by Savia Viegas
Goretti called up Fr. Jeromio from the public phone booth on her way home. She wanted to remind him of his promise to find her a part-time job through his church contacts. He was not at the Jacob Circle Parish, so she left a message with someone. It was dark when she reached the second floor of Maqbool Villa. Mrs. Almeida, her landlady, opened the door, which was Cajetan, the paraplegic cook’s cue to place her mail and a glass of boiled milk tea on her table. She gulped down the tea standing on the balcony amid stale newspapers and disused furniture.
Cars drove past below. The tea refreshed her and she sat down to read her mother’s letter, inside of which was enclosed a library notice from her old college. The letter was not long, but full of cautions: not to stay out late, to be careful, and not to overspend. Her father, a pilot with the Indian Air Force, had died in combat in the Indo-China war in 1962. She was two years old when it happened. Her mother had brought her up since then, never making her feel fatherless. When she expressed a desire to get into advertising and copy-writing, her mother began to check out the possibility of her continuing her education in Bombay. It took six months before Goretti could finally register for graduation at Elphinstone College.
As an only child, the sense of separation and loneliness she felt in the big city were immense. She missed her mother, her suburban college, and the quiet pace of her village. The city and its ceaseless traffic nauseated her. She was paranoid about train travel. It was a good thing her lodging house was within the confines of the old city, because it allowed her to travel by the double-decker bus to college. This was her favourite mode of city transport – the 123 Limited. It took her to college, her favourite shopping destinations, friends’ houses or hostels, culture hubs, museums, galleries, and the library. Moreover, it plied on the most attractive route via Colaba Causeway, Marine Drive, and the crowded streets of Grant Road, before it wound its way via Bombay Central to Tardeo.
Goretti was keen to get a job placement in advertising. Sensitive to her family’s financial privations, she was well aware that her education in the city cost her mother a great deal. She had appeared for a couple of interviews in response to newspaper advertisements, but her lack of a graduation degree was a major stumbling block. She got the stock answer: “Apply when you graduate.” Money was running short. The fact that she had to dip into her family’s savings account every month troubled her.
Fr. Jeromio detained Goretti, tugging affectionately at her long ponytail as she was leaving the church portal after the 10 AM mass on Sunday. Summoning her to his little office, he made her sit outside while he attended to his parishioners’ needs.
Fr. Jeromio was a distant relative, discovered only after Goretti decided to move to Bombay. The priest instinctively won her mother’s trust for he descended from the line in the family where nuns and priests appeared in each generation with the frequency of rosary beads. He was a tall man with a mop of grey hair and a wide grin. Before she left to return home, Goretti’s mother had made Fr. Jeromio her daughter’s local guardian and arranged for her to stay with Mrs. Almeida, a retired school teacher – also a parish contact.
The parish cook served tea while Goretti and a man with a luxuriant silver beard and long hair waited. He was dressed in a white kurta and pyjamas, but Goretti noticed that the man was barefoot. She had the uncanny feeling that she had seen him somewhere, before, and then it dawned on her that he bore a resemblance to the legendary artist M. F. Husain. Her classmate Sima had once pointed him out to her in the street, referring to him as “Husain’s Double” as he crossed over to go to Samovar, the restaurant at Fort, which artists, media-persons, writers, poets, and students frequented.
“Husain’s Double” perhaps noticed the flicker of recognition cross her face, for he asked matter-of-factly: “Waiting for Fr. Jeromio?”
“Yes,” Goretti replied, looking at him directly for the first time. In turn, he said, “I find placements for some of the parish youth under Fr. Jeromio ...”
She got up to go in as the last of the Jacob Circle parishioners came out.
It was just a courtesy chit-chat she had been invited for, she realised, for outside of the little regular queries of college and board-house, Fr. Jeromio made little conversation.
“Edmund,” he called out and Husain’s Double walked in. He was shorter and less lean than the artist, she noted.
“This is someone I want you to meet. Goretti is a distant relative of mine who has set her heart on a steady job in copy-writing. It’s the reason why she has come to Bombay.”
Husain’s Double gave her a charming smile. “The Frank Simoes Agency is looking for freelance copy-writers. Why don’t you give them a shot?’ he coaxed. “Meet me at Samovar on Wednesday next, at three pm. It’s nearby. I will give you some leads about whom to meet and so on.”
Encouraged by Fr. Jeromio, and tempted by the offer, Goretti agreed to the Wednesday invitation to tea.
The first floor of Maqbool Villa was occupied by the owners of the building. It was a large family with several children under the age of ten who constantly played in the corridor or darted out from the door which was always open. It also seemed like it was some kind of an office , for the place was always busy with people. Goretti often looked into their house as she took the stairs, because it reminded her of a film set. A maroon sofa was placed against pale pista-coloured walls opposite the entrance. A large chandelier, always lit, hung over the teapoy on which continually rested a fluted white vase and a few teacups.
“They are big timber merchants with their depot in Mahim,” Mrs. Almeida had said as they walked upstairs together one day. “Two brothers live here and look at the number of children!”
The women of the house always wore long maxis and covered their heads with wraps thrown over their shoulders. The girls wore salwar kameez with their heads covered in a similar fashion. The two elderly women always dressed in white. Fatima Bee, the younger of the two wives, always detained Goretti on the landing to talk. Where was she from? Why had she come to Bombay? What was she studying? Fatima Bee was pretty in a traditional sort of way but, clearly, pregnancies in quick succession had taken their toll on her body. Her protruding belly pushed against the soft cloth of her terylene maxis, revealing a mound of hardened fat beneath her tiny breasts, which were always covered by her dupatta. Her youthful face had dark circles below her eyes, and post-partum flab had thickened her arms and thighs.
On Bakri Eid, Fatima Bee invited Goretti to have lamb biryani with raita and kheer. Afraid of hurting her host’s sentiments, Goretti accepted. Sitting at the table, she served herself from the vast spread of food, as the girls dressed in their Eid finery hovered around her, touching her hair, her eyelashes and her arms. The old woman, Shakira Bee, had come by. Leaning on her walking cane, she ran her palms over Goretti’s bare arms, mumbling something. The girls laughed, and Fatima Bee intervened saying loudly enough so she could hear, “Khala, let her eat!”
Later, Goretti asked Fatima Bee what the old woman had said. “Don’t mind her, she is old. But if you want to know, she asked, “Why does this girl parade her naked arms without a dupatta?”
“He wants to meet you,” said Fatima Bee, seeing she had nearly finished. She led her to a bare little room which was used as an office. Her husband was in a white embroidered kurta, sorting some papers.
Khaleed, a stocky man, looked up from the sorting and asked matter-of-factly if she was willing to work. He needed a steno-typist.
Goretti shook her head, appalled at the thought of doing dictation and typing in a wood-handling firm. “Not now. I have to concentrate on my graduation," Goretti replied.
“What did he ask you?” Fatima Bee enquired while adjusting her dupatta. Goretti told her.
“Your English is good. Take the job,” coaxed Fatima Bee. She pressed Goretti’s arms wistfully. “So lean and slender. I put on weight after babies,” she said, making bloating noises with her mouth and looking at herself depreciatingly. In the arms of her reedy, nine-year-old daughter Nafisa, the chubby baby Omar gurgled happily.
Aware that she had an appointment later that afternoon at Samovar, Goretti brushed and tied up her long hair, wore her black tee-shirt with the blue wrap-around skirt, and thrust her feet into her baby-heeled hurachees. She was running late. Cajetan’s boiled tea in a glass and bun maska, untended, had a pair of flies hovering on the glass rim. The tea had developed a thick surface coverlet. She fished it out with her index finger and rested it on the rim but, on second thought, shoved the bun maska in her bag and rushed down the stairs past the open door of Maqbool khandaan where Fatima Bee waited some mornings. She stepped into the wide street opposite Nair Hospital, from where she caught her double decker.
Professor Mistry looked towards her during her English Lit class, hoping, as usual, that Goretti would answer her queries, this time about Pygmalion. But Goretti was a little distracted, thinking her life was going to change with the proposal that Husain’s Double was to bring to the table. Once at the teahouse, she ordered a chutney sandwich and a pot of tea – items that cost the least and were very popular with college students.
Husain’s Double arrived ten minutes late. By that time she had chomped through her sandwich, had one cup of tea, and was pouring the second. He had a young boy with him with whom he spoke for a while before walking over to her table. Heads turned , his silver beard and white, laundry-starched kurta and pyjamas creating quite an impression. She caught a whisper from the table next to hers. The word “Durga” drifted to her ears.
“Ha! Here you are!” He said, sitting opposite Goretti in the wicker chair.
He ordered mint lemonade and asked her if she would like to have something else. Goretti shook her head. They rambled on about this and that, interests, movies, and literature. He took out a fresh copy of Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, and handing it to her told her how much he had loved it.
“Do you see movies often?” he enquired.
“Twice a month,” she replied.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked suddenly with a smile. She was taken aback by this query, for it had simply not occurred to her that he would ask this.
“I have tickets for Fiddler on the Roof and was wanting to invite you, if you are interested, that is.” He held out one of the tickets saying, “It’s for the matinee show.”
“I am on the lookout for a placement for you – either with O and M, or Re-diff. I know guys out there.”
“I was hoping you would give me the contact for the Frank Simoes Agency,” she responded boldly.
“Oh that,” he said stroking his beard. “I spoke to Frank this morning. He seems to have just hired two full-time copy-writers and will contact me as soon as something comes up.”
He thrust the ticket into her hand. “Come watch. The tickets are not easy to come by. Most shows are sold out. Rates on the black-market are quite steep.”
Later, she met Fatima Bee on the landing. “Sure you don’t want the job?” she asked cheerfully.
He was waiting, Goretti could see, as she neared Sterling Cinema. His starched white outfit was visible from a distance. Luckily, she had a lean schedule for Friday, so she had to bunk only one lecture. She hoped he would have some news for her about the job or freelance assignments. In three months, she would have finished her exams and would be free. She had no plans to study further, and was keen to have a good job doing something she liked.
She did not want Husain’s Double to get ideas, so she had worn her old leaf-coloured pinafore with the muslin blouse. She felt a little awkward about having accepted the ticket, but reminded herself that she knew him through a respectable contact. Besides, he was clearly old enough to be her father.
Midway through the film, Husain’s Double excused himself. He came back a good half an hour later. Goretti smelled the whiff of imported male cologne upon his return. She loved the film and thanked him for the treat, gently declining his offer to have a bite at Vithal Bhelpuri House.
“Any news about the copy-writer’s post?” she asked instead.
“There will be! Soon! I am keeping tabs on it.” He scribbled his number down for her to contact him so that he could let her know. “In any case, I always come to Samovar on Wednesday, so you can drop in at lunch-time to meet me.”
The evening rush had already begun. The streets were full of people walking towards Victoria Terminus from Sachivalya. They walked with great determination to catch the fast trains bound for the suburbs from the city center. Goretti decided to walk to her lodgings via Chowpatty and Tardeo. The traffic was sure to be chaotic, but she felt like facing the breakers at Marine Drive and passing through the throngs of walkers near Chowpatty. She reflected on the film. It had been good, but in accepting to see it with Husain’s Double had she inadvertently indicated that she was interested in him? Why had he asked her out for a film?
She called once but did not get him on the line, so she dropped in casually on Wednesday at Jehangir Art Gallery at noon and peeped into Samovar. The restaurant had two rows of tables lining the length of the place. Goretti spotted him at the farthest end, sitting with a boy. She sat down on the steps and waited. Husain’s Double came out half an hour later, waving as he spotted her. The boy left and he too seemed in a hurry.
“Nothing yet,” he said as he nodded at her and got into a cab.
Soon, college exams were around the corner, and Goretti was busy. It meant studying for long hours in the Bombay University Library under the sonorous bell of the Rajabhai Tower. A number of her classmates had also reserved study tables and met up for tea and bun maska at the Light of Asia restaurant.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and Chitra, a slain army lieutenant’s daughter, who lived in the hostel at Marine Drive, signalled to her if she would like to have tea. It was nearly one in the afternoon, and Goretti realised that she was beginning to get hungry. She gathered her things together quickly.
Chitra was going to watch Summer of ‘42 just across the street at Eros Cinema. “The review in The Times was superb. You lucky girl!” exclaimed Goretti. They were very friendly; Chitra had even lent her class notes on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to Goretti.
“Well, yes the film is good but more important, I am getting a job.”
“How is that?” asked Goretti, both puzzled and interested.
“I met this M. F. Husain-kind of character at a party. He knows Patanjali Sethi of The Times, and can find me a placement there.”
They had walked the S-shaped pathway to The Light of Asia by this time. Sitting down amid the clutter of chairs and loud conversation of the Irani cafe, Goretti asked eagerly: “Is this M. F. Husain character treating you to the movie or what?”
The waiter brought out their order of elaichi-flavoured tea and buttered buns, sliced into four pieces. They chatted animatedly about their preparations for the oncoming exams and Goretti returned to the library thereafter.
The next day, when they took a bun maska-break, Sima joined them. Goretti questioned Chitra about the film and the job offer. “The film was supercalifragilistic,” replied Chitra, ‘but yaar there is something fishy about this guy. No job offer materialised in the end. And then, he disappeared halfway through the film, only to return an hour later, fresh-smelling and all tidied up. Funny fellow.”
“By the way, are you referring to Husain’s Double?” butted in Sima.
“Yes, that is him all right!” Chitra laughed.
“Is it not a well-known story that this guy loves to have both boys and girls hanging around him as props, and he takes them to the cinema, theatre, and music programmes with promises of jobs in journalism and advertising agencies? Nothing ever happens in the end,” said Sima flippantly. “Only you end up being page boys and page girls to his fake persona at public events.”
Goretti wasn’t sure how to react to this information and kept silent.
As soon as her exams were over, Goretti paid Fr. Jeromio a courtesy call.
“There was no way to contact you. There’s something here for you,” he said, shuffling the papers around on his desk until he located what he was looking for. It was an envelope with her name on it. Goretti opened it anxiously. Inside was a note from Husain’s Double asking her to contact Roger Pereira at O & M for an interview.
Photo © Jessica Faleiro.
Savia Viegas is a writer, artist and academic living in Goa. She has authored several books including Let me tell you about Quinta (Penguin; 2011). She has showcased her art in solo shows in Goa and Portugal, and is currently working on a book about the artist Angelo da Fonseca. Quinta can be purchased here.