Meher Marfatia: Where have all the Santas gone?

Dec 24, 2017, 08:05 IST | Meher Marfatia

A fistful of Catholic cottages left in Santa Cruz spell memories of a spectacular suburb that finds itself in decline

That Santa Cruz is "Holy Cross" in Portuguese, I picked up from my favourite English teacher in school. She lived there in Aurora, an elegant bungalow on St Francis Avenue. As Aurora transformed to a tower, Carmelita Meneses stayed awhile in Priscel Holm - a name I wondered about. The earlier village of Khulbhowree was hailed Santa Cruz by Salsette Christians reciting the Rosary on a hillock, around a rough wooden cross. A chapel at the spot in 1850 marked the inception of Sacred Heart Church on SV Road in 1936.

Parishioners Douglas Gudinho and Frances Rebello (grand-niece of legendary journalist Frank Moraes, whose childhood bungalow Crossville was a Santa Cruz landmark) outside Sacred Heart Church on SV Road. Pics/Ashish Raje
Parishioners Douglas Gudinho and Frances Rebello (grand-niece of legendary journalist Frank Moraes, whose childhood bungalow Crossville was a Santa Cruz landmark) outside Sacred Heart Church on SV Road. Pics/Ashish Raje

Emerald green paddy fields and shining white saltpans tempted those oldest cultivator inhabitants. Replacing the rice farmers' basic brick and mud huts, stronger structures sprang up in 1917-18, supported by the Bombay Catholic Co-operative Housing Society. As permission for these cottages was secured from the Governor, Lord Willingdon, the complex was officially Willingdon Catholic Colony.

Wild cacti clumped with red prickly pear and gulmohurs whispering to targola trees, the landscape sounded strange after dark. Scary braying jolted residents awake on silent nights: donkeys carrying quarry loads from not too distant Danda. Children leapt gutters catching crabs in cigarette tins, watched by mums from windows pretty with boxes of phloxes. Curious boys searched for lead from bullets strewing Target Green rifle ground - present-day Golibar - where uniformed soldiers of RAF Santa Cruz squadrons lay aiming from the grass.

Prisca D'Souza (extreme left, back) with family on the occasion of the First Holy Communion of her youngest daughter Marie in 1950, on the terrace of their bungalow Priscel Holm, with the church in the background
Prisca D'Souza (extreme left, back) with family on the occasion of the First Holy Communion of her youngest daughter Marie in 1950, on the terrace of their bungalow Priscel Holm, with the church in the background

The suburb welcomed Goans and Anglo Indians like the Butlers and Blythes, the Coopers and Forrests, the Greens (HW Green alone rode a posh horse carriage to Bandra before boarding his daily south-bound train) and Stathams (crooner Jean Statham married swing king Ken Mac). They joined first halves of liltingly laced names on their gates. Doreen D'Souza's parents, Prisca and Celestino, teamed theirs in 1937 to form Priscel Holm (mystery solved).

Priscel Holm

"Choirmaster Fairlie Martin trained us to sing and act," says Doreen of her foray into the music world "as a Santa Cruz girl" before Mombasa-born saxophonist husband Mickey Correa swept her to Colaba. Bandleader at the Taj from 1939 to 1960, his unbroken run was only rivalled by year-ahead Carroll Gibbons of The Savoy, London.

Their daughter Patricia enjoyed her grandparents' garden when Juhu beach was a short rain tree-lined walk from the church fronting Priscel Holm. The plot sprouted jasmine, oleander, coconuts, guavas, chikoos and a stubborn avocado refusing to bear fruit. Doreen moves the memories indoors - "Mother roped in her eight kids to prepare feast sweets, particular we washed hands grubby from play before combing kulkul batter."

Ronald Jeffries outside Sunkist, the 1939 cottage his grandfather Frank Thomas built. Its front porch stands far receded from the main garden gate, following a request made by a neighbour in the bungalow behind - she wanted an unobstructed view of the Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana on the opposite side of their street
Ronald Jeffries outside Sunkist, the 1939 cottage his grandfather Frank Thomas built. Its front porch stands far receded from the main garden gate, following a request made by a neighbour in the bungalow behind - she wanted an unobstructed view of the Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana on the opposite side of their street

Trays of X'mas treats were delivered between homes till the 1980s when builders started claiming cottages and camaraderie blurred, says Sunanda Remedios. Her mother Teresa Albuquerque's book, Santa Cruz That Was, is my research source. Sunanda speaks of Crossville, the East Avenue bungalow of Teresa's parents, Henrietta and Anthony Xavier Moraes. With journalist brother Frank Moraes, Teresa and her other siblings considered they were "blessed to be in Santa Cruz with its spirit of bonding".

Churchgoing was observed with unequal reverence. Albuquerque notes a scene outside the chapel: " 'Outstanding' Catholics congregated under a tree during the service, exchanging tips on races. One gentleman actually carried his race book in his pocket every Sunday, calling it his 'prayer book'." More excusably, jaunty juniors dodged Fr. Joseph Alvares. To quote Albuquergue again: "The Pastor administered not merely spiritual penance to those coming to his confessional. A tweak of the ear was spontaneously given on admission of mischievous deeds. For this reason, several naughty boys preferred confessing on Saturday to old Fr. Cordo who was hard of hearing."

Martin Fonseca and his wife were tenants at Crossville. Grand old man of Santa Cruz, the 98-year-old former managing director of German Remedies describes 1955 East Avenue. "By 6 pm, instead of pedestrians or traffic, our companions were huge marsh mosquitoes. Life was contented, connected. Today, people take six months to say 'Good Morning' to a new face. And Christmas was more religious than the commercial affair it's become."

Before naming homes came the vital task of locating them. Septuagenarian Ronald Jeffries' originally West Indian grandfather Frank Thomas came from Ratlam, silver medalled for services to the BB&CI (Bombay, Baroda & Central India) Railway, at King George VI's proclamation. He constructed Sunkist in 1939 opposite Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana when the club was an asbestos-roofed shed. Frank Thomas' sons - Ronald's father and uncles - steered prestigious inaugural runs of the Frontier Mail, Flying Rani and Rajdhani Express. "A confirmed Railways man, Grandfather chose this space to look to Khar Station on one side, Santa Cruz the other."

I stare at the grills through which Frank Thomas gazed on his beloved engines. The Art Deco design weaves the initials "ftj" from within and "jef", for "Jeffries", from out. "Dad and his brothers would be at meals on this eight-seat dining table. Knowing which train passed when, they jumped up with torches, signalling trains to slow and throw them mango baskets from Balsar." Courtesy and civility not quite extinct, Frank Thomas heeded a request from a lady living across the Jeffries in Kenville. Could he position his porch to not obstruct her view of the gymkhana? The main door of Sunkist indeed lies long recessed from the road. "There was great understanding," says Ronald. "We're the settlers. It hurts that those muscling into the neighbourhood see us as strangers."

Math teacher and proactive parishioner Ann Rose D'Cruz says: "Our community demographic totally turned. Santa Cruz's charm waned for old-timers who shifted further north or abroad. The 1970s saw 150 kids receive Holy Communion each year, against 40 currently. Neither St Teresa's Convent nor Sacred Heart Boys' School have the Catholic children they did on their rolls."

Ann Rose's maternal family is among Santa Cruz's most illustrious. Her uncle, Dr Owen Pinto, one of India's finest runners of the 1950s notching record 400-metres timings in Asia, pioneered sports medicine in the city and was Mother Teresa's personal physician. Drawn to the selfless work of the Missionaries of Charity nuns, he helped establish their Home for the Destitute and Dying on Chapel Lane (renamed Damian Joseph Pinto Road after his father), site of that ancient cross bordering the Pintos' ancestral property.

Living on Ramakrishna Mission Marg after a lifetime in Willingdon Catholic Colony, Yvonne D'Cruz misses the apple blossom and mayflower trees dotting that now defunct 5.5-acre housing cluster, one of Bombay's most beautiful – "All open maidan, it was tough to hide in games of Robbers and Thieves! Christmas was incredible, with carols, cribs and my genial dad making the jolliest Santa, knocking on decorated doors with his Ho-ho-hos." Once this Girton School music teacher had her own wedding guests serenaded by Nelly Battiwala in 1960, Bombay's sole woman bandleader was in hot demand at Santa Cruz.

Entertainment peaked at Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana from 1928. Francis Vital, Maurice Caeiro and Douglas Gudinho share how the barrack-like shelter, with one donated billiard table, five dozen folding chairs and a hat stand, went on to host huge tennis, cricket, hockey and football events. Its crowning boast: "Bombay's best dance parties". The beat of Goody Seervai's orchestra clashed with the bop of Chris Perry's, their respective ensemble voices – full-throated Vincent and contralto Lorna Cordeiro – rousing revellers to jump and jive to the sultriest strains. Even Dadar boy, activist-politician George Fernandes, was a regular. In Cyrilin, one of a literal handful of cottages left standing, Gudinho remembers, "We never crossed roads. The lanes were full of lovers' corners and little three-feet iron fences local lads just kept jumping over."

Nothing brightens Santa Cruz faces as mention of SCADAMS does. The Santa Cruz Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society thrived from the 1930s, Angela Almeida presenting Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with lilting violins and vocals. Duets and pantomime numbers titled Tally-ho Gallop and Ragdoll Drill were also put up in her home, Windermere, the legs of a pair of beds cut to similar height forming the "stage". SCADAMS broadcast its first public studio show on All India Radio in October 1936. Soprano Patricia Rozario was 7 when she rehearsed classical compositions for these talent hunts with her mother Ena. But practice didn't always make perfect. Reciting a poem, Albuquerque's sister forgot lines. Indignant, she loudly hissed "Don't prompt." Finally giving up, she left, saying, "The rest is in the book."

When jazz woman Elaine Mathias arrived in 1965 from Poona to join her husband, word buzzed in the garden suburb, of its recent entrant tinkling tunes like Winifred Atwell's Bumble Boogie with uncommon verve... and Elaine was soon coaching young SCADAMS contestants. Her thought seems echoed in nearly every home I visit: "The biggest loss is that we were all one kind of people – such a different story from Santa Cruz today."

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


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