June 25, 2006

A Cinematographer, A Film Shoot, A Conversation

It was a quarter past eleven in the night when we packed up and prepared to leave Manori. The scenes scheduled for the day had been canned. The marathi language film was nearing completion and only a day’s shoot remained. It was scheduled for completion the next day at Madh Island. Sanjay and I walked down to where he had parked his bike at the entrance to the Gagangiri Maharaj ashram and called someone on his cellphone while I waited, watching unit members leave the film location in ones and twos, and sometimes threes. They walked slowly, silent, thinking. Two dogs kept a wary eye on them from the side of the road. I listened to their footsteps as they made their way past me, heads loose on their shoulders, chins tilting down a bit. One of them waved out to me. I waved back. We were among the last to leave the place.

The main leads in the film, Rita Bahaduri, and the Marathi actress Aishwarya Narkar had left Manori an hour back after winding up the scene at the temple in the ashram where Aishwarya, on waking up finds her mother-in-law, Rita Bhaduri, missing from her bedside in the room in the ashram where they’d come looking for a cure after Rita Bhaduri was paralysed waist-down in a car accident in the film. Then Aishwarya runs barefeet to the temple and finds Rita Bhaduri praying to Lord Dattatreya, and Gagangiri Maharaj, on finding herself miraculously cured of her ailment. It was the culminating moment in the film telling the story of a family, the divisions within, their faith in Gagangiri Maharaj, and their eventual reunion. The film is named after Gagangiri Maharaj. Back in the temple, Sanjay had quickly set up the lights in preparation for the film sequence. I sat on the floor beside Sanjay while he instructed the unit-hands on where to place the lights. He was looking for a sedate effect. It required him to improvise to fit his equipment in the space available, and there wasn’t much of it to go around. Earlier that day while they were filming the accident scene on the road that led up to the temple, I visited the temple and shared conversation with Satyaprakash Karambelkar, the temple caretaker. He had just finished up with scrubbing the floor when I walked in. Looking up at the statue of Lord Dattatreya now, my eyes almost reached up to the roof. Wires snaked all over the floor, leading to cameras, sound recorders, monitors, and to things I couldn’t quite identify in the jumble. Then the camera rolled. Ashish Ubale okayed the take before calling it a day after twelve straight hours of filming. All along, I watched from the sidelines, turning every once in a while to look at the Manori creek shimmering in the moonlight behind me, setting off the Mumbai skyline on the other side like a Christmas tree resting sideways, all decorated and nowhere to go.

Earlier in the day to get to Manori I took a ferry from Marwe after alighting from the train at Malad where I hired a rickshaw to Marwe, then sprinted across the beach just in time as the ferry pulled out from the beach and set off across the Manori creek that is fed by the Dahisar river draining into it. As I struggled to keep my balance, I remember thinking that beaches are the same everywhere, and that it is never easy running in the sand. Earlier, the train ride on the Western line from Borivali to Malad took me hardly any time. But to get to Borivali I boarded the Thane Muncipal Corporation (TMC) bus from Thane (West), passing through Ghodbunder, Kashimira, Mira Road, and Bhayander, taking me over an hour. I watched as the ferry cut through placid waters and deposited us at Manori fifteen minutes later where rickshaws were lined up to make a killing, charging twenty-five rupees to take me to Manori Talaav bus-stop, barely over a kilometer away. I sat out the time it took a BEST bus to drive over to the ferry point. I got in and sat by a window on the driver’s side of the bus. The bus was fairly empty. A group of Christian women sat in the front. On the ride along the waterfront, I passed fisherfolks, their homes, fishing nets, small fishing boats, and dugouts before getting off at Manori Taalav where the film unit was filming a ‘car scene’. Sanjay was behind the camera, shouting instructions every now and then while Nilesh Shetye scribbled in a notebook, keeping tab over scenes, takes, and the like. I went over to a shop at the intersection of four roads and got myself a cold drink. It was hot in the sun and it had taken me three and half hours of changing buses, trains, rickshaws, and ferry to get here. About then I heard Ashish call over the din, ‘Camera, Action’ as the cameras rolled. Then, ‘CUUUT.’ It was my first time this close at a film shoot.

Sanjay Khanzode had a lot at stake in this film as did Ashish Ubale. The film also stars Vikram Gokhale, and Asavari Joshi. I missed out on the shoot involving Asavari Joshi. Sanjay was particularly happy about how that sequence turned out. "The lighting went well, and Asavari stands out wonderfully in her short cameo in the film," he told me later, and mailed me the picture above. The film was Sanjay’s first independent charge as a cinematographer after several assignments working in teams, sharing camera duties. Likewise, the film was Ashish’s first directorial venture after several stints as an Assistant Director. They both go back a long way to the same institute in Pune in the early Nineties when they passed out with a Diploma in their respective disciplines. I first met them in 1996 when they were staying at Yari Road in Versova, sharing their apartment with two others, each searching for a toehold in Bombay, like I was. Bombay was still Bombay in those days if you know what I mean. Over the years Sanjay and I kept in touch through M Satish, a mutual friend. By then Sanjay had shifted out of the Yari Road apartment to Thane, got married, kept up with a steady stream of assignments in Hindi, Marathi, and Punjabi television serials, music videos, documentaries, advertising films, and feature films. Jai Jai Gagangiri Maharaj was his first independent assignment as a cinematographer. Interestingly, Randhawa, a Punjabi, was producing the marathi language film, a fact not lost on Sanjay, a Maharashtrian brahmin. “It’s his first foray as a producer,” Sanjay told me.

Outside the room where the unit was filming a dream sequence featuring Gauri Karyekar, Randhawa sat patiently on a sofa in front of a monitor, his large face betraying nothing, while Sanjay passed instructions to the crew outside as they adjusted the cutter in front of the window, controlling the light streaming into the room from a powerful studio light source placed outside the window. Inside the small room, barely measuring eighteen feet by fifteen feet, I sat on a chair between Sanjay and Ashish watching silently while technicians went about their jobs, my camera loaded and ready.

The room was transformed from an ordinary pad with a rustic bed and scattered items of everyday use, into a dark room with black curtains setting up the dream sequence featuring Gauri Karyekar, Rita Bhaduri’s other daughter-in-law in the film. Eventually, the cutter was in place lighting up Gauri to Sanjay’s satisfaction. The room tensed up in anticipation. Then, Ashish called out ‘Camera, ACTION. The camera rolled. Three takes later they canned the shot.

The film unit broke up for a round of poha and chai before getting back into the room to film the scene where Rita Bahaduri sees a vision of Gagangiri Maharaj, feeling his presence heal her of her ailment before hurrying to the door looking for the vision she just saw, a surprised look on her face. Then she heads for the temple, followed a little later by her daughter-in-law, Aishwarya, who comes looking for her on finding her bed empty.

All the film sequences I saw that day were about lights and lighting. Sanjay went about methodically setting them up, displaying an innate ease that only comes from spending time with what you like doing, and doing it well.

When Sanjay left his hometown Akola for Mumbai, his first stint was with Debu Deodhar, the legendary cinematographer who filmed most of Amol Palekar’s films, starting with Ankahee (1984), Bangarwadi (1995), Daayraa (1997), Kairee (1999), to Anaahat (2003).

Speaking of those early days, Sanjay said, “Debuda said to me, ‘Sanjay, pehle backlight seekh lo,’ (Sanjay, first learn to use the backlight). Then he told me, ‘Understand why, for a camera position in a film sequence, the backlight is sourced from position A, and not from B.’ My learning curve took off from there.”

Sanjay started off on the sets of Sukhi Sansarachi Bara Sutra in the mid-nineties, a Satish Films production starring Ashok Saraf, the evergreen comedian from Marathi films, and Sanjay’s favourite actor. Debu Deodhar was the cinematographer, while Sanjay picked up the nuances, watching from a corner. It didn’t come easily. Remembering those early days, Sanjay said, “The first few days after the filming commenced all I did was make notes and diagrams of where the lights were placed for each scene in relation to the camera, and the subjects. I said nothing the whole day nor interfered with their work. Debuda noticed this and one day he called me over to his side and asked me what I was doing standing in a corner and making notes. I showed him the pages. Then he pointed to one of my diagrams and asked me, ‘Do you know why I’ve set up the lights in these positions?’ I replied, ‘No’. Then he said, ‘To know why is important. The day you learn why I’ve set up the lights in a particular way, you’ll have learned lighting. Once you learn lighting, it’ll mean you’re on your way to becoming a cameraman’,” Sanjay narrated, adding, “Tab se main kyun ke peeche lag gaya (Since that day I’ve been pursuing the ‘why’ of things.).”

Sanjay believes that many cinematographers in the film industry belong to the ‘Old School’, ‘Old’ as in their approach to lighting. “It has to do with the lack of adequate equipment, technology, and assistive tools like Video Assist in those days, limiting their scope, and forcing them to improvise, eventually shaping their approach. It’s not easy to change later.” Video Assist is mounted onto a movie camera (inside the viewfinder) to optically tap what the camera ‘sees’ and to transfer it to a monitor, usually placed away from the scene, where the director gets to see what the cinematographer is filming to ensure that the sequence is being shot exactly how he visualized and planned it. Video Assist came to be used widely in the Indian film industry in the Nineties. “But the advertising people got hold of it first,” Sanjay said. “Eventually the filmwallahs latched on to it.”

Abhi aapko director kis tarah ka shot bataya, aur cameraman usko kis tarah se ley raha hai .... aapko monitor pe dikhta hai aaj, Video Assist hai (Today, the director can get to see how a cameraman executes his scene requirement on the monitor while he is filming it.),” Sanjay explained, continuing, “In the days before the monitor came to be widely used, when the Director described the scene to the cameraman, nobody except the cameraman knew what he was filming.”

Things were no different when Sanjay started off with Debu Deodhar. “I used to take permission from Debuda to peer through the viewfinder to see his frame compositions, querying him on his choice of lens for a given scene. It helped me to understand the role of lenses. Later, I tried predicting to myself the lens Debuda would use for each scene, to see if I’m getting the thinking right. Over a period of time I began to get my predictions correct most times. It was a step forward. I did the same with the lights,” he said.

Kisi bhi shot mein lens ka selection important hai (In any film scene, the selection of the proper lens is important),” Sanjay said, adding, “Lens ka selection ke baad hee agey ka sab hoga, lighting hoga, trolley shot istemaal hogo, job hi baki ka techniques woh lens lagne ke baad hee hoga. Sab se pehla selection hai lens ka. Tho woh Director ko kya chahiye, aapko kis tarah ka scene establish karna hai, scene kis tarah se aagey progress hoga, woh isaab se lens ka selection hota hai. Shot actually choreograph hota hai. Tho ek scene ko kayee shot mein divide kartey hai apne requirement ke isaab se. Tho woh sabse important hai . . . lens ka selection.” As I listened to him, his words shook free in the night air and floated past, their passion powering them past me.

By then I was beginning to feeling thirsty. Back in the temple while they were filming the last sequence for the day, I had emptied the bottle of water I found on the window shelf. I suspect it belonged to the temple caretaker. Now I was feeling thirsty again. “Come over for the shoot at Madh tomorrow,” Sanjay said to me, tilting his face sideways so I could hear him over the rush of night air, and the phut-phutting of his bike. “Sure, I will try,” I replied.

The night air enveloped us as he took the left turn and headed out of Manori, towards Gorai. It was nearing midnight, and the roads were still. The wheels churned up the road as Sanjay picked up speed, slowing down as we came upon groups of people walking ahead, holding plastic chairs. It perplexed me to see so many people out on the road this late in the night. I wondered aloud to Sanjay if the Manori-Gorai stretch was readying for a film show out in the night, under open skies. Up ahead, over hundred people milled around a makeshift screen strung across the road, and held down by stones dangling from strings tied to corners of the screen to keep it from swaying in the stiff breeze blowing in from the west. People were gathered on either side of the screen, watching a black and white film. As we slowed down looking for a way past the open air film show, Sharmila Tagore made an entrance on the screen. Sanjay couldn’t help smiling. I held his suitcase tight while he negotiated the bike past people scattered all over the road. The stones brushed my leg as we squeezed past.

After we got to the other side of the screen I turned back to see the scene as it steadily receded behind us before disappearing after we took a right turn, slowing down at a speed-breaker. I doubt if I’ve ever ridden over the number of speed-breakers I did that night on the Manori-Gorai stretch. We had a long ride home, through Gorai, Mira Road, Ghodbunder, stopping over at a roadside stall for a cup of ice-cream.

“That is what I call spirit,” Sanjay said of those people enjoying an old hindi classic in the middle of a quiet road late in the night, opening the visor of his helmet so that I could hear him in the nip of night air rushing past.

“Yes,” I replied, rewinding to my memories of similar settings for films I saw under the open skies back in Goa. I particularly enjoyed Amitabh Bacchan’s Zanjeer in the backyard of an Electricity Sub-station long ago. It’s not an experience one easily forgets.

“They’ll never enjoy a film at Inox the way they’ll enjoy it out there in the open, under the night sky,” Sanjay said, “And that’s how a film should be seen.” His time back in Akola where he grew up aspiring of films were not very different from the rustic setting of Manori where people bring their chairs along for a film show on a road, or for that matter of my own memories of traveling theatres back in Almel, in North Karnataka, where they put up tents, advertised the film from a hand held loudspeaker and mounted on a bicycle, screened daily shows before moving on to the next village, repeating the same cycle all over again. I missed none of them on my vacations from school.

I went quiet for a while, lost in thought, and reflecting ‘Oh, to watch stars parade their talent on screen while stars ‘ride’ in the night sky many, many light-years away.’

Note 1 : The two pictures showing Sanjay Khanzode behind the camera filming Asavari Joshi (in red sari), and the scene in the balcony were passed on to me by Sanjay, the rest of the pictures I took during my time on the sets .

Note 2 : I got a sms from Sanjay today that said: 'Chandigarh me hu, punjabi film ka shooting chalu hai. Sab sardaronke sath me full timepass ho raha hai. 30th ko vapas . . .'

June 22, 2006

Two Tourists at Churchgate, Mumbai


Churchgate railway station was designated the meeting point for the team. Thirty of us from our company had signed up for the Dream Run section of the Mumbai Marathon early this year. The station was awash with runners, mostly the 9-to-5 office lot, and for once the commotion of participants talking, exchanging notes, changing into their running-clothes, and frantic calling out to team mates drowned the buzz of trains. Colourful t-shirts with slogans printed on them, espousing causes the runners sponsored, turned the station into a holiday mood.

While we waited for the rest of our team members before leaving for the starting line, I saw these two tourists oblivious to the buzz, busy deciding what to buy at a stall inside the station. One of them wore a hat that caught my attention. I’m accustomed to seeing pictures in newspapers showing tourists to India welcomed with garlands. For a change, a garland hung from the stall in welcome, and not from their necks.

June 17, 2006

A Feni Consultant in the Jungle


Two things surprised me this April as we drove through the Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary in Mollem, Goa. Firstly, I didn’t expect to find a cashew feni bhatti (feni distillery) in the middle of the jungle, and that too this late in the season. Elsewhere in the state, most local distilleries that spring up with the advent of the ‘Feni season’ that coincides with Gudi Padva, the Hindu New Year, are done with processing feni by mid-April, some complete it even earlier. On a passage through Ponda earlier this month, Nagesh, a local cashew farmer near Priol, a short distance off Keri, told me that cashew growers in Quepem and surrounding areas begin feni production earlier than those in Ponda. “It has to do with the type of soil,” he told me. “Once rains start, the cashews grow heavier, and though they appear juicier because of increased water content, the quality of feni is below par. We try and finish up before the monsoons move in.”

Back on the road it wasn’t until we slowed down on catching sight of a family of Langurs frolicking in the middle of our path that I realized the mud was unusually red. The langurs had changed colour to that of the mud. For just a moment I was perplexed on seeing these red creatures until one of them loped off the path with others following suit in that graceful manner of langurs. It was about then that I tasted mud. We pulled the windows shut but a thin layer of red had settled all over us. I tried wiping my camera clean but without much success, then drank from the water bottle to remove the taste of mud from the mouth. Phillip gripped the wheel hard as the jeep bounced uncomfortably on the mud-road that ran on to the Dudhsagar waterfall where rocky stretches in the road laid bare the pounding the thin ribbon of red winding through eighteen kilometers of deciduous forest gets from local jeeps ferrying tourists to the waterfall that cascades 600 metres down a cliff as it rises steeply, almost abruptly it would seem, over the South-Central railway line connecting Vasco to Londa, stopping by Collem in the Western Ghats mountain ranges.


The waterfall passes under the railway bridge and drops rapidly over the grey rock face. Seen from below trains passing on the narrow bridge high up in the sky and camouflaged by the cliff behind appear to float suspended in the air. Jeep-loads of tourists flock to the waterfall each year, the highest in India. Each trip to and fro net the tourist-jeeps a good sum, upwards from rupees 1,800 per trip, making the scramble for potential tourists fiercely competitive. The Goa Forest Department shuts down the route by ‘three in the afternoon’ to limit the damage to the eco-system but churned incessantly the mud-road turns red and the constant commotion of vehicular traffic on the route to the waterfall keeps the birdlife and animals away.

“The maximum tourist-jeep trips recorded for a single day is 90, and this does not include private vehicles visiting the waterfall,” the Range Forest Officer, Mollem Range, told us when we met him before setting off into the jungle. I got the impression that he was not particularly well disposed to the disturbance this causes to the habitat in the sanctuary. Elsewhere in sanctuary spread over 240 sq. kms. of deciduous forest in the Western Ghats mountain ranges, jungle paths are usually pale in colour. Beaten by the sun, dried grass binds the soil firm, only occasionally tested by vehicles passing on their way through the deciduous forest that in the summer is populated by barren trees as they shed their leaves and acquire new ones.


In my years trekking intermittently in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, I consciously stayed away from the route to Dudhsagar after trekking the 18 kms to Dudhsagar once, returning the same way in a summer vacation many years ago. I would’ve imagined that 36 kms of walking I did that November day would’ve ‘fetched’ me bird sightings that would fill pages in my diary. It was not to be. Instead, a short sojourn in the sanctuary in mid-October two years ago, with Phillip, and Colin, an elderly Frenchman visiting India, and lasting only a few hours over seven-odd kilometers in the direction of Vasant Bhandara and beyond landed us more bird sightings than I could ever imagine seeing along the ‘disturbed’ route to Dudhsagar. That October day, the three of us sighted in fairly quick succession a variety of birds, most notably in and around a Ficus tree at the edge of a grass plot that the then Range Forest Officer developed as a feeding spot for the Indian Gaur (bisons). We saw the Malabar Grey Hornbill, Crimson Throated Barbet, Pygmy Woodpecker, Heart Spotted Woodpecker, Small Green Barbet, Great Black Woodpecker, Bronze Drongo, White Headed Myna, Raven, Pied Flycatcher Shrike, Fairy Blue Bird, Ruby Throated Bulbul, Green Bulbul, Red Whiskered Bulbul, Quaker Babbler, Racquet Tailed Drongo, Verditer Flycatcher, Orphean Warbler, Malabar Whistling Thrush, White Throated Ground Thrush, Velvet Fronted Nuthatch, Grey Wagtail, and Small Sunbird.


A . . . sat behind, rocking side to side in rhythm with the jeep as we motored ahead. She had seen nothing like it before. I sat in the front with Philip. On the way back from Dudhsagar I exchanged places with her. Philip fixed his eyes on the road ahead, catching rocky bumps as they mysteriously emerged in the road. From the rocking and rolling we sat through, I’m sure we hardly missed any bump the jungle path threw at us. We passed a jackfruit tree with fruits hanging from the trunk. The temperature had dropped a notch. Creepers hung tantalizingly from trees, spanning the silence between them, and swaying ever so slightly with the breeze that meandered past.


We stopped by a herd of buffaloes grazing in the forest. They were tended to by an elderly woman who edged out of the way and into the trees on seeing us emerge from a bend in the jungle path. Two alert dogs kept her company. They stood on the go watching me get off the jeep with my camera. I kept a wary eye on them as I inched closer to the herd grazing to my right. A few Cattle Egrets floated amidst lazy legs and silent tails, picking off insects in the bush disturbed by the buffaloes. The two dogs watched me closely, steadily moving nearer. One look and I knew these were a nasty pair, untempered by human presence and ready to spring at the slightest provocation, or order whichever came first. I suspect the woman had brought them along as protection from leopards that roam the jungle and whose droppings Philip and I have seen aplenty on our treks together over the years. It is illegal to graze cattle in the wildlife sanctuary, and she will have known it. I got the pictures I needed and hurried back to the safety of the jeep. It kicked to life and we motored away. It was about then that I caught a flash of blue through the trees, and we slowed down to a stop where a narrow path led past six blue drums with tops sawed off, holding freshly extracted pale white cashew juice left to ferment. Small bubbles rose silently to the surface.


On a raised platform, divided into two roughly equal sections and enclosed by a raised strip the width of a brick placed lengthwise that ran along their sides, cashew fruits, freshly plucked from a plantation behind the dwelling, were heaped in mounds of lemon yellow, pale orange, flat green, and deep red. I doubt if there is any fruit available in a similar range of colours and shades as the cashew. Three men were engaged in separating the small, kidney-shaped cashew nuts from the fruits, before tossing the fruits into the section further up from them. In a corner lay two pairs of gum-boots, the kind I wore to school in the monsoons. After the cashew nuts are separated from the fruits, two men will wear these black rubber boots, and climbing onto the raised platform they’ll stomp the cashew fruits while the juice runs off into a pitcher through a opening in the side of the enclosed section. The pitcher is then emptied into a blue drum where the juice is left to ferment for a day or two before it is transferred to a large earthen pot housed in a dwelling behind the platform.

Manuel, a wiry man in a tight fitting t-shirt with coloured strips running across his chest led us inside to show us the distillery. On a slow fire sat a large earthen pot. A metal pipe, possibly brass or some alloy, connected the earthen pot to an open water tank where it spiraled to the bottom through still water, cooling the vapour passing through it before turning it into clear liquid now emerging in a steady trickle and collected in a plastic container placed on the floor. If the liquid measured 17 and above on a Alcometer (a device similar in construct to a thermometer), then Manuel, hired to oversee the entire process would certify it as feni, else he would cycle the distilled extract back into the pot, and add more fermented juice and distill it again to improve its 'strength'. “Sometimes we cycle it 3-4 times before it attains the ‘strength’ that feni is known for. If the distilled extract's ‘strength’ reads above 14, but below 17, it is called urraq, a drink widely favoured by many in Goa."


Manuel is from Margao, a coastal city 16 kms off Ponda. He returns home once in a while. Speaking to us in the narrow confines of the mud-walled room, he said he expects busy times ahead until the last lot of cashews change form into feni. While we stared in fascination at the pot and the water tank in silence, a shaft of light lit up Manuel against a clothesline. A coat hung carelessly from it, retaining its carriage even as it lurched and fell over undignified among commoners heaped every which way. I wondered if the coat belonged to Manuel. The way he carried himself, erect, alert, and light-footed, suggested an honest man who knew his job well, and who took his clothing seriously even as he kept to himself. A man you could depend on to deliver results. It didn’t look like he spoke much. I imagined him wearing the coat to the church on Sundays. There was scarcely a soul around in the time we were there. As we prepared to leave, Philip asked Manuel is he had feni he could spare. “Yes, yes,” he said, “I’ll keep a bottle ready. You can collect it on your way back from Dudhsagar. The urraq is good too. I’ll keep some of it ready as well.” Then he smiled. With some people, their smiles dissolve their wrinkles; with Manuel it had the opposite effect, heightening his wrinkles. We stepped out of the rustic dwelling and prepared to leave.

The Feni Consultant accompanied us out, smiling. A quick wave of the hand and he disappeared from view as we lurched forward on our way to Dudhsagar where trains sail in the sky in the backdrop of rushing water that turns to milk as it crashes down the mountain.

June 09, 2006

Ranvar's East Indian Charm


On our way to Ranvar we took the left-turn before Balaji hotel, a short way off Lucky restaurant in Bandra, entering a narrow lane in Waroda, where we rode past houses that sat on the edge of the road; their balconies seemed to bend over the road in fatherly concern. We circled the place at slow pace while I looked out to see if I could identify houses with old world East Indian or Goan charm. There wasn’t much of a hint of it from the road. One would need to criss-cross the narrow lanes that bisected the road at regular intervals to catch a glimpse of those houses. When we got off near Mehboob studios after circling the area in search of Ranwar, the rickshawallah said he had never heard of the place, I decided it would be a better idea to walk it out. In the end it turned out the right thing to do.

Stopping at a house parallel to the Rebello road we asked for directions to Ranvar. An elderly man in white vest, joined by an elderly lady, possibly his wife, and curious to know what this was all about, pointed out a cross-road a short distance away and asked us to take it, and on turning left ‘walk straight, and you’ll reach Ranvar.’

After walking down the cross-road, we turned left, into Rebello Road, passing old-world, colourfully painted houses, some with wide fronts and gates with peeling paint. I read the names off buildings and bungalows that lined the road on either side – Joylyn, Butter Cups, Tulips, Kylemore, Beryl Apartments. There were many more, but I was too engrossed taking in the feel of the lane to write them all down. The names were very Goan, maybe East Indian too, the latter I wouldn’t know for sure as I haven’t seen much of them in Goa. The original residents of Bandra, the East Indians, originally hailed from Bombay Salsette, Bassein, and Thane, and worked for the East India company, hence the name – East Indians. Later, as Christians from Goa, and Karnataka arrived in large numbers, often sharing the same surnames with the original residents, the latter took on the name ‘East Indians’ to distinguish themselves from the new arrivals. Together they gave Bandra a unique cultural thread that is visible in part in the houses we were looking for.

We crossed a road and continued down the Rebello road before coming upon Veronica road. We took a narrow lane off the road, stopping to buy two bottles of flavoured milk from a shop in the lane that led further on to Ranvar; in olden days the Ranvar club was well known for its Christmas, and New Year Eve dances. The Ranvar road ran parallel to Veronica Road. Later in the day we realized that sandwiched between these two roads were houses that sat cheek-by-jowl, connected by narrow lanes that criss-crossed the locality. Some of those lanes, maybe I should call them passages, were so narrow as to allow space for a single person. In a squarish area hemmed in by houses on all sides stood a Cross with space in front where the faithful could gather for prayers. While I took its picture a middle-aged East Indian lady leaned out her first-floor window and called out to me to ascertain my identity. Convinced that we were upto no mischief she smiled not before telling me that "Even Thane has East Indian population." Passing through those narrow passages constrained by houses that rose above them on either side, it was almost as if I was seeing a bit of Portuguese landscape from pictures exhibited at the Fundacao Oriente back in Goa three years ago. While we stood on the road, contemplating our next step, Krishna and I met a elderly drunk wearing soiled clothes. He looked amiable alright. He saw us for what we were, tourists.

“You come to see heritage?” he asked us.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Come this way, I will show you,” he offered, pointing further down the road. But I was wary of any offer from a drunk, not only for where he might lead us to in an unfamiliar place but also for what he might demand from us at the end of it.

“No, it’s alright. We’re waiting for a friend,” I offered, hoping to shake him off. But he displayed the tenacity of a drunk. It took us some time before we could convince him that we were fine by ourselves. Finding us steadfast, he went his way, which wasn’t very far, stopping at a house for a chat on seeing a familiar face in the verandah. We quickly walked past, pausing at the turn where Nagrana lane ran between a tallish building and a compound wall to our left that was spray-painted with Gangsta Rap messages. We took the lane, emerging out onto a busy road that led to the Holy Family hospital a short distance to our left. We returned back the way we had come. We had barely emerged from the narrow Nagrana lane when we heard a voice behind us call out sharply, “Go straight, and turn left, and you’ll find what you’re looking for.” We turned around, and saw the drunk gesturing to us. “Walk straight, and turn left over there,” he said, pointing to a narrow lane further up the road. We did as he said, walking past a blue Maruti car parked in front of a large house that looked more an entrance to an Army barrack than a residential dwelling, and found what we were looking for – the East Indian locality in Ranvar.

June 05, 2006

At Mount Mary Church in Bandra


I met Santan Monteiro at her stall outside the Mount Mary church last month. It was a chance meeting that summer day since Krishna and I hadn’t planned on visiting the church when we landed in Bandra on a late May afternoon. We didn’t expect our walkabout in Waroda and Ranvar to finish early, leaving enough time on our hands for a quick visit to the Mount Mary church. There, Santan Monteiro smiled at me when I stepped into her stall with my camera. As we got talking, she told me that she hails from Verna, in Goa. I asked her if she manages to visit Goa. She said, "Yes. yes. I do." Then she told me that she will be visiting Saligao (a Goan town) the next month, in June. “I visit Goa once a year to meet my relatives,” she added.

It was early evening when we took the turn past the Bandra Bandstand on our way to the Mount Mary Church in Bandra. The monsoon was three weeks away but clouds straggled across the sky from the west, in ones, twos, and threes, sometimes more. In days to come more would follow. The rickshaw laboured up the hill, flanked on either side by residential high-rises and bungalows that sat pretty facing the sea a short distance away. I read Parsi names on a building or two. I like Parsi names. Jeejabhoy, Merchant, Taraporewalla, Daruwalla. As we motored up, every once in a while I saw people gathered on terraces facing the sea, gazing fixedly at the ocean. There is something about vast landscapes that I find soothing, so vast that there is no single point of focus to gather my attention to the exclusion of others. Sometimes, I find that vastness showcases a sameness that offers me a continuity that is absent in closed spaces, ‘closed’ as in by structures which even if diverse do not intrigue me like vastness does since they have forms I can identify, and relate to. Vastness has no form; it is continuous, end-to-end.

Mid-way up the hill, the road narrowed; I cannot quite remember if it was because of a tree, or on account of road repairs. Vehicles coming down the slope showed little consideration for those going up the incline, blocking way and forcing us into braking, losing momentum. The rickshaw stalled in its attempt to drag us up the incline, it had lost power, eventually I asked the driver to return to the base of the hill and give it another shot up. We turned back and rode down, and waited until there was no vehicle coming down the hill and gave it full power. He left us on the road passing by the Mount Mary church.

Outside the church, stalls selling candles and wax dolls line the compound wall enclosing the church on either side of the narrow entrance leading up to the church. The compound wall has the same feel as the fa├žade of the church, made of stones demarcated by white lines. From a distance I imagine it must look like someone has draped a checked shirt over it. The church is dedicated to Christ’s mother, Virgin Mary, whose statue Jesuit priests brought from Portugal in the 16th century and constructed the chapel on the mount in 1640 where they housed it. The church was rebuilt in 1761 after the original Chapel of Mount Mary was destroyed in what is believed to be a Maratha raid in 1738. The statue of Mother Mary was shifted back to the rebuilt church from St. Andrews church where it was temporarily installed after fishermen found it in the sea. The original statue was re-adorned with the child in her arms after marauding Arab pirates cut off the hand to get at the gilt-lined figure of the child in her arms.

Santan Monteiro was alone in her stall. She was dressed in a frock and had a kind face. When I first met her on alighting in front of the church, I had a feeling she was originally from Goa. Time had etched its passage on her face. Hers was a makeshift stall. Candles coloured white, dark blue, light blue, red, and orange, hung from hooks looped around a horizontal bamboo support held up by bamboos fixed to the ground. In a basket by her side, wax figures shaped as hands, legs, spine, head and other parts of the human body were neatly stacked along the circumference of the rim. Actually, some of them were reclining as if resting easy while enjoying the view of the sun going down. The setting sun opposite lit them up in a translucent white. Devotees who come to Mount Mary to pray for cures for their ailments offer the wax figure that corresponds to their ailment. “Here, this one is for the stomach,” said Santan Monteiro, showing me a circular plate-like wax figure. “A patient suffering from a stomach ailment will offer it at the church by setting it alight, and saying prayers.” Then she held out a wax figure shaped like a back and said, “This one is for a back ailment.” As we talked in konkani, a steady stream of devotees came up to her stall to purchase candles, and the wax figures that she refers to as baulis (bauli is konkani for doll). Devotees belong to all religions, and their belief in Mother Mary’s powers to affect miracles is absolute, drawing them to the church from long distances. On the Sunday following September 8, the Bandra fair is held each year in the honor of Mother Mary. It carries on for eight days amidst much fanfare and piety.

About then a middle-aged couple steps up to Santan Monteiro’s stall asking her in hindi if they should offer the wax bauli at the church now or after they get a house. I listen on for I never tire of a Goan Catholic attempting hindi. It does not matter if they’ve lived in Mumbai for years, like Bandra’s Christians with roots in Goa, have, their Hindi shows the influence of konkani, lacing it with an edge that people up North would find a touch arrogant, insulting even. She advises them to offer prayers at the church for the house they hope to own someday, and return to the church to offer the wax bauli after their prayers are answered. “We prepare all these wax items at home,” she told me, “using molds.

“Baba accha sa pass hone ka,” (Baba should pass his exams well) she said to the same couple who mentioned about their son who was appearing for his exams. “You can pray for him at the church now, then offer a wax-book after he does well in his exams,” she told them. On a wooden plank near the front of the stall, she had stacked packets of gram. “My mother-in-law started this business fifty years ago,” she told me, running her hand in an arc indicating the stall she ran on her own. “She supported the entire family from her earnings from this stall. She is originally from this place. After I got married and came to Bombay, I helped her run this stall.”

I ask her how old is she.

“Sixty. To sixty, add three more,” she replied.

“Sixty-three?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling.

Santan Monteiro lives in Bandra. Then she told me of her children and her grand-children. I listened on, pausing only when customers stopped by her stall to make purchases, watching her treat them kindly and answer their queries patiently. The sun cast golden shafts our way, lighting up the stall in a soft memory.

I purchased candles for five rupees, thanked her and said that I would return to her stall with copies of her photographs. She smiled back, nodding her head.

Then, Krishna and I walked across the road, and took the stairs up to offer our prayers at the statue of Mother Mary. Candles and wax figures blazed bright on a metal stand where a steady stream of devotees set them alight in the flame, then folding their hands they offered prayers at the statue of Mother Mary. Behind her, the sun dipped low. A temple tree bloomed with a vengeance nearby. I bent over the wall to try and pluck a flower but couldn’t get close enough, but managed to get near enough to catch the fragrance wafting from the white and gold flowers I once lived with in my backyard years ago before we shifted to a new house.