It was 1979. We were in Jeevan Shanti LIC Colony in Santacruz, Bombay. My world was defined by the Juhu area (where I went to school), and Santacruz, where I lived with my parents and sister. To be precise, my world was defined by C4 and C5 buildings which at that point had all the people I interacted with on an hour-to-hour basis from dawn to midnight. The Kumars, Vedanthams, Jyoti Swarup family, Seth family, Bansals, Patni, Mehras, Sethis, Desais, Mohammadi family, Mukherjees, Naiks. Only the Santhanams were two buildings away in C1. Between all these families within these two buildings, my sister and I had 20 children to play with.
And then in 1979, arrived a new family with 3 new potential playmates for all of us: The Kapoors.
But the children weren’t the ones who became my first playmates from C5/3 (the ground floor residence of the Kapoors). It was Kapoor Uncle. (The second was Kapoor Aunty with her ready wit, little Samosas and Gujiya.)
Kapoor Uncle (Sharad Chandra Kapoor or SC Kapoor) was a dashing, jovial and energetic man who walked the world fearlessly and opened all doors with his wide, open-hearted smile that came straight from his heart and was always reflected in his twinkling eyes. He engaged with children and adults in the same jovial manner: Namaste first, “kaise ho?” next, “kya kar rahe ho, hume bhi dikhao” thereafter. And that was it. Soon you were engrossed in conversation or play with Kapoor uncle by your side, genuinely interested and engaged. One of the earliest memories I have of him are of the two of us sitting by the roadside on our haunches, looking at our hand-made rafts and boats sailing in the clear rainwater of the gutter! One of the boats stopped sailing, so Kapoor uncle put his right foot out to help the boat along, and predictably enough, the chappal went in and started sailing away as well. We were both laughing for a while.
Of course, from the moment they arrived, the little Kapoors (Bunty, Mallu and Meenu, not to forget their pet cats) were a part of the C4-C5 gang of children. Bunty was three years older, Mallu was the same age as I (more or less), and Meenu was couple of years younger. The family had moved from Sagar, and for many years I always thought of them as being from Sagar since all the stories we heard were of their adventures in Sagar. (Pratapgad is their ancestral home.)
It was a time of great transition in Bombay. It was a true melting pot of cultures, because people were coming in from all over the country, living together interacting, imbibing of the local culture, the national culture and imparting their own regional culture as well. Just within those two buildings, we had families from several different states, several different towns, a few cities. And since LIC families moved residential quarters, more and more families got connected. The Colony was huge, with B, C, D, and E type quarters and I had friend circles in each of the quarter types, which in turn meant I had greater access to different food, play, and comics. And everyone was shaping and reshaping and preserving all the different cultures by participating in each other’s lives. A child from any house could walk into of the other houses in the extended friend circle, and have lunch or dinner and go back to play. No permissions required, no intimations necessary. Had difficulty in understanding Hindi poetry or Political structures or need some information on medieval History? Catch Kumar uncle after he came back from office. Needed some guidance in Maths? Go to Vendantham uncle. Needed some guidance on career options or help in planning next study steps? Check in with Jyoti Swarup Aunty. That was the kind of culture that was evolving then.
Kapoor uncle used to wear chequered/plain coloured shirts and trousers to office (like my father and most other menfolk working with the Life Insurance Corporation at that point. Some wore Safari Suits, which was quite the rage if you had money to spare). And when he was at home, he was in crisp white Kurta and Pajama, sleeves folded till elbow. A lasting image of him that I have is from Holi festivals across the years – white kurta-pyjama, all smeared in gulal and red and orange colours, smiling wide. A great story-teller with a treasure of anecdotes and chutkulas (little jokes, jokelettes even), Kapoor uncle was a delight in family get togethers, pot-luck dinners, festivals, and special occasions (birthday celebrations). All birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated with all families gathering at a predesignated house and it was one mad, busy, party from evening till midnight.
These (and many other families later in the 1980s and 1990s such as the Gopalans), became part of each other’s extended families. And still are today. Four decades later, when all the children (including me) have grown up and set up homes of their own, minding their own little children, and building our own little worlds, our parents have not only stayed in touch but in many cases they are still as closely integrated as they were in those early years in Bombay. Every uncle and aunty is aware of and following the successes, joys, ups, downs, challenges of each of us (and our fledgling families), just as they did when we were growing up. Many of those childhood friends are settled in different parts of the world. Most of the parents are still in Mumbai, some are in their hometowns, but all of them are in touch. I can honestly say that my education included the guidance, teachings, reprimands and encouragements from each and every one of the elders in that vast world I grew up in. My life has been rich because of the involvement, love and affection of every one of them.
Recently, in December 2017, Kapoor Uncle moved on from the world after a prolonged battle with cancer. I hadn’t met Kapoor uncle in a while, but was aware of his battle and the manner in which he faced that battle. A few days ago, I finally made the short trip from Pune to Mumbai to meet Kapoor Aunty. Their generation is beyond comparison: A petite woman, she stands as tall as she ever did. Smiling at the memories, a sadness in her eyes at the passing of her husband, but looking ahead, thinking of her children, grandchildren, sisters, concerned about my prospects and asking after my family as usual.
I often think about what my generation will leave behind in the world, by way of teaching, values, and legacy. And I think we will be very lucky if we are remembered at all. For we live in the shadows of the great women and men of a generation in India that navigated evolving social structures, and were able to not only nurture but also propagate the rich cultural heritage by walking the values of inclusiveness, universal affection, and whole-hearted acceptance of diversity. One such was Kapoor Uncle. I will always remember him with that smile, ocean of practical knowledge, and twinkling eyes, that lit up the world all around. And I shall miss him.