Things which had once existed both did and did not exist anymore. The past lay like a corpse amongst these houses and thoroughfares, and the present with its successive accretions had become its shroud.
I was standing in the midst of Farrukh Dhondy’s Poona, a world he immortalised in his book of short stories Poona Company. Published in 1980, it is peopled with unforgettable characters from Dhondy’s boyhood: Men like Soli Kolmi, the crafty bookie who “was constantly bent over double like a prawn”; Samson, the Parsee body carrier who “walked in the fashion of ‘heroes,’ his arms stretched into stiff bows on either side of his body, …supposed to tell people who were watching that your muscles were so thick they prevented movement;” Minocher Toot, the penny-press baron who ran tirades against anyone who provoked his ire; and Confession, the Jesuit Catholic who turned rogue, converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Prabhat.
But besides these, there is another character, diffuse and omniscient, seeping into everyone and everything in the book. This is the city of Pune itself, or more appropriately, a very particular Poona of Dhondy’s boyhood…because Dhondy did not grow up in the city proper, but on its outskirts, in an area popularly known as “Camp”.
I had been going to this part of the city since I was little, mostly to shop at Westside and buy Shrewsbury biscuits. I had never thought of asking why it was called “Camp”. Then I read Dhondy’s stories. The defeat of the Peshwas in 1818 rendered Poona a conquered city in the hands of the British, and in keeping with this conquest, the British army built a military station on the city’s outskirts to accommodate its soldiers and administrators. In effect, it set up “camp” here, and hence, the name.
But that was not all. The British had to accommodate the myriad needs and wants of its campers, and this soon spawned the phenomenon of “Camp Followers”. Comprising shopkeepers and traders, cooks and cleaners, camp followers were a floating civilian population, allowed to live and work in the cantonment with the sole aim of satisfying the needs of the British army. These followers were at once part of the cantonment and apart from it, living in a clearly demarcated part of Cantt often known as the Bazaar.
It is this that is Dhondy’s Poona, and “Sarbatwalla Chowk and [his] neighbourhood, a little way down the road, were distinctly in the bazaar part of the camp, where no soldiers or administrators would ever have lived but where they would have been allowed to wander to the shops and cafes and markets and tumble-down growth of a no-man’s land between the narrow streets of the city and the spacious squares of the camp with its barracks and bungalows.”
Right off the bat, this incipient Chowk assumes a near mythical import in Dhondy’s stories. It was a hangout for everybody who was able-bodied and male in the neighbourhood, including “older schoolboys, college boys, idle petty businessmen who ran the bakeries or the bicycle hire shops, the pious retired gentlemen with Parsee caps and newspapers who’d while away their hours in the bustle of company, the unemployed, the thieves, the layabouts and the few masters of the Chowk who lived, in one way or another, off them all.”
Forty years later, standing in this Chowk on a rainy weekday morning, I couldn’t help but feel it had shrunk. Though I had never seen it before, the pages of Dhondy’s book had evoked a grand image in my head of this chowk with a capital “C”, and the small, cramped thoroughfare I was standing in did nothing to consummate it. Time had shrunk space, as it does most things, and the Chowk’s erstwhile bulwarks seemed gone.
I began by searching for the Kayani and Sachapir cafes, which, in Dhondy’s telling, had flanked the sides of the Chowk like two loyal wingmen, and were where the neighbourhood’s punters had congregated to sip chaar and catch up on the latest gossip.
I found no traces of the Kayani or its mob, but as I was about to give up, I saw an old letterbox pushed into a cavernous cranny of one of the buildings: “Mr and Mrs Zal K Kayani, 624 Sachapir Street, 848 Dastur Meher Road,” the box proclaimed. Near the letterbox was a small shuttered shop, beige and anonymous. Could this be all that remained of the Kayani cafe? (The Kayani cafe has nothing to do with Pune’s famous Kayani bakery, which is in an altogether different part of Camp).
A nearby stall owner gave me an idea as to where I might find the Chowk’s other wingman, the Sachapir Cafe. He thought I might be referring to what was now Majestic restaurant in nearby Synagogue street, which he had heard used to be called Sachapir Cafe back in the day, though he couldn’t be sure.
Name and location swaps like these seemed common in these parts, preserving the old in new garbs. Even the Naaz cafe “on the corner of Main Street, which was an altogether grander place than either the Kayani or the Sachapir cafes of the Chowk, with glass tables and a garden and terrace” exemplified a similar switch. This low-grade bistro for upper-class loafers was no longer where it had once been. Instead, strolling through the lanes of Taboot street, I came across the Mahanaaz restaurant, which, after a cursory conversation with the proprietor, turned out to be the refurbished avatar of the erstwhile Naaz.
Next, I turned onto Dastur Meher Road where Dhondy’s friend Dinsy used to live “in a first floor flat with four discreet white curtains on their four front windows,” through which Dinsy’s father would hurl furniture – and sometimes Dinsy too – out onto the pavement when they got into fights. Dastur Meher had always been a predominantly Parsi enclave. There are historical reasons for this.
The Parsis were the first camp followers to settle in the Pune cantonment. Apart from trading in hardware, European goods, and foreign liquor, they ran the first local taverns, even as other members of their community moonlighted as watch repairers, painters, clerks, carpenters and school teachers. In fact, the Parsis were the richest community among the “natives”, and were the first to be allowed by the British to own landed property and reside in the posh bungalow areas of Arsenal and Napier roads.
Apart from them, the bazaar comprised Muslim Boharas from Gujarat, Sunni Muslims from Kutch, Maheshwari Banias from Rajasthan, Goan Christians, Eurasians and Bene-Israelis, all of whom had come a long way to trade in the goods and services required by the British. In short, the socio-cultural composition of Camp was an eclectic hodgepodge made up of immigrants from all over the country.
It’s safe to say that this liminal effervescence was very different from the city of Pune as a whole, which skewed towards a – rather monotonous – Maratha monopoly. Appropriately, Dhondy’s stories abound with fire temple fiascos, vultures from the Tower of Silence, Synagogue streets devoid of Jews, Jesuit padris at St Vincent’s school and betting horses called Rose de Bahama.
The infamous Sarbatwalla Chowk itself is named after some Parsi or another, “walla” being a signature suffix in a community whose surnames of Daruwalla, Sodawaterwalla and even the rather caricatureish Sodabottleopenerwalla were often “a reflection of Parsi ingenuity and agency required to be a part of the new and innovative industries of the industrial era.”
All these years later, Dastur Meher road seemed tiny and picturesque, with quaint little houses glazed with unidentifiable squires and symbols. But the more I walked, the less picturesque it all became. The buildings were crumbling: the peeling paint and broken windows seemed a sign that most were uninhabited. The windows were ghostly: no curtains, no people, no Dinsy, no Dinsy’s father.
Some windows on the upper floors were actually wide open, as if there was no one and nothing inside them to protect. Everything seemed in the midst of a balancing act, teetering from side to side and quite liable to topple over any second. Scattered conversations with locals revealed that most houses were, in fact, empty. The old owners had passed away, and their properties were now mired in legal disputes.
A little red brick house sported an ominous notice across its facade: “This property bearing House No 865 Dastur Meher Road, Camp, Pune – 411001 belongs to the late Mrs Dinaz N Irani, Mrs Yasmin D Mazda and Mr Vispi Keki Chindhy. They are the legal heirs of late Mrs Dhun K Chindi and late Mr Keki Ardeshir Chindi whose names appear as the HOR in the records of the Pune Cantonment Board. Trespassers will be prosecuted.”
I had always known Camp was different. To me, it had been an exotic place teeming with strange names and stranger accents. But nothing more. Its exoticism had precluded investigation. In fact, all my critical thinking congealed when it came to my own city, where I was born, had grown up and about which I knew next to nothing.
This had never bothered me, because I took it for granted that there was nothing to know. It was a static and provincial city, I told myself: something fixed to come home to but nothing stimulating enough to launch forth from.
And then I read Farrukh Dhondy’s Poona Company. I saw names and places I had grown up amidst etched in inexorable print, and suddenly, they became important. If someone had taken the pains to write about them, they must be important. My mind started racing; I wondered, wandered, questioned, and researched, uncharted verbs in relation to my own city; and as I did, Pune opened up before me, in all its past glory and present grime.
If it weren’t for Dhondy, I would never have known what Camp once was; and how it was no longer that anymore. I would never have known that today’s Mahatma Gandhi Road was once Main Street; that Sardar Patel Road was erstwhile East Street; that Sarbatwalla Chowk was not a nameless street corner but a proud Parsi bastion; and most importantly, that the people I saw here were not an inexplicably exotic population, but were the last remnants of a long, circuitous history I had not respected enough to try to be privy to.
Perhaps this overdependence on Dhondy is its own kind of problematic. After all, needing literary validation to birth sentience is not healthy, or even sustainable. But then again, it affirms for me something I have always believed in: the power of books. And ultimately, I am just glad that I managed to find this book that introduced me to my city.