“Churchills”, where my late maternal grandmother Dorothy Anne grew up was a gracious homestead of Mangalore- a veritable microcosm of the community.
Grandmother’s memories, supplemented by those of her brother George and sister Brice, conjured up a charming antique world in the 1920’s and 1930’s which contrasts with our own. It’s hard to believe there was a time when our potholed roads, weary with the weight of innumerable automobiles, once resounded to the rhythmic clip-clop of horse carriages. Schoolchildren sang “ God Save the King”and “ Rule Britannia” with a zest that may seem strange to us who have grown up taking for granted the paraphernalia of national symbolism. Royal Crown Readers left their indelible imprint on young minds- some of the poems and stories thus imbibed echoed down the generations.
Dorothy Anne reminisced about the dazzling array of fabrics emerging from the bundles of itinerant Chinese peddlers for as little as four annas.. “Tobralco” which cost between six to nine annas a yard was the preferred fabric for special frocks. Despite Gandhiji’s boycott of the Lancashire mills, she did not record whether their tryst with English fabrics was interrupted. The spirit of Swadeshi was simultaneously displayed in clothes tailored from colorful, printed Khadi. Their frocks were complemented for Sunday Mass with colorful velvet headgear called “ tams”. A photograph of my great grandmother Seraphine on a special occasion in her youth revealed her resplendent in a lacy frilled blouse such as might also be worn by late Victorian and Edwardian ladies, except that the sari took the place of long English skirts. Great grandfather, Mr P. D’souza emerges in photographs as typically immaculate in a three piece suit, with a watch in his waistcoat, as befitting an eminent lawyer and founder President of the MCC Bank..
The chocolates of pre-independence India caused mouths to water several decades later for their incomparable quality and cheap availability. Boxes of these delicious delights were lavishly purchased- one could look forward to as many as 32 chocolates for One Rupee. Appreciating these benign aspects of colonial rule did not blunt burgeoning patriotic fervor. Dorothy Anne was proud that she had a signature of Pandit Nehru in her autograph book when he visited Mangalore in 1933 .
Death was not an unknown visitor, swooping to take away two sweet sisters in the tender bloom of childhood from typhoid and an older sister who lived in Lahore. The apprehension occasioned by sickness in those medically unsophisticated times was such that an encounter with a dreaded illness like pneumonia meant that the Parish priest was routinely summoned for the last anointing. This pessimism was fortunately rendered superfluous when sick children bounced back to long and healthy lives. As would be typical of large families, there was a certain functional division between the elder and younger set in terms of shared activities. Some of the younger set were practically contemporaries of nieces and nephews by older siblings.
The children loved to visit the equally gracious home-“ Flor de Ville” of their maternal grandparents across the road. Gorging on the juicy fruit of their verdant orchard was the stuff of childhood rapture. The proximity of their maternal cousins made them boon companions in childhood games and adventures. The family also briefly maintained a summerhouse behind the Lady Hill School, where they were refreshed with the sea breeze even as they combed the hill in search of berries. They frequently accompanied their father on water divining missions- a revered gift when wells were so central to the needs of living.
School picnics were memorable for their exciting repasts, founded on a potluck of shared contribution. It was the lot of the Churchills family to supply the sweet pulao, redolent with ghee and luscious plums, for which the caterer was summoned home the night before.
A gramophone took pride of place in the family’s entertainment. Albums of Sir Harry Lauder-“ Laird of the Music Hall” afforded listening pleasure along with familiar Konkani songs. Family picnics by boat to Bengre Island drew forth a rich repertoire of songs. Romantic English ballads struck the right chord in young hearts. They also fell back on a bank of war songs with a deeply sentimental tone – “ Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” and “ Farewell Mother”. Later on, World War II had its own rousing repertoire- “ It’s a long way to Tipperary”, “ Hang up the Washing on the Seigfried Line” and “ My Lady of the Lamplight.”
The Silent Movies were a novelty and delight. Cecil B.deMille’s 1927 Classic “The King of Kings” buttressed their Christian piety, even as they were enthralled with Tarzan’s adventures and sampled the fledgling offerings of the Indian screen. Adolescent girls in the 1930’s had their own icons and maintained albums of their favorite Hollywood stars whose pictures were enwrapped with Nestle chocolates. Dorothy Anne was nicknamed “Zazu Pitts”, after the Kansas born actress who starred in Eric von Stroheim’s “ Greed”, to whom she supposedly bore a resemblance! They were also encouraged to read- the works of Mrs Henry Wood and Marie Corelli particularly appealed to the girls.
The passage of the years inevitably spelt that chubby children were transformed into young people on the threshold of life with new responsibilities. The girls typically were married during the Inter-Arts at St. Agnes College, after a brief acquaintance with their chosen life-partners in chaperoned walks on Padau Hills. Photographs reveal that bridal attire of this generation combined a fusion of East and West- white sarees were combined with wreathed veils.
Sons and daughters migrated to employments and marital homes outside the hometown- Chickmagalur and Madras State in the relative vicinity, as well as the cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Lahore. A coconut tree was typically climbed to gauge whether a steamer from Bombay was chugging into harbor. The homestead always welcomed visiting children with their families. Daughters had confinements in the comforting security of their natal home. Several of the grandchildren were born contemporaneously, with little more fuss than a visiting doctor being assisted by household servants. It also was a safe anchorage from the vicissitudes of the Economy during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and wartime bombing of the cities.
Churchills was also a place where grandchildren eagerly congregated for their holidays from different parts of the country. The large dining table always groaned with food. Awed grandchildren recall that no matter how large the crowd, each child’s exacting tastes were invariably and individually catered to by an efficient battalion of servants. My own mother retained a sentimental predilection through life for curried “ baby sanaki”, benchmarked for softness with the culinary classic from “Bijey Granny’s kitchen”.
In course of time, the outward diaspora could not be matched by the trickle of children and grandchildren who returned to Mangalore to settle in independent homes. Death and immigration meant that by the 1990’s Churchills was no longer a viable entity for its heirs. Where a single large family utilized this large house and accompanying outhouses ( with Mulgeni tenants in the backyard ), a multiplicity of nuclear families co-exist in the block of high rise apartments that replaced it-no doubt with their own distinctive bonding patterns that stem from urbanizing imperatives. The furniture, especially the Vakil benches that have enjoyed a popular comeback, are quaint novelties of decor in the homes of a few descendants.
For those of my generation, “ Churchills” and those of its kind exist more in transmitted memory than in actual experience which would dissipate entirely as one’s own children grow up in heterogenous and automated environments. The lore that these vibrant homesteads embody of a bygone age should be part of the “Collective Conscious” that those with direct and indirect access to the past bequeath to future generations.