Mumbaiwale: Family A-Fair
The Raphaels, who live smack in the middle of the action, recall the Bandra Fairs gone by
The Bandra Fair wraps up this weekend. Given that Visarjan is done with, expect even more crowds heading there. But don’t be surprised. Our Lady on the Mount, whose eight-day birthday celebrations form the heart of the fair, has attracted crowds since 1570, when a wooden statue of Mother Mary, brought by Jesuit priests from Portugal, was placed in a private oratory there.
By 1700, when pirates from present-day Muscat invaded Bandra, they even tried to loot the shrine. There wasn’t much to take. “Disappointed, they chopped off the right forearm of the statue, thinking it was of gold,” says the shrine’s web site. “They also intended to set fire to the church when a huge army of bees attacked them so cruelly that they were forced to abandon their evil intentions and leave.”
Most accounts say this is roughly when the fair began. And devotion has only increased, particularly after the Lady Jamsetjee Road was built, forming a connection to the island city in 1846.
Francis Raphael, 78, who lives right in the middle of the fair, says festivities were different when he was young. “We’d have a whole month of celebrations,” he recalls. Stalls would take over both sides of the road. No buses or vehicles could ply, you could only make it through on foot.
And yet, it seemed like an intimate affair. “Catholics from across the city would visit, so you just met everyone there,” he says.
For him, the fair’s highlights were the Wheel of Death, featuring car and bike daredevilry. And splurging on locally made toys.
By the time his son Sylvester, was in his teens, the fair had transformed. Stalls were stocking canes and hats - both novelties in the 1980s. The top attractions were jugglers, stiltwalkers and dog shows. “And lots of ice-cream,” recalls the 50-year-old.
September Garden, at the Mt Carmel Church compound, was the place to be. “We’d have dances, family competitions, live bands and we’d crown a September King and Queen,” says Sylvester. “Oh, and if you lived in Bandra, those from across Bombay would drop in. We’d have an unending stream of guests. We’d have to be home all week to receive them.”
Both men say that the fair is better managed than ever before. Feeder buses ferry visitors, there’s crowd control, loudspeaker deadlines and plenty of bandobast. The crowds are more secular, and stalls sell keychains, trinkets and cheap clothes. “It’s all dismantled and cleared away the very evening the fair ends,” says Francis.
Crucially, services at the Basilica, the first port of call for devotees, are better organised. Mass is on the hour, and there are separate entry-exit points, so visitors don’t throng at odd times, interrupting worship. “I remember we’d struggle for space to sit,” Sylvester says. That no longer happens.
September Garden now has only a Ferris Wheel and rides. But that seems to be enough draw for another generation of Raphaels. Sylvester’s 15-year-old son, Keane, has been visiting the fair for most of the week. He loves the rides.