Meher Marfatia: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's bell sings the blues

Updated: Jul 19, 2020, 07:14 IST | Meher Marfatia | Mumbai

More unusual Bombay voices reflect on the ripple effects of continuing, and confusing, caution

Illustrations/Uday  Mohite
Illustrations/Uday Mohite

Meher MarfatiaTwo-km trouble
My metal body aches. Scrunched tight by that sudden pedal brake pressed, swerving me to the kerb, the cop waved us towards. I lie impounded, a lightweight TVS scooter meeting the same fate as posh SUVs. How random rules surprise unsuspecting citizens. If venturing beyond a two-km neighbourhood radius must be banned (illogical to think this slows the uptick of cases), why without warning? But then, the lockdown itself was clamped at four hours' notice.

My owner was in the rider's seat, wife in the side car. Both masked, helmeted. But, with more than the stipulated distance from their cramped Parel kholi to the promenade, they wanted to stroll. A maalish wali, the high-contact profession has left her more hopelessly jobless than him, a chauffeur whose saabs spend lockdown months in their Alibaug villa.

Filmi numbers blaring from a passing taxi reach my ears. Albela's "Shola jo bhadke, dil mera dhadke" makes me homesick for the compound parking spot in the chawl where singing star Bhagwan Dada lived his last years. The mill mazdoor's son rose to occupy a Juhu bungalow with seven cars before another reversal of fate hit. Sighing, sorry, sore, I long to wheel home.

Third bell blues
The silence is deafening. I wonder, will I ever ring again? The backstage bell at the 1938-built Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is a great thing to be. My tring triggers green room jitters, bitten nails, fervent prayers. Besides, I signal the happy hush audiences fall into after much anticipatory chatter between mouthfuls of garma garam batata vadas.

Illustrations/Uday  Mohite

Mine is a cheerful evolution. Urdu theatre lent colourful flourishes to the tradition of three bells sounding briefly apart. The third struck with a dramatic gunshot thundering through moments the drop-curtain, painted with grand mythological scenes, went up. The chorus girls' cue to burst into Welcome or titular theme songs, to harmonium tunes and drum beats. Music in place, special patrons gifted bouquets and portraits of deities garlanded, the action commenced.

Until four months ago, I pealed to a planned schedule. Not a chance with live shows on freeze. Without the performing arts streamed for free internationally, lockdown could turn a lot lonelier. Yet, the actors and technicians so generously sharing their craft online are stuck sans work.

Seventy years after actor-producer Burjor Patel introduced playwright Adi Marzban to the Munshis, Bhavan's founders, it may be the first evening this hall won't celebrate Parsi New Year with a comedy in a couple of weeks. Not to risk rust, I practise clanging softly to myself.

Fan moments
Whirring within a grill cage, Shramik Special train fans have seen terrible things. The journey for travellers exiting to other states proved pathetic. Heartbreaking how homeless, hungry migrants desperately divided two rotis to fill ten starved tummies, many of them only babies. Piled in numbers undoing any cordon sanitaire code, they were at least luckier than those walking endless miles.

Creaking away, I watched women wail they'd drop dead from heatstroke before their destination village. To save the day, I blew hard, even if my blades threw around dry April-May air. The rail run back was a bit kinder, with employers paying ticket fares. The guys who packed them off without sustaining salaries now need help in their offices reopening. What choice but to be Bombay-bound once more. Where they sought refuge held bleaker prospects.

Changing seasons cause typical mishaps. Some batchmates (we were assembled in the same factory) were forced to make themselves scarce in the Mahalaxmi Express rescue operation. Tracks were waterlogged 90 km from the city. Evacuating a thousand passengers, the Disaster Response Force and Navy switched off fans to avoid short circuiting.

Fans and open windows trump air conditioners today. Folks fear breathing in a spread of virus droplets lingering in closed rooms. Seems like old times.

Local vocal
A gate is about entries and exits. I see these galore. From basti to building, hutment to high-rise, COVID catches up karmically with the jet set—its primary carriers in the first place, flying into the city from infected shores but still blame the working class.

The pandemic returns the small stuff to daily life. The longueurs of lockdown bring realignments. The kirana shop versus mall face-off scores nicely encouraging for the small guys. Fancy stores invite customers that retailers cannot pull in. Scary. Who knows where the super spreader might hide? Better dial the old reliable grocer delivering to gates of colonies full of fresh chefs.

People seem flat bored ODing on Google trends egging everyone to whip up dalgona coffee and bake gourmet breads. They've clogged social media with these coveted images. Till the poor pao wala, hoping for regular orders of humble crunchy gutli, finally left for his native Unnao. Back to basics, he's back in business.

Small screen skew
The Zoom boom convinces me that I'll crash soon. Open 24x7 (online sessions defy global time zones), a laptop must be a family's most overused commodity. Man, woman and child learn, earn, almost burn on my screen which was earlier reserved just for their entertainment. The new normal does benefit fortunate opticians coping with the demand for reading glasses on the youngest eyes—squint, strained, red-stressed.

Not a dot of privacy where I am, the 1 BHK space where a bright boy prepares as a lawyer. It is jammed with three generations. Figures keep floating into the frame within view of his crisp-collared colleagues. I flicker to distract from the grandmother wandering close. Her Mahabharata TV episode done, she asked if lunch would be mooli or methi parathas. Ouch.

Medallion musings
Match the following –
Akbar, Tagore, JN Tata, da Vinci, Pasteur, Michelangelo.
Art, Science, Enquiry, Wealth, Kindness, Glory.
A: Read in reverse –
Akbar goes with glory, Tagore kindness, Tata wealth, da Vinci enquiry, Pasteur science, Michelangelo art.

Leave you to guess which medallion I am, from 18 such representing human virtues, carved in dark sheesham on three teak doors of the St Xavier's College chapel? Thanks to the Eurocentrism of World War II, at the start of which this Indo-Gothic structure was designed, its entrance also includes power symbolised by King George VI and leadership by General Franco.

From Porbunder limestone pinnacles and white Ramnagar stone windows the chapel shone sunbeams on kids retreating here for prayer, study, romance. Not quite in that order for canoodling couples who thought The Woods behind the canteen rather public. Uncertainty looms large too, the fatigue of flipflops—will/won't exams be conducted? I miss collegians in the deserted quadrangle. Their wishful dreaming, football game screaming, campus chatter, Malhar matters… all cancelled, kaput, on indefinite hold.

As parishes across town offer online mass, I gather other shrines are as firmly shut. Politicians protest this precaution, of course. Sensibly, there are to be no dahi handi pyramids, no Ganesh processions. And nationwide Diwali already happened when our venerable PM declared we light up collectively to scorch the virus.

Time to reveal why the world needs me most. I'm the Joy medallion, paired with humourist GK Chesterton. English Lit pupils laugh not a little at his witty insights.

Of coasts and boasts
I wrench my hooked beak up sharply at the sight. While the city sticks to semi slumber mode, this monster has grown by huge leaps. With what is literally my eagle eye, I blink in disbelief at the indecent haste from an eyrie atop the sprawling property of Lincoln House on the Breach Candy strip. The Coastal Road's engineering excesses have surged fast during curfew. The speed and stealth with which lorries replace expanses of water with rock is incredible.

Bird of prey I am, fierce raptor with talons. But bigger predatory beasts lurk. Real estate sharks drooling at the prospect of development they claim will beautify the Arabian Sea front. My nest corners the 50,000-square feet heritage property Wankaner rulers of central Gujarat called their "royal regret" selling to the US Consulate. This marauder road the entire city is surely going to rue.

Overarching interest
In the middle of Corona dread comes the monsoon, splattering its customary clutch of viruses. But rain clears grime that obscures my lettering. Raised in public appreciation by men of valour, I'm the arch over the RTO (regional transport office) at Tardeo. Because it originally housed barracks and horse stables for the Governor's bodyguards, the alley outside was called Bodyguard Lane. Queueing for a driving licence you read my plaque inscription: "To commemorate the unfailing interest in their welfare which resulted in the erection of these lines by his Excellency Sir George Lloyd, Governor of Bombay, this tablet was erected by officers and men of his bodyguard as a token of gratitude, 1st December 1921."

Not that anyone cares. A far cry from the gaze hatted ladies alighting at the club next door fixed on me a century ago—elegant members of The Purdah Pavilion that Lady Willingdon presented the Willingdon Sports Club for Christmas 1918. Stopping to stand and stare is a quality lockdown supposedly revives. Has it?

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at

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