Those magical toursby Rumi Taraporevala June 2 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 22 secs
Rumi Taraporevala travels back in time, to recapture the joy of the iconic Lala Tours of Bombay, conducted by St. Xavier’s High School’s Scout Master Homi Lala.
Lala Tours (full value for money) had its genesis in the St. Xavier’s High School Scout Troop. Homi Lala, an alumnus, was Scoutmaster for a number of years. It was a custom at that time to take a troop for long camps lasting around seven days to nearby places like Bansda, and Vakola. Then Homi had the brilliant idea of organizing the camps to Simla, Nainital, Mussoorie and more, when the boys could do their scouting, and at the same time see the beautiful places of India.
Before going on such long camps, our parents had to sign a waiver. It stated that while all due care would be taken for the good health and safety of their sons; the Lala Tours would not be responsible in the final analysis.
A normal procedure, but my mum refused to sign on the dotted line. I remember Homi came to my house to persuade my mum to relent, but she just would not do so. He never let me forget that incident. In later years when I was a father, and grandfather, whenever I went to book our family’s and friends’ trips in India and abroad, Homi would walk out of his cabin, sly smile on his face, with a standard enquiry if I had taken my mum’s permission.
Born in 1930, I was a part of the generation that regarded a parent’s decision, or that of a teacher’s as final - to be taken with a smile. In the present day scenario, there would be a stamping of feet, coupled with tantrums, demanding a proper explanation for the refusal. Right or wrong, that’s how our generation was brought up.
The news of the great success of the long camps of scouts to various places like Simla, Nainital and Mussorrie soon spread amongst the girls’ schools in Bombay, with requests for Homi to conduct similar tours for their students, and for the general public. This was done in the early 1950s, with the help of senior scouts roped in as organizers and helpers. Pesi Khandawala joined Homi as a partner in 1956, after which it was full steam ahead for Lala Tours. By that time, the tours were honed to a fine art. The boys in charge were usually senior scouts, just starting out in life, with a few of their juniors as their helpers. The tours were usually organized to coincide with the holiday season to be convenient for the staff and the general public.
The boys were paid a stipend, not very large, according to their seniority in the organization, and for their usefulness. Homi had large wooden boxes fabricated, with rope handles at both ends for easy mobility by two boys. These boxes were packed to the brim in Bombay with packets of tea, coffee, sugar, butter, jam, cheese and all the stuff that was available in Bombay at wholesale prices. Apart from the helpers, each tour carried at least two professional cooks in charge of catering. Perishables like meat, fowl and eggs had to be purchased at the destination. All the hotels on the Lala roster were on a lodging basis only, with full boards provided by the organizers.
In the summer of 1962, Freny, Sooni and I decided to go for the Lala Tour to Nainital. Freny and Sooni were waiting at Bombay Central station outside the bogie reserved for the tour when an elderly lady approached them with a presentable young girl in tow. She informed Freny that her niece Rhoda, having finished her MA in Indore, was now in Bombay staying with her.
Since Rhoda was new to the city, her aunt requested Freny to keep an eye on her, to which of course Freny readily agreed. My lovely Freny, with an 'angelic’ little girl in tow, Sooni, were according to the lady the most likely candidates for this delicate job. A good thing that I was nowhere in sight, else Auntyji might have had second thoughts.
Rhoda, with her gregarious nature, soon made friends with us, and a few others during the trip. On reaching Nainital, room allocations in Metropole Hotel were done accordingly: Rhoda, Mithoo and Roxanne in the first bedroom, Freny, Sooni and myself in the adjoining room, and Maneck in the next and smallest room. This suite had only one bathroom, which we used in turn. Poor Maneck was always the last person allowed inside. The ladies, big bullies that they turned out to be, had drawn an imaginary line, called the McMahon Line, which Maneck could not transgress without the ladies’ permission, no matter how urgent his needs. The McMahon Line was in place during the Indo-Chinese War separating the warring factions.
The next morning, replete with a full Lala breakfast, we wended our way down, through the shops lining the way, noting in particular the booze shops for our afternoon beer and Doctors’ Favourite Brandy to ward off the evening chill. Our newfound friends hired two boats for a ride around the beautiful lake, followed by a roller skating session at the rink situated by the side of the lake.
A surprising aspect of roller-skating those days was that Bombay with its big population, even in those days, did not have a single roller skating rink for the general public, as compared to the hill stations of North India. Nainital, Simla, Mussorrie, each had dedicated skating rinks, where for a small payment one could hire skates by the hour. Winchester, a U.K. company, seemed to have a monopoly on skates. No rubber wheels in those days, only quality steel wheels, with quality ball bearing. The distinctive sound of steel wheels whirring over wooden floors in the skating rinks was unmistakable, and music to our ears. Most of the Xavier’s group learnt skating in the school hall, and made a beeline for the rinks, trying to skate gracefully to the music, which invariably featured The Skaters Waltz, and similar pieces.
We spent the cool evenings walking around the Mall Road, popping in once in a while at Lala Sheik’s (no relation) for a most scrumptious dish of Strawberries and Cream, at only 12 annas a plate - yummy! We meandered our way upward, picking up a couple of Doctors’ Favourite Brandy bottles for our pre-dinner boozing session. This was undoubtedly the best part of the day. The fun we had, the camaraderie formed was unbelievable - most of us became friends for life; the photo of the evening booze session says it all!
On one of our free mornings, most of the same group went up to the lake’s wonderful view point Snow Peak. We of course carried small eats, lots of beer, and glasses from the hotel. Am a bit fuzzy thereafter, but the altitude, copious amount of beer consumed, got the better of us.
Dara, the tour group leader, started the proceedings by saying cheers, and flinging his glass into the valley. Our beloved leader having shown us the way, could we be far behind? Having rid ourselves of the burden of carrying our glasses back to the hotel we went in for lunch. Daughter Sooni immediately marched up to the lady proprietor of the hotel and informed her “Aunty, aunty, Dara uncle threw all your glasses in the valley”. Red faces were the order of the day! My dear Goola maasi had not named my darling daughter “Soonamai Reporter” for nothing.
Part of our group of friends was a middle-aged couple Gool and Jal. This gentleman was a spinner of tall tales par excellence. He had Sooni wide-eyed in wonder at his adventures in the American Wild West, particularly in the state of Arizona.
Jal had us in splits recounting the story of his Irani friend Rustom who had a café across the road from where he lived. He called Jal into his shop to tell him a big secret about the Shah of Iran. “Apraa Raja pass boww motta penkkha che - German na lashkar avve toh Raja penkhha chaloo kerre, nay German na lashkar pachha German udi jai. Japan na lashkar avve toh penkha ehlok per challave, ne Japan naa lashkar pachha Japan udi jai. Pun ai bov motta sacret chhe, koi ne bee kehtta naa”. Rough translation in English: “Our King has a massive big fan. If Germany tries to invade Iran, the Shah would aim the fan at them, and it would simply blow them back to Germany. A similar fate awaited Japan, or any other country foolish enough to try to invade Iran. Jal was told in no uncertain terms that this was top secret, not to be shared with anyone.
And a final tale from Jal to end the proceedings: As part of a big Irani family, their grandmother would recount stories from the Shahnama to the kids every Sunday morning. At the point when Rustom Pehlwan’s trusty steed, Rokesh, dies in battle, the kids were expected to show their grief by crying. Anyone not following this fatwa got a smart clip on the ears from the old lady, to start the tears flowing!
We sadly said our fond farewells to our new friends at the end of the Nainital tour, but promised to continue our friendships even in Bombay - many of which we did!
Our Lala tour to Simla in November 1963 too was a roaring success. My brother Kersi and cousins - Ferriel Soli and Mehroo - were on this trip, and we were fortunate to have been allotted a small compartment of 13 like-minded persons. We had to change trains at Kalka junction to go uphill to Simla in a small train. The train made a halt at a place where the popular Golden Eagle Beer was manufactured. The train did not start for a long time and on enquiry we were told that the engine driver had gone into the bazaar to buy beer. Some of us immediately followed suit - the rest of the journey was spent in a bubbly, happy mood.
On account of some delays along the way, we reached Simla late in the evening. Most of us were in our summer clothes, while Simla was freezing cold. Our teeth chattering, we bought some rum and brandy along the way, and had a ball before dinner. The mood had turned so happy that Mehroo, in a saree, did a headstand near the fireplace.
Being a (so-called) helper on this tour trip, Pesi Khandalawalla, Homi Lala’s partner, put me in charge of serving pudding. Still in a happy, fuzzy mood I started handing out such large dollops of the stuff that Pesi came running to my side. “Baboo, baboo,” he said, “If you keep serving such large helpings, there will be nothing left for the others. From tomorrow you sit on soup”. One can always add water to soup, but what the hell can one do to a shortage of puddin’?
Pesi then scheduled a Fancy Dress Parade before dinner in the evening. Boman Irani’s sisters, who were with us on the trip, dressed Sooni very sweetly as a nun using the hotel bed sheets. I went as Madame Fifi, lately of Les Follies Bergere - they had thrown me out for growing hair in the wrong place.
With cotton wool stuffed in someone’s bra, borrowed blouse, skirt, chaddis my own, I was undoubtedly the belle of the ball. We had some old Parsi gentlemen in the tour, I’d go up to them, turn my back, lift my skirt and show them my bum - the poor chaps laughed but were so embarrassed. The judges must have been bribed because they gave first prize to Sooni, despite me being the belle of the ball - sad!
All things, good or bad, eventually do come to an end, and it was time to go home. The photo of our group at the Simla station says it all!