In the beginning, there was Nana Chudasama, the sheriff of Bombay, who put up a pronunciamento on the state of the nation at the corner where Veer Nariman Road meets Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Marg. For decades, a parade of bad puns and faux witticisms were celebrated by the same people who found R.K. Laxman funny.
He composed his first banner as propaganda for the Swatantra Party of which he was a member. It was supposed to be a broadside against the licence raj and it said, “See it fast, see it slow. But rationing must go.” Since then he has come up with a number of these gems. There was, “God created floods and politicians. One destroys. The other exploits.”
It was only when Chudasama became sheriff for the nth time that a banner went up on Hughes Road. It said: “Sheriff for Life? Na Na”.
Mumbaikars began to hope for a battle of banners, but nothing came of it. However, Chudasama inspired many of the parish priests of Roman Catholic churches and homespun wisdom began to show up outside the churchyards. One of the earliest appeared outside St Andrew’s church during the 1980s, when drug abuse was supposed to be rampant among the youth. “Drugs? It doesn’t take will power. It takes won’t power.”
What a Bandra parish does today, other parishes will do tomorrow. The Biblical quotations came down and one-liners came up in their place. Many try to address the problems of empty pews. “Come in for a faith lift,” exhorted one notice board. “Chxxch—Have you guessed what’s missing. UR!” said another. Many of these were sentimental (“Prayers go up. Blessings come down.”) or plain bizarre (“Jesus should be your steering wheel, not your spare tyre.”) or puns (“Long-standing problems? Try kneeling”).
But then even the founder of the faith was not against a pun at the right time. In Greek, the spelling of the name Peter and the word ‘rock’ only differ by one letter, and so Jesus said to Peter the rock, “You are Peter and on this rock, I shall build my church.”
Mahim’s two churches do not get much play in all this, but Danny Michael Pinto (no relation) does what the good fathers cannot or do not want to do. The undertaker, who has his establishment opposite the parish church of Our Lady of Victories, began without too much fanfare, but with a somewhat sinister message. The board outside his workplace announced: “We can take your dead body anywhere anytime anyplace.” This was illustrated by a coffin hanging from a plane. But he soon found this insufficiently witty and moved on to “When you drop dead, drop in”. Conversations began to erupt around this new style of advertising and Mr Pinto moved on to “Mr Smoker, you’re the next to come coffin in.” Then there was “We’re the last to let you down.” Right now, the board says, “Dead centre of town.”
Jerry Pinto is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.
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