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126 – Foxtrotting at the Blue Fox

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Somdev Thakur, Kolkata

My grandfather, Shobhendra Nath Tagore, had a very charismatic personality. He was a lawyer in the High Court, a theatrecian, an adventurer and a government employed hunter (to hunt animals that had turned rogue and attacked villages).

Shobhendra Nath was a descendant of the well known Tagore lineage. His great-grandfather Ramanath and Dwarakanath Tagore were twins, and Dwarkanath was Rabindranath Tagore‘s grandfather.
In the several albums that document my grandparent’s life I recently found a number of images titled “Dancing” that show an active nightlife my grandparents led. Mostly they danced the Foxtrot and the Cha Cha Cha, as my grandmother recalls at the Blue Fox, one of Calcutta’s first bar/restaurants that had famous and popular live bands, meant specifically to play music for people to dance. It is an entertaining record of Calcutta’s night life from the 50s and the 60s. The Blue Fox was situated at Calcutta’s famous road – Park Street, a kilometer long stretch that had several amazing eateries, throbbing with joy, laughter and lights, it hosted some of the best of Indian Parties one had ever seen. Some then even called Calcutta, the best place to party in the world. During the day the carefree young would rush to Park Street and by sun down, shiny expensive cars would swoop down the street, and out would come beautifully dressed men and women.
Calcutta was once upon a time, truly a city of joy.


115 – “Being a good and honest maid was the best I could do”

My Wedding Reception. Bandra, Bombay. February 14, 1982

My Wedding Reception. Bandra, Bombay. February 14, 1982

Image and Text Contributed by Sunita Vishnu Kapse, Mumbai

We lived in Shivaji Park, Bombay in a house that our families had lived in for eight generations. My father‘s name was Tulsiram Pawar and my mother’s was Chandra Bai. My grand-mother who lived until the age of 101, used to work in the municipality as a road sweeper. My father also worked for the municipality of Shivaji Park, cleaning garbage. But he was an alcoholic, most of the times drunk and incapable of working. He would beat up my mother and abuse her all the time, but she gulped all the pain and began working instead of him. She is the one who earned and brought us all up. Her salary at the time was only Rs. 200 a month, so it was tough on her. Most men in the chawl were in similar jobs and were all drunks & wife beaters, exactly like my father. All the girls in the chawl were scared to get married anticipating the same future.

My family belonged to the Mahar Caste, considered untouchables and of low caste in India. But we all got saved when my parents adopted the beliefs preached by Babasaheb, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. If it wasn’t for him, we would have been on the streets or dead, of hunger or indignity. My parents converted to Buddhism following Ambedkar’s encourgement and since then we have been restored our dignity.

We are four sisters and two brothers. I was born on November 13, 1963. In school I studied up to class 10 (sometimes as night classes). I used to love dancing, participated in school events and played everyone’s favourite sport at the time Kho Kho. Embroidery was another skill I learnt from the women in the Chawl. On Saturdays & Sundays we would finish the house-work faster so we could rush to watch Marathi movies in a quarter that had a B&W television.

In 1982, when I was 18 my parents got me married. The chosen husband was Vishnu Rama Kapse. He was 15 years older to me. When our parents asked us to marry, we just did, there was no argument or discussion over it. My mother said that they were a well to do family, and they eat a lot, and so I will be happy.  Later I heard, that my husband too didn’t want to really get married, but others advised him that he needed a partner who could also contribute to earnings. 
The wedding was all paid-for by my mother. I think she must have spent Rs. 5000 on it. As was tradition for the In-Laws to do, my actual name Satyabhama was changed to Smita by my husband, but my mother-in-law couldn’t pronounce it so she began calling me Sunita, and now everyone calls me Sunita.

This photograph is from my wedding reception in a small hall in Bandra, Bombay. With us is my husband’s regular employer (since he was a child), Mrs. Ula and her family. They really loved us. Now they live in USA.
I am wearing a Blue saree and my husband wore a Grey suit. In Buddhism, during the actual ceremony we wear white, not red as is the norm of most Indian weddings. With our dharma guru as witness, we exchange garlands, listened to a short sermon and that was it, we were married. There were around 200 guests for our wedding. The gifts we received were currency notes of Rs. 2 or 5 in small packets. I got married into a very large family, with mother, sister, brother and cousin in laws.

My husband was a simple decent looking man. He respected, and loved me passionately. He never hit me or embarrassed me in-front of anyone. He used to say “If I disrespect you in-front of someone else, they won’t respect you”. That is the reason my children respect me too, because that is what they saw. My husband really loved me, showered me with attention, but I am aware that he was also afraid that I might leave him, because I was a good looking and to top it, 15 years younger.  That is the reason he never wanted to live away from the large family because he felt it kept me in check. I always found it very amusing but in a way it imparted a lot of self-confidence. We were great partners & friends and would never do anything without consulting each other. My husband would keep me updated on current affairs of the world. When I couldn’t understand, he would explain everything patiently.

My husband’s family came from Ratangiri and his family owned a lot of agricultural land there. But once the Dam and new railway tracks began to be constructed, many new people came and grabbed most of our land and so many of us, also from near by villages, were left with almost nothing. We still have a legal case going on but I doubt anything will happen.

Like thousands of others, my husband at the time in the 1980s was working in the Textile Mill, breaking yarn. When the mill shut down (called the Great Bombay Textile Strike), he began working as a wall painter, or as daily labour (also for the family in the picture). The same year my eldest daughter Annapurana was born, but the earning was not enough for us, so I began working as a domestic maid. My first monthly salary was Rs. 75 with a Sitan Family here in Bandra, I have now worked for them for 32 years and I still work there.  Then we had a second child Abhijeet, a son and a third another daughter, Priyanka. My husband and I worked very hard and educated all three of my kids. They went to government municipality schools, and then they went to college. Fortunately for us they are now married into good families.

I never chose to be a maid, but I did it because if I didn’t work we couldn’t earn. And with my experience, being a good and honest maid was the best I could do. My husband would not give me all the money he earned, because some of it was kept for his brothers and their families whom he supported largely. So I too saved, keeping money aside and buying gold as an investment without him knowing, but the amusing part was he knew all along. I always worked around the Bandra, as it was close to home. The Parsi family next to our home sold their land and in its place a mosque was built. But we all casts and religions lived along as good neighbors cordially, perhaps because we were Buddhists and non-violent. In-fact in times of conflict in Bombay, the muslims neighbours always came around to check if we are okay.

My normal routine everyday for years was getting up at 6 am, pack my husband’s and kids lunch tiffin, go do all my work and return by 2 pm to fill water that would only come in taps twice a day. I learned a lot by working as a maid, like cooking different Indian Cuisines from my employers and then I would try it all at home. My family loved my cooking. Even when my daughter got married, I had every feast cooked at home. I have been lucky that all my employers respected and taught me a lot. Looking at our employers helped us aspire for a better lifestyle. But one thing that makes me sad is how people spend on things much more than they need to. Wasting food is probably the biggest problem I see in so many households, the wealthier the families the more food is wasted. But people and women are also more independent and that is admirable, though I still get worried if my daughter doesn’t come home on time.

In 2006, my husband developed a heart problem and he began to keep unwell often. So I got a couple of more jobs and continued working as a maid cooking, cleaning, sweeping, and washing to earn enough to pay for his medical bills. Many employers too helped with the medical bills. But in 2012 his health worsened and he passed away. I now continue to work as a maid, because if I didn’t work I would go crazy. Because of my children, I am not struggling for money, but it is good for me, it makes me independent, I work in places I like to work, I am respected and I get to step out. But I really miss my husband a lot. He was my friend, my protector, my partner of life. I really feel alone and cry when I think of him, but I thank Buddha and Sai baba because of whom I have great children, siblings and their families.


83 – The mythical Uncle Bunnu.

The Cordeiro Siblings. Alec (Bunnu), May and Beatrice. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1910

Image and Text contributed by Naresh Fernandes, Author, Bombay

The picture, photographed sometime around 1910, is the childhood image of my grand-uncle Alec Cordeiro, fondly called Bunnu. Next to him is my Grand-aunt May and my Grandmother Beatrice.

It isn’t clear when and how exactly my ancestors got to Karachi, but it seems that they’d been there for four generations. Like most Goans, they left looking for work: the Portuguese didn’t establish any industry in Goa, so hundreds and thousands had to seek work in other places. There were sharp discussions in the family about whether our ancestor Santan Vaz had made his money running a liquor distributorship or a booze joint.

My paternal great-grandfather, Xavier Cordeiro, was a postmaster general in Karachi. His son-in-law, my grandfather, Alfred Fernandes, moved to Karachi from Burma during World War II. He’d been working for the Burma Railways and had to leave when the Japanese invaded in 1941. So he and his wife, my grandmother, Beatrice (standing right), decided to return to their family’s home in Karachi. In only a few years, the entire family pulled up their roots from the city in which they’d lived for four generations to take their chances in India, a few months before Partition in 1947.

Though my father was only nine when the family left Karachi, his elder siblings had more vivid memories : trips between Bombay and Karachi were made on ferries named the Saraswati and the Sabarmati (“they were like little tubs, we all got seasick”) ; relatives having leisurely evenings at the Karachi Goan Association (KGA), “gin and lime was the favourite drink”, and the enterprising nature of the Karachi Goan community -“they even owned a flour mill!” From my grandmother’s stories, it appeared that everyone in the family had spent a lot of time at the KGA. After all, it was right opposite their bungalow in Depot Lines. That bungalow, sold months before Partition, has long been replaced by a characterless block of apartments.

When we were children, my cousins and I could have been forgiven for thinking that our great-uncle’s first name was “Poor”. That, was how my grandmother and her sisters referred to their only brother each time he came up in conversation, “Ah, poor Bunnu,” they’d sigh whenever someone mentioned their Cambridge-educated sibling who’d chosen to stay put in Karachi at Partition. The somewhat embarrassed tone in which his three sisters talked about him left Bunnu obscured by a whiff of mystery—even scandal.

If there’s one thing I knew about Uncle Bunnu, it’s that he spent a great deal of time at the bar of KGA. Friends joked that the committee of Karachi Goan Association had once made a decision to sack the chowkidar (guard). He wasn’t really needed since Bunnu Cordeiro never seemed to leave the building.

When I finally made a visit to Karachi in November 2011, I met 92-year-old Rita de Souza. She’d been in school with all three of my grand-relatives. She displayed all the discretion you’d expect of a woman of her breeding, but under my badgering, was gradually lulled into talking about my great-uncle. “Ah, poor Bunnu,” she eventually sighed. “He was quite a talker.” She let slip an anecdote relating to the time Bunnu was at Cambridge in the 1920s. “He was disappointed in love,” Rita de Souza said. “He was quite keen on a woman when he was in England, but his mother heard of it and made him exit the situation post-haste.” That’s all she remembered about him.

Others too remembered Bunnu. “He’d tell us about the libraries in Cambridge, where you’d have to maintain pin-drop silence,” a third-cousin said. “‘What would happen if you had a cough?’ we’d ask. He’d reply, ‘If you had a cough, courtesy would require that you didn’t visit the library.’”

At one recent family get-together, the conversation turned to Bunnu. It would be difficult to send mail over the border after each India Pakistan war, so Bunnu’s letters were infrequent. But sometimes, perhaps to remind everyone of his real name, Alec, he’d sign himself as “Sikander”—the sub-continental name for Alexander the Great. “He called his three sisters ‘the gangsters’,” someone recalled. “When he was in England, they sent him a childhood photo of the four of them and he said, ‘I’m not coming home. If I do, I’ll have to take care of them.’”

My aunt Margaret corroborated the story I’d been told in Karachi. Evidently, Bunnu had refused to return to Karachi because he’d fallen in love with an Englishwoman. His mother, Mary, who wanted him to marry a Goan, was horrified. She “picked up her skirts and took the next boat to England”. The conclave was divided on what happened next. Either my great-grandmother “grabbed his ear and dragged him right back home” or “he sent her right home without even allowing her a day to see the sights, but promised to return soon”. At any rate, Bunnu was back in Karachi by the mid-1930s and would remain a KGA Bar fixture for the rest of his life.

Uncle Bunnu never married, held a job for long or seen his sisters after 1947. Later he moved into an old folks home in Karachi. No one in the extended family seemed to have a recent photograph of him. I’d always held the impression that Uncle Bunnu had drunk himself to death, but considering that he was 80 when he died, he didn’t do it very efficiently. By the time he passed away in 1984, Bunnu had become more like a hazy myth to his younger Indian relatives than a real person.

The old folks home in which Bunnu had spent his last years is located in one corner of Cincinnatus Town. Cincinnatus Town was unnervingly familiar. Many of the older homes had been built in the 1930s, exactly at the time the pocket of Bandra in which I live had been constructed and with the same coastal-city architectural features. Parts of Garden East (Cincinnatus Town) resembled the now-demolished landscapes of my childhood. They were filled with the kind of teakwood furniture you find in older Bombay homes and had identical Catholic iconography. My ancestors, yes, they’d been dead for decades, but as we discussed them in Bombay, six decades and 900 kms away, they were warm, breathing presences, as real and as resolute as Karachi.

An unedited version of this narrative can be found here.