Rashida and Sooni at The Whitworth gallery in Manchester for Sooni’s photo exhibition, Home in the City: Bombay 1977-Mumbai 2017
Sooni Taraporevala, 64, is an award-winning filmmaker, scriptwriter and independent still photographer
Rashida Mustafa, 64, is a Manchester-based psychologist and teacher
THE seven-year-olds bonded, early and inextricably, over a game they invented. Sooni Taraporevala and Rashida Mustafa (nee Vahanvaty) were giggling second graders when they played Travellers and Witches, using the gym hobby horse outside their Queen Mary School classroom.
A year after, they embarked on co-authoring a book, with grand plans of marketing it. "Our inspiration was Miss Billimoria, fondly known as Billy Goat, who would write plays, print and sell them in school to us," says Sooni. "Rashida and I have been bound by fiction. Whether it was stories we read or wrote, in each other we found kindred souls. There was nobody else I shared my fantasies, problems and insecurities with. When she was absent even for a day, I really missed her."
In Class VII, the pair proved rebellious enough to nearly be expelled. Summoning both sets of parents, the principal, Miss Shelton, warned Sooni she would be deported to the north pole, Rashida to the south. Much pleading and apologising ensued before being allowed to stay.
Good at elocution, drama and debates, they were intense rivals, Rashida of Nightingale house, Sooni of Joan of Arc. "At inter-school competitions, we were on the same team against Cathedral âsnobs*," laughs Sooni.
Now settled in Manchester, Rashida reveals that the two would incessantly pass notes between themselves - "This happened to the consternation of everyone who ever tried to teach us. Our dialogue continued through the day, the night, the weekend, through vacations, illnesses, journeys, moving out, marrying, until this very day. There was no doubt, when I needed shelter, I crept into her home. We took it for granted. That*s how it works. You roll out your life for each other. It*s not Bollywood. It was indeed Bombay."
"I catch myself thinking, âIf Sooni was here, I would, she would, we would...* Psychologically, we call them life scripts, the things we say, the people we speak to in our early days which play themselves out through our lives. I*m so comfortable around the artefacts of her life, the Soonaiji Agiary at the end of her lane, Parsi rituals, their food which I love more than my own. I*ve tried to replicate the patties I ate in her home with a dozen different versions of their sweet mince mix. It never tastes as amazing than at her dinner table. At some point, we merge into one another. I treasure that enhancement of my identity."
They discovered with interest that their mothers had attended the same school, St Anne*s. In Rashida*s room of her Nagpada house, Taj Manzil, the girls licked her mother*s tamarind chutney with relish. "Shirin Aunty was a fantastic cook. She put Rashida and me to shame, publishing several bestselling cookbooks on Bohri food that ran into multiple editions," says Sooni. "I loved eating around their traditional thaal and seeing the women wear the ghagra, choli and chunni, decades before lehengas became de rigueur."
In that neighbourhood, they were the pyaliwala*s regular customers who devoured "khatta carcinogenic red paste balls we called âclay*," Sooni recalls. "Instead of a more direct route home from school, we walked to Gowalia Tank to stuff our faces at the panipuriwala, chanawala and golawala, depending on what money we had." Banned from munching on the street in school uniform, they warily kept a lookout for teachers or tattle-tale students.
Then, Rashida boarded Bus No. 48 to Byculla while Sooni went back to Cozy Building at August Kranti Marg.
An only child, Sooni envied Rashida*s home overrun with cousins in an extended family and created a sister in Poona for herself. A concoction of the imagination her mother dealt with admirably, Rashida recollects - "I learnt from Freny Aunty who nodded feebly at Sooni*s fabricated sister. One day, my son in Manchester told friends he had a dog and a brother kept in the attic. Confronted by an English parent demanding to know if this was true, I remembered to gulp, âyes*. Freny Aunty had prepped my son Murtaza for Campion School*s entrance test and he ran backwards down Aksa beach with Rumi Uncle, her father."
How have they worn the years of contact across continents? "For me, we never separated. When I was in America, I looked forward to Rashida*s letters in her undecipherable [to others] scrawl and talked about her so often, my American friends felt they knew her," Sooni says. "Rashida was one of the first people I shared my scripts with, besides my mother. I still do and benefit greatly from her feedback. Though we disagree about a great many things, always have and always will, the love and respect are always there too. We*ve seen each other grow, get married, have children, in her case, grandchildren. Rashida is the sister I never had."
Their paths long since separated geographically, the friends spent a lovely day in London when Sooni was at the Abbey Road Studios working on her 2020 Netflix movie, Yeh Ballet, the first Indian film to be sound-mixed at this iconic space. "That was truer than the time and space between. It was an intense sense of continuity," Rashida says. "Sitting in an armchair in her room, I felt 60 years deep. There were several things we could not say or did not, the muddle of our loyalties and complexities of lifeâ¦ but I have never felt another heart or my heart as palpable as on that day.
"As a teacher, a psychologist and the maker of a happiness test, I like to think I know myself and know people. But I was taken aback when my own analyst asked me, last year in Manchester, after we had done a musical called Woman of my Dreams: âWho is the woman of your dreams?* Those of us who have lived in Mumbai experience how true this feeling is; in another world when boundaries were so thin, you could slip through them like moving in alternate realities. I think that is the very network which supports this city, given it a character making it built to last."
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on city friendships. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org/www.meher marfatia.com