Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Of Aunties and All That :The Rise and Fall of a Bombay Goan Era

Roland Francis

If Bombay in its post-Raj era had been a relic of British rule in India, growing up in the city, we knew nothing of it, or maybe just didn't care. To us youthful Goans, it was a place where our parents had emigrated to and where we were born.

Correctly said, we didn't even call ourselves Goans. We were labeled makapaos, just as there were labels for everybody else. The Parsis were called bawas, the Sindhis papads, the Maharashtrians ghatis, the Gujaratis gujjus, the Sikhs surds and the Anglos payday kings.

If Byculla, Mazagon, Colaba, Girgaum, Mahim, Bandra, Chembur, Malad and Borivali were Goan kingdoms, then Dhobitalao was surely the capital of them all. It was the fountainhead of the Goan in Bombay and the place where no matter where you lived, you always knew someone there.

So it was no surprise what happened when Morarji Desai of 'pisskey' fame (he banned whiskey but believed in 'auto-urine therapy') decided in his Gujarati bania wisdom that the Bombayite needed to abstain from liquor. It was in Dhobitalao that the legend of the Goan Aunty was born.

Dhobitalao was the area which had the most Goans per square inch. Perhaps historian Dr. Teresa Albuquerque -- the sister of editor Frank Moraes, and aunt of Dom Moraes -- may explain why, but it could have been due to the kudds or village clubs locating there.
It was the Goan heartbeat with the Sonapur lane its aorta.

Though mainly lower-class Goan in population, it was a vibrant neighborhood comparable to a bustling village church area on a Sunday morning.

If you were an uncharitable traveler, you may have compared it to Warsaw's Jewish ghetto. There were the similar winding streets and narrow lanes we called gullies. Hardly any dead ends and, if you knew the place well, even a battalion-sized force could not encircle you.

So, Dhobitalao became the Goan Aunty's liquor heartland.
A place where any drunken Goan's wife could at last find the solution to her financial woes. Don't forget that although Bombay's Goan community was solid burgher in it's work ethic -- with more than it's share of educators, doctors, lawyers, high ranking police and army officers who made their name throughout the country -- these elite Goans formed the fringes who lived mostly in places I have described above, outside of Dhobitalao.

The core was the underclass of barely educated and underemployed Goan labour, a goodly chunk of which lived in Dhobitalao. Of this, quite a few did nothing more in life than hit the bottle and consequently their families suffered. Whether it was the frustrations of a city or the longing for their native Goan village, it was difficult to tell.

Not only the Goan community, but the rest of Bombay took their Goan Aunties to heart. Bombay was a bon vivant place then. The music scene, the advertising crowd, the business community, the religious groups -- all had the need of a tipple when the occasion arose. And such occasions were many.
Give a man the freedom of a bottle and he may choose to ignore it. Take the choice away from him and he will spare no effort to drink when he can.

It started out with a few Aunties allotting a small room in their house to known musicians and fellow village seafarers living in nearby kudds, to sit, have a few drinks and thereby earn a little income. The moonshine was bought from East Indian Christians living in the suburbs, who distilled it in their large backyards mostly in Bandra and Borivali and transported it to the city in rubber packs. The kind you fill with hot water and use as a compress on your aching back.

Overripe fruit was used as the ingredient and the resultant distillate had a rather palatable flavor, while giving you the necessary high. Few Goan musicians could blow or play without this nectar and few Goan college professors could unwind without it.

The police took a rather benign view of the whole thing in the beginning. Police stations were headed by Anglo Indians, Parsis and Jews. It was not unusual for, say Inspector Mistry, to caution an enthusiastic aunty that she should tone down her operations to no more than a few bottles, enough to care for her family with as less disturbance to the neighbors as possible.

However as Aunty's services to the thirsting Bombayman spread beyond the original confines, the Aunty, like any good corporation, expanded her market share. Except that beyond word of mouth, she had no need of any marketing.

Liquor needs went beyond what amateur operations could supply and the channels expanded to South Indians operating giant vats in the marshes and vast hutments of Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum. Using, at times, groups of lepers to carry the booze to avoid police searches.

They used battery-grade sulphates commonly called battery powder to distill it faster, and spoiled rice and sugarcane molasses instead of overripe fruits. Police saw an opportunity of their own, in this expansion process. They made fortunes from extorting the Aunties and their suppliers, though extortion might be the wrong word here. It was all a peaceful business process. The cops got a feel of Aunty's turnover and put a proportionate 'toll' on it.

Business was good for everyone -- the Aunties, the cops and the consumers. A win-win situation as we call it today.

Village socials, dances and weddings were no longer the muted occasions they became when Prohibition was initially introduced to the city. Aunties spread everywhere and no place in Bombay was more than a little walking distance from the nearest speakeasy.

With competition the business evolved. The drinker needed some visual stimulation and younger and fulsome Aunties began wearing low-cut revealing blouses and throwing flirting looks and invitations. The older ones substituted with putting their frisky nubile daughters to serve the clientele with strict instructions on how far to go and advice on how to further relationships when they encountered eligible and responsible regulars.

Many an Aunty's daughter was married off to a Times of India reporter or an upcoming schoolteacher or even a prosperous businessman's son. The Uncle was completely out of the picture. He was either told to get out of the house by 5 pm and sleep at a relative's, or better still he was packed off to Goa with a regular remittance following.

Just as Goans prospered with a stint in the Gulf countries or earlier than that, in Africa, the Aunties too prospered. Most were possessed of shrewdness and spent their money educating their children and buying flats and homes in the suburbs.

Bandra was a favourite. In fact I was dating a very beautiful girl of Sophia College which was then the St Xavier's College female equivalent, who went on to become a medical doctor and who unbeknownst to me, was an Aunty's daughter. The day of enlightening came when she invited me over to her house in Dhobitalao quite early in the evening, but not early enough to discover (to her chagrin) a few customers straggling in. She avoided me after that, though having a rich Aunty as a mother in law would not have found disfavor with me.

Prohibition spanned more than one generation and an entire Goan culture encompassed it. Tiatrs were staged around Aunty's lives or with her financial assistance. Booze was supplied to the tiatrist if he was good and his presence in the joint would increase the clientele.

Bands would not venture to the show without a nip sized bottle in their inside pocket and this helped the composition as well as the quality of the music. Many a hot song would not have been birthed without this necessary ingredient.

My father had a good friend who after liberation went from Bombay to a police officer's career in Goa. There was an occasion when he had to come back to the city to arrest and take back a criminal who had fled here after committing a crime in Bardez. Having found and handed the felon to the Byculla Police Station for temporary custody, he came over to where we lived nearby and whispered an invitation in my father's willing ear to celebrate his success at a nearby Aunty's.

By this time the Prohibition Branch had been added to the Bombay Police and they had a habit of raiding speakeasies at their peak hour of business. Both my father and Blasco, his friend, were trapped along with the 50 or so other customers.

Mum had suggested to them that they drink at home, but they ignored her advice. So when they did not return at a late hour, I was sent to see what the problem was. I was too young to visit such joints then but I was the usual smart Bombay kid and in no time I found out from word on the street that a certain place had been raided.

Walking, I came across my father and Blasco coolly returning from the other direction. It transpired that while the clientele were lined up for questioning, Blasco could have stepped out of the line and revealed he was from Goa Police but he feared that he might be arrested instead of released and would lose his job as a Police Officer breaking the law.

However when his turn came he decided to reveal it and was told as a brother officer to walk away and take his companion, my father, with him.

When I came of drinking age myself, I was a regular visitor at Cardozo's joint in Mazagaon. Peter Cardozo was in a much senior league than the biggest Aunty. He employed trucks to bring commercially bottled feni and naval rum from Goa to Mazagon and my favorite was the Old Barrel brand which he sold for 20 rupees, the same price as the rum.

The feni was good, better than today's Big Boss and I considered myself too haughty to drink the usual country stuff. I was one of Cardozo's VIPs as I used to bring my friends almost every weekend and was a big spender.

For us, the all-you-can eat fresh Bombay Ducks fried in turmeric outside his doors was a complimentary from Cardozo who was a young mid-30s entrepreneur.

One day while relaxing in this manner with three others, suddenly the word 'raid' was heard. Leaving the bottle and the tasty Bombay Ducks, we ran to the nearest window that let out into a side street, along with the other customers and jumped from a height of about six feet.

Not all of the others were as young, athletic and of the level of sobriety as we, and a couple of them at least landed on their bones and started moaning and shouting in pain. We were not callous boys but we had no wish to remain to help them when faced with an arrest.

My Mum was a strict nurse and would have given me a strong Catholic guilt trip of how she had raised her only child to no good result. We walked back discretely to the front and saw Cardozo, limbs akimbo, telling one and all it was a false alarm. We went back to our places as if nothing had happened. Cardozo took care of the injured in style, by brazenly calling an ambulance and paying all the concerned charges.

When V. P. Naik the new state of Maharashtra Chief Minister replaced Morarjibhai of the Bombay Province, he relaxed prohibition. Not only because it had caused lasting harm to the Bombay public's health and guts but was also because of the culture of bribery and corruption that was taking root in the Bombay Police force.

I am sure that being a big grape grower had something to do with his decision. Beer was now made available and the government started permitted Country Liquor outlets, selling brand names like Rocket and Double Ghoda (Twin Horse), which kicked you much harder than a horse could.

No doubt these liquids had their origins in distilleries belonging to Naik and his sugar-baron cohorts from the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra. This gradual relaxation of a meaningless law sounded the death knell of the Bombay Goan Aunty. By then she had made her money and she could well say like Shakespeare 'all's well that ends well'. It was the end of a Bombay Goan era.

Roland Francis is based in Toronto, and wrote this in May 2008. It is to be published in a forthcoming book on Goans in Bombay, covering the 1930s to the 1970s, currently being edited by Reena Martins, a feature-writer and journalist based in India's commercial and media capital.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

hi. since u haven't updated ur hyd blog in a year, i assume you have moved? :) i have just moved to hyd, and the reiki in ur profile kinda woke me up .. :)

Kim said...


hyd was a couple of yrs ago.

in egypt these days.