From the jungles into the Metropolis
During early childhood, in the hill station jungle resort, it became necessary to actually attend school — in the Megacity of Bombay.
Much of my early childhood was spent in Lonavala, on the slopes of the Western Ghats, India. The town was a favourite of the erstwhile British colonialists, and we, a German-Portugese-Indian family, had a very nice house there. I spent a lot of time at the jungle farm of my uncle and aunt, the Steins, and roamed the wilderness with boys from a near stone-age clan. It is all described in my article “The Katkaris and me”.
During our years in Lonavala, there were some family conflicts. One parent would be obsessed with cleanliness and hygiene, insisting that anyone handling the baby must first wash their hands, and preferably wear gloves. The other parent wanted the child to play in the muck, interact with the animals — fowl, dogs, lambs — that roamed the garden. You guessed right: the former was the Portuguese-Indian mother, the latter the no-nonsense German father.
One incident had a lasting effect. I was too young to remember anything directly, but parents and friends narrated it in detail. It seems that at around the age of 1½ I suddenly stopped eating properly, refusing the baby food formula and porridges that had been carefully prepared for me. So I was taken to the doctor, who carefully examined and weighed me. He found nothing amiss. “Bring him back in a week,” he instructed my worried mother.
“He’s still hardly eating anything,” she said, when she returned. Again he examined me and said: “He has gained weight, so he is eating something. Watch him carefully.” That is what she did, and this is what she discovered:
The garden of Rose Cottage was tended by a “mali,” a gardener, who was given permission to reside on the grounds. He and his wife had constructed a little hut in the corner of the garden. My mother watched me toddle over to them. There they took me in and fed me: rice and spicy curry which they cooked for themselves. I believe their thoughts were: “Look at these people, filthy rich, big house. But they cannot feed their children!”
I think my mother fainted when she saw what they were giving me — in any case, she spat out the spoonful she tasted, which was too hot for her. But the baby was eating it with relish, certainly preferring it to the mush he would normally get.
All this has repercussions: once you get to like hot food, you are stuck with it for life. It has, I believe, biological reasons: the brain interprets the taste as painful and produces dopamine, which alleviates the pain, but at the same time causes a feeling of pleasure. You become addicted. Which is what happened to me: I have always sought spicy food, and relish it, until today.
Living in Bombay in the 1950s
As time went by there was the little matter of schooling. We had a very nice flat on the main street of Bombay, Colaba Causeway. Over thirty years later, having long settled in Germany, we visited it again:
In the above image (click to enlarge) you see the third storey apartment. In 1991 the building was in a fairly neglected condition. The arrow points to a vital piece of original equipment. In the early 1950s my father could no longer stand the oppressive heat of the coastal city. In summer the temperature could go up to well over 40°C (105°F), with close to 100% humidity. So we had one of the first air conditioners in Bombay installed.
I’ll give you an idea of what things were like for a moderately affluent family in colonial India. When I was two, a fifteen year old boy was hired. He had one task: look after the needs of the child. Laloo washed and cleaned, served breakfast, lunch and dinner, took me on walks and to the playground. He remained an employee of the Friedel family for his entire life.
We had a second servant, who hailed from Goa. Santan was a chef who was charged with mastering authentic German cuisine. He learned how to make and cook sauerkraut, German sausages, spätzle, schnitzel — all kinds of European dishes for my father, who never got used to Indian food. So I grew up with the smell of fermenting cabbage in my nostrils.
When I was three, they tried putting me into the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a Catholic kindergarten in the Colaba neighbourhood. This is what it looks like seventy years later:
At the time the three-year-old child found abandonment with strangers deeply distressing, and on the first day managed to break out from the building. I was found on the road, trying to make my way back home. The idea of kindergarten was immediately scrapped, and I spent a few more adventurous years in Lonavala and the jungle farm — and in Bandra.
Bandra is a Portuguese-Catholic coastal suburb, just north of Bombay. My mother, Rose Ursula Gonsalves was born there, the daughter of Santiago (who originally emigrated from Oporto, Portugal) and Luiza Mariana, probably of Indian extraction. I have told of the coming together and marriage of Rose Ursula and Alois Friedl, in this rather poignant story.
Santiago and Luiza Mariana had a second child, my uncle Chrysostom (Cryjos to us). He was the general manager of the Army and Navy Stores in Bombay. Cryjos and his wife Jessy did not have children, and I became ersatz, spending many a weekend at their house.
I was hideously spoiled by Jessy. She’d get up at the crack of dawn, walk across to the harbour, accost the fishermen who had just come in, and insist on picking out the juiciest lobsters, crabs, mussels and fish from their catch. These she brought home, and spent the morning preparing the most delicious seafood lunches and dinners I have ever eaten. Everything very hot and spicy, reinforcing my love for this cuisine.
The coastal road in Bandra follows a rocky sea-front, where kids would gather all kinds of shells and mussels. There were also large crabs running around, but they could retreat into rock crevices and were much too fast to catch. Until one day I was given a Diana airgun, that is. From then on, I became a local hero: I could hit the crabs from some distance, and my friends could run over to collect them. They were delicious!
At some stage it became time for proper schooling. I was registered in an upper-class European school, Campion High, run by Jesuits. The teachers were mainly from abroad, the facilities in a high-rise building were luxurious. School fees were high, but you received, in general, a first-class education. I was, for instance, deeply influence by my English teacher Mrs Grant, who instilled in me a lifelong love for reading, literature and poetry.
Campion School was named after the 16th century Catholic Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, who was one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. We celebrated his feast every 1st of December, usually with a Boy Scout rally in the hill stations around Bombay. The school principal, Spanish Jesuit Fr. E. F. More, led us in the Grand Howl of the Cub Scouts.
Baden-Powell’s illustration in The Wolf Cub’s Handbook (1916) shows how a Wolf Cub’s posture imitates a wolf at the Grand Howl. We all squatted in a circle around Father Mores and chanted: “Ah-kay-la, we’ll do our best! Dyb, dyb, dyb! We’ll dob-dob-dob!” It’s for “do your best” and “do our best”. Akela is the leader of the wolf pack in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
My class mates in Campion were from England, Germany, France, Italy, Spain… My best friend was Johnny Vasica, son of the Czechoslovakian CEO of the BATA shoe company. They had a beautiful flat on the ocean-front Marine Drive. I spent many fun afternoons there, and Johnny often came to our place in Colaba for breakfast before school in the morning.
At the age of 12 I moved to a different school and had no more contact with Johnny. He recently found me, and we chatted in Skype. It was a reunion after sixty-five years! Surely that must be a record-breaking event.
Johnny now lives in the USA. I am in constant touch with him.