By Jim Commins
On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, I was just about to leave to go to St. Michael’s Church when a messenger arrived at the door of my lodgings with an urgent request to go to the bank where I was working. I really had intended to go to Mass that Sunday morning in 1957 and spend the afternoon on Juhu beach. I was directed to a taxi and on my arrival at the workplace met the manager, Thomas Barker, originally from Co. Fermanagh. He explained that I was needed because I was the joint holder of the keys to the cash safe in the vault, and an important merchant with connections to the Sheikh of Sharjah urgently needed some financial issues put in order.
Once his affairs were settled, Thomas treated me to a light lunch. During the meal he mentioned that I should come along to a party that was being organised at the Bombay Gymkhana Club at eight o’clock and suggested bringing some ‘refreshments’.
In India at that time, there were strict laws concerning the use of alcohol. Foreign workers, however, were given licences with quotas that allowed them to purchase spirits at the designated stores.
As I made my way to the party, I was delayed because of a Parsee funeral wending its way to the Tower of Silence on top of Malabar Hill and I missed the first course of the ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ meal.
The meal was served alfresco on tables on a patio adjoining the clubhouse. On the tables were jugs of mango juice and lit eucalyptus candles to ward off the night insects.
During the main course of really hot chicken curry, I explained the reason for my absence. A discussion then arose about the beliefs of Parsees and Zoroastrianism. As neither cremation nor internment was allowed in their religion, unclothed corpses were left in the open, in temples, to be devoured by carrion crows and vultures. It was not uncommon to see vultures soaring in the sky above the city.
There was also an exchange of views about the illegal practice of ‘Suttee’. It was the former Hindu custom of a widow throwing herself and being burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although it had been banned for many years, it was still practised in some of the remote parts of the country.
At the table, another member of the managerial staff, Dan O’Flynn, who came from Mallow, enlightened the discussion with unusual happenings at wakes in his hometown in County Cork.
The room in the clubhouse was bedecked with buntings and balloons, of three different colours. The colours of the Indian flag are very similar to those of the Irish one, green, white and saffron.
At the party, there were about fifteen Irish, and around the same number of either British or Indian guests. Before any speeches were made, glasses of ‘refreshments’ were handed around. While Dan and I brought a bottle of Tullamore Dew, and a bottle of Irish whiskey with a label with three swallows, Thomas, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a teetotaller, came with a supply of wines.
The most popular drink seemed to be ‘punch’. The name originally came from a Hindu word meaning five ingredients. They were whiskey, hot water, sugar, slices of lemon and cloves.
Background music was provided by a pianist who mostly played dance melodies. Although there was an area for dancing, nobody ‘took to the floor’. This was because there was a paucity of female partners. There was, however, no shortage of alcoholic beverages, toasts, speeches and songs. Dan sang ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’. Thomas sang ‘Lough Erne’s Shore’ and I, being from Ardee, contribute with ‘The Turfman’.
Sometime later, the work of a turfman had to be explained to some of the guests, and how turf was saved as a fuel. Throughout India, animal droppings, when dried, were used as fuel for fires. In Bombay, where cows were allowed to meander at will in the streets, there was no shortage of fuel. In Hinduism, the animals were considered sacred and the eating of their meat strictly forbidden.
As the evening wore on, there was more chatting and reminiscing and less drinking and solo singing.
Coming up to midnight, everyone joined in the singing of ‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘A Troopship was Leaving Bombay’ with great enthusiasm. The song reminded me of the time I first heard it. It was sung by an uncle of mine who had just returned from London, in April 1954, to attend the celebration of my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary.
Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined then, that three years later I would be singing the same song on St. Patrick’s Night in Bombay, now Mumbai.