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Relic of the Raj
... the Governor's mansion, Bombay
At Raj Bhavan in Bombay, small stalks that you can see fallen on the ground everywhere look just like the street lamps there. On a nature walk through the grounds, a Bombay Natural History Society naturalist told me cheerfully that these stalks belonged to the fruit of the "wild bhendi." It was a terribly mundane explanation for the wonder I felt whenever I picked up one of the stalks and looked bemusedly up at the street lamp, towering silently above me. The naturalist didn't know it, but he had just pricked one of the last few balloons of my childhood.
They're going fast, those balloons. But most of them are from the years at Raj Bhavan. We lived in the estate two different times, which, I'll admit, makes me feel distinctly privileged. Nothing else about my growing up years was quite as special as Raj Bhavan.
The routine part, actually, is that Raj Bhavan is a unique part of Bombay. It has lush vegetation, birds, butterflies, a beach and a spectacular view of Marine Drive and the sea. Besides, it is -- or most of it is -- kept spotlessly clean. And all those trees effectively keep out the noise and the hustle and bustle of the Walkeshwar area. Indeed, of the rest of Bombay. This is Bombay as it must have been a long time ago, before cars and trains and garbage and dug up holes.
And yet, as I said, that's the routine part. Even without entering the Governor's estate, you probably know he lives in a spectacular corner of the city.
No, for me it was the far littler things that made Raj Bhavan special. And if the BNHS naturalist unwittingly took away some of the charm in my stalks, there is far more about Raj Bhavan that I remember fondly from when I was a child. That he couldn't take away.
The littlest things were the tiny cylinders of plastic. In any random handful of sand from the beach, there were always at least a few of these: translucent, smooth, perhaps two millimetres long. While elder brother used to collect small, funny crabs in his pockets when we were kids on the beach, I gathered these. Because they were a constant puzzle. I never understood where they came from and I never found them on other beaches. But on that recent nature walk, I was thrilled to find them in the same abundance.
If I looked up from my bhendi stalks at street lamps, kid sister was looking up at drongos. We all had a passion for the ubiquitous little red seeds. She specially liked the tinier egg-shaped ones with black caps. More so because every time she found one, there was a jaunty drongo sitting somewhere above, forked tail twitching merrily at her. It was the drongo that was bringing her those seeds, she just knew.
The sea wall was always a delight. It was crumbling into a pile of rocks, and pigeons sat on the rocks or nestled in nooks, cooing gently at us. Races down the beach with Amma -- she usually won -- ended at the rocks.
We would then pick our way over them and continue along the wall to the end of the promontory, urged on by the pigeons. There, in pale marble, was an enduring mystery. Three plaques, embedded in the rock face. "Me-Shoo: There is not enough darkness in the world to put out the light of one small candle." "Lindy Lou: Her tail still wags in our hearts." "Tilly, 1938 -- 1942." A twinge of sadness would wend its way down my spine as we stood there thinking about Lindy Lou and Me-Shoo and Tilly. For we too had dogs, and my memories of Raj Bhavan are rarely without one or another of them.
It was the stuff of books I had read: the sand, the sea, the sun, a dog by our side. Dumbo, an early and much loved doggy member of the family, was truly that dog. Stories of Dumbo's clashes with cobras on the doorstep of our Raj Bhavan house are still related with fondness and more than a little respect. On the beach, he was tireless. He'd swim out with us to the boat, strong and steady, swim back, chase a mongoose in the undergrowth, swim out again.
Later, it was Milou, our snowy Samoyed. At the best of times, he wasn't a big fan of water. One afternoon, I carried Milou out into the waves to make him swim. He did fine for a few minutes, but suddenly began howling in a ghastly fashion. I ran back to the beach with him. On dry ground, he limped about for a few seconds, favouring a front paw. Then, a quick furtive look in my direction, and he began tearing around the beach joyfully. Milou had been pretending, only wanting to get out of the water!
But at least Milou recognized his lack of swimming talent. I didn't bother. There was the time I leaped off a boat into several feet of water, somehow unaware that I couldn't swim. Floundering and spluttering, I had to be rescued by Amma. I did eventually learn to swim, but even today, she tells the story through clenched teeth: "I was so ANGRY!"
And after hours of swimming -- or floundering -- and lazing in the sun, there was always the treat of a shower. Cool and refreshing, yes. But it offered another small source of wonder. The water that came out of those showers was so fresh, it tasted almost sweet. It's a taste that's locked away in my memories. It comes back sometimes with a pang, reminding me of when I was three feet tall and not too many more years old. Today I know that it was most of the day spent tasting the salt in the sea that made the shower taste so sweet, not forgetting that the years have sweetened it some more. But then it was something I looked forward to all day, that taste.
The sea wall at Raj Bhavan is still home to guttural pigeons, but it's no longer crumbling. Now it has been repaired. The pile of rocks has gone. On top, tarred and everything, is a regular boulevard. You can drive over in your air conditioned Opel Astra to Me-Shoo's and Lindy Lou's plaques, if the Governor will let you.
The short leafy path from the road down to the beach is now a grand tiled staircase. And the beach itself, that gleaming, pristine stretch of sand? Today, it is black with oil. And on that nature walk morning, it was inches deep in the detritus of Bombay in the 1990s. Frooti boxes, thermocole, milk cartons, condoms, an unbroken 60-watt bulb, plastic bags, pieces of glass.
I suppose that's all progress. Dumbo would have cut his paws on the glass.
Dilip D'Souza contributes a weekly column to Rediff On The NeT. D'Souza lived in a bungalow on the estate of the Raj Bhavan as a child for three to four years when his father, J B D'Souza, was the chief secretary of Maharashtra. Interestingly his father's successors opted not to live in the Raj Bhavan preferring more 'convenient' quarters elsewhere. The bungalow has been closed for 15 years or so after that. It is possible to take a nature walk through this beautiful estate if you contact Sanctuary, 60, Maker V, tel # 2830061.
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