A very rich lady

Berjis Desai

Her under five-foot frail frame, wrapped in an unironed cotton sari, sprinted out of the impressive gates of Cusrow Baug, on what was then called Colaba Causeway. Ignoring the pain of her rough rubber chappals rubbing against the severe eczema on her feet, she darted across the road. The red double decker electric tram frantically rang its bell to warn this impish figure in its path. Instead of panicking, she stood in front of the approaching tram, waved her little hands, and shouted "Saboor! Saboor! (Have patience! Wait!)” at the bemused driver. She weathered many a storm with the same unflinching attitude, during her long life of 88 years.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Born in a ramshackle house in one of the shabbier mohollas of Navsari, she had lost her father to bubonic plague ("a gland appeared in the armpit in the evening; morning, he was dead”). Her mother, an elder sister and she survived on the meager earnings of the mother during the wedding season; she could conjure up some delectable wedding sweets like varadhvaroon (a largish, deep fried, sweet, hard cake), kumaash (a softish cake) and sadhna (toddy-laden, sourish crèpes). Two days prior to the marriage, a group of women were summoned to sing Aatash-nu-geet (hymn to the holy fire); a cacophony of noise rather than melody. Her mother was a part of this chorus. As also of the same group of women summoned to wail loudly at the uthamna in a public display of collective grief [This practice was prevalent also amongst the Hindus till a few decades ago, when the obituary notice would specify "baio-nu-rudvaanoo bandh chhè (services of wailing women are not solicited”).]
Immediately upon the onset of puberty, the elder sister was married to a third cousin; and would go on to produce a cricket team of 11 and also one umpire. Our heroine was a bright spark at school, just started by the Tatas. Up to class five, the girls wore a frock and a cap; the very few who survived to study further, wore a sari. On a piece of black slate, she did sums, with a white chalk. Books were out of question. She desperately wanted to graduate from the "topi and frock” brigade to the "sari seniors,” but her cooking-singing-wailing mother thought it was a sheer waste of time. Unlike the elder sister, who was quite presentable, she was reminded that due to her dark and mousy looks and that persistent ugly, itching eczema on her feet, finding a suitor was difficult, in the absence of a dowry.
However, a distant relative from Bombay, many years her senior, on a visit to the Navsari Atash Behram, wanted a simple, poor, rural, young wife. They were married. He was a clerk with the Jam-e-Jamshed and lived in a single room tenement, in Bazargate, Fort, opposite a fire brigade station. World War I had just ended and the only entertainment was the fire engine rushing out, with a fireman ringing the bell in a frenzy. Unlike her highly productive sister, she would only have a son; that too after many years of marriage. On Sundays, she walked up to the Gateway of India, erected 10 years earlier, to be dazzled by the imposing Taj Mahal Hotel.
Cusrow Baug was inaugurated in 1934, and there were no takers. Colaba Causeway was then regarded as a trifle shady with furtive pimps lurking in the shadows. The couple was allotted a two-room apartment comprising 500 square feet. She thought it was heaven. Along with Zarthost saheb and George V (popularly called "aapro puncham George”), the Wadia family who built Cusrow Baug and four others, were to be worshipped for their unparalleled munificence. Her husband’s brother, being progressively blinded, moved in too. This saved her and the young child from penury when her husband died suddenly.
The brother-in-law’s meager pension was supplemented by sending bhona-no-dabbo (tiffin box) to Cusrow baug residents. The business operated on a shoestring budget and the young lad had to dip paav (bread) in mutton gravy without any meat balls; an occasional fish head to suck was a luxury. She bargained hard with the vegetable vendors and the fishmongers who came to her doorstep. The brother-in-law would down three large pegs of narangi (orange flavored local hooch) and get raucous. She cooked, stitched blouses for her clients, sold vasaanoo (a traditional health sweet) in the winter and weave kustis at night.
Then the World War II began. An exodus of young from Navsari descended upon Bombay. Her many nephews and nieces; grand nephews and grand nieces; even distant acquaintances from Navsari landed at Cusrow Baug. About a dozen were accommodated in the 500 sq ft home, without a whisper. Like his mother, the son, a docile if not too bright a lad, learnt to share space with his many cousins. It was a symbiotic existence.
She slept with them on the ground on coarse mattresses; endured the daily quarrels which broke out over the right to use the solitary toilet, and the solitary pump operated stove to make tea; enjoyed the togetherness in quieter moments when the house rang with boisterous laughter. Her son could now eat well as most of the non-paying guests did odd jobs and brought food home. When a niece got married, a makeshift curtain was set up to enable the couple to sleep together, in a manner of speaking. She permitted some paying guests too. A brilliant lawyer studying for his solicitors’ exam and loudly roting law provisions at 3 a.m. was jostled to the ground by the non-paying guests. Years later, the fellow lost his mind and was locked up in a house in Navsari. The visually impaired brother-in-law tolerated the commotion by downing an extra peg of narangi to slip into oblivion.
After a decade of co-existence, the grateful relatives moved into their own accommodation. Once again, the home went silent except for the incessant cough of the inebriated old man. The son, a gentle soul, repeatedly failed his matriculation. She marched to the Godrej patriarch who employed him as a clerk at Vikhroli. She searched successfully for a suitable Navsari bride from a poorer family who would bring joy to her son. However, the couple remained childless. Not once did she even casually remark about her desire to have a grandchild.
She was popular with the servants in the colony; advising them and solving their problems including a rogue nicknamed Romeo who was caught, in flagrante delicto, making merry with temporary maids in the tiny space underneath the stairway. She communicated with her many relatives and admirers through notes, scribbled in Gujarati on small chits delivered by the faithful Romeo. She rushed to the aid of about-to-deliver mothers and those waiting to be hospitalized. She never entered a restaurant; not even the daunting Taj Mahal, of her younger days. She voraciously read the Jam-e-Jamshed, Kaiser-e-Hind and the Mumbai Samachar, and animatedly criticized the "dhotiwalas” who had replaced the efficient English masters. Never a sigh escaped her lips and never any expression of self-pity. She seldom visited the fire temple in the Baug.
Then one Sunday morning, after her son had departed for work to attend the morning shift, her neighbor, who had a landline phone at home, rang the doorbell to inform her that her son had collapsed and died as he was about to board the train at the Victoria Terminus station. The railway police placed old newspapers to cover his body, with many flies buzzing. They did a post mortem at the Sir J. J. Hospital morgue, and then sent his cut up body to the Towers of Silence. His death did not register with her, until the neighbors placed a white sari in her hands.
She sat silently throughout the funeral prayers. When they lifted his body, she whispered, with a sad smile, "It was my time, son!”

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.