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Travelling with Mary Hopkins

By Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la…

Mary Hopkins: “Those were the Days”
Source Musixmatch (though I know the words ‘by heart’)

I’m convinced now that Mary Hopkins had it right. As I get on in years, I find myself singing the chorus of her song “Those were the days,” with amazing regularity, and what is more, I find myself believing in, and reliving fully every word of that chorus. I have done many different kinds of travelling, but the travelling I am about to do here, is back in time, and takes place where I was born, and where I found love… in a far-flung suburb of the huge metropolis, Bombay, so far away from home, it shocked my mother. “Did you have to go so far to find a husband?” she said, on hearing of our marriage plans later. To tell the truth, I fell in and out of love many times, but this love was to stay with me for forty years and counting. The story of that encounter must remain for another day, for it was a strange one indeed. 

My knowledge of the city of Bombay, did not extend to the suburb that was home to him. In my ignorance, I finally mustered up the courage to ask whether it was even in Bombay, or outside somewhere, in a different city perhaps! You see, I was a South Bombay girl, and only knew the parts of the city my close friends lived in. Bandra, Santacruz, Malad, Andheri and Vile Parle, since my father was the Vice-Principal of a college there. Vile Parle was ‘so far away’, we went there only for special occasions. I had never taken the train, to any of those suburbs, unaccompanied by a friend. I always had travelled by bus, on my own.

So, as our attraction became more pronounced, and when he invited me to his house, we agreed that I should take the bus, the number 81, and he would meet me at the bus stop, across from Bandra station. He assured me that I had nothing to worry about. He would be waiting for me at the designated bus stop, and it was the best thing in the world, to see his eager face as I got off the bus. In fact, he gave me a helping hand to descend the steps of the bus, on to the street. I had made sure to sit right at the very front of the bus, so I could get off very quickly. Love gives us wings. I’ll say that at the risk of sounding clichéd! The bus was the first kind of ‘travelling’ I did. I took the same bus at the same time, each Saturday. It was not a very long journey, maybe twenty minutes or so, but the journey seemed unending.

Life was simple, back then, or so I like to think. I wore a black and white cotton dress with a floral motif and carried a purse that hung from my shoulder. There were no credit cards in those days, not even bank cards, just a few rupees, some lipstick and eyeshadow (of which I was very fond), a comb, a few rubber bands, in case the one that tied my hair snapped, and a handkerchief. Compared to the things I need in my purse now, it all seemed so uncomplicated. He carried his train pass in his simple wallet, which was tucked into his pocket, and he had a small blue towel in his hand discreetly, to wipe the sweat that poured from his face. I can still remember the dabbing motion of wiping those beads of perspiration that gathered on his forehead. 

He had spent more than an hour to get to Bandra to meet me.

Once off the bus, he would hold my hand tightly, while I balanced on four-inch heels, and we ran across the road, so as not to miss the fast train to Borivili. There were concrete dividers in the middle of the road to step over, so the heels had to balance carefully on those precarious stepping stones. The rush to catch the fast train, meant that we could not entertain the luxury of stopping to buy samosas from the famous restaurant just behind the bus stop. It was aptly named Lucky Restaurant, a good omen, or so we thought at the time. I was mortally afraid of trains, the crowds hanging out as if gasping for air, and the people rushing in and out of trains we passed on the way, stampeding like cattle, and the sheer size of the population on our train itself, which sometimes meant standing room only. The loud announcements calling out the arrivals and departures of trains boomed above the noise of the crowd. In those days, the population was not as dense as the present, and we tried to avoid peak times, yet to me, it seemed, there was always a crowd. Being short in stature, I could not reach the handle bars in the train, so I had to hold on to my boyfriend’s waist. Once, I actually held on to another man’s waist, and apologized profusely when I discovered my mistake, but he simply said, ‘You are welcome.’ That went a long way towards making my train journey a little more pleasant. Those were the days…holding another man’s waist would be politically incorrect today! I wonder what I would be accused of!

Our journey was far from done…more travelling to do, once we arrived.

At Borivili railway station, there was another busy crossing. “Station Road,’ it was named. We had to dodge an endless sea of humanity, cars, buses, scooters, and cows, vendors with baskets on their heads, beggars, street urchins, and stray dogs. I’m sure I have left something out! Then a few more steps to catch bus number 292, to his house. Following that a short walk to the colony of flats, into building number A-6/5, and then up to the second floor. No elevators. It was a one-bedroom flat which had no door to the bedroom, but a beautiful, large window fanned by palm fronds which swayed and swished ushering in the coolest of breezes with a hint of sea air. I lived right beside the sea, so that was a familiar and welcoming smell to me.  

The long journey to my boyfriend’s home was worth it, as a woman, dressed in a simple saree with a beautiful smile, opened the door, and invited me in.

When I entered the home, I was struck by the number of shorts and T-shirts hanging from wall hooks and four, bare-bodied boys came forward to greet me. They had no sisters and being the first girl they had ever welcomed as a prospective sister-in-law, were solicitous, nervous, went out of their way to please and make me feel at home. The ceilings were low and in the living room, a fan whirred at high speed. I kept looking up nervously, thinking it would, at some point, collapse on my head. After my visit, his brothers later told him that it was nerve-wracking having me around because they were not used to behaving so well. It was far too tiresome!!  

I too, had travelled beyond my zone of comfort, but how could they know that? They would be surprised if they got to know how far I found their home, or learn about my confusion with trains. I’m sure they wondered why I could not have travelled there on my own! They were too polite to make any such comments.

Once inside the home, not much travelling to do from the living room to the bedroom, with an intervening kitchen. The flat was small, not sure what I was comparing it to! My home was small too, but we lived most of our lives in the beautiful garden, which was our landlord’s pride.

In the afternoons, after a deliciously heavy meal, we took a siesta in the large bed – and his mother discreetly turned over, facing away from us, so as to give us some privacy. I was really struck at her sensitivity and non-judgemental attitude. She was a simple, but perceptive and intelligent woman who spoke few words, kept her opinions to herself, and was warm and welcoming, which made my weekend visits memorable and much looked forward to. But I also remember how forthright and forceful she could be on matters of principle. 

I’m describing the after effects of the meal before I describe the kitchen, because forty years later, and travelling back in time, the food has a certain kind of soporific effect. Memory is never linear.

The kitchen was tiny, with a negligible amount of counter space, and a gas cylinder placed under the counters. We had bottled gas in those days. The kitchen, magically, produced remarkably large quantities of delicious Indian cuisine, from roasts to fried fish, hot chappatis, fluffy rice, curries, to South Indian Dosas, and coconut and garlic chutneys. The aromas wafted in and out of the kitchen throughout the house and into the surrounding air! Waiting to eat tested our patience.

The living room had a cuckoo clock and a ‘sound system’ which blared dance music at all hours of the day (and night). There was an equally large window through which two giant mango trees, laden with mangoes in the summer, again wafted fruity aromas into the house.  Most often, the main door remained open. Other neighbours and friends came in and out freely. The bathing room had a hot water ‘geyser’ which never stopped filling the bucket below because someone or the other was always taking a bath.

Travelling back in non-linear memory… 

One Christmas, we were 15 people living in a flat with six hundred and fifty square feet. Twenty five people were invited for Christmas lunch. All the family were involved in preparing the meal. My husband and his mother went to the local bazaar and did all the shopping. My sisters-in-law and I peeled garlic, chopped carrots, peeled potatoes, chopped onions till our eyes watered, and swept and mopped the floors as well. I still remember that all these activities were a lot of fun. We bantered and told jokes, and just generally had a good time. The extended family came from all parts of the city, some travelling by bus and train, and others by car. It was a time for camaraderie and fun. After the meal, the dishes were piled sky high in the sink, and it was such a joy when the water flowed from taps, and we were able to wash the dishes and put them away. 

The family welcome, meal and siesta was a small interlude before we both got to be together again.

In order to spend some time alone, we’d both take a walk through the mango orchard to the little shopping centre ten minutes away and eat two little plates of perfectly formed yoghourt with a spoonful of sugar as topping. We had money just enough for that and yet it seemed like a lot. Then, we sat at the deserted BEST bus depot, held hands and talked about the future. We then walked to the beautiful sixteenth century Catholic Church, offered a silent prayer for our love to blossom and then walked to the ruins of the Portuguese fort adjoining the Church. We’d also stroll across to the eighth century Mandapeshwar Caves below the fort, marvelling at the faith and dedication of ancient Hindu monks who carved them. In those days, these gems of history remained pristine and we basked in the atmosphere our ancestors had created for us in building them. 

All of the stresses of the work week fell away as we travelled together back in history, immersed in the deliciousness of our love and the healing ambience of these architectural and faith-filled wonders. 

When it was time to go, we retraced our steps, albeit reluctantly. We first boarded bus number 292, then crossed over to the station, once more weaving in and out of people, cars, dogs, cows and whatever else the road decided to throw up at us, at that hour of the evening. We were inseparable on the way to his home, and once more on the return journey to mine. It didn’t matter whether our palms were sweaty or not…the sweat seemed to cement our love. In the train, we deliberately caught the slow train to Bandra station, and then across the street, balancing on the high heels once more, and into bus number 81. We prayed we would get two seats side by side, and sometimes, if we didn’t, some kind soul, seeing the despairing looks on our faces, was courteous enough to give up his seat and allow us to sit together. We were like twins joined at the hip.

Finally, I was home. But he had more travelling to do. He had to make the return journey to his home. The first time he made the journey to take me to his home, and this time, after seeing me to my doorstep, he must return to his home. I could have taken bus number 81 and seen myself home, but if he came all the way to my home with me, on the bus, we would get more time together. 

Now the Mary Hopkins song starts like this:

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do
(Source Musixmatch)

Before I met him, my cousins, and other relatively well-off friends would go to a discotheque (where my cousins played in bands), and raise a glass or two of coke. Sometimes, we shared a coke, something we couldn’t do now, because of the Pandemic. We would dance for hours and hours, and laugh the hours away, tell each other our dreams for the future, stumbling out, and drunk on happiness. I attended classes in the college with remnants of eyeshadow and lingering perfume and tried to pay attention to the professor teaching Romantic Poetry. At least it was Romantic! Didn’t really see what lay in store for me in that other land on the outskirts of the city. Those also were the days.

So, I had travelled to different ‘lands’ in the same city, somewhere beyond my wildest dreams.

Looking back, I would never have imagined that the Mary Hopkins song would have held such symbolic significance. These days, the song and all the memories that accompany it, make the long journey, not just to his home, but to all the homes in different countries, I have made with him and the children, over the last forty years.

Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca was born and raised in a Jewish family in Mumbai. She was educated at the Queen Mary School, Mumbai, received her BA in English and French, an MA from the University of Bombay in English and American Literature, and a Master’s in Education from Oxford Brookes University, England.  


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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