1st Lane is not mentioned in any of the travel guides, and even someone 10 minutes’ walk away in neighboring Matunga might need a refresher course on its attractions, but for me and my family, it holds a special place in our hearts and calls us back each year.
When walking down 1st Lane, it is difficult to see the sky, for the entire street is roofed by a canopy of trees, thus making it relatively cool even on the hottest of days. At both ends of the lane there are little stores selling all kinds of candies, spicy snacks, sodas, breads, soaps, razors, and just about everything you might need on a daily basis. There is a pharmacy, a shop that buys old newspapers, and a stall that sells bottles of saffron- and cardamom-flavored milk. There are also vendors with carts full of tomatoes, vegetables of all sorts, and green chilies.
At another end is a man who sells fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice. All day long, for the past 40 years, the sugarcane vendor magically transforms stacks of vibrant green cane housed in his stall into an irresistible drink of pure sugar juice mixed with ginger and lemon.
Nearby, on the sidewalk, are a young man who toasts delicious sandwiches on a tiny charcoal stove and an older man roasting peanuts. A little further on is a naral pani (coconut water) vendor, who for 10 rupees will deftly slice open a green coconut brimming with sweet water, and then carve out a spoon from the green husk for scooping out the coconut jelly.
In the early morning, before the automobiles have woken up, Hindu Colony is sleepy, and the crows and other birds serve as the neighborhood alarm clock, and then a bit later, a fisherwoman walks along, guarding a basket on her head from the diving crows, and a vegetable seller starts calling from below, “kande batata lo (onions, potatoes for sale!)”
Later, a parade of black pint-sized taxis with yellow roofs inch along at five miles per hour, honking at intervals, and in the mornings and afternoons, legions of schoolchildren in uniforms of different shades of blue and white (and red ribbons in the girls’ hair) file past on their way to the many schools sprinkled throughout the area.
I’m told that years ago there were no cars at all on 1st Lane, and the boys and girls from up and down the street would use 1st Lane as a cricket ground.
One of those cricket players was a boy who would grow up to become a world-famous physicist, who after one major cholera epidemic, became determined to help, and thus invented a means of disinfecting drinking water using a simple UV light bulb that can be powered by a bicycle pedal.
Several other boys and girls from 1st Lane went on to become engineers, doctors, and other professionals in India and the United States. In fact, many from a generation have moved away, yet 1st Lane still has its own resident doctor, now in his 60s, who for 40 years has been making house calls at any time of day or night.
1st Lane is also the second home of an 8-year-old girl, Amruta, from Berkeley, Calif., whose mother was one of those blue-uniformed schoolchildren some 30 odd years ago, living in a small flat at one end of 1st Lane, before her older brother would leave on scholarship to become a successful engineer in the United States, and bring his sister there for graduate education, where she met and married an American, whose father was of German descent and mother was from Goa.
Amruta loves to sit in the balcony of her mommy’s second-floor apartment, and read books as voraciously as some children eat candy, and go down to the coconut vendor later in the day for some delicious sweet water and malai, the coconut sliced extra-tenderly by the naral pani-vala for “the baby.” On the way, Amruta likes to stop and pet and feed biscuits to dogs she has named Spot and Lass and a cat named Grimalkin, who have taken up residence on 1st Lane.
1st Lane was the home of a late and beloved professor of Sanskrit named Leela, Amruta’s grandmother, who came to Bombay from a village in rural Maharastra at age 15, with two saris and dreams of higher education. Leela loved to tell jokes, make chapatis that puffed up like hot-air balloons, and read. Anything with a written word on it was fair game for Leela, whether it was Milton’s Paradise Lost or the newspaper wrapping on a cone of roasted peanuts. Somehow this humble and scholarly woman with a magnificent sense of humor would plod her way to earning a Ph.D. in epics at the age of 57. She was so proud of her special desk at Bombay University.
When Amruta was a baby she spent hours and hours curled up in the folds of her grandmother’s sari, while Leela Aji read from children’s stories and stroked Amruta’s hair, humming “gode gode bal, chan chan bal,” until they both fell asleep.
Leela’s husband, Vinayak (Vinu), was born and raised in Malvan on the coast, and loved to swim in the Arabian Sea, eat fish, read Shakespeare, and take his daughter on double-decker buses to a movie at Churchgate, or to play in the gardens of the David Sassoon Library, where he was a member. Vinu was an idealistic lawyer who couldn’t bring himself to actually charge his poor clients, so his compensation was sometimes baskets of vegetables or mangoes, and gratitude that spanned generations.
As a young man, Vinu had a good friend named Dr. Chaudhury, a confirmed bachelor and “eccentric millionaire,” who lived in the ground (first) floor flat in Vinu’s building. Together, Vinu and his friend dreamed up all kinds of schemes to help India. They invented a three-wheeled bullock cart (to relieve burden on the bullock), and started a trust fund to provide education scholarships to needy children.
Like his friend, Vinu was intent on remaining a bachelor. His was the world of Lincoln, Tolstoy, and Nehru. The domestic life and its material trappings were not for him. Vinu’s plans were proceeding as scheduled until one day he met a shy and incomparably funny young college Marathi instructor named Leela, who knew more Sanskrit and poetry than him, and dreamed of one day visiting the Parthenon.
On their first meeting, Vinu made it clear that 1) his life was devoted to social work and helping the disadvantaged; and therefore, 2) romantic life and marriage were not a part of his destiny; and 3) his primary interest was to discuss Leela’s recently published article, as he greatly enjoyed reading her editorials.
It was not too long after that Vinu relinquished his bachelor’s degree and received master’s, as laughingly Leela loved to say, and they would go on to raise two children, and also a boy from a coastal village near Malvan, named Vasu.
Vasu came to stay with Vinu and Leela at the age of 9. His uncle said that there was simply no money to take care of him, and could he live and work with Vinu’s family? Leela looked at the little boy and said he was too tiny to do anything but help her chop a few vegetables in the morning before he ate a good breakfast and then off to school.
So Vasu and Amruta’s mommy grew up like brother and sister. Now, 30 years later, Leela and Vinu have passed on, and it is Vasu who is always there at the airport at 3 in the morning to pick up the arrivals, and then somehow, at 8, is already awake and has prepared chai for the jet-lagged travelers. It is Vasu who always has a smile on his face, and is always there, as dependable as the sunrise.
Late afternoon settles into Hindu Colony. Vasu is in the kitchen, preparing a delicious soup of the Konkan called sol kadi. Out on the balcony, Amruta settles in a chair and reads the biography of Abraham Lincoln, and dreams of one day running for president; while her daddy sits by her, drinking chai and reading Teach Yourself Hindi; and her mommy stands at the railing and feeds chapatis to her friend, the crow.
Down below on 1st Lane, the schoolchildren are returning home. Dr. Kharkar waves from across the street. A banana seller wheels his cart down the road, calling out at intervals. A quiet, hunched-over woman rhythmically sweeps one of the sidewalks with a little hand broom, and the black-and-yellow taxis inch their way along to Dadar train station.
David Snyder and his family live near Berkeley, Calif.