Some time in September 1963, on the Sunday after the initial culture shock and euphoria of the first week aboard the Indian merchant navy training ship Dufferin, a rusty former World War 1 troopship then anchored a few miles offshore in Bombay harbour, the '63-'65 batch of cadets must have been looking forward to their first shore leave. Collecting their princely sum of weekly pocket money, the Bombay wallahs must have surely been waiting to show off their new uniforms to families and friends while the out-of-towners look forward to explore the city and 'paint the town red'.
While waiting for the boats to take us ashore, a chubby and genial fellow first year cadet named 'Balu' Rao must have taken pity on this 'lost' and strange looking skinny foreign kid in baggy and ill-fitting uniform and invited me to come along home with him. Balu's home was a posh apartment on the exclusive Malabar Hills in Bombay's suburbs and it was certainly an eye-opener for yours truly, barely sixteen, and many, many miles away from my own home.
I cannot recall the details of my first Indian home visit, but I do remember that we sat down to a splendid home-cooked vegetarian lunch of purees, aloo, dhall, pickles and various other assorted condiments. The food was rather strange to my young alien taste buds and I am ashamed to say now that I did not do justice to the meal and could hardly empty my plate. Balu's Mum must have been very disappointed in me. She showed concern that I will go back to the ship still hungry and so proceeded to ply me with sweets and rasgoolas instead.
I have since become a connoisseur and aficionado of the rich and diverse ways of Indian cooking.
There have been many other home stays and visits with other batch mates. I can fondly recall many happy Dufferin weekends with the Shroffs, Menons and Bedis, to name a few. Homes away from home. During the winter term breaks, I traveled the length and breadth of India to visit with the families of Banerjee and Boparai in New Delhi and David Ward and Usman Ahmad in Calcutta.
I always traveled first class (student fare) on Indian Railways and met with many kind and hospitable people very willing to share what little they had with me. On one occasion, I was 'adopted' by a noisy coach load of Indian Army captains and majors returning home from a training assignment. I had lied about my age and they got me rip-roaring drunk by the time we reached Bombay's Victoria Terminus, and I still cannot remember how I managed to find my way back to my tiny cubicle at the Mariners' Club.
Those were indeed very happy and carefree days. I am glad that almost all the names that I have mentioned above are still my friends today and with whom I am still in touch, although we are now scattered all over the globe. To the many other now nameless people who have opened up their homes and their hearts to the 'funny looking kid with pointed nose and spiky hair' (Balu's words), I thank them most copiously, from the bottom of my heart.
(Above photo was taken on shore leave with my old friend Jimmy Shroff (right), who is now still at sea and a senior captain with Japan's Mitsui Line.)
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