December 24, 2015

In Khotachiwadi, Looking For Willy

I don’t visit Khotachiwadi often so I use the two bulls flanking the entrance to Gaiwadi to alert me to Khotachiwadi’s proximity on the drive from V.T.

Past Gaiwadi, just short of St. Theresa Church, I look for a narrow lane on the right that leads past a small chapel across the lane from the Catholic Gymkhana before disappearing into the heart of the old settlement in Girgaon settled in 1800s with East Indians and Brahmins by Khot from the Pathare Prabhu sub-caste of Brahmins, hence the name Khot-achi-wadi.

Early this week, on a warm late afternoon, after finishing up with work early, I made my way to Khotachiwadi from Jehangir Art Gallery after a quick visit upstairs to see Sayali Ghotikar’s photo exhibition of abstractions, close-up pictures of surfaces worn by time into palettes of colours arranged into irregular forms, the kind that arrest attention to their form.
Shops were open and the street bustling with traffic when I got off the taxi and made for the narrow opening leading into Khotachiwadi.

A group of three school-going girls, bent over their mobile phones, were huddled together on one of the two cement benches facing the Chapel (A.D. 1899) where Catholic residents of Khotachiwadi prayed for their wellbeing and those of their families during the plague epidemic that ravaged Bombay in the 1890s.

A plaque in Latin at the foot of the cross cresting the Chapel reads:

A Peste Libera Nos Domine.

(O Lord, Deliver Us from Plague, Pestilence)


The last time I met Willy over a year ago, he was busy with a ladder and looking up at what was the tallest cactus I’d ever seen. I had never imagined cactus to grow as tall as the one Willy was contemplating when I arrived at the gate that opened into the courtyard of his home behind the Chapel and across the lane from James Ferreira’s house.

The cactus, located in a corner outside the gate, had reached the first floor window of his neighbour 's house and Willy was seized with ensuring it did not bend under its own weight like its predecessor had done. A ladder stood against the wall, approaching the first floor window but not reaching it. That was then. I remember Willy hoping the cactus would survive.

Ever since, I kept an eye out for the cactus on my infrequent visits to Khotachiwadi, pleased to see it survive.

This time around, while I spied a ladder, it wasn’t against the wall by the cactus but against the sloping roof of Willy’s home. His brother, Philip, was busy on the roof setting up a Christmas tableau complete with a snowman playing a guitar among paper reindeers while his friend in dark glasses stayed below, hand on the ladder.

At first glance, the cactus was nowhere to be seen, instead long, snow-tipped/silver coloured tinsel garlands streamed to the earth from a nylon rope fastened to a bracket supporting the rafters, covering the cactus from view.

“The cactus hasn’t grown any taller,” I said within Philip’s earshot as I paused in the shade on my way to the gate of Willy’s home.
“It keeps growing. We’ve to chop it from growing any taller,” Philip answered from the roof, straightening up as he turned to follow my gaze to the cactus obscured by the tinsel garlands lit by a warm late-afternoon sun.

It was 3 pm.

I walk ahead to the gate in the compound enclosing Willy’s courtyard and peer in. I see am elderly woman pause on seeing me.

“Is Willy in?” I ask her.
“Wait,” she says before disappearing through the door.

I wait.

The lanes are quiet except for the occasional bustle of residents passing through the lanes. Behind me, a metal door opening into a short enclosed approach to his neighbour’s house and painted with a large dog is ajar. There’s no dog as far as I can see. I can hear Philip and his friend discuss the Christmas decorations Philip is setting up on the roof. The woman reappears.

“He must be somewhere outside, here only,” she said.
“In the lanes around here,” I ask her.
“Yeah, somewhere here only,” she replies, “he should be coming soon.”

I set off among the lanes, passing fast disappearing heritage homes made of wood with open, airy street-facing verandahs and external staircases reaching first-floor rooms. Some were painted bright and cheerful while others wore subdued colours. One house near Ideal Wafers was getting a fresh coat of paint as I passed it.

Willy wasn’t to be found. I returned to his house and approached his brother still busy on the roof.

“Any chance Willy is at work?” I ask Philip.
“Not today,” Philip answers back from the roof, “He must be around somewhere. You can wait a bit.”
“I’ll be sitting by the Chapel here.” I reply, indicating to the cement bench. “Let him know when he comes.”
Philip nods.

I make for the cement bench further from the wall with a fading painting of Mother Mary holding Infant Jesus shown standing in a lotus and flanked by elephants raising a garland each to Mother Mary. I was more familiar with the traditional depiction of Goddess Saraswati seated or standing in a blooming lotus, not Mother Mary.

I settle on the cement bench facing the Chapel. The three girls are gone. A light breeze is blowing.

I watch residents and visitors pass me along their way elsewhere. The sun finds an opening among houses to light up pink bougainvillea leaning over the fence of a double-storied heritage house with projecting wooden verandah running along the front. The ground floor is home to the Catholic Gymkhana.

Later, Willy told me that the Catholic Gymkhana used to own a billiards table that they sold off recently as fewer and fewer members who played billiards were left in the neighbourhood. A Hindu family stayed on the floor above.

The Chapel is open. Jesus on the Cross is flanked by statues of two women, one with hands cupped in prayer, the other with her hands close to her body, palms spread in the manner of one in shock and helpless to make a difference. Pain is writ on their faces.

Time meanders along the lane; seconds tick over into minutes, minutes near an hour. Still no sign of Willy.

Philip is laying out lights among the reindeer. His friend watches from below, as before. I walk up to them and check after Willy.

“Is he in.” I ask Philip.
“Not yet. I didn’t see him come in,” Philip answers and reaches for his mobile phone in his pocket and calls someone. His friend does likewise.
Turning to me, Philip says, “He is not answering the phone.”
“Oh, you called him as well,” his friend exclaims. “I called him. Not picking up.”
Philip calls the second time, then a third.
“Where are you,” he says into the phone, likely to Willy.
“Here? Here where? In the house?” Philip enquires of the voice at the other end.
“On the terrace? Sleeping on the terrace?” Philip enquires, “Someone is looking for you,” he tells Willy and hangs up.
“He was sleeping on the terrace all this while,” Philips tells me. “He’s coming.”

I hang around. Residents passing along the lane stop to admire the Christmas decorations and exchange pleasantries with Philip. I lean against the wall.

Soon, Willy emerges from the gate, hair tied in a pony tail as before. He’s aged since the time I first met him about a decade ago.

“Hey, how are you?” his voice booms out.

We shake hands and return to the cement bench by the Chapel and lapse into a long conversation, the kind that a long intervening time without one, usually engenders.

Every once in a while a passer-by stops by to talk with Willy.

One of them is Mr. Kulkarni. “He’s a dentist,” Willy informs me after he leaves.

Another is a young woman in a black skirt and a pronounced accent. She opens the bag she’s carrying and shows Willy the Christmas decorations she’s bought, figurines to prepare the traditional Christmas Crib. They discuss the purchase.

“I’ll be around your place after 9:30 pm tonight,” Willy informs her, “I’ll be singing Christmas Carols and will be stopping by homes along the way, singing.”

“I’ll be there,” she tells him before going along her way.

“She’s visiting Khotachiwadi from abroad, for Christmas,” Willy explains after she leaves. “This time, many from here have gone to Australia for Christmas so the place is somewhat empty come Christmas. Some have come down from abroad.”

Soon, a young boy with a distinctly West Indian hair shows up and asks Willy if he can borrow his guitar. “I want to practice Carols,” he explains to Willy.

Willy nods and tells him to pick it up from his house but not before extracting an assurance from the boy that he’ll accompany Willy tonight to sing Christmas Carols in the lanes.

“He (the boy) stays with his mother here who’s divorced from his West Indian father,” Willy tells me. “His father is from the place Brian Lara is.”

Willy Felizardo is helping keep an old neighbourhood tradition going.

“Before (many years ago), we’d have people travel to Khotachiwadi from Bandra in the week before Christmas to sing carols in these lanes, now hardly anyone is interested. They’re too busy with work and too tired after it, and many have grown old, and many have left,” he says, voice trailing off.

He spoke about the time back in the days when most houses in Khotachiwadi retained their original architectural character and had families living in them, when letting go of family homes to capricious builders was not an option anyone considered.

Willy’s family will be making a Christmas Crib in a triangle shaped cut on the outside of the compound after emptying it of displays of driftwood he’s sculpted over the years while the Crib in the chapel would be community inspired.

“We will cover ‘Jesus on the Cross’ and place the Christmas Crib out front,” Willy said, pointing to the small empty space in the Chapel.

I’m thinking of returning to Khotachiwadi later this week to see the Crib and take in some Christmas air.

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