten or more women draw water at the same time, the stylish new tap demanded the discipline of a queue, a silly one-person-at-a-time thing. The tap had turned into a ration shop. Water was released at fixed times, so patience and time were at a premium. The ladies started coming to the tap with as many handas as they could, each keeping the queue waiting while they filled all of them. Tap-water time was a concert of shrill voices, in which you may pick out some choice feminine abuse in Marathi. The belligerence was not always verbal. Kitty, not yet in her teens, was witness to one time when two ladies confronted each other, one grabbing hold of the other’s hair. The other ladies stood and egged them on till it became apparent that this was going to be a fight to the finish; those womanly muscles hardened by years of drawing water now proved good for the new ways of fetching water. Claws dug into each other’s cheeks till they bled. On that wet, uneven surface, the two fell to the ground and were soaking wet before they could rise to continue their determined claw fencing. Before they knew it, they were tearing at each other’s clothes; first one then the other choli was ripped open, baring braless breasts. The stronger of the two was now intent on stripping the other naked. Kitty, unable to just stand and watch, rushed unthinkingly to try and stop them when a saner hand from the queue held her back. No one tried to stop the fight. Some men too collected to watch. The fight would only finish with the complete stripping of the weaker of the two women, who sobbed with shame when the final shred of her gagra had fallen. She tried to hide her breasts with her hands and sat on her haunches to protect the other end of her modesty. Just then Bertha from Everest Lane was returning from the market. Bertha was one of those who walked with her head lowered, looking neither left nor right, yet when she passed by someone she knew, it was as if she sensed the person’s presence, and she looked up, smiled, and gave him or her the time of day. In her early twenties, Bertha was slim and petite, with a gentle face which Kitty often admired. Seeing what was happening, she stopped, looked at the scene for a minute or two. She kept her bag down, went up to the naked woman and gently led her across the street to the chawl. At the same time, the husband of the stronger woman was seen striding angrily towards his wife, who herself was half-naked. Without a word, he grabbed her by her hair and dragged her across Caesar Road to their home in the chawl.
More asterisks, big, small, old and more recent popped up in Kitty’s head as she mentally walked down Caesar Road: she remembered when the road was St. Blaise’s School’s annual sports ground. The 50-metre sprint started from the church entrance and ended at Mr. Mendonca’s house; 100 metres up to Rita Villa and 500 metres to the Croft.
And then that terrible fire in the Amboli mutton shop, which was set ablaze allegedly by the newly formed ultra right-wing Shiv Sena during what turned out to be a mini riot between communal groups in Amboli. It was ugly. To Kitty, a little older by this time, a college student, the incident was disturbing and left a scar on her sensitivities.
It was a little after dusk when a group of marauders surrounded the mutton shop, drenched it with kerosene and set it on fire. Fortunately, there was nobody inside but six or seven goats were trapped in the blaze. Kitty wept, as did many grown men, when they heard the pitiful bleating of the animals; a sound that, to her, was more heart-rending than the sound of a child crying. She felt sinful, she said, as she stood there doing nothing—partly because she, and so many others, had seen the police van standing a little beyond Doris Terrace and thought that it would rush to the rescue. But the van seemed glued to where it was, the policeman watching the scene until the deed was done and the miscreants had fled. When they finally decided to drive over and enter the charred shop, Kitty made bold to go and confront the police. Mr. Rebello pulled her back and told her not to do anything foolish. As she moved away from the scene with Mr. Rebello, she heard the chortling of the policemen. She heard one of them say, ‘Fuss kilass mutton re. Thailee anlaa ka?’ Perhaps it was at this point, her first confrontation with the partisan nature of the police, that Kitty took a decision with regard to her career.
The asphalt artery had thickened over the years and had become clogged with carbon monoxide-belching vehicles. It conceded narrow strips at the sides of the road as apologies for pavements, as the pigs, ducks and chickens slowly faded out. A few old cottages on either side were swallowed up by multistoreyed monstrosities, villainously thumbing their noses at history and aesthetics.
Yes, Kitty acknowledged, there was Change.
Looking down again at the coffin now, she knew she was looking at a different person from the Hanging Gardens of fifty years ago. After his mother’s death, the St. Vincent de Paul Society had had him admitted into the Old Age Home at Chakala. Earlier, they had arranged to have his hernia and hydrocele surgically attended to. Hanging Gardens was no longer Hanging Gardens. He was, as stated on his coffin cover and in the obituary in the Times of India that day, Joseph Anthony Miranda, son of Francis Miranda.
But funerals always take you back.