Exclusive book excerpt: Waiting for Jonathan Koshy by Murzban Shroff

  • Murzban F Shroff, HIndustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 10, 2015 18:17 IST
Bandra Heritage Buildings: Perry Cross Road (HT File Photo)

Ammi Khan heard about Jonathan’s situation from Anwar. Choosing a moment when they were alone, she suggested a paying guest accommodation at Perry Cross Road, a one-bedroom apartment that had been leased for one of their actors from out of town who no longer stayed there. The place was vacant, idle. It was fully furnished and paid for: a year’s rent in advance. So Jonathan could move in any time he liked.

He did, and it turned out to be a cozy place: a ground floor flat with a large bedroom, a high ceiling, and a balcony leading onto a portico. His landlady, Esmeralda Pinto, who lived on top, was a retired schoolteacher. She was a spinster, neat, orderly, and frail, with an impeccable English accent. A friend of Ammi Khan, she also held Mustafa Khan in great esteem. She owed him, she said, for he had funded many of her late father’s music projects.

Alex Pinto worked for the Bombay Docks as Chief Accountant, but he was – by nature – a musician, the conductor of the Bandra Music & Dance Ensemble. So versatile was he (she shared this with Jonathan over mint tea and date-and-walnut cake) that he could write songs in English, Marathi, and Konkani, and would sing these over the radio. Every year, on Republic Day and Independence Day, he would take the ensemble to Delhi, where they - a grand orchestra of forty musicians — would perform before the Prime Minister and other important people. And this they could do only because Mustafa Khan took care of their travel and stay expenses. Esmeralda Pinto would also talk about the man who had brought music to Bandra and whose memory had been an inspiration to many like her father.

Father John D’Mello, or “The Swinging Father,” as he was called, was the founder of Bandra’s first brass band, the St. Paul’s band, established way back in 1890. Of course, Esmeralda Pinto wasn’t born then, but she had heard the stories from her father, a young Alex Pinto, boyishly awed by the heart-stirring vitality of the swinging priest.

Father John held music to be sacred and secular; he saw it as a way to change lives. He wrote dozens of benedictions, hymns, masses, and musicals, and encouraged people to join the choir, to lend their voice to the community.

On Christmas and Easter, Father John would divide the band into three parts, so that they might perform at all three churches: St. Peter’s, Mount Carmel, and the one at Dadar. Those days there were no trains after midnight. So after the Christmas mass the Dadar contingent would have to walk back, four miles on foot, carrying their accordions, clarinets, saxophones, and trombones. Of course, along the way they would have a nip from their hip flasks, and Father John would choose to look the other way.

“Community was everything then, the only thing that mattered,” Esmeralda Pinto would say. “All the income of the band went into building the choir of other churches and into constructing schools and paying for the repair of churches.” “Aunty Esmeralda is turning me into a Bandra boy,” Jonathan would say, “and I love it!”

From one of his sessions with Esmeralda Pinto, we came to know how the Bandra Gymkhana was built. It was thanks to the generosity of Dr. D’Monte, who spontaneously offered to donate a plot of 7,600 square yards. Another 3,400 square yards was added by the Salsette Catholic Cooperative Housing Society, and yet another 3,400 square yards by a friend of Dr. D’Monte, J.R. Athaide. Those days, apparently, people thought nothing of giving up their land if it could benefit the community, if it could help build close-knit ties among members.

Twice a week Jonathan would make it a point to have tea with his landlady. He said she reminded him of his grandmother in Kerala, his maternal grandmother, who called him Jonappan and repeated to him, tirelessly, the stories of her childhood. Sometimes, in the course of those tea sessions, Jonathan would be grilled. How could he have not heard of Cedric Serpes, that great athlete, or Owen D’Souza, that great tennis player, or Dan Britto who wrote all those columns for The Times of India? What about Victor Gomes, who wrote for The Examiner, or Eric Boccaro, the greatest of toastmasters, or Philip Nunes, who had cycled halfway around the world to raise funds for war widows and orphans?

“Sorry, Aunty! No!” Jonathan would say, remembering to wear his most sheepish expression. You don’t disappoint a kind soul like Aunty Esmeralda. You don’t let her down. You simply encourage her to go on.’

Murzban F Shroff’s debut short story collection, Breathless in Bombay, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Waiting for Jonathan Koshy is the second part of Shroff’s Mumbai trilogy.

Murzban Shroff

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What: Waiting for Jonathan Koshy is on stands now.

Publisher: Independent Thinkers

Price: Rs 295

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