After emerging from Mani Bhavan I paused for a moment and looked down the quiet road again. This time around I tried imagining Mahatma Gandhi leaning over the balcony in the year 1917 when it was time for the Carder to pass that way each day. It was the year Mahatma Gandhi first came to live in Mani Bhavan on Laburnum Road in Gamdevi, among the older neighbourhoods in Bombay.
Gandhiji was looking for Carders to card cotton into slivers for use in spinning cotton yarn. Writing in his The Story of my Experiments with Truth he said, “In Bombay, again, the same old problem of obtaining a supply of hand-made sliver presented itself. A carder twanging his bow used to pass daily by Shri. Revashankar’s residence (Mani Bhavan). I sent for him and learnt that he carded cotton for stuffing mattresses. He agreed to card cotton for slivers, but demanded a stiff price for it, which, however, I paid.”
This was the road the carder took each day in 1917 I tell myself, my gaze lingering in the silence of the shade that trees on either side of the quiet street lent this corner of an old city, a silence lent weight by the presence of a man the world would come to know as the Mahatma or the ‘Great Soul’.
Colonial-time bungalows with old-world sounding names on their gates stood in quiet symphony with the weight of pre-independence history. I passed each bungalow, pausing to look up, searching for life I could connect to a bygone era. There was no life I could detect in the stately windows, some of which showed signs of disrepair.
A few houses past Mani Bhavan rises Shireen Villa to my right, its gate rusting in its hinges. I slow down to admire the columns flanking the door. If I were to linger on I wonder if an old lady would materialize at the door to enquire of my presence at the gate. Moments pass but no door opens. None would, at least not at Shireen Villa. At times silence is a continuum for imagination to will a reality that no longer exists, and it is in the hoping and wishing that imagination fashions a moment into reality.
I step to the side of the road to let a car of tourists pass. The Mani Bhavan sees many a European tourist walk through its gates, and Asians as well, Japanese in particular. Many of the villas on Laburnum Road owe their architecture to the firm of Taraporewala and Bharucha.
Suddenly I hear excited shouts from across the road where Gool Villa stands, its sliding windows jarring the façade. I cannot remember seeing the aluminum framed windows from an earlier visit; maybe they had escaped my attention the last time.
I see their colourful kites before I see them, four young boys delighting in their kites as they attempt to ride some wind. There’s none. So they run, trailing their kites behind them, and looking over their shoulders to see the kites rise up by a little only to fall to the ground as the tiny legs tire as much from the running as from dodging the parked cars.
Pappu’s kite is elegant in the only way that a kite costing two rupees, and made of light paper can be. It has a short, pink tail and is bordered by narrow white strips on two sides. Pappu seems the silent sort, hair oiled and combed neatly. He has a shy smile, preferring instead to let Dhiren do all the talking. Dressed in a red t-shirt and pink footwear Pappu’s choice of clothes complement his choice of kite.
Of the four only Dhiren, who stays in one of the buildings in the street, was still in his school uniform. His alert face, apart from his name and quick responses marked him out as a Gujarati, a guess I was prepared to stick with. He said he studies just round the corner. Manish, the youngest of the four was Jayesh’s brother, Dhiren told me excitedly, pointing to Manish first, and then to Jayesh who wore a light pink shirt. I noticed that Manish and Jayesh wore similar looking half pants, and that both wore no footwear.
Dhiren told me that they had bought the kites from a local kite seller in Gamdevi and that Pappu’s kite cost him two rupees. Then opening his hands wide he said, “The kite seller has this big kite for fifty rupees.” Then opening his hands wider Dhiren continued, “And this big for hundred rupees.” He looked to Pappu and Jayesh to confirm the size. They did, nodding their heads. “He even has one for two hundred rupees,” Dhiren continued, his voice rising a notch and hands stretching even wider until they could stretch no more.
There was still a little over ten days to go for Makar Sankranti, an auspicious Hindu festival usually celebrated in the middle of January, marking the beginning of the harvest season for Indian farmers and the transition of the Sun into Capricorn. On Makar Sankranti thousands of kites ascend the sky, particularly in Gujarat.
But for this quartet of enthusiastic kids the festival had already begun. Their exuberance was almost out of character with the quiet street. For a moment I wondered if the skies over Laburnum Road had seen kites on the auspicious day in the decades past, or if the Carder whose name I do not know brought string to give to children so that their kites may rise high.
As I step back on the road I wonder how Gool Villa got its name. I like the mystery my not knowing brings to my experience on the road.
Outside the gates of some of the villas cars are parked to the side of the street. Surely there’ll have been fewer cars in those days I thought, and that the Carder must have called attention to his presence by twanging his bow as Gandhiji wrote in his autobiography, or maybe even called out his services as he passed on the road I now walk along. His voice must have sounded through the mansions, reminding families as much of the Carder as of the time of the day it was. His absence, even for a day, would have been noticed for, at some time or the other each family on Laburnum Road will have needed his services to inject new life into their mattresses, lending a face to the voice that sounded in the street each day. Come to think of it, every fixture is but a constant, a bearing that life aligns to in charting its course for the day.
I can only guess as to the families that lived in these homes then, with nothing to go on but names on gates, names that now morph into faces that my imagination draws from other faces, even if wholly unrelated, but sharing the same surname, and where details escape me I draw my visual frames of reference from communities many of the names seemingly belong to – the Parsis, the Gujaratis.
There’s little or no crowd about. In the late afternoon light I see trees come alive in the shadows they throw on the walls of the villas. It is in the shadows that I sense the life I seek on my walk down Laburnum Road. In the shadows the branches lack features. There’s a certain quiet to the featureless, a certain silence. It is a kind of silence that comes from stillness, the lack of any movement where you might expect some. It is not the silence of the street as much as it is the silence of an empty house. In watching the shadows on the walls it is as if I am watching to see if the wall responds to the caress of the trees.
Like the Carder who once walked down Laburnum Road, his passing a fixture in the daily lives of families that lived on the street. Now, come late afternoon, the shadows the trees cast on the villas are temporary fixtures that at once promise a certainty in their transience.
Note: Over a week ago PBS wrote in to inform me of the launch on January 5 of their six-part Story of India series by Michael Wood, projecting their India effort as “seeking in the present for clues to her past, and in the past for clues to her future.” The show runs on Mondays. For local timings head over to the PBS Engage blog.