September 6, 2017

Jock Strap & His Elastic Band

Desmond Macedo

Leslie Fowler grew up in Ghorpuri, once upon a time a railway colony in Poona where many Anglo Indians lived, who, once upon a time, were a visible community in India; at least, visible on the Indian Railways.

He had two dreams: one, drive an engine, the bullet engine kind, fired by steam. And two, play the guitar. These weren’t uncommon dreams among boys of his community. Moreover, it wasn’t uncommon for them to daydream.

He didn’t make the first, continued daydreaming about the second in between practice on the fret board.

He joined a technical institute, finished the course, and landed a government job in an army depot in Dehu Road, another cantonment in Poona.

A high-ranking officer once came around visiting the depot, stopped at Leslie and, pointing to a road roller parked ahead, asked him, ‘Why is the front wheel of that road roller divided into two equal parts?’ Leslie looked at the wheel, nervous, because he didn't know he had to think about this question before, answered, ‘Sir, if it is a single piece, it will not turn easily.’ The officer smiled, walked on, leaving Leslie chest puffed up, as the stares and gawks of his colleagues bounced off it.

He was technically inclined, but he didn’t want a regular life with a salary at regular intervals. He wanted to play the guitar in a band. Two years later he quit the depot, and then spent his technical training servicing his wife’s bike, his father’s typewriter and his mother’s sewing machine.

‘His brains are in his hands,’ his mother would say, using a ding expression frequently used to describe a common trait in the community, ‘ding’ being the nickname for them.

Leslie wanted a hobby that would be regular, and a job that would be something he did in-between. People try for regular work, and if they have a hobby, leave it to weekends. He wanted it the other way around – hobby through the week, job on weekends.

Since there wasn’t a job or hobby like that on offer, he spent the mornings shooting just two pigeons - one for himself, one for his wife, at supper, and, frolicking with his dog, pampering his cat, a touchup, a snooze, a twing and a twang on his guitar, then wait for his wife to come home in the evening, off to the bazaar for the night meal to make enough from the errand for another touchup.

Touchup was the ding equivalent of the French sipping wine during or throughout the day. Only it was hooch, a lot more potent. Touchup, like many of the community’s phrases, was their dialect – not heard outside the community; spoken, seldom written. So whether it was one word, two words, or hyphenated was never determined.

At one of those speakeasies he frequented for a touchup, he used to meet a drummer and a bass guitarist, both again Anglo-Indians. He could play lead so, now and then, the idea of a band would come up. And the question that usually followed was, ‘What’ll we call the band?’ Almost immediately, one of them would say, ‘Not Leslie & The Larks.’ They generally agreed that they’d do well if they got started but that question did serve another purpose - so one of them could say ‘Jock Strap & His Elastic Band,’ followed by a collective giggle, followed by a collective swig, followed by a ‘Bra, I need new jocks, so let’s think of a good name.’ Laughter and good cheer were inseparable from Anglo-Indians, or these three Anglo musicians, or anybody in a speakeasy, or anyone who has just heard ‘jock strap and his elastic band,’ while bra was how they short-formed  brother, like sas was sister.

On the bazaar errands, among the tomatoes, green chilly and corriander stalls, he'd usually bump into fellow Anglo-Indians and acquaintances who asked, ‘How’s it?’ and he’d say, ‘Not bad. Grub, grog and greens,’ his head inclining upwards to keep with his lip twirling upwards.

‘Grub, grog and greens,’ another Anglo-Indian phrase, meant ‘all found,’ ‘on the house.’ Some members said it was nearly extinct. Not all their phrases were known across all Anglos in India; like not all interpreted this one similarly - some thought the 'greens' meant women. Pockets of this community lived along the railway corridors, mainly at junctions, in different parts of India, and while they used different phrases there were some in common, as if the railways were migrating the community’s dialect from one junction to another, or one railway zone to another, which may well have been the case, because AI drivers, firemen, signalmen and guards used the railway Retiring Rooms at the end of their trips, where they caught up with other AI railway men from other junctions. Sometimes, they visited Anglo families at these places where their language would intermingle.

Leslie and his speakeasy companions did team up under the name Leslie & The Livewires, and during their third show at a local club, a guy, two or three shots down, remarked, ‘Listen you blokes, if you play like that no one’ll come on the floor.’ The blighter had said something similar at their earlier two shows, so Leslie stood his guitar against a speaker, walked down the steps of the stage, went up to this guy, ghummed him, turned around, and walked back on the stage.

‘Ghum’ meant to bang up with fists, and was heard along the Hubli-Ghorpuri/Poona railway corridor, i.e. the South-Western Railway. It was even in use in Madras, so it must’ve been common in south India, all along the Southern, South-Central and South-Western Railways that overlap at various stations in the peninsula. It was pronounced like the sound of 'hmmm,' though, no clue whether it was spelt ghum, or just gum with a double m in past tense, but its typical usage was with fists tightly closed.

Leslie & The Livewires, of course, never got a show again, but they did hear that the bloke – two or three shots down – had a hard time explaining his ‘bunged-up’ face, that being their way of saying ‘badly bruised.’

Once a fortnight, or thereabouts, Leslie visited his folks’ place where he’d enjoy ball curry and rice, and he’d get a chance to use his favourite comment as the bowl of curry went around the table: all balls and no gravy. It was usual for that greeny syrup to disappear sooner than planned - it was amongst the most delicious curries known to Anglo Indians and a few other sections of mankind that had tasted it. The recipe had a nickname - bad word curry- but this was unheard in Poona, though, common in the Kolar Gold Fields-Bangalore-Madras corridor.

It was quaint to see how a railway network was transporting a culture. And just like their expressions, some of those famous Anglo-Indian dishes must’ve travelled about in India using mail, express and even goods trains hauled by steam engines. There is an Anglo dish called Railway Mutton Curry which was popular with the AI railway staff. Made with vinegar or tamarind, it could last several days, the time Anglos would be ‘on line,’ their phrase for ‘travelling on duty.’

But the steam engines have disappeared, the Anglos on the Indian Railways are extinct and the number of Anglo-Indians in India is dwindling. With a standstill among the community, and no members on the railway, their happy-go-lucky culture and dialect are dying out.

Jock strap & his elastic band, a mad and embarassingly appropriate expression for a third-rate band, is hardly in use anymore, members say, one likely reason being, there are very few, or no, Anglo bands left; another being, present-generation Anglo Indians do not daydream any more; yet another being, they do not shoot pigeons any more.

And, well, 'Leslie Fowler is ''digging potatoes,''' an Anglo from Madras would say.

Never heard of any Anglo from Poona with that occupation.


Post Script:
I first came across Railway Mutton Curry and its background in Bridget White's collection of Anglo-Indian recipes.