Sitting here in front of the desktop, I tend to often turn my head towards the right and stare out of the window at the house and compound next door. No one lives there anymore and the place has such a desolate look . The place is littered with trash, more so now when the neighbouring households find it a convenient dumping ground for the waste that the Municipal authorities stubbornly refuse to pick up. Faces emerge from a past long gone by, Shabi Mestry and Cossabai ( I’m wondering now what their real names were) , and their daughter Maggibai (Margaret) . The house had been built by Shabi Mestry’s eldest son Alexba,(Alexander) who along with his wife Beatybai (Beatrice) were in Bahrain. They had two kids. Yvette, the older one, lived and studied in Bombay (now Mumbai) with one of her aunts. Neville , the younger of the two was brought up by Maggibai, who herself was not married. Both of them are now well settled down in the U.S.A and have no plans of returning . Their grandparents and parents and Maggibai are no more and there is nothing here now that would’ve exerted a strong pull bring them back.
Back in those times,when the Summer holidays commenced , we, a group of kids living around that house , converged in Maggibai’s compound for fun and frolic that went on from morning till sundown , taking a break only at noon to have a hurried lunch in our respective houses. For my brother and me , that meant just scaling the wall that divided our two compounds.
Once in a while ,Shabi Mestry would by turns, take us kids to watch a matinee show in Krishna Talkies. Half –way through the film he’d slip away for a few draughts of toddy. He’d be there , of course in time to take us home at the end of the film.
Cossabai was a gentle old dear. Her routine included a trip to the fish market. At a regular hour , at mid-morning , she would set forth with a purposeful ,brisk stride , a cloth bag in one hand and holding an open umbrella with the other. She wasn’t quite a garrulous person, but I can feel a wave of warmth inside me when I remember her broken malayalam ,heavily tinged with the Konkani accent.
Alexba and Beatybai were around only occasionally. Alexba had inherited the gentleness of his mother, I’d always felt. Truth be told, we kids were a little scared of Beatybai. The house was spotlessly clean when she was around and we dare not run in and out of the house as we were otherwise wont to do. Maggibai was more indulgent towards us . Once during every one of her sojourns at home from Bahrain, home, Beatybai would air her wardrobe. The entire collection of her “gulf” saris would be hung out in the sun before being folded and neatly stacked back again in the cupboard. That was a visual treat for us.
For the rest of the year, we had a free run over the place.
Around eleven, Maggibai would sit down with her two younger sisters who lived in their separate households, but who would join her for lunch, which they cooked together. One of them would cut the vegetables or the meat or fish, as the day’s menu would decide, one would scrape and grind the coconut and so on. All the time they would chat loudly in Konkani, their mother –tongue, catching up with all the local gossip. Most of my other friends were Manglorean chrisitians too and so one grew up with a basic familiarity with the language. Sadly, I’ve forgotten almost all of it , except a meager sprinkling of words.
Maggibai scolded us from time to time if we grew too unruly or boisterous but it was pretty much like water thrown on colaccasia leaves as we described it in local parlance. It refused to stick and would jut slide away. We’d be our old boisterous selves after a few minutes of lull .
Sometimes the whole troop would scale the wall to take up from where we’d left, in our backyard. If my father was around, he’d let us play only till such time there was no competitive game going on and we were seen losing out. Then he’d call for a halt. My father always wanted us to winIt was embarrassing for us though, at that age, because the pattern had become obvious to everyone in the group. Not that the rest held it against us. They had grown familiar with his indiosyncracies.
Yvette would join us for a couple of weeks. She brought the Metro’s sophistication with her . We small –towners listened to her stories of the city with curiosity and some degree of doubt. She was perhaps the first teenager we saw (except for the heroines in the odd bollywood movie that we got to see) wearing a mini –skirt. We secretly envied her .
And then we grew up and went our different ways. Maggibai continued to wield her wand of affection over the younger generation. My sister’s son, Anjum, doted on her and would make sure that she got a share of whatever special was cooked at home. Austin one of the younger Pereiras in our group, literally lived in that house because he was so very fond of her. Anjum, was still very little when she had one of her legs amputated because of a diabetic related gangrene. He would advise her to carefully save the other one of the pair of slippers she used , so that she could wear it when her leg grew back. I remember my sister telling me that he had come to her , with an earnest expression on his little face and innocently asked her to tell him which God he should pray to for making her get well again…Jesus , because that was whom she prayed to or Allah, who was “our God.
Say what you will , but I tend to feel that there was a kind of innocence to those times and I am not still able to come to terms with the modern day existence of insular families , where interaction does not go beyond the occasional Hi and Hello. Here , in this corner of the town, things have changed slowly. But they have and “my heart aches and a drowsy numbness fills my senses”.