Banana Lane: A Childhood Memoir

[A Portrait of one Grandmother’s home]

Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

Introduction

Grandfather’s book

My grandfather’s book travelled with me a long way, from India to my adopted home overseas. His name, Principal Moses Ezekiel (J. & J College of Science, NADIAD B.B. & C.I.RY).  Its title, ‘History and Culture of the Bene-Israel in India’.  The book documents the history of the Jewish community into which I was born. The slim volume was published on October 4th 1948, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. My copy is very old and the first page is torn. I think the back page, or pages, are also missing. My grandfather has dedicated it to his sister, Sarah, and in the preface (where he makes several confessions) he says that ‘this book is merely a labor of love.’ I am struck by the simplicity of his writing and the personal touch he gives to his account of the story of our small, but significant community. The humility with which he writes the Preface strikes me each time I return to reading it.

This memoir is a portrait of the home of my paternal grandmother and about the Bene-Israel community of Jews, to which I belong, and in which I grew up in the city of Bombay, now Mumbai. Sometimes, being the only Jewish student in my school and college, made me a kind of curiosity. I felt like little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop, the novel by Charles Dickens. Besides, though not an orphan in the strictest sense of the word, living without my mother, for complicated family reasons, while she was still alive, often made me feel like one. I was nick-named ‘Shylock’, when we studied Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in school, and accused of killing Christ, even though I protested I was not there when his Crucifixion happened. And almost always, the question I asked my father was, ‘Are we Jewish Indian, or Indian Jewish.’ My father would reply that we were both! And overseas, in my adopted home, hardly anyone has heard of an Indian Jew, and people express much surprise at my identity.

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Chapter 1

Banana Lane and Penny Lane 

[One lane separated the two houses where my parents lived. Destiny walked that short distance, bringing them into that union, humans call marriage.]

 

I loved the Beatles and I loved the song “Penny Lane”. It has remained one of my favourites. My father had gifted me a book of their song lyrics which he had purchased on one of his trips to New York, with an inscription on the first page, ’To Kavita, with faith in her potential’. It is taking me a lifetime to try and fulfill that potential, and the book has been lost in transition between the many homes and places I have moved to, over the years. If anyone discovers its whereabouts, I would be willing to offer a small reward!

My father, with whom I lived in my paternal grandmother’s home, was a unique man; kind, generous to a fault, ‘unpractical’ and totally unworldly. He was an intellectual, totally dedicated to his craft—a true poet at heart, writer, teacher, and dreamer, always calm, cool and collected. I rarely saw him angry, but when he lost his temper, he pronounced my name by biting his lower lip, Kavitam, not Kavita. Then you stood at a distance, and timidly asked what crime you had committed. You trembled to think what the consequences could be, but usually it was some kind of gentle admonition with a touch of philosophical advice.

At ‘The Retreat’, my paternal grandmother’s house, was a magical place with old-world charm, a creaking wooden staircase, gleaming brass pots to store water in, Jewish cooking at its very deliciousness, and warm, larger-than-life personalities, the dozens of pigeons in the high rafters that made their nests and raised their young. Sometimes, an egg fell to the floor beneath with a young dead chick, lifeless and still. At such times, I wept not just for the chick, but for its mother. My grandfather said it was nothing to worry about, as the cycle of life includes such small setbacks, but to a young child, the sight of the lifeless little bird was devastating.

It was here at ‘The Retreat’ that I was raised by my grandmother, my aunt Hannah, her kind and loving husband, who passed away too early, and whom we called ‘Brother,’ and my father. I spent most of my childhood and youth there. They were religious and observed all the Jewish customs and traditions. My grandfather was present for some of the time too, but he was mostly away, being the Principal of a college in Nadiad, in Gujarat, a state in Western India. Friends, neighbors, aunts, uncles and cousins gave me their time and companionship throughout this difficult phase of my life. I went to live at ‘The Retreat’, when I had turned just eleven.

Perhaps, ‘The Retreat’ contained a kind of symbolism as the name for my grandmother’s home, which would be inextricably woven into my life story.

I would look forward to Sundays. My mother spent the day with me, bringing some treats to be stored in the fridge for the coming week. The pigeons were my constant companions.  Their cooing was a backdrop to my daily life. Sometimes, bats flew through the open windows and got so confused, they didn’t know whether to call this place home, or fly to a different spot. We had a saying that if a bat flies in, a baby would follow. I did not have a baby till many years later in life, but the saying stuck in my mind, as did many other of my grandmother’s words and sayings. A white kitten even managed to stray in through the front door, but my grandfather (“papa”) would not let me keep it because he said cat hair was not good for health. I have never had a home without cats after marriage! Sorry papa! I could have titled my memoir ‘My family and other Animals’, but that title has already been taken and I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism!

The small trip down Banana Lane, as I nick-named the street between the two grandmothers’ homes, was a balancing act. From one grandmother’s house to another’s, it was a ten-minute walk on broken sidewalks filled with hawkers, beggars, taxis and a never-ending sea of humanity.  This was a veritable Banana Lane. My mother hoisted up her saree to her ankles, held our little hands tightly as she made her brisk, determined visits each Sunday to both grandmothers’ houses, with my younger sister and I. She had decided to kill two birds with one stone. We tried to struggle free so we could skip along, as little girls are wont to do. However, since the lane was crowded with men in lungis (a kind of sarong) loading green and yellow bananas in various shapes and sizes, bound for the local markets, the street often became slippery with banana peels in varying states of decay.  I remember vividly the big, stone warehouse, stacked with bananas from floor to ceiling, and the half-clad men tossing bunches of bananas onto the trucks, calling out loudly to each other in the local language. We were tempted to eat the bananas too, but were denied by my strict mother, saying that it was important for us to reach our destination quickly, and return home quickly by a bus we could not miss. “Another bus will take a long time to come”. That was a repeated chant whenever we ventured out from our own home. The image of the men balancing themselves on top of the mountains of bananas on the banana truck, is still clear to this day. If I were an artist, I could sketch that picture.

Now back to ‘The Retreat’...

The paternal grandmother’s house was where my parents took me directly from the hospital when I was born. It was my first home. The hospital was called New Hospital for Women, or as I mistakenly called it, Hospital for New Women. Looking back now, I am quite confident that my mother was transformed into a new woman after I was born. Some family secrets must be kept, so I will not elaborate on the significance of my statement. She always said that I was daddy’s girl, had his curly hair and unworldly traits, much to her chagrin. That left her to be the only practical person in the household. I have inherited my father’s unworldliness and share some of his ‘unpractical’ nature.

My parents shared a partitioned room with my father’s brother, his wife and his young son. My grand-mother was a very kind, compassionate, and gentle woman, soft spoken and with gray-green eyes. We called her Aai, which means mother in Marathi, a language we spoke at home, the language of the Bene-Israel of Bombay. Aai was calm and collected, and founded and ran her own school for poor and disadvantaged children, in a very poor neighborhood of Bombay called Dongri. The school was called Vijay Vidyalaya.  My aunt, Hannah, who lived with us at ‘The Retreat’, also taught at the school.

My grandmother loved every one of her grandchildren equally, and believed in eating the “First Fruits of the Season”, because “the Torah said so”. The cost was a consideration, but not of great significance, and the famed Alphonso mangoes were especially sweet! She believed in comforting a crying woman whose alcoholic husband had thrown her out of the house in a drunken rage. Often, it was midnight when the front-door bell rang, but she put a pot of tea on, and counselled her gently in the large stone kitchen, sitting with her at the square Formica-topped dining table, till the crying woman calmed down and returned to her home, relieved of her burden, at least temporarily. It was never too late, or too early, for her to help someone in need whether she was exhausted from a day’s work or fast asleep at midnight. When she died, there were forty buses hired to ferry the crowds of people who loved her and wanted to attend her funeral. There was no room on the street she lived on, so the drivers had to park on other streets as close to the house as they could. I watched from the window as people boarded the buses in a sort of silent procession.

It seems I was destined to watch life’s events from windows.

Every evening my grandmother, my aunt Hannah and myself would take three chairs from the house, place them on the verandah, and sit and watch the world go by. Both my grandmother and my aunt would dress immaculately in their sarees with their jewellery adorning their necks and ears, and smelling of the fresh flowered gajras (jasmine garlands) in their hair. Both believed in dressing for the occasion, as if they were about to go out to a fancy event for the evening.  We all sat there until it turned dark. During the evening both aunt and grandma expressed their hopes about my meeting a ‘nice young man’ to marry. They kept repeating the fact that I should not be sitting with two ‘old ladies,’ but insisted the man must be educated so my grandma would have educated grandchildren. Later, I was to fulfill her wish but she did not live long enough to see either the husband or the grandchildren. My aunt did meet my little son, if ever so briefly. She had left to make Aliyah to Israel and had come to India with her sister-in-law for a brief visit.

My grandmother’s house was aptly named ‘The Retreat’! I did not know then, that from the age of eleven, I would spend the remainder of my youth, retreating from the tragedies of life, until a man would come and sweep me off my feet! She and my aunt had constantly prayed for a good husband for me. The definition of ‘good’ was that he should care for me, and give me educated and beautiful children, as I have mentioned earlier. ‘The Retreat’ was a metaphor for my childhood that only those who were a part of it, will understand. ‘The Retreat’ was where we all congregated on special occasions or simply to visit our amazing grandmother and another aunt and uncle. Aunts, uncles, cousins and even our friends would eat “red” or “green” mutton or chicken curry with coconut rice, made according to Jewish culinary tradition, and large potato-covered patties with a ground meat filling. It was bewildering how the kerosene stove could cook for so many people, balancing the large pots on the glowing flame. Later we cooked with bottled gas on a cooking range with two burners. During mango season, my grandmother would purchase kayris (raw mangoes) and make sweet mango pickle, we called Muramba. The pickle would be stored in large earthenware jars, and each family was given one jar to take home and enjoy.

We celebrated Malida, a kind of Thanksgiving ceremony for special occasions such as the birth of a baby, or before a wedding or a housewarming. When I moved into my new home overseas, my Jewish friends came to the house, and we prepared Malida (sweetened Poha -- flattened rice  - with jaggery and slivers of almond and ground cardamom, and fruit) together, and they recited the prayers in Hebrew.  Passover was a very important festival. Its significance was well known to me, and we ate the specially unleavened bread with treacle at this time. Hanukkah (the festival of lights and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), were festivals I particularly loved as a child. The silver Menorah in my mother’s home had pride of place in the same corner of the living room shelf for all of my childhood and youth. On Fridays and Saturdays, before sundown, we lit the Sabbath lamp and gathered around while a prayer was recited. At the end of the prayer, it is customary to put both your hands towards the flame and then bring it to your lips in a kiss. This is called Hathboshi, which literally means ‘hand kiss’.

Everything that was significant, happened at the Retreat. Lots of music from cousins who had their own rock bands, to poetry readings from my father, and lectures on nutrition from my grandfather, who was ahead of his time in the field of health and nutrition. He ate garlic raw and took long, brisk walks. My father did that too, despite the pot-holed and crowded streets, including a large horse stable across the street from the house. When there was a fire, the horses would run wildly down the street, neighing and whinnying frantically. A fleeing horse, or two, would enter the compound of ‘The Retreat’, and I watched the majestic creature from the window. At night, a man would be mercilessly beating his escort, a prostitute that made him angry or disappointed, or simply dissatisfied. My father would immediately want to venture out onto the dark street in the middle of the night to stop this ‘inhumanity’, as he called it. The largest Red-light district in the city, was on the street parallel to my grandmother’s house. Perhaps also, this was why it was called ‘The Retreat’. Built in the days of the British, it was a collection of seven one-storey bungalows with a large wrought-iron gate and a mud compound running through it, where we took our walks with friends each night at 10 p.m., and where a boyfriend walked his dog on rainy nights, throwing love notes at a special silhouette appearing at the window. We had to wash our feet before getting into bed, they were so muddy! The space between the roof of our house and the neighbor’s was open to the sky and the stars that peeped through at night were especially beautiful.

‘The Retreat’ adjoined a girl’s school on one side, another girl’s school in front, and a large mosque next door. Down the lane, past the bakery and turning right was the synagogue, where another very sweet aunt lived across the street. She made the best Ghasacha halva (a dessert made from China Grass) in the world. It was a kind of a sweet Indian dessert. My poem ‘China Grass Halwa,’ is a tribute to her love and her culinary skills.

Some nights though, I would climb into my aunt’s bed at ‘The Retreat’ as the ghostly apparition of a man, dressed in white, would appear to me. Although the door was tightly latched, he managed to come in and stand beside my bed. To this day, I do not know who he was. Perhaps he was the prophet Elijah, come to protect and watch over me. I later wrote that experience into a poem called, ‘The Man in White’.

I learned most of the Jewish customs and traditions from my sweet and loving Hannabai Aunty. She was actually my father’s cousin. She loved me unconditionally, prepared ‘Batate Pohe,’ a sort of savory Indian cereal potato snack whenever I was hungry or not, and diligently read all one hundred and fifty psalms every Saturday. Her husband, whom we called ‘Brother’, loved me too and allowed me into their room at any time of night or day, when I was a very little girl living at ‘The Retreat’, much to my mother’s dismay. Hannabai enlisted my help in squeezing the grapes for the grape juice for the Sabbath prayers and taught me how to pray ‘The Shema.’  During an earthquake in 1991, in the mountain town where I lived and worked, I recited The Shema a “million” times, and was convinced that it stopped the ground from shaking. Faith is a wonderful thing. I can even sing ‘The Shema’ to this day and love the faith it gives birth to in me. Again, I later wrote that experience into a poem. It was called, I Still Sing ‘The Shema’. The poem is awaiting publication.  Hannabai Aunty had very long hair which she coiled into a tight bun at the top of her head.  She said that her father would not allow her to leave it loose, and that girls in those days were not to be seen or heard when visitors came to the house. She told me that on several occasions, she was challenged by doubting Thomases, to uncoil the bun and prove how long her hair really was. My mother too, had very long hair and wore it in two braids. Hannabai aunty rubbed oil into my long curly hair each Friday night, and on Saturdays she sat on a low stool and helped me wash my hair with Shikakhai (Shikakhai soap pods had been previously soaked and made into a frothy shampoo). Hannabai Aunty self-studied English and Hebrew, and immigrated to Israel in her early sixties.

It was her dream to make Aliyah, but it was my loss to be left behind. I silently mourned her leaving, and was informed that she had settled happily in the Promised Land.  What a woman! I felt she had nerves of steel, along with her heart of gold… 


2 comments :

  1. Even in my childhood me and my elder sister use to wash our hair with frothy Shikakai।
    Loved the piece. I can vividly visualise those days about which you have written

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, Hannahbai settled down very well in the home in Israel.Amrita visited her in Israel,when she was selected for a student exchange program..and she enjoyed her visit and Hannahbai remembered her very well. I was lucky to spend a lot of time with Hannahbai in Retreat, when Nandu would drop me off there,while he went for band rehearsal at Michael's home near Maratha Mandir.❤️

    ReplyDelete

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