Rom seemed lost; he couldn’t tell me where the old cottage had been. After all, more than 40 years had passed and the entire area had been graded. Despite the presence of two hulking dilapidated mansions, I tried to imagine how the place must have looked when Rom lived here.
He remembered the house stood on a cliff that jutted out into Vasai Creek, with Borivali National Park behind and Nagla forest across the water. The toilet was an old-style outhouse. He said, “No one was about, so you could sit there with the door open and watch dolphins in the river below. It was the best toilet view I’ve known.”
In 1968, soon after Rom returned from the U.S., he had set up a venom business at this spot, a village called Gaimukh Bandar, on the Ghodbunder Road that connects Borivali in Bombay to Thane. Here, he milked venom from snakes and sold it to the Tata Memorial Cancer Institute for research.
Snakes seem to attract the superstitious. A “healer” brought a woman who had become deaf during pregnancy. He said if the tail of a cobra was inserted in her ear, she would be cured. It had to be a normal healthy cobra, not a snake charmers’ specimen that usually had its fangs ripped out. The only person who could provide such a snake was Rom. Although sceptical, he got a cobra out and did as the quack instructed.
Just then, a truck came hurtling around the corner. The driver saw this bizarre scene taking place in the garden and lost control of his vehicle. When Rom heard a huge crash, he quickly put the snake away, and rushed to the accident site. Unfortunately, the truck had tumbled down the hillside, and the driver was grievously injured. Rom felt guilty, blaming himself for the accident. Thereafter, all quackery was held indoors, in the one room that was kitchen, lab, and bedroom.
Later that year, Rom moved to Madras.
When we visited Gaimukh in December 2012, I wanted to see the outhouse with a view. Sadly, no structure of that time remained.
“Who rented this place to you?” I asked Rom.
He couldn’t remember. I called his brother Neel. He answered promptly, “Bal Mundkur.”
“What!” I didn’t doubt Neel, I was astounded.
“We met Bal last year and he reminded me he rented the Gaimukh Bandar place to my brother.”
A strange coincidence that occurred in 1999 became even more bizarre. Rom and I were at the Chennai airport waiting to catch a flight to Goa. At the gate, an elderly man seated a few rows away looked familiar. Rom said he was a total stranger to him. I was so sure I knew him that I did something totally unlike me. I went up to the man, introduced myself, and asked if we had met before. He answered brusquely, “Sorry, I don’t know you at all.” Disappointed and puzzled, I returned to my seat.
When we boarded the flight, I found myself seated next to the man whose name I still didn’t know. I introduced Rom and the man’s face lit up. He said, “Hey, Rom. Remember me? I’m Bal Mundkur.” I gathered from their ensuing conversation that Bal was a friend of Rom’s family, and he had retired to live in Goa. While the two men chatted about the old Bombay days, I was struck by the irony of the situation. But I was also puzzled; I didn’t recognise the man’s name, and it seemed unlikely I had ever met him. Why then did he look familiar?
When we parted at Panjim airport, we agreed to visit each other, but we never did.
Bal Mundkur died in Jan 2012. It was only on reading his obituary did I realise he was a legend in the advertising world. Was that why he looked familiar?
I’m still puzzled.