If you have to ask you'll never know ! [L.Armstrong]... thats Louis not Lance.

Dec 24, 2007

I went to see my Darling ...

... last Saturday night.
He comes around thrice in the year. At late evening. A child in tow. The child and he both singing out loudly. His harmonium struggling to keep pace. Many years ago a woman would come around with him singing while he only played the harmonium. She has'nt been around for a while. Did she go back to the village. Did she join a call centre ? He isn't begging. He's an entertainer. He sings a song for you and if you like it you pay him. In old clothes, or old toys and sometimes money.
Come Christmas time, he visits Bandra. When peoples hearts grow large and their purse strings loose. His repetoire is largely Hindi film based. Yeh Kali Kali Ankhe, gets evrything he's got. No orchestra backing him , or studio editing to cancel out mistakes. Just his whole heart and his soul.
Where did he learn his signature tune ? Where did he learn to play the harmonium ? Where does he come from ? Where does he go? And for how many years more will we see him ? Before he joins the ranks of the barbers who came around on Thrusday morning to give us our haircut. The gas lamp lighters who came around every evening to light the street lamps. The Kalai wallahs who set up their bellows in the compund to kalai our hundis. The soori dar wallahs with their energy efficent cycles. The list goes on, hopefully he will too.


Anonymous said...

my mum and grand mum used to stay in Bandra all those years ago - she told me abt this lady who'd some arnd with the same tune. This is probably her son who thinks of her (she's probably dead) while singing these song - melancholically.

SXHS Class of 1965 said...

You may enjoy my related article:

The Anglo-Indians bring many of my Bombay childhood memories to mind. In the ‘60s Byculla, where I lived, was the Anglo-Indian core of Bombay. There were their institutions and neighborhoods like Byculla Mechanics, Clare Road, the spacious bungalows in avenue-lined Bombay Central and of course the Shelter (which was an orphanage of pretty girls) where we hung out a lot.

We had many adventures with our Anglo friends who came here for work from places like Amla-Nagpur, Jhansi, Bhusaval, Igatpuri, Itarsi, Bangalore (remember the Anglo from Bangalore), Hyderabad, Kolar Gold Fields and Ratlam-Ajmer.

These boys and girls passed out - or more frequently dropped out - from high school. Their fathers either worked in the Railways, the Posts and Telegraphs or the Armed Forces. They were fed up of small-town life and longed for the glamour of the big city of Bombay much like their counterparts of Boise, Idaho or Paduka, Kansas who make a beeline to New York or Los Angeles for the bright lights of the metropolis.

There were of course many Anglo-Indians who were long a part of Bombay city. These families were the community elite, most of them high ranking officers in the Police or the Army, Navy and Air Force. They were very kind to those less fortunate in their community, but were limited in their ability to help the young fellows, as the latter lacked a college education. Rare was the town-and-country Anglo in those days who went to, much less passed out, from college. Foremost among the Bombay elite were the Amore family (pronounced ay–more) who were good friends of Frank Anthony, who was an eminent lawyer, nominated MP, personal friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and a mover and shaker in New Delhi.

The Amore patriarch was a successful businessman, who was nominated an MLA to represent the Anglo-Indian community in Maharashtra. At that time it was very difficult to get immigration to racist Australia but Frank Anthony had persuaded the authorities there to allow in Anglo Indians without any qualification or money on the grounds of their (tenuous) British connection. They agreed and gave him the authority to certify an Anglo-Indian for this purpose and he in turn gave the Amores the authority to do this for the Bombay area. All travel and other expenses were in most cases borne by the Australian government.

I mention all this to set the background for my Cotton Mary story.

Cotton Mary was so called because she wore mostly cotton dresses. She was a dark-skinned slightly gnarled woman with premature wrinkles with the demeanor and gait of what we in North America call a bag lady. On any one but her, those dresses would have looked fashionable and trendy but on Cotton Mary they showed very poorly. No doubt some young stylish Anglo women must have passed them on to her as hand-me-downs. She had a Bombay reputation so widespread that her name could possibly have inspired in the late ‘90s, an Ismail-Merchant film of the same name. The plot and setting of the Cotton Mary of that film however bore no relationship to the real life of her Bombay counterpart.

She was about 40-ish but looked more like in her 60s possibly due to her lifestyle which included roaming around the streets of middle-class Bombay with a small child, seeking alms. Mind you, she never asked, but she was quite happy accepting them presumably on behalf of her young toddler. As we later discovered, the toddler was not hers. She was fond of imbibing copious amounts of Auntie’s stuff from the money she collected. The cooked food that people gave, she took for her family whoever and wherever they were.

Cotton Mary made her rounds in Byculla, Bandra, Colaba and many other Goan populated areas during late weekend evenings. She chose lanes that had tall buildings on both sides, occupied by middle class families. These locations were perfect for coins that would come falling in from both sides making it convenient to collect and move on. People on a Saturday evening were generally in a good mood with the working week behind them and the Sunday to look forward to. Weekends for the average Goan meant several visits to Aunties’ dens swigging country stuff along with good friends, watching a football game at the Cooperage grounds, a Konkani tiatr or an English play, or a movie. If one got lucky, one would be invited to a foreign ship docking at Bombay port where a fellow Goan would treat you to scotch, choice ham and a variety of cheeses along with some sherry or port.

We youngsters looked forward to the Saturday Night Date, a one hour pop music radio program starting at 10 pm, the only English music program broadcast all week by All India Radio in those days. We would gather around the hi-fi ‘radiogram’ at the house of one of the group, drinking no-name pop locally bottled in nearby Mazagon and filled with dubious colors and ingredients, but which was cheap. The main thrill besides the music was having guys’ sisters joining us and being able to break out in dance from songs on vinyl long playing records, once the radio program was over.

On such a mellow evening, at 6 o'clock, Cotton Mary would make her entry into the ‘hood with the toddler in tow. Her act consisted of cupping her hands for the bullhorn effect, turning her face towards the sky and singing in a loud and raspy voice:


This was the only discernible part of the song. In one of her better moods she told us it was a Western ballad about a cowboy who went to meet his sweetheart on a Saturday night, but instead found her in the arms of another cowpoke. I doubt any alms-giver understood the song’s words other than the opening lines. It was a Saturday, she sang it in style, she had a toddler and that was enough for the people to throw their coins or to go scurrying into the kitchen to find some food. On many occasions besides the rupee coins we threw her from our third floor balcony, Mum would wrap some nice potato chops or cutlets which she cooked for the weekend and send me downstairs to give it to her.

I and the other lads of my building had a love-hate relationship with Cotton Mary. Although many of us would bring food and coin given by our parents, we would not part with it without endlessly teasing her. Put it down to the cruelty of teenagers. We asked questions like why her boyfriend dumped her ; who would have a girlfriend like her at all ; whose child was it she brought along ; why she drank so much and other barbs in that vein.

In today's world, no well-brought up kid would do that to a less fortunate member of society, but in those days the bar of what you could not do was much lower than it is now. Don't forget that the beating we got from our parents and teachers, sometimes for little reason, was something our own children could not imagine today, or will call it physical abuse and ask us why we allowed it. For society then in general, it was all part of raising well-mannered children, the core of prevalent child-rearing philosophy being ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. And we the victims took it lying down, never giving it a second thought. The battering of our generation is the subject of another tale.

Cotton Mary as I said both hated us and loved us. She would sometimes ask us to help her collect the coins thrown on to the road, when there were many, but suspected that we pocketed some of it (untrue). She also suspected that we pocketed part of the money our parents gave us to give her (true). But generally, we treated her kindly.

Once, we decided to play a prank on Cotton Mary. We planned to get her drunk, keep back her toddler for a little while and put the fear of bejeejus into her, to have a few laughs, not realizing where this could go. So one Saturday, early on, we made off from home, with a little hooch, each of us with a small measure from our dad's stock, so as not to raise suspicions. We gathered around to pour and found that we had the sum total of nearly a bottle. Being a mixture of ten different country liquor stocks, the resultant volume must have been quite potent. But the alcohol was key to our plan.

So when Cotton Mary had done the neighborhood sing-and-collect rounds, we invited her to have a drink on us in a quiet corner of the compound of one of our buildings. She was not a person to refuse such an offer. So we made her comfortable, brought some seekh kebabs and got our plan underway. We talked and she drank and ate until she realized that it was getting dark. Meanwhile one of us spirited the toddler away from sight. He was cute as a button but did not speak much. His talking consisted of few words, not enough to make any meaning.

When she got ready to go, she was quite up the gum tree, metaphorically speaking. She collected her bag of coin, her bag of food and started walking towards the Byculla Railway Station to catch a train to go home. We gave her a good head start and then followed, toddler alongside, with intention of returning the little fellow to her and chiding her for leaving him behind.

Surprise of surprises, she was nowhere to be found. We divided ourselves into scouting parties that went to the railway platforms and the nearby lanes and restaurants to see if she decided to continue with her singing there, but she was gone without a trace. One party even went to Dhiraj’s matka and gambling joint to see if she had decided to indulge herself from her collections, but to no avail.

Worried, we took a quick decision to keep the lad for the night with Salu and his mother. Salu's dad was a steward on a P&O cargo ship. His mum was a very kind and gentle woman who would give us all sorts of English chocolates and crackers that her husband brought when he disembarked. More importantly, his mum was the only one who would fall for our fibs, hook, line and sinker, while our Mums would ask a thousand questions. Besides, she was quite happy giving shelter to a talking, gurgling, smiling, happy two year old.

The next day, Sunday morning we all went for the early 8 o’clock children’s mass at the Gloria Church, fully expecting Cotton Mary to soon come looking for the young 'un. She came at 10, crying, along with the boy's mother and his aunt. We gathered around, keeping them busy while Salu went to fetch the boy. Slowing releasing him, without being seen himself, the boy wandered into the group, to cries of "miracle, miracle" from the three women. The lad muttered "Salu, Salu" in an incoherent voice, probably more happy to remain behind with Salu and his Mum's chocolates and tasty Goan cooking rather than what he had now to return to. We were glad to see our prank end. I am sure Cotton Mary would forgive us had she known what we did.

So the years passed with Cotton Mary still heroically doing her rounds. The toddler had now outlived his purpose and she started getting some other toddler. Her voice had become more croaky with the constant serenading to the balconies. Growing older with Auntie’s stuff as prime nutrition didn’t help either. So one day I called a meeting of the boys with a plan in mind. I explained the need to help our friend who had provided us with many hours of fun and laughter, with some meaningful present. Some in our group were Anglo-Indian boys and they told us how Mr. Amore would come once a month to inspect the Anglo-Indian hostel where they lived. During that visit, he would also enquire whether any of the working lads were interested in immigrating to Australia where their future would hold much more promise. For those who were interested, after a few questions about where their parents lived, he would fill in their names into an important-looking log book. At his next trip would give them an official looking certificate, signed and sealed in red wax, together with an air ticket to Perth, Brisbane or Sydney – their choice. All they had to do after that was to make a passport, submit Amore’s papers and get the visa stamped at the Deputy High Commission in the Fort area. No fuss, no checks and no proof needed to show you were an Anglo-Indian. All it took was an English sounding name. Real Anglos with names like Fernandes (and yes there were some) had more explaining to do.

This information was all we needed to hatch our plan for a present for Cotton Mary. We asked her whether she wanted to go to Australia. She rather set us aback with “where is Australia?” However we were determined to do our good deed for her. We sat her down, this time with no drink and asked what her last name was. She told us it was Tully. That was a start. We went on to mention that Australia was a land that was much nicer than India. That she would no longer need to sing there, that she would get a government pension and a house and lied that Grandfather Tully’s relatives would be there to welcome her. She shook her head, not wanting to miss out on the simple life she already had. Auntie’s stuff and Goan food. She wouldn’t believe that she would get money in Australia for doing nothing.

In retrospect, we were patient little monkeys. Here we were, willing to give her a shot at a better life and she didn’t want it. She kept on repeating “I am happy baba, I don’t know what will happen to me in Australia. We kept on at it and finally she relented if we could include her younger sister. That was the break we wanted. We now knew we had Cotton Mary well hooked. After that, we spent a few months prepping her to talk to Mr. Amore. No croaky laughs, no attempt at stale jokes and especially no asking Mr.Amore for money. On the appointed day she came, dressed in her finest along with a real beauty she claimed was her sister. We would never know.

Mr. Amore came in as usual. After doing his round of the rooms, he sat at the desk in the hall. In we came trooping with Cotton Mary and her sister. There were Rudy Kerr, Rodney Jackson and myself, accompanying. As the chief architect of the plan, they had insisted I come, even though I was a Goan. I was the spokesman and they knew the only one who could talk them out of a jam.

It was a slow day for immigration interviews at the Anglo Indian hostel in Byculla’s Third Cross Lane with Masina’s Parsi Hospital, Gloria Church and Bombay’s biggest timber mart surrounding it. I don’t know why I remember, but Miller and Company was almost next door. Perhaps I was dreaming of Australia and what would happen if I got entry myself. I quickly shut the possibility out of my mind. I would get a whacking for my efforts from Mum who every week had to buy a fresh cane from the Byculla market since my hide was getting tougher by the day with all that beating.

“So what’s your name?” Mr. Amore started with me. “But, but”, I stuttered. “No but, buts, son” said Amore. “What is your name?” “Roland Francis sir” I began, getting more confident by the word. “So you want to go to Australia, Roland?” he asked. “No sir” I said. “And why not may I know?” “I am too young for that sir”, I said. “I have come to help out with my aunts Mary and Cynthia Tully”. Mr. Amore took one look at them and shook his head. He had heard many yarns from his people during his lifetime, but this one seemed to take the cake. Deciding not to pursue it, he asked Cotton Mary and her sister why they wanted to go Australia. “I won’t have to sing ‘I went to see my darling’…”. “Shut up Mary”, I interjected. Amore looked surprised. “Is that the way you talk to your Aunts, Roland?” he asked frostily. Before I could reply, the Lord above sent his messenger in the form of Amore’s aide entering with a burra peg of scotch that he carried for his long visits to the hostel. After the first sip, thankfully there were no more questions. I could see he entered Mary Tully and Cynthia Tully neatly in his book and waved us off. The boys and I did mental flips. We had pulled it off! While I still had Amore’s attention, I said “thank you sir, but do they have to come again to get their visas and tickets or could I do it for them”? “Do you trust this young bugger?” he asked Mary, who quickly nodded. “Then that is that” said Amore, ending the conversation and the interview.

After I collected the visas, we had a small party for Cotton Mary on a roof corner of Alexandra Terrace. She had tears in her eyes. So had we. It was forgotten in the goodbyes and god bless. She walked away from our lives and I hope that she safely walked into Australia. I wish her happiness wherever she is.

Now, Cotton Mary is Bombay’s urban legend. Some women who were mere girls then, still say “I went to see my darling” to describe any female who wears fancy clothes that do not suit her. There have been Cotton Mary sightings long after she had gone. There are tales of as lately as a few years ago that Cotton Mary lookalikes were going around Bombay streets doing her act. Some will say that Cotton Mary was a tall, fair Anglo-Indian woman who had a small pretty girl along with her. Others will vouch that even in the early years of this century she could be seen singing with the same voice in places like the quadrangle of Grant Road’s Dias buildings. All I can say is that by 1971 the Cotton Mary we knew had disappeared from sight.

This is the stuff of days gone by. In the Western world today, almost nobody beats their children or is allowed to. Few neighborhoods in Toronto and New York look out for the disadvantaged except with cheques to charity that are mostly swallowed by “administrative expenses”. Sex to us, meant a little kissing and at most necking and petting. That is no longer the case. No pre-teens and teens play together in innocent fun. They either sit in front of computers or are encouraged to use condoms in their “sexually active lives”. Emigrating to the UK, Australia and Canada with the forms, clearances, proofs and bank statements now required, is no more the simple process that the kindly Frank Anthonys and Amores had set up. People in USA and Canada do not like it when you pat their small child with affection. They will certainly call the police on you if you ask to take their toddler for a walk within their view. Few people even of the same community trust each other. And there are certainly no Cotton Marys to entertain a First World city with “I went to see my darling, last Saturday night”.

Roland Francis, Toronto, June 2008.

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H Farid said...

I need your approval to copy the link for the 'Cotton Mary' write up in your blog onto the 'Mazagon of my Childhood' FB page just as a member. I figure a lot of folks from Byculla & Mazagon would identify with it. Coming from Spence Lane I got all nostalgic reading about it.

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