Some people forever stay in memory but with time you look at them with a new perspective. Bimal Chadha fondly remembers his neighbour Roma Aunty.
We shifted to our new house in Colaba, a huge flat allotted to Dad, on a road behind Cuffe Parade known as Wodehouse Road.
The building housed many inmates. Europeans, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Parsis. By profession, there were bankers, businessmen, traders, office workers, govt servants, actors and a solitary armyman (Dad).
Each was very tolerant and respectful of the religion and cultures of the others. At meal times you smelt different aroma of cuisines cooking dinner. It was overall a peace loving crowd.
Roma Aunty was our immediate neighbour. A fair, buxom,charming lady around
46-47, a bit on the plumpish side and medium height. She lived alone with her only son Abby, perhaps she was a widow. He was a college-going grown up and seldom wished any one. A loner, he kept to himself, the studious type.
They were Jews and observed kissing the mezuzah before they left or entered the home. The holy parchment was encased in a decorative glass tube fixed to the main door. Roma Aunty covered her head in a black net scarf while leaving or returning.
An old retainer ‘Suleiman’ was her cook and Man Friday. He was an aged Maulana sporting a huge white beard, wearing a clean white pyjama and shirt with a skull cap.
He was extremely fond of children. He would sometimes talk of his children in his ‘Muluk’ to us.
Chores over, he would be found sitting, over a gup shup, smoking a bidi with other servants at the stairs. But just about a shout away.
Roma Aunty was fun loving, very caring and affectionate towards us and all other children in the building. She would encourage us to play outdoor games, cricket and football mainly. She donned the Umpires’ Hat or kept wicket in our teams with gloves on. She was a total bindaas person and favourite of all children in the building. A regular smoker, she smelled horrible when she bent down to kiss us.
She loved our family and was more seen with us than in her own house. She mingled freely around with my uncles and aunt and got along famously with my Dadi and Mom. In the evenings, she would bring her own bottle of rum to say ‘Cheers’ to the menfolk in the house. When in a generous mood she would offer a peg or two to others. She would troop out with her rum bottle in the armpit like a soldier walking back to the barracks for the night after sundown, albeit a little tipsy.
She was fond of cooking (sometimes) but Suleiman was the main cook. My younger brother and I were both invited for a meal, sometimes. We loved it and lapped it up. She made some Jewish dishes, the names we easily forgot, but these were heavy on meat.
We would both look forward to the homemade dessert. It would be Jelly and Custard or Caramel, homemade rose ice cream or a pudding or a cake. She loved lobster and I took to it as my favourite. She would make it with thick and nice gravy and bread. It tasted yummy. I learnt from her the lobster eating technique.
Another of her fads was to dress up my brother, three years younger to me, extremely beautifully. She loved to dress him up as a girl with frock and ribbons with a bonnet holding a bouquet, coy and shy with full make up. Rosy cheeks, lipstick and all. She paraded him on all the floors and every house as her daughter. He detested the idea as next day he would be ridiculed by his friends – “Chhokri hai.” (Its a girl.) The tag would eventually wear off in a day or two but he felt jittered and it would take him a while to get back to normal.
One day Abby had a serious accident when he fell from a moving bus as it neared the building. It was a nasty head injury.
Roma Aunty was desperate, I saw anguish, worry and pain on her face and tears welled up in her eyes. Suleiman, a neighbour and Roma Aunty carried him to hospital in a taxi. She passed through tough times running between hospital and home. Many times crying on my Mom’s shoulder.
But time passed and Abby returned home, his head shaven dressed up in a bandage. I visited him once a while to enquire of his health. These visits increased to frequent after Roma Aunty brought a set of Ludo for us. I taught him how to play the game.
Our friendship began with Ludo. He taught me card games, ‘ Sweep’ and ‘Bluff’. I began to enjoy the daily game of Ludo and cards with him.
Roma Aunty would give him a cold milkshake which I disliked. A cold sherbet was my choice and she offered it to me with jam-filled Irani biscuits or muffins.
Abby got well and returned to college but my daily visits to meet Aunty continued. She was a part of my family.
Life meandered slowly and Roma Aunty was the highlight of life for us children, a favourite. It all ended when Dad was posted out of Bombay and we had to move along with him. But the rest of the family stayed on with my Dadi and uncles and Roma Aunty as a neighbour.
We visited Bombay during vacations. We had grown up and the world was now viewed with a newer perspective. Our friends had grown up too and they too were in higher classes.
Meeting Roma Aunty was fun again. The same plump, roly poly fun loving person she was. We hesitantly gave her the gift we brought for her. She hugged and kissed us with tears in her eyes of gratitude and happiness.
Abby had left for higher studies abroad.Suleiman was still the retainer, serving her.
She would ask and hear attentively the newer subjects we studied and games we played and our achievements in school and life.
Vacations over, it would be time for us to go back. Bidding goodbye to all was painful. The parting hugs with Roma Aunty was very tearful.
But she always had a meaningful gift for us as we grew up. A football with two pairs of boots and socks for both. Another time there was a cricket set with two bats. And then there were books, etc.
We saw her every vacation and she would wait for us to be with her too. The meals at her place continued, the old bonds revived.
A few years later, my uncles moved out of the building. The cord with the building and Roma Aunty was snapped.
I visited Bombay on work, almost every month. I had my offices there.
One day I decided to visit and meet up with Roma Aunty. She wasn’t home and had gone to the market. The old familiar brass padlock said that.
I returned an hour or so later but she hadn’t returned. I was disappointed.
On another visit I was informed by the watchman she was visiting her doctor.
To sum it up, I never got to meet her after the family moved out.
I met an old friend from the building in Delhi many years later. As usual after we talked about life in general and we struck up a conversation about the building and its residents and our friends. Nearly all had moved out from there including him. But everyone was doing well in life, some abroad, some in India. We exchanged the phone numbers of others, with promises to be in touch.
Suddenly I asked about Roma Aunty. “No news, Bhai,” was the blunt reply.
We got talking about her and her good deeds and her fondness for all children – it was the common denominator of her life. A selfless loving, caring and concerned person.
Dwelling more into her life he suddenly asked, “Do you remember her ‘Sahib’?”
I confirmed, “Yes I do”. Silence.
The penny dropped and in a flashback the face of the Gujarati seth reappeared. A cordial kind of a person always in a suit impeccably dressed. As kids we wished him and he always acknowledged us. Grapevine said he was a big diamond merchant who mostly stayed abroad.
I now understood Suleiman standing outside and stopping us children from knocking on her door when Sahib was with her. He would visit her only 2-3 times a month.
My head was dizzy for a few moments. My esteem for her suddenly grew very high. Suddenly she was more deeply respected and on a higher pedestal. I was in awe of her.
There are some Guardian Angels sent by God to care for you in life. Roma Aunty was my Angel in real life.
More to read in Memoirs by Bimal Chadha
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