The happiest place in the world
A left from the famous Sitladevi Temple and past one of the only surviving wheat mills in Bombay. Ahead of the hutments and the little stalls that sell vegetables to housewives who haggle in their nighties for a rupee and beyond the chicken coup that does not smell anymore because I have passed it so many times; somewhere before the unpainted, concrete wall that separates the newly constructed local railway line from slum dwellers who otherwise would have used it as a place to relieve themselves in the mornings, flashing their bums in the light of the rising sun, lies a stoic gaudy structure; four apartments with high ceilings piled on top of one another. The gate hangs off the hinges and the long abandoned rusty stool of the watchman stares accusingly at anyone who does not belong here. The two foot wide front garden, a testament to the horizontal contraction and vertical expansion of the city, is frayed with weeds, like the crumpled veil of a jilted bride. New layers of paint are peeling off to expose the older layers of paint, sad witness to the attempts at restoration. Welcome to the happiest place in the world.
Six stormy and nomadic years into my life I was introduced to Ferriera Mansion. Under the watchful eye of my mother, I took my first evening stroll. My neighbor was Adrian Aunty; a large Christian lady who smoked and drank incessantly and hosted the endless rummy parties that most of the women in the Mansion were invited to. Her son, Nikhil had her curly hair and I immediately began to call bhaiya or “older brother.” I met Indu, the maid who took care of the paralyzed old lady in the flat above us and her son Deepak, who never grew beyond 4 feet 4 inches. Shashi, my cousin, who already lived there, took me around and introduced me to the kids. There were five cousins who lived in the neighboring building, all of whom had rhyming names; Dicky, Chicky, Vickey, Ricky and Mickey, a curious mix of Indian words that meant random things; the bumper of a car, candy, victory, a bastardization of the name Richard and one Disney character. Then there was Valerie, the Christian girl from across the street who was too snooty to make friends with anybody else except the people who would go to Victoria Church, the one up the road on Sunday with her.
This was not one of the only areas in India to have a church and temple across the street from one another, but it was one of the earliest. Every year, still groggy from its colonial hangover, it would host the May fair. For the May fair I put aside my differences with the snooty Christian kids (Valerie even!) and we put together little stalls to sell things. I would force my aunt to make one hundred ‘aloo tikkis’ (potato cutlets) 75 of which my friends and I would eat in the course of the day. But for some reason, I always came back with more money than I would have if I sold 100 tikkis. Hindi music would blare from stalls and some older kids, who would get access to their Papa’s Director’s Special, would dance drunkenly in the center of the hot compound.
The sweet melody of the tuneless bell of the local school up the street signaled the end of school and the beginning of playtime every evening. Like ants from a busted sack of sugar we would spill out into the soft muddy compound, initially meant to be a parking lot, that flanked Ferriera Mansion for hide and seek, marbles and to spin tops precariously close to the street. The mothers, ones who were not gambling at Adrian Aunty’s, would stand near the gate, keeping an eye on the kids and gossiping.
Of course life was not all light hearted and fancy free. We still needed to earn our keep and feed our base desires. Rahila, the bossy ten year old, who would later turn out to be one of the biggest directors in the Indian movie industry would drag my four year brother around and make him dance like a eunuch in various people’s balconies in exchange for Marie biscuits. My cousin and I would run to my mother who was a staple at Adrian Aunty’s house and threaten to expose her rummy cards to the other players unless she gave us money. Amid sindhi curses and mutterings from her cigarette pursed lips, she would reach into her coin purse and give us an anna, today 1/8th of a cent, and we would walk away rich and ready to antagonize the peanut vendor.
In later years the boys began to play cricket and the girls fought for space in the compound so that they could set up their badminton nets. The little boys were quickly becoming broad shouldered men and were going to grow up to be cricket champions and the girls whose pigtails were growing into waves were going to be badminton players. The mothers stopped coming out choosing to spend longer hours at the rummy table.
We got involved in school and friends in Ferriera Mansion seemed childish almost. Though the dusty barren compound still seduces the occasional child with the promise of space in the cramped quarters of this concrete jungle, but the charm wears off quickly, or was it ever there?
Three years ago, I was the last one to leave Ferriera Mansion, to come to school in the US. Shashi left for Jamaica the year before; Chicky, Micky, Dicky, Ricky and Vicky are now in various stages of marriage and parenthood. Today, I am far away from the dusty evenings and unwanted sunsets. I am far away from the little boy who was only four feet four inches (my mother tells me he’s grown, but not enough to commend a mention here). Adriane Aunty died of breast cancer, they tell me it was painful, and she said she was glad I was not around to see her.
Last summer, I returned, and the muddy compound had been tarred over, to make the aforementioned parking lot. A few kids eke out a game of cricket with cheap toys, no mothers come out to stand and gossip, the watchful eye is gone, and last year a five year old got run over by a reversing car. The building, under the new landlord Act of 2005 has been renovated and now gleaming pipes run up the exterior, a new layer of paint graces the front, and a smart lilac border lines the jutting out balconies. I turn to Ashleigh, my American room mate and best friend in college, who I brought back home for this trip with me, “Welcome to the happiest place in the world.” She gives me a strange look, fakes a smile and turns away.