THE SUN was beating down furiously on the jaded passengers in the “Four
Limited” bus queue. As I wiped my perspiring forehead, I realized how
intolerant to the heat I had become after fifteen years of living in the
I had been learning the piano for
almost five years by that time and my teacher had recently emigrated
It was hard
to believe that. Music teachers in the city thrived. Their numbers dwindling,
Left with little choice, we made our way up Miss Dunn’s creaking old building, to which I took an immediate disgust. It sagged alarmingly in the middle. Wooden props ran all the way through its guts, making me wonder about its age. When Miss Dunn opened her door, I was visibly shocked. I had expected her to be the last of the little old Anglo-Indian music teachers, a quickly dying breed. She would be slim, I had thought, dressed to perfection, balancing beautifully at sixty on pencil slim heels. She’d probably tap time with her toes and conduct with her delicately-boned wrist while I played. In actual fact, she resembled an illustration of the wicked witch from a long-forgotten copy of Hansel and Gretel that I had once possessed. She must be at least a hundred, I thought in dismay, when I saw how hunched she had become, clearly a victim of osteoporosis. She frightened me though she smiled through brown-stained, perfectly even dentures. She has to belong to the era of the harpsichord, I thought as I took in her clothing. The dress was faded, with buttons missing down the front and her slippers flapped around her feet like crow’s wings. She had a voice—how would I describe it?—half croak, half quaver, too loud for her wizened, wrinkled face. She agreed to take me on immediately. Somewhat surprisingly, she did not ask me to play dreary scales to test my technique, or sight- read a single note to determine my level of proficiency. Only later did I realize how badly she must have needed students—we were her only form of financial survival.
In the months that followed, I saw Miss Dunn twice a week, and slowly got accustomed to her idiosyncrasies. Her home took much more getting used to. It was filthy, dusty, completely neglected. And then there was her bluntness, that biting candour, her most deplorable quality. “You know no theory of music at all,” she informed me, frankly, after my second lesson with her. “As for your playing, the technique’s hopeless. What was your last teacher doing all those years? Taking your money phookat? Free?”
Ah, but she did not know my personal history. She had no idea that I took Piano because I didn’t want to feel left out. My classmates, far more talented that I was, had begun learning music at five. I was a late bloomer, persuading my parents to give me lessons only when I was thirteen, just so I could fit in with my friends. It didn’t take me more than two years to realize that I would never be a competent pianist. I simply didn’t have the ear for music. Maybe because I had started to play so late in life, my fingers lacked the agility required to play complex trills. Or perhaps because Western classical music was never heard in our home, I did not have the exposure to it that would have aided my interpretation. I could be taught to read music, of course, but I would never have that instinctive feel that makes talented musicians embrace their instruments and seem to make love to them. But how could I tell my parents this? They had sacrificed so much to grant me my whims. Best to keep at it, I thought foolishly, and make up for talent by practising as hard as I could.
Because theory was her forte and I was so weak at it, we sat at a great big dining table with a dirty plastic tablecloth that smelt peculiar, on two rickety chairs, composing plagal cadences, learning the intricacies of a string quartet, and writing a bass part to counterpoint the treble. The close proximity gave me ample scope to study her faded grey-blue eyes beneath their snowy brows, to watch the intriguing lines of her face, and to grimace with concealed distaste at the collection of grime in the ridges of her face and the spots of black dirt lodged in her large-pored nose. Oftentimes, I wondered how long it had been since she had taken a good hot bath or scrubbed her face. Slowly, I learned to ignore the glass of brandy that she sipped steadily as we studied theory or when she counted notes on her fingers while playing an imaginary chord in the air. “You must think I’m an old boozard,” she’d say, amusedly, “but it’s so cold today.” It was a sweltering day in October.
Very frequently, our lessons would
be disturbed by a peculiar pounding that seemed to come from the floor. “What’s
going on?” I asked, stopping mid-bar. “Just ignore it,” she responded. “It’s
downstairs again. They keep harassing me, hoping that I will leave this flat so
that they can expand.” Under the ancient rent laws that governed the state of
“Downstairs” was the Byculla Social Club, with its ghastly turquoise blue oil-painted door. At either end of the staircase were spittoons, unsightly receptacles for the shameless red betel-juice that club members spat periodically into them. It gave the entire landing an awful stench, making me hold my breath and run. The members, a motley lot, strolled in on unsteady feet, lifted the shabby, thin, cotton curtain and disappeared. Sometimes, they would hang about the landing, reeking of cheap booze and betel juice and would leer brazenly at me as I climbed the stairs, taking pains to hold my tote full of music books close against my thighs. Taxi drivers, peons, handcart pullers and postmen would lose themselves in the interior of the euphemistically named “Club”. Occasionally, I heard girls giggling emptily and men would saunter out lazily, still in the act of buttoning their trousers. It was repulsive and I felt outraged that right above them lived this virgin spinster in her world of romantic preludes and fugues, cats and composers.
Miss Dunn’s solitude would have
been complete were it not for her few pupils who trooped up and down those
stairs to her home. Right after Easter or Christmas, I saw cards propped up on
her dusty piano. “From my nieces in
You entered her building through a tiny doorway cluttered by a stationery and a chappal shop, then made your way up the frightfully creaking stairs, with deep ruts worn in them over the decades by countless pounding feet. When the smell of cured leather and reams of paper left off on the ground floor, the piquant fragrance of curry would hit you as the tenants on the first floor cooked their evening meal. The sleaziness of the environment was far from conducive to the study of Western classical music, but penniless Miss Dunn stayed on, having nowhere else to turn.
My playing did not improve at all
even after a year under her tutelage. And composition seemed more mathematical
to me than instinctive. She tried hard to persuade me to give up music. “You’ll
never be a concert pianist, child. Give up now. Stop wasting your parents’
money.” But I persisted. In a week’s time, I would be taking formal exams
conducted by Trinity College of Music,
Two weeks later, when I climbed the stairs, knocked at her door and said, “Good evening, Miss Dunn,” she cut me short rudely.
“You went and plonked, useless girl. I told you that you’ll never be a pianist.”
I was stunned and wanted to sit somewhere, not because her news came to me as a shock, but because I was reeling from the brutality of her words that stung me like a thousand bee-bites. I had known that I would fail. I had seen it in the examiner’s eyes. But I had kept hoping that somehow he would take pity on me and that I would scrape through the way I had always done in the past.
“You’ve only done well in the theory paper and that too only in the History of Music section,” she continued. “You got full marks there. But what’s the use of that? Just facts. What about playing? I told you to give up, didn’t it?”
“I can’t,” I said, tears threatening to fall out of my eyes. “I can’t give up now after all these years. How will my parents take it?”
Then Miss Dunn softened miraculously, took my hand and patted it gently. “You’re young, my girl. Not an old lady, a buddi, like I am. So what if you can’t play in a concert hall? There are other things you can do with your life. Find a nice young man. Get married. Not everyone is chosen to be a performer or a music teacher. Just as not everyone is chosen to be someone’s wife or mother.”
I stopped sniffing, stared at her and wondered at the strange, soft tone that her voice had taken. For the first time I saw her not as a crusty, dried-out, old spinster whose stout body hobbled on spindly legs like a fat scoop of vanilla ice-cream on a wafer-brittle cone. She was a woman, possibly one deeply disappointed in love. “Come,” she was saying, “let me show you something.” She took my hand and led me into her kitchen, piled high with rusty tin trunks, empty barrels and wooden crates. Miss Dunn never used her kitchen to cook, having her meals delivered to her in an aluminum tiffin carrier once a day.
Suddenly, straight ahead of me, I saw a great gaping hope in the wall. Uneven bricks, slick with slime and green with moistness, protruded outward all around. I was perplexed. It looked to me like the place where a window ought to have been because part of the wooden frame still remained.
“Yes,” she said. “The window blew off in the great Bombay Docks explosion when the entire earth shook. Have you heard about it? I know it was long before your time.”
I shook my head silently still aghast at the hole in the wall. How could she live like that? Wasn’t she afraid that someone would sneak into her home through that window? But then what was to be achieved by doing that? She had nothing of value to anyone. Unlike most elderly people in the city among whom grisly murders, I was told, had become commonplace, Miss Dunn had the greatest security—that which comes from knowing that there was nothing of which she could be robbed.
“It was sometime in the ’forties…’44, I think. My memory is weak, I’m afraid, and I don’t remember the exact year it happened. Sometime before the War ended. The sound was heard for miles. Clouds of smoke flew into the air and hundreds of people died. He, too, died,” she said.
“Freddie Doyle. My Freddie. We had grown up together in the railway colony in Bhusaval. His father, like mine, worked for the railways…you know, when the British were here, all Anglo-Indians worked on the trains. Freddie and I were in love.”
I wondered how this story would
explain the unsightly hole in the wall. As she continued, she became dewy-eyed
with memory. “We did such nice things together. Every Saturday he took me to
the hop at the Institute and we danced so much. He didn’t like my classical
music too much, though. He preferred that new music that was just coming in
“Well, why didn’t you get married, then?”
“It was my father. He had died of TB. In those days, TB was deadly,” she said, her voice dropping significantly, as if some silent auditor in the background might pick up the information and use it against her. “His father didn’t want Freddie married to me, because TB was contagious. He was sure that I had picked it up from my father and would pass it on to Freddie.”
“Oh,” I gasped, “that was awful.”
“Oh yes. Well, you know what? Freddie defied his father and married his own cousin, Belinda, instead. She was an invalid with some strange thing that kept her bed-ridden. Now his father couldn’t possibly object to that, could he?”
“Why not?” I was baffled.
“Well, he’d risk falling out with his own brother. He couldn’t possibly tell his brother that he didn’t want Freddie marrying his daughter because she had some sickness. But he could tell my father that, you see.”
“But it was a loveless marriage,” I said.
“Not just loveless, but unlawful in the eyes of the Church. They had to get a special dispensation from the Pope and all.”
“What happened? Did they stay married?”
“Oh yes, for twenty years. He cut
his nose to spite his face. Just a few years later, his father passed away.
Freddie and Belinda went off to
“Did you stay in touch with him?”
“Off and on. Now and then. We exchanged Christmas cards, yes.”
“And you? What happened to you?”
“Me? I poured my loss into my
music. I played day and night, non-stop, for years. I stopped playing only for
pleasure. I began to take music exams. I played and played to the memory of my
beloved Freddie, out there, somewhere in
I looked at Miss Dunn with a new understanding. “Did you ever see Freddie again?”
“Oh, I thought I never would. But then something happened.”
I was grateful when we left the smelly kitchen and returned to the balcony where we sat on a lumpy sofa overlooking Palace and the confectionery shop on the opposite side of the road. Double-decker buses rumbled below us, and the frequent blare of horns from the lorries entering the Byculla wholesale fruit market assaulted all my senses simultaneously, making it difficult to hear her.
“Freddie returned,” she continued,
“about twenty years later. His wife had been paralyzed for years and they were
unable to have children. She had recently suffered another stroke in
There was no melodrama in her reminiscences. Only a matter-of-fact narration of events. Things had happened to her so long ago that time had taken the edge off the emotions associated with them.
“Freddie decided not to return to
She paused as if waiting for a comment from me. When none came, because I was speechless at the tragedy of it all, she said, “Freddie was at the place less than a week when the explosion happened. We were never even able to recover his body.”
Still no words escaped my lips. How
had she lived through all those years of endless waiting? And
then the sudden, final, loss of death? While I was pondering, she said,
as if struck by an afterthought, “Belinda died in hospital only a week later.
The long journey from
We sat in silence for a few minutes. She seemed to forget why she started telling me her story. “It’s getting late, my girl. You must go home now.”
I stood up to leave. Then a thought struck me. “That window…why have you left it that way all these years?”
“Oh, I never repaired that window,” she chuckled, as if amused at her own joke, “and sometimes the rain blows the memories in.”
I left her home in a daze, little
knowing then that she had referred to the momentous explosion of a ship called
My failure in the exam paled into insignificance when compared to her lifetime of failure at finding true love. Her story had disturbed me deeply. The certainty of the end of my career as a pianist stared me in the face but, somehow, after I heard her story, my future seemed easier to bear. That night, I asked my mother if she could remember the Bombay Dock explosion. She did. “It was awful,” she said, as we sat talking after dinner. “I was in the sixth standard at that time, in boarding school at Agripada. Our entire school building shook. Charred bodies floated in the sea for days and the smell of burning was everywhere.” My father added: “If I recall correctly, some ammunition that was stored aboard a British ship docked in the harbor had caught fire and exploded. It was a terrible tragedy.”
By the time I saw Miss Dunn again, a week later, I had decided to give up the formal study of music. My parents had been far more understanding and sympathetic about my predicament than I had expected. Miss Dunn was right. I would never be a concert pianist. But I did not give up music altogether. My success in the History of Music section had convinced me that I had a future in that field. I could become a music historian. I discussed my plans with her and though she never taught me another tune, I did visit her frequently. We attended music concerts in the city as a couple and I bristled with annoyance every time I saw the posh Parsi teachers poke fun of her behind their bony palms as they took in her one good Crimplene dress. I began to listen to classical music recordings with an attentive, trained ear. I could pick out the flaws in a recording and the sublime high points. A local college asked me to conduct music appreciation classes there, and soon I had created quite a niche for myself as a music critic in the city, my reviews appearing in The Times and The Examiner, a community Catholic weekly. My byline—Janet Dunstan, Our Western Music Critic—became familiar to thousands of readers. Though I never played another note, I was recognized as something of an authority on the subject and gained the respect and trust accorded to a true connoisseur.
As soon as our teacher-student relationship ended, Miss Dunn and I grew very fond of each other. As companions we had a far more compatible exchange of ideas than we had while I was under her tutelage. The little known, idealistic side of her appealed to my own late teenage sense of romanticism and our friendship flourished. Once or twice a month, I continued to climb the shaky stairs to her flat to talk to her about forthcoming concerts or to listen to newly released long-playing records on my portable record player. I became a comfort to her as the downstairs Club members became an increasing nuisance, playing Hindi film songs at an unbearable volume late into the night and disturbing her sleep at the oddest hours by ringing her doorbell and running away.
But, inevitably, as the years
passed my life grew busier. Graduation from college meant the search for a
full-time job, which I found at Furtado’s,
the city’s only music store. I met my husband Donald, a piano-tuner, there.
After we married and moved to
Harrow-on-the-Hill is a suburb
bustling with immigrants. Jamaicans and Trinidadians are everywhere, as are
wealthy Gujaratis from
And so I had made the journey to Byculla, awfully apprehensive about what I would find there. Miss Dunn would never remember me, of course, but I hoped to spend a couple of hours with her, telling her about my daughters and their own attempts at learning music. But I did not even get to complete my journey. Incredibly, the building still stood, tottering on its aging props, but as I looked up at Readymoney Terrace, I took in the wooden beans of her balcony, now painted a garish turquoise blue, exactly like the one below it, with newly-paned windows enclosing them and cheap cotton curtains flapping against the glass. Even as I stood on the pavement recalling the past, it was perfectly clear to me, as if someone had just pressed a mortuary card into my hand, that Eleanor Dunn was no more.
And her flat? It had, of course, been taken over, making possible an elaborate extension and renovation of The Byculla Social Club.
When I returned home to
* Rochelle Almeida teaches South Asian Studies and Global Cultures as a full-time
Master Teacher at