January 14, 2009

Laburnum Road

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 fa├žade. 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.


Anonymous said...

A lovely and wistful portrayal of an old and historical neighbourhood, punctuated with the liveliness of the four young boys.

I missed the first two episodes of the Story of India, but caught the third one this week - very fascinating and well done!

bobbie said...

Lovely old homes on a lovely street. Your imagination adds so much.

I love your photo of the boys and their kites, and your description of them.

I have been able to see a little of the PBS feature on India. PBS is my favorite on TV.

Anonymous said...

Your use of the word "jarred" in referring to the aluminum framed windows is spot on. I just love the architecture of those older homes.

Anonymous said...

BTW, thanks for the heads up on the Story of India series. Although I've missed the first 2 episodes, surely they'll air them again. At least the other 4 episodes are set to record on the DVR.

bindu said...

Very good descriptions. I liked the quietly contemplative narration. Thanks.

kenju said...

I saw parts of the show on India this past Monday night. I hope to see it all when it comes back in re-runs.

karen said...

Anil, thank you ever so much for this beautiful little piece of your world...and those echoes of Gandhi... I just love your photos and words, and the story of the children and their kites just touched my heart!:-)

SAKEC library said...

A nice article about Laburnum where Gandhiji used to visit.The atmosphere is serene.

Lakshmi said...

liked reading abt the boys and kites..anecdotes like these make a neighbourhood more interesting than just its past :)

Anil P said...

Marja-leena: Thank you. Kids flying kites bring an unpredictable energy to any place. And this lot was an obedient-looking one :)

Good to know you happened to catch the Jan 12 episode. I believe the PBS series Story of India is rich pictorially though I myself haven't been able to see it. We don't get PBS in India, at least not where I live.

Bobbie: Thank you. There're many an old villa on the street, and the atmosphere is that of quiet elegance.

PBS will be running their third part on Jan 19. We don't get the channel here. Is it like the BBC in its selection of documentaries?

The kids with the kites were an active bunch. I thought the kites looked pretty.

Seamus: I found those windows (most probably a very recent addition) totally out of place with the facade of Gool Villa.

The firm of Taraporewala and Bharucha were responsible for the architecture of the buildings. I believe most of the villas on the street had their origins in the decade of 1910, a few years give and take. This makes them nearly hundred years old.

You can catch the next episode of Story of India on Jan 19. I think they might re-run it. I suppose it will depend on the response they receive.

Bindu: Thank you. The character of the street makes any visit there contemplative.

Kenju: I hear it's quite a visual tapestry.

Karen: Thank you, Karen. It is encouragement like yours that motivates me to tell more stories. Kids with kites are always a picture of innocence.

Sometimes I feel they've their priorities way more correct than many of us do :)

Gowri: Thank you.

Lakshmi: Thank you. It was just 10 days before Makar Sankranti, so the kites were bound to be around.

Lucy said...

It is wistful, very beautiful. I love the way you never miss an opportunity to speak to people too.

Thanks Anil!

janis said...

Thank you for commenting on my little blog. I am so boring and appreciate your reading & comment.
Your Blog on the other hand is rich and inviting! What a beautiful place you live!
Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating palce and history of Gandhi. I have always been interested in him and his work.
The kite flyers were a joy, made me wish I could buy them the big kite they mentioned!

Anonymous said...

An interesting and enlightening post beautifully told. I love the wistful telling of the history of the street, your imaginings intertwining then and now and of course the entertaining boys and their kites.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, what a charming neighborhood with an interesting history. “The silence of an empty house” is a lovely phrase. I like the image of a tree caressing a house with her shadow.

Renee said...

I am quite happy when I see you have posted. I know I will learn something new.

Thanks for the picture of the little boys, they are all really adorable. I loved Pappua little red shoes and how his feet are with the shoes on the side. Too cute.



Angela said...

I found your comment on my blog and immediately came to visit yours! What beautiful pictures, and what an interesting place you show us, and I like your words so much along with it. I will certainly return here! India is such an exotic place for a girl (haha)from Northern Germany!

Anil P said...

Lucy: Thank you. It's fun interacting with people. Actually I like listening to people more than talking myself. There's so much to learn of perspectives that might otherwise remain unknown to me.

Janis: Thank you. I'm sure each of us has interesting stories to narrate.

Gandhi's journey has been remarkable for what he sought to achieve and the manner in which he did it. Walking through Mani Bhavan is an humbling experience.

They would have loved the big kite.

Rob: Thanks, Rob. An aging street has many a story hidden in footfalls from long ago.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. I like that image as well. There's something compelling about the shadow caressing the wall of the villa, more so in the absence of any activity. It's almost a part of the house.

Renee: Thanks, Renee. It's so encouraging to know you feel that way. It's indeed a pleasure to know you enjoy reading my India posts.

It's quite interesting isn't it, the way he has turned his feet on the side. None of the other boys have done it.

Angela: Thank you. There's many a story to be found in ordinary nooks in India. Thanks for visiting.

Lori ann said...

Thank you Anil for another facinating look at a world so different from mine....imagination fashions a moment into reality...your words are poetry...
xx lori

Amber Star said...

I saw yesterday, I think it was that you had posted this. I'd saved it for a time when I could enjoy it when it was quiet. It is nearing midnight here in Texas and I so loved your story about Ghandi and the carder and the houses/archetecture, and the kids and their kites. Kids everywhere sound much alike in their excitement, it seems. Without your story I'd never have know about your road and the stories it had for you to tell.

I love the photo of Shireen Villa. It looks as if it were a sepia photo from that time period.

My husband and I are enjoying the Story of India series very much. I'm so glad you mentioned them.

Sydney said...

I love your pictures and you write beautifully. I am trying to remember if I've been here, as I was in Bombay and many other places in Southern India in..... when was it...I think 1992? !989? I loved India and moreso loved the people. Through your blog, your eyes and voice I am enjoying the opportunity to return.

Ugich Konitari said...

This took me way back to the trips we would make during our summer holidays , in the late 50's and early 60's. Some of these places have remained relatively physically unchanged, and I just wonder how the BMC in their questionable wisdom managed to leave the name of the road intact. Maybe its the solidity of character in which that era was steeped....Gandhiji, Mani Bhavan, Nationalistic Parsi folks, the talented Saraswats, .... dont know whether to call it respectful charm or charmed respectability...probably the former.

megha puNAter" said...

have walked this road so many times,but its never been so interesting.
super :)

Serendipity said...

Nice! I always LOVE the pictures.

Could u leave me a comment on my blog/mail me on strumminmythoughts@gmail about the camera u use and special settings if any?

I recently got a SonyCybershot DSCT77 as a birthday gift.. and Im trying to fulyl explore its options. HELP PLEASE!

Anonymous said...

I remember going there to participate in an elocution competition and remember the trees just swaying in the gentle breeze; imagining Gandhiji walking this way. Phew! This is too surreal. I remember meeting the great radio lady - Usha Mehta who ran an underground radio station - physically so frail yet one of the most courageous people to have walked on this earth. Thank you for bringing such warm memories. Good luck! Love and Light, SS

heidi said...

thank you for that short but lovely trip to india :-)

Merisi said...

I have just read your previous, brilliant post and will have to come back another time to read this one. I am looking forward to the pleasure of doing so! In the meantime, I would like to leave this not to tell you that your pictures are extraordinary, each and everyone carries a special beauty, the buildings, the streets, the children with their kites, all of them like messengers of what your eye catches. Thank you so much for taking the time and care to share all this!

Anil P said...

Lori Ann: Thank you :)

Amber Star: Thank you. Sometimes the quiet helps many an unconcious moment makes its presence felt. Thank you for your remark for it's very satisfying to know the post struck a chord.

Children are the same everywhere, conditioned more by their natural instinct to bond with their interest as much as bond with each other.

I hope to get to see the Story Of India series some time in the future.

Sydney: Thank you. With geography the regions change but a certain warmth pervades. Do return.

Ugich Konitari: It must be quite a feeling to visit certain locations in Mumbai now and see them more or less the same like they used be decades ago. Few things strike as strongly as seeing a certain permanency in places that hold fond memories.

Megha Punater: Thank you :)

Serendipity: Thank you. For most of the pictures that you see here I've used a Nikon D80 SLR fitted with a Tamron 28-300 mm lens. Earlier I've used a Nikon FM 10 SLR fitted with a Sigman 28-110 mm lens, and also a Quantaray 500 mm Prime Focus lens.

I vary the settings depending on the light availability, and prefer to shoot at fast speeds, and higher apertures to get the warm feel to a picture unless of course the light is bad. Most times I might shoot one stop under as well.

Congratulations on being gifted Sony Cybershot, I'm sure it will give your travels that much more meaning.

Anonymous: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be able to help evoke fond memories. I do wish I could get to see some pictures of the time you mention.

Heidi: Thank you :)

Merisi: Thank you. I do hope you'll enjoy this post as well.

Thank you for your kind comments. It's a pleasure to know these posts strike a chord in you, and I consider it a privilege to be able to share all these moments with you. Thank you.

karen said...

Hi Anil!
Hope you're still checking your comments from this post... Please go on over to my blog and pick up an award from me :-)

Sherri said...

I woke up this morning very groggy for some reason but enjoyed sipping my masala chai while reading your eloguent words that transported me to another time and place and possibly even dimension. Perfect way to start my day. I do enjoy the reflecting on the shadows on the homes and loved your explanation of the silence. What a lovely street block.
take care,

Anil P said...

Karen: Thanks, Karen. It's a wonderful feeling to be acknowledged so by a fellow blogger. Thank you very much for the award.

Shireena: Thank you. The shadows on the homes are eloquent in their own way. Light fascinates in the way it plays around.

Anonymous said...

What a charming and evocative post! I was actually on Laburnum Road a few weeks back, when I was in Mumbai for a few hours, en route to Madras. I spent a little time in Mani Bhavan as well. You really brought alive the character and mood of this area.

Anjuli said...

A lovely trip down memory lane...I simply can't get enough of your pictures and the words- really wonderful. You capture moods- feelings- thoughts- memories- all in just a few words. Excellent!

Anil P said...

Kamini: That's interesting. It's a pleasant walk down there. Thank you.

Anjuli: Thank you. The places are such that it is inevitable for the moods trickle down so. It's a pleasure to learn you enjoyed reading this post.

Priyamvada_K said...

Nice post of a quiet, historical neighborhood. The area that Gandhi once visited...

Your description of stillness reminds me of some ashrams in villages.


Sunita Mohan said...

Anil, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It was almost as if you were talking aloud while walking down Laburnum Road.
I enjoy watching the cotton carders at work too. It's such a quaint idea to feel connected to a great man because of a carder!