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When Bottle Masala unites a community

Vaidehi Chitre will be screening her intriguing documentary, Bottle Masala in Moile about the reality of the East Indian community and their fight against land sharks. Kanika Sharma delves deeper into the challenges faced by Mumbai’s oldest inhabitants

"Twelve Bombay Duck for a penny
A fisherman’s at the door
On this house a roof of gold"

Unbelievable as it sounds, this is an extract from an old Koli song that Francisca Falcon, an inhabitant at Chapel Road, from one of the Bandra koliwadas, sings in Vaidehi Chitre’s documentary, Bottle Masala in Moile, summing up the glory East Indians enjoyed at one point of time in the city.

Locals prepare for St Bonaventure’s Church in Erangal Village, Malad. This feast has been celebrated for generations, in this region, an East Indian stronghold. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Locals prepare for St Bonaventure’s Church in Erangal Village, Malad. This feast has been celebrated for generations, in this region, an East Indian stronghold. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

She rewinds to a time in the city’s history when its original inhabitants had an expansive sea in sight with considerable land to themselves. It’s the time when a whale showed up on Mumbai’s shores. Commonly mistaken for the East India Company, as Prem Moraes, the community website (East-indians.com) founder, tells us in the film, the public eye has been oblivious to the East Indian community.

A still from Bottle Masala in Moile
A still from Bottle Masala in Moile

They are the centuries-old sentinels of the city who can trace their roots from the Maharashtrians, the Portuguese and the British.

Oldest islanders
Father Larry Pereira reveals, “The Bombay East Indians are the descendants of the thousands of indigenous, Marathi-speaking people of Mumbai (Bombay) and its environs who embraced the Catholic faith, mainly between 1547 and 1600.”

They are commonly found as saltpan workers, toddy tappers, fishermen and farmers. The documentary filmmaker speaks of how the community drew her as a topic of her film, “In 2009, while researching a land and community film specific to Bandra’s land issues, I came across newspaper reports on gaothan issues in other city areas as well as reports on the Dharavi island movement. The East Indian community emerged as the common thread.”

Landsharks go for the kill
The community has known to be shrinking as their indigenous community habitats, or gaothans are getting increasingly swallowed by big real estate developers. But when Chitre pursued the thread, she did not anticipate, “developmental politics, land acquisition, etc.”

She continues, “I was exploring the ways in which they, as a small community, connected to the land, experience the cumulative effect of a persistent onslaught from the different manifestations of development be it in the form of SEZ, bridges, etc. The land acquisition affects us all, but the effect of that on a small community such as this would be pretty devastating, to their livelihood as well as their cultural identity.”

Chitre, a Mumbaikar is now settled in the US, has extensively chronicled the culture of the “endangered species of human beings” as Walter Murzello, a community member mentions in the film. Chitre visits Mumbai for a few months every year and is startled by the disappearances she is able to see in sharp relief.

She informs that the issue is ongoing as the BMC and developers continue to harass them in terms of tax and by declaring Dharavi island the only place in Mumbai with the highest population of East Indians, as a tourism zone.

On February 24, 7 pm
At Prithvi House, Janki Kutir, Juhu.

How the documentary got its name?
Bottle Masala is a secret mixed spice made by East Indian families in February, and stuffed into beer bottles; it’s a vital ingredient in the community’s Fish Moile recipe. Chitre shares, “Bottle Masala is a unique cultural marker as all East Indians use this despite sub-cultural differences, while Moile (pronounced Mo-eel) is a signature dish made by East Indians. As a cultural signifier common to all East Indians, urban or rural, it tied up both sections together effectively.”

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