When Rolina Rodricks was a young girl, she would often accompany her grandmother for a walk on the beach. Times were simpler then and so was this city they called their own. Or at least that is what Rolina’s grandmother always told her. They were the first inhabitants of the city – the East Indians. They had a colourful history and a rich tradition that became part of the stories that Rolina’s granny narrated to her on their evening walks, climaxing with Rita running into the waters, letting the waves tickle her feet.
These waves tickle my feet as well, as I stand at Manori beach staring at the long stretching coastal line, thinking of Rolina whom I interacted with several months ago at a friend’s party. In her mid-forties now, she has settled in Canada. The walks have ceased to exist. Times have changed and so has the city of Mumbai.
Yet one part of it still clings to an envious, old-world charm. The part that Rolina took long walks on and the part I tread upon this day. Here, the honking of cars has been replaced by the chirping of birds, concrete buildings by colourful huts, bustling roads with cobbled lanes dotted with trees, and traffic signals with tiny chapels.
I am at Bombay’s Dharavi island, situated in the North Konkan region of Maharashtra – not to be confused with the public shanties near Sion. The north-western part of Salsette that makes up one of the 7 islands of Mumbai, this is the land of the East Indians comprising the six villages of Manori, Uttan, Gorai, Chowk and Pali.
The East Indian community claims its roots in the culturally diverse city of Mumbai long before any others. The turbulent history of their conversions, occupation, their dependency on the sea, the influence of Maharashtrian culture on Portuguese traditions, and the etymological roots of the community make the East Indian identity a very complex one. In fact, outsiders and even most Mumbaikars hardly seem to know about them and they are often clubbed together under the umbrella term of ‘Catholics’, completely dismissing their heritage and unique cultural identity. But an effort to change this can be observed at Manori’s East Indian Museum, which is where I head to, first.
The Kaka Baptista museum, located in a heritage property of Theresa Vila is a treasure trove exhibiting the East Indians’ traditional gold jewellery, utensils, holy books, clothes, furniture, religion and even occupations (toddy tappers, farmers, fishermen, salt pan workers ) through life-size mannequins.
It is amazing how the museum through its objects manages to trace the complex history of the community on the island. It dates back to the 16th century when the Portuguese colonisers landed on Mumbai shores and converted the local fishing communities to Catholicism. This gave rise to this unique culture made up of Maharashtrian, Konkani and Portuguese influences. Today, the East Indian Catholics are prominent members of the Bombay, Thane, Salsette and the Dharavi islands. Though most East Indian Suburbs are now burgeoning with multi-culturalism, Dharavi island (named after the local goddess Dharavi who has a temple in Gorai) is the only one that still thrives in all its naturalness.
What confuses me, however, is the term ‘East Indians’ assigned to a community that belongs to the western part of the country. As I step out of the museum with this question in my head, I run into Alphi D’Souza, the brain behind the East Indian Museum and an activist trying to save the dwindling legacy. He tells me that the origins of the name ‘East Indian’ have been a point of contention for some time. Many believe that it may be a throwback to descendants from the East India Company, but it’s more commonly accepted that the unique nomenclature arose to distinguish them from the Goan Catholics who migrated to Mumbai later.
After a hearty conversation with Alphi, I step out on the quiet streets of Manori, literally located a 5-minute-ferry ride away from the chaos of Malad. I decided to check out the dozens of cheap resorts that Manori buzzes with. Huts, cottages and beautiful old bungalows sprawled over gardens with pools and backyards opening up to a pristine beach. This is where most of Mumbai, in search of space, privacy and peace comes to make love and party. I wander off in the Dominica Holiday Home whose wooden log homes and swaying coconut trees attract me. Here I bump into Savina and Dean Pereira who run this resort in their ancestral property. They invite me to their lovely house which sports a beautiful wall plastered with colourful stones and shelves. “Dean and his brothers made this wall as children. They collected all these rocks and shells from the beach,” Savina says. I realise how deeply intertwined the geography of the place is to their culture. “My father was an architect and he started building this house in 1948 keeping the elements of the Portuguese architecture in mind,” Dean adds.
I notice the intricacies of this foreign architecture that had, quite literally laid its foundations and built an identity for itself in this quaint, coastal part of India. This can be best observed in Kulvam, a small hamlet located en route Manori to Gorai. Away from the cacophony of resorts and tourists, Kulvam is a village lost in time. Swaying coconut trees, the sound of the waves lashing in the distance and the afternoon sun casting a soft glow on the empty lanes, that are dotted with beautiful, old bungalows.
Each house here has a similar architecture. Sloping roofs, wooden facade, a veranda, a devotional room, a bedroom and a little porch where most women sit to do household work. All houses have an exterior rickety wooden staircase to the first floor. Though inside, the homes are furnished with all mod-cons, the exteriors are kept untouched. “We respect the houses are fathers and grandfather built. They are intrinsic to our culture. Why should we destroy them?” questions Egoipt Daniel Rodricks, an old retired tonga rider standing outside his 100-year-old bungalow.
Houses like these can be typically found in all Gaothans, which is essentially what East Indian village clusters are called. Up until a few years ago, Mumbai had almost 108 gaothans, out of which around 89 still exist today. Most of these, however, have been corrupted out of their character. Only a few in Dharavi island can still boast of their original charm.
But it’s not just the houses that lend these villages its charm. It is also the friendliness of the East Indians of this island. Be it the warm hospitality of the Perieras of Manori, enlightening conversations with Alphi and the million dollar smile of Egoipt that says a lot about the dwindling yet a jolly good community.
After a whirlwind tour of Kulvam, I head to Stella Aunty Ka Dhaba at Gorai to satiate my grumbling stomach. Stella Aunty is a lovely woman who has never attended school yet is the sole breadwinner of the family. She earns by feeding travellers and locals with authentic and delicious East Indian food. It may seem like a wide spectrum, India’s seaboard isn’t small after all. But though it has Portuguese influences it is far away from its Goan cousins. I am told that the East Indian dishes, especially Sorpotel and Vindaloo contain garlic and spices while the Goan version is sweeter and has a dominant coconut flavour.
To acquaint us more, Stella Aunty lays out a lovely spread of fried pomfret, chicken curry, Bombil, fried prawns, fish curry, gauthi (country) chicken and hand bread (flatbread made with rice). I enjoy chicken curry the most. It gets its spicy, piquant flavour from the East Indian bottled masala, that each household here makes by mixing a variety of spices together. The recipe, however, is a top secret.
The East Indians also make their own wine, and love toddy. Though Stella aunty doesn’t serve it, she recalls how her mother taught her to make it – just like all the other dishes. Stella then put her culinary skills to use in a resort kitchen and thereafter began her own East Indian Dhaba. Today Stella Aunty is popular on the island and has lost count of people she feeds every day. Her inspiring story reminds me of Ruby aunty, a home chef in Manori whom we had met earlier in the day. Known for her delicious cooking, she, like Stella has been running her household by capitalising on this unique and delicious cuisine.
When I had met Ruby in her old dingy hut in Manori to get an insight into the culinary traditions of the community, I also got a perspective on their attire. Ruby and her girls were wearing long flowy frocks with a cross necklace dangling from their necks. They seemed to resemble the catholic aunties of Goa, but it so happens that their traditional dress which they wear only on special occasions, happens to be red chequered saris with sparkly gold ornaments – a prominent characteristic of Maharashtrian attire. I remain intrigued by this mishmash of cultural influences that I observe in not just food and attire, but also language.
The East Indians speak a dialect which is a mix of Marathi, Konkani and Portuguese and has a Roman script. To understand this more, I head to Uttan, a slightly larger town on the island, to meet Mogan Rodricks, a linguistic expert. He tells me about words like ‘Batata’ (potato) or the addition of the suffix ‘tao’ after each verb - ‘Aami Jaatao’ (we are going) comes from Portuguese whereas words like ‘kela’ (banana) and ‘dagar’ (stone) come from Marathi.
“The East Indian language is a dying but interesting one. The younger generation does not know how to speak it,” Mogan says. I suddenly recall how Stella Aunty had been speaking to her daughters in her broken English. “They teach only English in school. It is important. What will she do knowing our language?” Stella had questioned.
Apparently, the language hasn’t even been documented efficiently. So Mogan has taken this herculean task upon himself. He intends to record East Indian folk songs that only the older generation women know and has started organising song competitions in schools to get the younger generation interested. He also wants to compile a dictionary of words peculiar to the community.
Another way he proposes to save the language is through the churches. The island is home to beautiful Portuguese churches like Our Lady Of The Sea Church, Our Lady Of The Perpetual Succour Church, Vellankkani Church etc, situated by the sea. With its magnificent interiors, glass stained paintings and open outdoors where the community members get together, the church is a bounding force but delivers its sermons only in English, Marathi and Konkani. Mogan is putting in efforts to have one sermon in the East Indian language, every week.
But the dying language on the island isn’t the only threat to the community. It is the urbanisation and development goals that plan to build in the gaothans and replace the old heritage bungalows with new ones. It is also the struggle to establish and celebrate their identity in a place they supposedly inhabited first, amidst rising Hindutva extremism.
Fortunately, a lot of East Indians are coming together to not just uplift and preserve the culture of the community, but also protect the natural character and tradition of the last few remaining gaothans in the Dharavi island. The actions can be seen through projects like the making of the Uttan Heritage Village, the East Indian Memory Project, the community events organised by the church, meeting with the CM, the East Indian Museum, the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat newsletter etc.
Appreciative of all the efforts being put in, I take in the serenity and the silence of the island one last time before I head to the city. But even in the calmness, there seems to be a stirring, uncomfortable turbulence. In the morning, I had tried to imagine what life must have been like on Dharavi island, hundreds of years ago. Not much had seemed different. But as I leave, thinking of all the interactions with East Indians throughout the day, I realise that perhaps everything is.
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