Coming of age in 1950’s Bombay
I lived at 99 Apollo Street, Fort, Bombay from the age of 5 to 11 or six of my most formative years. Our large joint family of 14 souls over 3 generations had moved into a former brothel in the business district of Bombay, the most cosmopolitan and leading city in India at the time of independence, by paying the landlord the princely sum of Rs. 10,000 which is equal to $130 today but probably was worth $3000 in those days. This amount was paid as a “pugree” which is a deposit to rent the place for a ridiculously small monthly sum. The low rent meant that the landlord never repaired anything so most of the apartment was falling apart. The apartment had a large hall with 3 bedrooms on one side of the hall and a dining room on the other with a kitchen on the side. It had only one bathroom that had a door between the bathing area and the toilet area. The toilet had a broken shaky wooden seat that loooked like it would fall off any time.
Between our building and the adjacent building was an alley that was no more than 5 feet wide. It was no longer used as an alley but a garbage dump. Every resident of both buildings simply tossed all manner of trash out of the windows into the alley. During the monsoon when it got wet it must have stunk to high heaven although I do not recall the odors as there were so many competing odors around. One of the most notable things about Bombay is its distinctive odor, a combination of human excrements with hints of dog poop, cow dung and rotting garbage.
The rest of the structures on Apollo Street were office buildings occupied by small trading businesses with the exception of the building across the street from our house. This building had the name Batliboi and Co. over the stone front entrance which meant it was the headquarters of this company. This 5 storey building had a lift or elevator, a luxury rarely seen in those days. The lift was operated by a liftman in a uniform who saluted everyone who entered. He turned a wheel like a ship’s steering wheel to start the lift and stop it at the right floor, open the caged door for the passenger to leave. One of our favorite pastimes was to go over on a Sunday when the offices were closed and plead with the lift-man to give us a ride to the top or 5th floor from where we could see the sea in the distance as there were no tall buildings at the time. During the summer months when schools were closed and our cousins came to visit us from Delhi it was a big treat to show them this engineering marvel that they had never seen.
There were no playgrounds anywhere in Fort. I don’t recall ever sitting on a swing or being in a playground for my entire childhood. The closest open space was Oval Maidan, a large grassy 20 acre grassy area across from the University of Bombay. There were designated areas for cricket and football but no facilities for children. Our life consisted of home to school and back. I went to Holy Name High School, a Society of Jesuits run school about a mile and a half away. The school was on a busy street in Colaba the main shopping thoroughfare at that time. It did not have a playground either. During the two mandatory recesses we just milled about in the hallways. Once we got home we stayed indoors as the street we lived on had no other residences or families. We could not play in the street due the amount of traffic and cars parked along the sidewalks.
As I got older I could venture out to with my favorite aunt to Colaba Causeway where all the stores would be open and crowds of people strolling along among the sidewalk vendors. She dressed up and went walking on Colaba Causeway every evening with her sister in law who was very fashionable. The highlight of the month for me was when they took me along. The walk along Colaba Causeway was for people watching and catching up with the latest news on births, deaths, engagements and marriages. They would meet someone they knew every 10–20 steps to talk about people who I did not know nor would ever meet but it was still fascinating to hear the gossip. A typical evening walk conversation might unfold as below.
Friend “Arraay- did you hear the news?” said in a tone of excitement and urgency with a rising voice.
My aunt “What? What happened?”
“Do you remember Pushpa?”
“The one who lived in Amil Colony No.1 or the fat ugly one who lived across the street from you?”
“Aaah that one fat and ugly”
“What about her, did she die?”
“She is bethroted”.
“Don’t tell me! How did that happen? Who would marry her? I have heard she has a moustache that she shaves every few days and she is over 30 and probably barren!
“Which idiot agreed to marry her”
“Did you know Moti Duke. They lived at Bunder Road Extension in Karachi. His nickname was Duke because he thinks he is an Englishman. But his family is quite poor!. Pushpa’s dad offered a huge dowry of 20000.”
“Oh yes, I remember, he is very fair and talks fancy. You know his mother is a witch. She will make Pushpa’s life miserable”.
“ Well everybody’s kismet is what it is. Whatever will be will be”.
A few steps later they meet another acquaintance and now it was their turn to spread the juicy news.
“ Did you hear that ugly Pushpa got engaged?”
“ You dont say I thought she would die a virgin. Who would agree to marry her?”
After an hour of this gossip they would return home very satisfied to spread the news to the family. The entire family would absorb this news with relish. This is the only news that family would have got that day so it would be discussed all through dinner with side anecdotes about unrelated people and events that they remembered from their life in Karachi followed by everyone wondering if they would be invited to ugly Pushpa and the fancy Duke’s wedding. The wedding would probably be at Jai Hind College auditorium the best wedding venue in Bombay and as her parents were rich they may even get some samosas or “tikkis” in addition to the Coca Cola served in warm bottles with paper straws by greasy waiters with wispy moustaches wearing dirty tuxedos and crooked bow ties. The parents were so rich they might even serve Casata ice cream, the highlight of a wedding. They would meet hundreds of acquaintances from their prior life in Karachi and would collect weeks of gossip.
Going to a wedding was perhaps the highest and most sought of social event for that generation at the time. There were no restaurants or bars. Social life consisted of visiting relatives and having the same food we ate at home. Life was dull for the adults. They had left a bustling social scene in Karachi where they would dress up every evening and parade on Bunder Road or at Clifton and seek marriage partners. They belonged to clubs and social circles and played bridge and had parties. Now they were stuck in tenement like apartments with the smell of rotting garbage wafting through the windows on humid nights.
I visited Bombay (Mumbai now) 3 years ago and sensing that could be my last trip I vowed to walk along all the streets that I recalled from my childhood in the house on Apollo Street. I walked from the school I had attended to the house and passed many familiar buildings. Although a lot has changed in the last 70 years there were many sights that brought back memories and filled me with nostalgia. I looked for the address 99 Apollo Street and found a newer office building on that same location.