Image and Narrative 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 That bungalow, sold months before Partition, has long been replaced by a characterless block of apartments.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.
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