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BLink turns 5

Lovers from a lost village

Jane Borges | Updated on January 18, 2019

Ann Maria Ferreira was 11 and I, 13, when we first kissed.

The year was 1962.

In Bombay, life was slow, like its trams: Moving on a straight, single path, never straying from track. The city was a package, but a small one. People were growing. Buildings were mushrooming. Opportunities were fewer. Sugar was rationed. Alcohol, prohibited. And love, like ours, a dirty secret.

Ann Maria and I lived in the same neighbourhood: A Christian wadi that was once a thriving farmland of the converted natives, the East Indians. In the early 1900s, this village, hidden somewhere under a sheet of palm fronds and jackfruit trees in the bustling market stretch of Girgaon, opened itself to Goan Catholics who had migrated to Bombay in search of a new home. Life was peaceful here. All of us went to the same church, attended the same school, and had the same friends.

In those days, we children spent our evenings outdoors — running and chasing each other in the narrow alleys, while our mothers came out, dressed in their Sunday best (even on weekdays) — hot teacups in hand, chatting away from across the balconies of their two-storey villas, on the pretext of watching over us. My father, an architect, worked harder than all these women put together, or so, he told me. While they gossiped with reckless abandon and snitched on their in-laws, he claimed to be poring over reams of paper, taped to his drawing board, building the blueprint for a new city. “Frivolous housewives,” he called them.

I didn’t mind his arrogance, neither did my mother. Women those days didn’t argue if their men seemed imbecilic. Father was lucky. He was a misogynist, but nobody cared for his poor judgement.

Ann Maria’s father, uncle Oliver Ferreira, was different. A state-level hockey coach, he treated all of us as equals. He lived by one mantra: Everyone could do everything. In fact, he took great pleasure in training the boys and girls together, at our community ground. And if the boys tried to keep the girls away from the game, they’d have to prepare themselves for a good spanking.

But the truth is that none of us kids enjoyed hockey, at least not as much as hide-and-seek. We’d start playing early in the evening, and would continue, even after dusk settled. The person, who had the den, was always the unlucky one. The tragedy of spending the entire time looking for the rest of us, wasn’t fun. Most of us predictably cooped up below the stairs of each other’s homes or behind the wooden pillars — broad enough to shield our slender bodies — that carried the weight of the houses of teak and stone.

There were so many such homes dotting the village, all in different shapes and sizes, that it was difficult to tell where each one of us would be hiding. During one such game, Ann Maria and I had found a new place to hole up — a freshly-dug pit for a fountain that my father had been building, at the playground. It’s here, as our soiled feet and hands found comfort on the bed of wet mud, that we first kissed.

I cannot be sure, who led whom. But I remember clearly that it didn’t last long. She reacted almost immediately, clambering her way out of the pit and fleeing hastily. Things changed after that day. We were embarrassed. We were in love.

In church, during Bible class, she didn’t look up from the book to tell me about the new Gregory Peck film she had gone to see at Metro in Dhobi Talao. At school, she stopped coming to my class during lunch break, to whine about how boring math was. If her mother and she came home for tea in the afternoon, she wouldn’t eat her favourite chicken cutlets out of my plate. We didn’t play house-house any more: I didn’t play the husband, she didn’t play wife. When we joined our friends for hide-and-seek in the evenings, my arch-enemy, the snobbish Priscilla, became her new partner in crime. I wasn’t distraught. I was confused. I thought, we were in love.

And then I had to leave. My father landed a plush posting at an architectural firm in London. “I will build a new city in England. Bombay doesn’t deserve a great architect like me,” he boasted to Uncle Oliver. Our family was to join him a month later. It was unlikely we’d ever return to the city, because our extended family lived in Goa. Multiple farewells followed. Happy memories from those last few weeks still linger.

On the day we were flying to London, I went to meet Ann Maria at her home to say one last goodbye, but her mum, Aunty Vivienne, told me she had gone to church for choir practice. We were already running late, and I wanted to leave something of me for her, so, I handed aunty a pink flower-strapped hairpin that I had found inside my shirt pocket. It wasn’t something I was fond of. I didn’t care too much for hairpins or hair bands, but I knew they suited her well, and that she’d wear it.

Sometimes, we do strange things — we leave behind objects, no matter how insignificant, because we think memories aren’t enough to hold on to. I was going to miss Ann. I wasn’t going to miss that hairpin. But now, I would miss them both. It’s funny how objects begin to mean different things, when you associate them with people, especially those you love.

****

It is 2017; 55 years since I last left this village. I am back again, though on special request. The place no longer reminds me of home. It feels like an anomaly in this urban jungle. My friend John D’Silva and Pat Correia’s villas have disappeared. So have those of many others. Small, ugly little buildings have replaced the glories of my past. The patches of green are now restricted to garden pots outside people’s homes. The lanes look narrower, and the looming skyscrapers make for a bizarre backdrop. There is no playground for children, and the fountain that my father left half-made has been replaced by a young mango tree. Somebody seems to have planted it here after we left.

 

Father’s favourite Malwani restaurant — he fondly reminisced its bomblachi kavlan (Bombay duck curry) till his death — has been shut down. A few houses remain, still splashing in colours of sun yellow, pista green and biscuit, unsullied and unmindful of the hovering land sharks. But I see no women stand or gossip outside their balconies; only closed doors and netted windows greet me. Father would have liked it, I think.

My house was brought down decades ago. We got a lot of money for it, apparently. But when I see what has become of this place, I regret my parents’ decision for not being able to hold our property together.

Ann Maria’s home is among the few that stand. Uncle Oliver passed away many summers ago. His wife, the good old aunty Vivienne, is still alive. She is 88. The pale-pink exterior of their small two-storey villa doesn’t seem to have been washed or painted in years. It has peeled in parts, leaving huge white patches, exposing the putty. Their tiny iron gate, which opens to the balcony, is left open. I walk in. Shoes and sandals are strewn around. I leave mine too, and quietly walk past the passage. Here, the staircase, which connects to the top floor, stares at me in the face. I see her sitting there — an eight-year-old Ann Maria with her knees held closely together. She is looking at me coyly; her lips, slightly pursed in embarrassment. This image disappears as swiftly as it has been conjured.

A fragile woman, bearing the weight of her body on a wooden stick, comes out to greet me. She takes one look at me and yelps with joy. Her eyes turn moist; the tears that begin to stream, could do with soothing her rough, wrinkled skin.

“You recognise me,” I ask.

“Of course, you look so much like your father, Albert.”

Oh! How much I hated that. That’s the only time, I loathed being compared to a man. “Come in...come in. She is waiting.”

Ann Maria had chosen not to marry, and instead had been taking care of her ailing mother. I, on the other hand, was the wild one. Many women, though none to write home about.

Inside, she lay still in a floral dress. Her entwined fingers rested gently on her chest with a small rosary jutting out from within. I came closer to the wooden box, and tried to make out the face that I had never really forgotten. The oddity though was the fancy, pink flower-strapped hairpin, which held her neatly parted strands of grey together. I was told that she had worn it every single day of her life.

“She missed you, Rita,” her mother broke in. “She read your letters. She wrote back too, but she never sent them.”

“You know she really...I am sorry.” Aunty Vivienne choked up; she couldn’t continue. I didn’t need the assurance, not today.

I turned to Ann Maria, drawing my face closer to hers. Her lips had turned dark. In that flash of a second, I felt as if it had parted, just like it had, aeons ago. I inched towards her lips, and then edged past it, to kiss her cold forehead.

We were in love. We had just been plain embarrassed.

 

Jane Borges is a writer-editor at Sunday Mid-day. Her debut novel Bombay Balchao is forthcoming from Westland

Published on January 18, 2019

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