Have Bandra's xenophobes forgotten their own history?

Cultural mixing, despite its Catholic image, has always been characteristic of Bandra. Now some Catholics in the queen of Mumbai's suburbs are beginning to resent that very fact.

Dilip D'Souza March 09, 2012 12:21:07 IST
Have Bandra's xenophobes forgotten their own history?

Mr Reis used to be a regular Friday morning guest at our Bandra flat. Tall, ramrod straight and hearty, he would spend an hour with my Uncle Joe, saying the rosary, chatting about the relatives, offering to shop for necessities. For me, he always had a cheery greeting and few questions: How's the niece in California? What happened at the doctor last week? Ah, I wish I could play tennis with you!

Mr Reis was 70-plus at the time — 15 years ago — and a heart patient himself. Yet as he strode through the suburb's tree-shaded lanes and past the ever fewer old bungalows, he'd work up a brisk pace. He was on what he called his "rounds", roaming the suburb to spend time with its lonely older residents.

Older, that is, than Mr Reis himself.

His visits always touched me. Why would a man do this, entirely on his own? Yet the spirit that moved him — reach out to my neighbour, whoever it is — seems remote indeed when Bandra folks whisper with apparent alarm, as many do, that Pali Village is becoming Ali Village.

Ranwar is becoming Anwar. Chimbai is now ChimbHai.

You get the picture.

Have Bandras xenophobes forgotten their own history

In Bombay, Bandra is the "queen of the suburbs", with good reason. Anuradha Sengupta via Flickr

In Bombay, Bandra is the "queen of the suburbs", with good reason. It was  always a Cooler , slower, leafier escape from the grime and pace of the city. If Bombay throbs with life day and night, Bandra, 15 km north of downtown even with a Sealink in place, seemed forever where the throbbing muted, life became gentler. People came here to breathe clean air, to enjoy the space and the sea, to relax. As recently as 60 years ago — if that's recent, of course — there were large fields of rice here. They were interrupted only by the occasional sprawling bungalow built by the intrepid Bombayite who realised living
here was even better than visiting. (One such told me about the fields).

Which is not to say that all was always peace and quiet. At Land's End, overlooking the said Sealink, is a hulking reminder of that. Bandra Fort is now a haunt for lovers and home to an amphitheatre where eclectic concerts play out. But once upon a time …

… well, it never was much of a fort, really. "Castela de Aguada" was built by the Portuguese in 1640. Their warships would stop here for water, hence the name. By then, Bandra had been in Portuguese hands for over a century. Battles had raged up and down this coast through the 16th Century, as the Portuguese mounted campaigns from the sea, ravaging the country. In 1534, a sea captain called Diego da Silveira entered Bandra creek and burned the fishing town he found there. With that, Bandra came under the rule of the Portuguese crown.

This turmoil was the start of a long period of Christianization of Bandra (something today's residents would do well to remember). It was Father  Manuel Gomes who really turned the Catholic Church into the institution it has become here. In 1580, he baptized 2,000 fishermen, and that was just a beginning. By the time he died 11 years later, Father Gomes' "invincible strength of soul" — as one historian described it — had converted 6,000 people of the area. It was Father Gomes who established St. Andrew's church, the flag-bearer of Bandra Catholicism today.

To go with Christianity's spread, the military power of the Portuguese, notwithstanding Castella de Aguada, declined. Ostensibly so they could together resist the growing threat of the Dutch, Portugal and England entered into an pact under which Bandra was ceded to the English. This was not a popular move among its residents, whether Portuguese settlers, converted fishermen or Jesuits. There are reports of the time that tell of Jesuit priests throwing "bomb-shells" at English ships in the creek. Such inflammatory acts took their toll, and pact or no pact, relations between the two European powers — at least in Bandra and surrounds — went steadily down Pali Hill.

Still, their joint influence is apparent even today. Most Catholics in Bandra have Portuguese family names (even if the spellings are sometimes  apostrophised): "D'Cunha", "Heredia" and "D'Souza" are three. But the given names are usually very English: "John" and "Rosebud", "Nigel" and "Lorna" and "Hyacinth". Where in the world you would find a name like "Ian Pereira", except in these parts?

Yet the Cyril Noronhas, the Jonathan D'Limas, the Glynis Carrascos — they don't think their names are at all unusual. And as Indianness has asserted itself over the last generation or so, many Catholics have Indian first names, making for even more intriguing combinations.

"Javed Ferreira", "Nishant Machado", "Naresh Fernandes" and yes, "Dilip D'Souza" are, again, names that could not exist anywhere but in this corner of India. (Though Sri Lanka's Thisara Pereras and Ranjith Fernandos offer food for thought).

All of which hints at the cultural mixing which, despite its Catholic image, has always been characteristic of Bandra.

So when cultural xenophobes in the community offer this stuff about "Anwar" and "Ali", I want to ask them: have you forgotten your own history? How your own forebears forever altered the character of Bandra?

Have you forgotten the spirit in Mr Reis?

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