Of ghosts, fêtes and chicken lollipops
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I was born in a tiny nursing home on Marve Road, a street so unimaginatively named because it ends in the gritty sand of Marve Beach. The nursing home was situated in Orlem, part of the western Mumbai suburb of Malad, 100m from the home I eventually grew up in, and 300m from where my mother had grown up. Back then, she says, one could count the number of residential buildings in the locality on one’s fingers. There were no streetlights, no public transport, and nothing but tall grass growing on either side of the unpaved streets. My uncle claims to have seen a ghost on one of those unlit paths, decades before I was born. He swears by it to this day, saying it appeared in the form of a rooster and transformed into a cat before disappearing. I think about that spectral presence whenever I find myself walking down Lourdes Colony, as that supposedly haunted street is now called.
My maternal grandparents had moved to this part of Mumbai from Colaba, right at the city’s southern tip, in the 1950s, admitting their children, including my mother, to a school I would eventually go to myself, the St Anne’s High School. At the centre of life in Orlem stood the church, once a tiny chapel built in 1880. My parents had married there in the 1970s. The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes is now a much larger edifice that meets the spiritual needs of what is one of the largest Roman Catholic parishes in Asia.
It’s hard to imagine, as one passes through now, that there was a time when no malls cast their shadows on the streets of Malad. In fact, until the mid-20th century, Malad was dotted with creeks and mangroves, which are still visible if one chooses to drive behind the call centre hub called Mindspace. “Mumbai’s fastest-growing suburb” is now defined by its towering office complexes, where call centres try and sort out problems for people in the US. Back then, shopping was restricted to tiny stores that stocked only the essentials, run by owners who gave goods on credit to people they knew and trusted, and where one could square off all accounts right before Christmas each year. It was a place I spent my formative years in, and one I think of often with nothing but fondness as I go about a life in which it no longer plays a part.
No one knows why or how Malad got its name. Some trace it to quarries from which a yellow stone called malad was mined, but traces of these spots have long been buried under paved streets and buildings with names like Marionelle, Silver Oak, Cinderella and Honey Vista. Orlem itself is formally called Valnai in Marathia, although I have yet to meet a living soul who refers to it as such.
When I think of it now, years after I last lived there, I remember languid mornings spent on leafy streets, groups of children trying to capture frogs in wide gutters with the help of lassoes made from palm leaves (a surprisingly easy thing to do), or parties on building terraces that began minutes after midnight mass at Easter and ended only at dawn. I remember the actor Chunky Pandey showing off a fractured arm as the chief guest of an annual fête called Orlem Fantasy, which was extremely popular in the 1980s, and music by everyone from The Beatles and Frank Sinatra to Diana Ross and Harry Belafonte streaming from windows as one walked down the streets on Sunday mornings. The music was louder on Easter Sundays, when celebratory lunches stretched into late dinners and the music gave way to dancing.
In the midst of the inevitable changes though, some things continue to shine on. For instance, Uncle’s Kitchen. Locals believe it to be the place that created a dish now known universally as Chicken Lollipop. This unassuming restaurant once stood at the junction of Marve and New Link Roads, compelling people from across the city (and beyond) to drop by on weekends and stand outside for hours in the hope of finding a seat. It was relocated when the junction was widened a few years ago, and now stands 200m away, with a menu that has expanded from 15 dishes to approximately 250. One can still run into scores of Malad residents sitting in on weekday evenings though, splitting bowls of chicken sweet and sour soup.
Then there’s 20th Century Restaurant and Stores, a place I grew to know intimately by virtue of sharing a backyard with it. It’s where many dressed in their Sunday best headed to after mass, carrying off sausages, patties and other home-made fare that simply wasn’t available at bakeries elsewhere.
Marve Road is where families ended up on weekends, with picnic baskets carried on Bus No.272, and where we went as teenagers with cans of beer, safe in the knowledge that the local police wouldn’t bother walking down to the water’s edge. It’s also where we drove, when we could afford our own vehicles, past Marve and Aksa to a little strip called Dana Paani, or to Erangal and Madh Island, where we could park and have a drink in splendid isolation, if only for a few hours. I can think of few places in Mumbai that afford that kind of simple pleasure.
There were other localities in the neighbourhood, each with idiosyncrasies and specialities of their own. For seafood, one went to tiny eateries in nearby Kharodi or Rathodi; for football, there were endless games at the JBC (Joe Braz Colony) grounds every day of the week; for swimming, one could learn by being tossed into a rather deep well at the appropriately named Baudi.
I remember those nooks and corners the way some people remember former lovers, peculiar memories associated with them suddenly springing to mind when I least expect them to, in countries a thousand miles away. It’s not just me. Forty-year-old Anselm Mendes, head of marketing and technology at the Dubai-based insurance firm Continental Group International, remembers Orlem fondly as a “warm, friendly, close-knit, vibrant community with a lot of activity centred around the church and school”. When asked if he ever sees himself returning to live there again, he says: “The culture, friendships and experiences shared among friends, colleagues and family there played an important part in shaping me into who I am today. I miss that sense of community and warmth for myself and even more for my children. I love the thought of returning!”
He may find that a few things have changed in the old neighbourhoods of Malad once dominated or demarcated by religion or language. They have now given way to buildings that are open to anyone with deep pockets. Parts of Orlem, however, continue to exist in a time capsule, their residents growing old alongside one another, their offspring marrying within the community, and some heading off to the other side of the world for decades before returning to die and be buried at the graveyard by the church, where my own grandparents and relatives lie.
It is a part of Mumbai that inspires nostalgia in former residents, many of whom spend hours on Facebook groups with names such as Orlem Memes and Orlem Connect.
The administrators of the Orlem Memes Facebook page claim to be between 25 and 35, reside in Canada and Mumbai, and work in the information technology sector. “When Orlemites become 21 and graduate, they tend to start working outside or go abroad. They tend to forget the fun times they had and we wanted to remind them of it,” says one of the administrators, when asked about the page. “The response has been amazing,” he adds.
There is much to be said about a life lived in different places, amidst new cultures and people, where one learns that the world is a big place with all kinds of things in it. But there is also something to be said about living and dying within a few square kilometres that become one’s universe, where happiness and sadness are all experienced with the same people, under a sky that never changes.
If you ever find yourself travelling down the New Link Road, which runs from Dahisar all the way to Bandra, take a left at the junction of Marve Road. It may seem like any quiet suburb of Mumbai. Spend a bit of time here though and you may find a world within—a community that thrives on family and friendship, where streets light up gloriously on Easter and Christmas and people smile when they pass each other on the street, where you not only know the names and family histories of your neighbours but where you can walk into a restaurant or bar and find everybody knows your name.
I don’t live there any more. But no matter where on earth I find myself, it is always a place I think of as home.