by Gautam Pemmaraju
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, or Tertullian, born at Carthage around 150 or 160 AD, is said to be the first great writer of Latin Christianity. He was a highly regarded scholar, having written three books in Greek, none extant, and was the first to write a formal exposition on the doctrine of Trinity. His principal area of study was jurisprudence. It is said that he converted to Christianity in 197 or 198 AD, and it is not conclusive if he was ordained a priest or not. Breaking away from the Church later, he became a schismatic and a leader and exponent of Montanism. His writings, which include thirty-seven tracts in Latin and Greek, of which thirty-one are extant, cover the entire theological themes of those times – apologetics against Paganism and Judaism, polemics, policy, discipline, and morals. He is said to have disliked Greek philosophy and to have declared philosophers as patriarchs of the heretics, philanderers, untrustworthy and insincere. He was scornful of Socrates, who in dying ordered a cock to be sacrificed to Aesculapius. Tertullian is said to have lived to a great age, and despite his schism, continued to fight heresy, in particular Gnosticism.
I know all of this on account of the fact that I live on an eponymously named street. It was in fact, precisely on Friday, December 14 2001, that I decided so find out who Tertullian was, after walking out the gate of the building where I stay, to set off, as I had several times before, on a lazy, meandering stroll around Bandra, a western coastal suburb of Bombay. I recall this quite well – it was just the previous day that the Indian parliament had been attacked by five armed gunmen. The television images of September 11 were still quite fresh and there was a sense that something was afoot, and the world had changed.
Setting off on desultory walks, particularly on Fridays, had become a sort of ritual; not one rigidly followed, but instead conducted on airy impulse. They help also to break the monotony of the regimented runs that have become a part of my daily routine in the last few years. Opening my gate precisely at 6PM, as always, I step out once again onto Tertullian Road. I'm certain there is no clear method to what and how one thinks on such walks; I’ve always thought the process to be imprecise, swaying and buckling at whim, setting adrift, only to eventually, run aground. Much like an asynchronous non-linear edit – apprehending a sight here, a form there, affixing these with a stray thought from the previous night, or from 30 years ago, to lead on to a cryptic composite.
Bungalow No 78, or ‘The Retreat’, stands on the corner of Rebello Road. Having passed by it for over 12 years now, I had become accustomed to the sight of the two elderly ladies who sat on the porch every afternoon. They are no longer to be seen. The bungalow was in the news recently. A real estate developer had some men of a private security firm beat up the lone guard and take possession of the structure, claiming that it had been sold to him. The plot is part of the St Sebastian Homes Cooperative Society, under a long lease to Edmund Joseph Vaz, and as per the society by-laws it cannot be sold to non-Catholics. Land grabbing by local thugs acting on the instructions of predatory builders/politicians, is a common occurrence here. The price of land, the potential development of plots into apartment complexes, is a murky and hugely profitable game. While most low-rise structures have capitulated, there are several others that remain standing. Of these, there are quite a few locked in dispute. The builder-politician nexus is perpetually on the lookout for easy prey, and senior citizens, many whose children live abroad, are precisely that. I have no count of the number of real estate related crimes in Bombay, but I’m certain it would be a significant, if not disturbing, one.
On the boundary wall of Roseville bungalow, further down the street, there’s a life size statue of St Sebastian (from Botticelli, Picasso to Hirst – St Sebastian has been a popular muse). Despite his beatific smile he has unfailingly scared the wits out of many a passerby on a dark night, coming into view suddenly as one turns the corner onto Rebello Road. This statue is a renaissance style figure depicting St Sebastian’s martyrdom carved from a single block of Sewan wood, the native name for Gmelina Arborea, which seasons well without degrading and is generally regarded as all-purpose because of its dimensional stability. It is also traditionally used in Konkani houses for beams and doors. Made by the Sequiera brothers of Vasai, the statue was commissioned by the St Sebastian Homes Co-operative Society in 1998 to commemorate their platinum jubilee. I was told then, back in 2003 when I spoke to one of the brothers, that the exterior casing protecting the arrow-riddled martyr was meant to be bulletproof. One can only speculate that it was perhaps to guard against a drive-by shooting.
The Society itself was founded in 1918 by the late F.A.C.Rebello and was to primarily provide cheap housing accommodation for poor Catholic students and families of the Goan community. A tract of land measuring 40,500 sq. yards was purchased for this purpose. The government proposed development projects of 1920 (Chapel Road Scheme no VIII) threatened to leave several landowners without their ancestral holdings, so many of them became members of the Society which promised to grant them building plots in proportion to the land brought in. St Sebastian is meant to be a protector against plagues and pestilence and it is no surprise that his presence is found widely here. The last years of the 19th century saw the outbreak of the Bubonic plague, allegedly brought in by a Chinese merchant ship. Dr.Haffkine, a student of Louis Pasteur, who was then conducting clinical trials of a cholera vaccination in Bengal since 1893, was invited to tackle the problem. The Haffkine Institute at Parel, in central Bombay, which then served as his laboratory, was originally a Portuguese monastery and seminary. Plague crosses are widely seen in Catholic neighbourhoods; in Bandra they are ubiquitous. Crosses were also erected to ward off evil spirits in such places which were thought to be frequented by them – where three roads met, at old unused wells, at graveyards and cemeteries. They were also erected as boundary markers. The crosses generally bear an inscription of the founder and the date.
The statue brought to mind WG Sebald’s visit to his patron saints tomb in Nuremberg as described in The Rings Of Saturn. St Sebolt, legend had it, was the son of a king of Dacia or Denmark who married a French princess in Paris. Sebald writes that on his wedding night “he was afflicted with a sense of profound unworthiness. Today, he is supposed to have said to his bride, our bodies are adorned, but tomorrow they will be food for worms”. He left before daybreak, made a pilgrimage to Italy, and thereupon became a miracle worker – a loaf baked from ashes brought by a celestial messenger, a broken glass made whole again, the crossing of the Danube on his cloak and “…in the house of a wheelwright too mean to spare the kindling, lit a fire with icicles.” It is at this point Sebald presents a query, a reflection, surreptitiously holding within perhaps what may well have been a sense of his own affliction: “…this story of the burning of the frozen substance of life, has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now if inner coldness and desolation may not be the pre-condition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one’s own wretched heart is still aglow.”
A decade ago, Dr Peter Rebello, a 64-year-old man, was found dead with his pet dog in his flat on Hill Road, the main thoroughfare in Bandra West. The reclusive man, who came from a prominent local family, had not been seen for months, and his skeletal remains were found alongside those of his faithful dog. Newspapers reported that his trusty mate “seemed to be gazing at his master even in death” and that his flat appeared to be “a time warp”. “Grim reality”, “solitary world”, “thick layer of dust” – the circumstances of his death were headline news indeed. Peter had progressively withdrawn, Naresh Fernandes writes in a recent piece; friends and family spoke of his increasing idiosyncrasy and isolation. In this tightly knit community there is no anonymity, everyone knows everyone else, and as Fernandes further writes, “Peter was even less likely to be able to walk down the streets without being greeted by a dozen pair of eyes. Besides, his sister and her family lived almost next door. Surely they'd have checked up on him? How had the skeins of community frayed so completely as to allow the lurid story about Peter Rebello's bones to land up in the newspapers?” From rapid real estate development to the steady influx of new migrants of film/TV stars, sundry ‘media-types’ (myself included), expats, and menial labour alike; from bustling new retail shops, diamond and jewellery stores, 5star hotels, malls, hip bars to garish nightclubs; the gluttonous city has indeed “swallowed up” Bandra. It is not just the marauding city that has overwhelmed the once sleepy, “geriatric” suburb; it is also the world at large, as migrants from pretty much everywhere take residence (and plant yoga cafes), while gleeful vulpine estate agents/flat owners jack up rental rates to silly levels.
Peter had apparently taken to eating at the small, grimy Café Delight, diagonally opposite from where he lived. Run by migrant Keralites, much like the equally grimy Yacht opposite St.Andrew's Church and Duke's on Chapel Road, the eatery is popular with rickshaw and taxi drivers, labourers, small traders, not to mention call centre workers and partying youngsters returning home in the wee hours of the morning. Kerala style beef chilly fry is the house specialty, which was a favourite of N, a resident of Bazaar Road, a busy, bustling narrow street crammed with vegetable vendors, all manner of shops, a seedy dive, and a mosque. N was working at a call centre when I first met him in early 2004. In general conversation, he revealed to me that he had been previously employed as a kitchen worker at an American facility in Ba’quba. Being a catholic and an English speaker, he was treated a little better than the other workers, mostly from Kerala, N explained. In June 2003 the shelling intensified N said, and they began to spend longer stretches in the bunker. But it was when his friend, a “guy from the south with a name I couldn’t say”, got blown up in front of him during a walk in the yard, N decided to call it a day. It took a month for him to be relieved. He was driven down south, where he then crossed over into Kuwait. On a three-day layover there, before he was scheduled to fly back to Bombay, he found out that the facility had been under heavy attack. Many kitchen workers who were on their break in the yard, had apparently died. “Jesus helped me man”, N recalled as his eyes welled up, “he took me by my finger across the border; if not I wouldn’t be here speaking to you”. He had needed the money, to support his girlfriend and infant child; it was far more than a call centre job, but ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and 'god has a plan'.
Veering off on to Waroda road, which leads to the conjoined villages of Waroda and Ranwar, I pass the old tree upon which I had once spotted a picture of the child saint Dominic Savio. He looked quite smart, in what appeared to be a bottle green jacket and matching bowtie, with a faint, dainty smile. I pass by a friend’s family home, a Portuguese styled villa; some still stand, with their characteristic slanting tiled roofs, trellises, arched entrances, porches, high plinths, front verandas, balcãos, and porticos. Stories abound of resident benign ghosts who have failed to wrench themselves free from the ties of their earthly lives. Typically, there is a constant sense of the melancholy about them, their eyes are despairing, but they glide about with ethereal fondness, now touching the side of a wall, now setting right a picture of a gentle pastoral scene, the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima or a night time scene of the Champs-Elysées that has slumped ever so slightly askew. Turning the corner towards Veronica Road, I pass the apartment block where a deceased friend used to reside. His own passing, tragic in more ways than one, was also gruesomely reported by the papers, much like Peter Rebello’s. I recall an evening at his with other friends when, over beers, he showed us pictures from a family album. Amongst the many, there was also a post-mortem photograph of a young boy in a coffin. A long dead cousin we learnt.
I then recalled a photograph. Escala de l’escalas, by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. The Ladder of Ladders is quite an astounding image to my mind. There is a phonograph sitting on a bench in the picture. There are ladders stacked up against the side of entrance – the journey onward or upward is imminent. And the child’s coffin, on a wall bracket, at some height, as if in a transitory position, that too appears to be in preparation to ascend, to journey on. Its position points to a space between, a netherworld, neither on earth nor really in the sky, but at some distance, at an unchartered azimuth, in an unknown quadrant. And the phonograph, playing perhaps a faint dirge, partly in mourning and partly in recognition of the inevitable, of the transient, ephemeral nature of earthly life. The image also offers a hint of an afterlife, be it a notion of heaven, a pagan spirit world or some amorphous, unfathomable realm. Immortality, eternal life, a domain of deathlessness:
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
(see Peter Capaldi reciting it here).
The story of Nachiketa mentioned in the ancient scripture Kathopanishad (see here Emerson’s Immortality) comes to mind here. When cursed by his father in a fit of anger, the young boy finds himself sitting at the entrance of the House of Death, awaiting the Lord of Death, Yama. After three days Yama returns, and pleased by the boy’s intelligence and perseverance, grants him three wishes, the first two of which are easily granted, but the third one leaves the Lord Of Death in a quandary for Nachiketa says to him – Lord, what happens to a man after death, there arises a doubt, some say he exists, others say he does not? I would like to know the truth.
I walk down St Roque Road, another protector against plagues, and pass Mehboob Studios, the Irani café Good Luck, famed for its kheema-pao, the tall circular half-finished building, clearly trapped in litigation, the Ismaili housing colony and jamatkhana, as I make my way to Hill Mt Mary Road, which leads onto the historic Mt Mary Basilica – a focal point of local syncretism and popularized by Amitabh Bacchan’s Anthony Gonsalves (see this) in Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977). I pass St. Stephen’s Church, consecrated in 1845, an Anglican church, which eventually came to be a part of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma & Ceylon (CIPBC) and now, the Church of North India (CNI).
It was over a decade ago that I had had the opportunity to read through the church records that dated back to 1880. On February 1 1880, at 11.00 AM on the day of Sexagesima, the second Sunday before Lent, the preacher being I.Carss, an offertory of 8 rupees, 2 annas, and 6 paise, was made by a congregation of eight people towards the Irish Famine Fund. Similarly, collections were made towards Jewish missions, the European General Hospital, and on the 3rd of January 1909, the offertory was towards the Lord Mayors fund for relief of distress in Calabria and Sicily owing to the recent earthquake. Decades later, in the narrowed down remarks column, the year of 1978, 29th July, the day of Trinity 19, hour of service between 7:15 AM and 8:30 AM, after the service, SS Varde records: “I spoke on the need to oppose increase in FSI.”
FSI or Floor Space Index, is a critical factor, a much used acronym, in the real estate world. Its regulation, trade, transfer, purchase and sale, through a complex web of transactions, at times bypassing civic rules, exploiting regulatory loopholes, is in many ways, what this city is about. Bombay's slums, land mafia, real estate rates and housing issues are famous. Who owns land, who occupies it and who exploits it, informs almost everything in his ravenous city – from town planning, civic reform, urban re-housing/development, infrastructure projects, road-works, drain & sewerage works, to organized crime, mainstream politics and the exercise of power (notably, controversial DCR 58 mill redevelopment amendment, ongoing slum rehabilitation scams, and the more recent Adarsh Housing Society scam).
It is these thoughts that weigh heavy on my mind, as I walk down Dr Peter Dias Road, named after Peter Anastasio Dias, a prominent local resident who became mayor of Bombay in 1953, and who was also responsible for Bandra’s first drainage system, on my way home. It has been a pleasant enough walk, rudely interrupted now and then by blaring car horns. The familiarity, the mostly unchanging routine, does not adequately heed what is incrementally revealed, for every single walk accounts for something. Or so I hope. It is also Good Friday, and once prayers and thoughtful reflections are dispensed with, celebrations are in order. Good enough for me.