Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Charms of Goan Dhobitalao

The Charms of Goan Dhobitalao

If you live, or have ever lived, in Bombay, depending on how old you are, this will either be a nostalgic trip of  memories lodged in some dimly lit corner of your mind, or informative of a Bombay that's long gone and you never knew. Either way, it's a most evocative article.
The original dhobis' talao
In a certain generation not too long ago, if you said
Dhobitalao, you meant Little Goa. That area of Bombay was home to a large Dhobi (washer-men) community that worked from a natural pond that was originally built by the Parsis to supply their Agiaries (Fire Temples). Over time as the water got impure, they turned it over to the Dhobis who needed exactly such a spot to base their trade in and the Paris built residential buildings, which they gave over as rentals to new comers in Bombay, while still maintaining their own inhabited buildings in separate compounds.


The Dhobitalo Parsi agiary
It was exactly in such a condition that the first Goans started moving in. Soon the area was overflowing with Goan migrants who chose to live together, God knows how, given the crab mentality for which the community is famed. Not only did they live in harmony, but also in relative peace, although a typical large family of seven or eight lived in one room no bigger than 300 to 500 sq feet. In that space they hatched, matched and were dispatched.
Jer Mahal - the most iconic "Goan" building of Dhobitalao - then and now

Dhobitalao when I knew it was Goan enough to be known to the rest of Bombay and even parts of Pakistan and the Middle East as the Goan hub outside Goa.  Among well-known features of the area were oases of large living spaces of about 1500 sq. feet or more in very old dilapidated buildings that became the homes of Goan Village Clubs of which much has been written about. What I will add is the living conditions were absolutely pathetic but then living in Goa of the time was equally so, despite the large village spaces.
If this description has put in your mind a decrepit neighborhood you would not be entirely wrong, but I have not yet made a reference to the vibrancy of the place as yet.
Dhobitalao was the Bronx of the 1930s. People hung out their washed clothing to dry and sat on their building terraces while their Italian-American counterparts sat on their patios. The terraces were the community arenas where every social celebration took place. A birthday, a dance and even movie shows. Everyone was invited, both from the building and everywhere else. It was prohibition Bombay and the famous Aunty's rotgut was served.
On one occasion, while learning German from a Saligao resident of Indra Bhuvan, I was called to watch a movie on the 'penthouse'. The boys running the projector sat precariously with their equipment on a small patch on the roof, the white painted wall was the screen and the bar was lined along one side.
There were all kinds of home cooked snacks on a table and everybody sat hunched on the floor in the dark of an 8pmday. I don't remember the name of the movie, but it was smuggled in by the Goan usher of the nearby Metro MGM cinema. There was dancing after the movie but by then I had left as I had a long distance to reach home.

Goan ushers smuggled us into Metro cinema to watch movies free!
Dhobitalao's main street extended from the Sonapur Church to the meat and vegetable market at the other end, a distance of about 800 meters. Along the way were butcher shops selling fresh pork, the famous C D'Souza's and Vienna restaurants which were frequented by lonely mariners between trips.
Our Lady of Seven Dolours church - better known as Sonapur Church
They served excellent Goan-Bombay fusion food at ridiculously low prices. In 1965 for one rupee, you could get a plate of sorpotel, a loaf of bread and Crumb Chops (pork chops fried with batter and bread crumbs) followed by a plate of rice with fish curry and a fried mackerel on the side. Even for that era, it was excellent value.
On Dhobitalao streets, other restaurants abounded. The names that come to mind are Snow Flakes and Castle Rock. Along Main Street were also a couple of wax candle shops. Thinking about it now, I wonder what kept them in business. Perhaps it was the yearly fairs at which body parts made of wax were sold. If you didn't have a baby, you bought a wax baby to offer at the altar. If you had polio I suppose you offered a wax leg. Main Street was the show-piece of Dhobitalao. Other side streets were not so clean nor as spacious.

Snow Flake restaurant today
There were the Wellington Terraces, a group of four buildings within a rough stony compound that was a village all by itself. Everybody in Dhobitalao had a relative or villager in Wellington. Outside the Wellington were all sorts of trades-people -- tailors, darners, cobblers and others.  All were excellent craftsmen and I remember my dad taking me to a cobbler there to custom make my leather shoes even though we lived in Byculla, a street car or bus ride away. Perhaps part
of the reason might have been the opportunity to visit one of his friends where a glass of hooch was assured.

A Bombay tram
Out of this enclave but still within Dhobitalao on the southern and eastern ends were the Irani restaurants about which our Goanetter Marcos Catao recently sent a most interesting link on Goanet. Two of them were popularly known as Sassani and Bastani. They made the best bread puddings and the most flaky and light meat patties that melted on your tongue. The pani-kum (less water) chai was a great chaser to these snacks.
Bastani and Sassanian - today

A little beyond Bastanis on a straight line was the standing place of the 'Dhobitalao Mixed Band'. These were not band members but individual musicians who waited to be hired for any weddings or other big occasions. They were not a cohesive unit and some never played with others, but once they were selected, without practice, they performed as if they were an accomplished orchestra.
That is a great thing about Goans. They make awesome musicians. Partly in the genes and partly due to their village choir-master training, playing is across the spectrum. In all the great Bombay swing bands of the sixties and seventies, Micky Correia, Johnny Baptist, Maurice Concessio, Goody Seervai, Nelly, Ken Mac and Hal Green, Goans were by far the majority of the musicians. Nowhere could this
be seen better than in Dhobitalao.

Band leaders Maurice Concessio, Johnny Baptist. Ken Mac,    
Mickey Correa, Goody Seervai, Cyril Sequiera

A walk down any neighborhood street especially after sun set (the classic drinking time) would produce harmonious wafting sounds of lilting Portuguese and Brazilian marches and sambas, Argentinian tangos, classical mandos, and even Louisana blues and Hollywood music scores. It was truly a music fest per gratis.
At the heart of Catholic Dhobitalao was the Sonapur (town of gold) church. Manned by priests of the fire and brimstone era, they thundered out against mortal sin and every violation of the Church code of the time. Women withsleeveless dresses were sent away without the host and the ones without veils or scarves on their heads were publiclyberated. Khomeini must have learnt his state-craft from them.
They did not single out the men. These they considered to be without redemption. As soon as the priest stepped to the pulpit to start the preaching, the men made off to C. D'Souza's next door for a coffee and cigarettes. What they didn't hear, they didn't care about.
The vicar even attempted to put a loudspeaker on the tin roof of the joint so as to disturb all conversation inside duringsermon time, but that only resulted in coffee-talk rising many decibels higher. Eventually their volumes outdid thespeaker, permeated the church and disturbed the sermonizing priest himself. The vicar conceded defeat and relocated the loudspeaker, where in his opinion; it would do good to the
more faithful.
In time, we youngsters joined this group of philistines. We called ourselves "outstanding Catholics". 
Religious feast processions winding through the streets of Dhobitalao were as bad as the culling of seals in the Canadian Arctic. There would be a massive crowd of people setting out from the church but as each Aunty's speakeasy was passed along the way, the numbers of men would get less and less until at the door of the church on returning the only males in the procession were below fifteen, those banned from their favorite Aunties bars due to non-payment or bad credit or the very frail who wanted nothing but peace with their God whom they were due to meet soon.
The boys and girls of Dhobitalao were indoctrinated in the value of education by their parents, whether they went to thenearby Jesuit school of St Xavier's or to the more plebeian Little Flower, St Sebastian or Our Lady of Seven Dolours,nearby. They might have had no place to study except under the dim lights of the passage ways or during late nights withtheir parents snores for company, but they learned their lessons well. They became masters of merchant naval vessels and business and working middle class men and women all over the world.

St Xavier's High School, 1910. My father went there too - and won theSchool’s most prestigious award, the St Xavier’s Silver Medal forgraduating at the top of the Matriculation Class. It looked much the same in 1950 when I started there and in 1974 when the last of us four brothers graduated.He was awarded that Silver Medal as top student of his year too.

Here in Toronto there are many of thoseonce-Dhobi Talao-youngsters. They are solid burghers now and their children go for the best higher education there is. It's almost like Thomas Friedman, a columnist in the New York Times, put it with a touch of humor: When we were young kidsgrowing up in America, we were told to eat our vegetables and not leave them. Mothers said "think of the starving childrenin India and finish the dinner".  And now I tell my children "Finish your homework. Think of the children in India who would make you starve if you don't."
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