Flashback: Cotton Mary

I don’t have links to or copies of any of the articles that I wrote in my nearly four-year stint at Time Out Mumbai, so it was lovely to chance upon this piece about Cotton Mary on the blog, Heartbeat Goa. Thank you to whoever took the effort of typing it up. Cotton Mary is/was a street singer, and a strangely elusive one who sounded more like a myth than a real person. If you don’t think I’d be the person to write about such a character, you’d be right. I knew next to nothing about Cotton Mary and her music, but I did end up meeting her, thanks to Rosalyn D’Mello and her father. As a result of that one meeting, I “wrote” this piece. I say “wrote” because the credit for a critical chunk of this article goes to Time Out Mumbai’s then editor Naresh Fernandes. (In case you were wondering, my knowledge of how Allied soldiers dealt with homesickness in Mumbai and ditties that were popular with the city’s Christian and Anglo-Indian communities is virtually non-existent.) But here it is, the article about meeting Cotton Mary, which was originally published in Time Out Mumbai years ago. Thank you, Google.

Cotton world

Deepanjana Pal chases down the story behind ‘I Went to See My Darling’.

The nights were awfully silent when Fleur D’Souza was growing up in the East Indian village of Cherai in Thane in the the 1960s. In the era before television, the hours after sunset were broken only occasionally, by the odd wail of a beggar or the call of a wandering salesman. On some nights, however, a burst of song would fill the neighbourhood. A woman in a dress would belt out a tune that began, “I went to see my darling last Saturday night.” D’Souza’s mother would often join in and finish the song. D’Souza, who is now the Vice Principal of St Xavier’s College, and her mother didn’t know that the tune was actually called “I Ain’t Nobody’s Darling” and had been composed in 1921 by an American named Robert King. They had even less idea that the same song was frequently heard in Christian neighbourhoods all across the city or that it would still be sung 40 years later, presumably by a relative of the woman D’Souza had heard.

This popped up when I Googled "street singers", and it seemed fitting so I've nicked it but I've no clue who drew it or from where it's been taken. I had taken pictures of Cotton Mary but if they've survived, they're somewhere in Time Out's archives.

Over the years, the mysterious woman of D’Souza’s childhood has become the stuff of urban mythology. Thousands of people who know nothing about her have heard her singing “Daisy, Daisy”, “Irene Goodnight” and “You Are My Sunshine”, the melody clear and true even though most of the words apart from the first line of the refrain are gibberish. In an internet posting, a Toronto resident named Roland Francis recalls a woman whom he knew as Cotton Mary wandering through Byculla in the 1960s, “cupping her hands for the bullhorn effect, turning her face towards the sky and singing in a loud and raspy voice”. In his novel Afternoon Raag, novelist Amit Chaudhuri writes of a “Christian woman who, wearing the same tattered white dress, stood outside the building gates [on St Cyril Road in Bandra] every week and sang a tuneless song in disjointed English” in the mid-’80s. More recently, a blog titled Bandra Buggers reports that the woman who sang “I Went to See My Darling” has been replaced by a man with a harmonium. “Where did he learn his signature tune?” the blog asks. “Where did he learn to play the harmonium? Where does he come from? Where does he go? And for how many years more will we see him?”

It took Time Out more than four months to obtain some answers. We called dozens of people across Mumbai to ask for help. At the end of October, a staffer’s mother called from Kurla late one night and we finally had a date with Cotton Mary. Only, when we met up with her, she insisted that her name was actually Carol Lollipop. Wearing a cheap, shiny sari instead of her trademark dress, Lollipop said she’d learnt the songs from her mother, Mary. It soon became clear, though, that Lollipop’s stories about herself are as hazy as her listeners’ memories of her. Speaking in a curious pidgin of English and Hindi that bordered on the incomprehensible, she was unclear about where exactly she lived, indicating only that she lived on the seashore in Bandra. She supplements her income by working as a labourer on construction sites. She didn’t even seem to be sure of her name: on the phone the previous day, she’d said that her name was Carol Anthony. Lollipop said her mother was Anglo-Indian and that her father was “Madrasi”. Later she said her mother was Goan. She insisted she was Cotton Mary’s child and that her mother would wear skirts and dresses, sometimes even lipstick, before heading out to sing with her in tow.

Lollipop looks like any other homeless person until she breaks into song. When she does, her strong voice filling the street, there’s no mistaking her for anyone else. In addition to the songs we’d heard before, she sang several bhajan-esque Hindi hymns, including a bouncy tune with a chorus that went, “Byculla mein hallelujah”. Some of these tunes have been familiar on Mumbai’s streets for at least five decades. The woman who many knew as Cotton Mary would appear around Christmas and Easter in Bandra, Parel, Byculla and other Christian neighbourhoods, singing ditties that were popular with the city’s English-speaking Christian and Anglo-Indian communities. Songs like “Irene Goodnight”, “Daisy, Daisy” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” are thought to have originally come to Mumbai with homesick Allied soldiers stationed here during the Second World War. While many of them continue to be sung (and are enshrined in Pop Hits, a 1970s book with lyrics and guitar chords for “singsong” sessions at Christian parties), almost no Mumbaikars have heard any other version of “I Went to See My Darling” except for the ones by Cotton Mary and Carol Lollipop.

Patricia Nath, who grew up in Bandra in the early 1960s, remembers her entire family joining Cotton Mary in singalongs. “My father played the harmonica, my mother and my sisters, we’d all join in,” she said. Nath says that “the original Cotton Mary” performed tunes with perfectly correct lyrics. “She told my mother and older sister that she had learnt them while working as a domestic help with an English family,” said Nath. When the family left India, Mary was abandoned by her husband and forced to take up singing for her supper, literally. “In Bandra, I know many people would invite her to come up and have a meal, depending upon what time of day it was,” said Nath. “So she would begin at about 10 in the morning and start going from street to street, taking whatever she got whether it was food, clothes or money.”

Carol Lollipop told us that the songs she performs were taught to her by her mother, Mary. But it seems likely that by the late 1960s and ’70s, other street performers were also singing these tunes. They looked similar — the women wore dresses; the men carried harmoniums; both genders were accompanied by young children and sang the same songs. The difference lay in the lyrics. The duplicates sang gibberish. The Cotton Mary seen in Thane singing nonsensical lyrics was clearly different from the English-speaking woman heard in Bandra and Mazagon. Nath said that the original Cotton Mary disappeared in the late 1960s. But after a few years, the familiar tunes wafted in one day and the Naths saw Cotton Mary outside the window, dressed as before in a skirt, blouse and hat. They called her up and when she was at their doorstep, they realised it was a man in women’s clothes. “He said his name was Anthony,” recalled Nath. “She apparently said she had earned lots of money singing, so when she didn’t show up for a couple of years, it seems this boy decided to try his hand.” Why he did so in drag remains unexplained. But it does offer a connection to the sari-clad Lollipop, whose body language is distinctly masculine.While Lollipop’s recollections are a cocktail of memory and delusions, she’s the inheritor of a street singing tradition that’s fast disappearing in the roar of city traffic. When asked how she remembers her lyrics, she said, “My mother Mary left me these. How can I forget?” With that, she picked up two pieces of broken tiles, fashioned them into cymbals and began to sing “I Went to See My Darling”.
With inputs by Rosalyn D’Mello.

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2 thoughts on “Flashback: Cotton Mary”

  1. Oh my ….I had never expected such a follow up on the article I had read on “cotton Mary” some time ago. This character has been a sort of enigma since the time I first read about her. I did ask a catholic friend who grew up and live in Byculla about her. She laughed it off and replied that she has not heard about her. So I was a bit hesitant to enquire more. But of course, she is one of those people however insignificant as it may seem, who lend a certain character to the city of Bombay. To think that she is remembered even today by so many people……In fact there was one such lady who I remember in my school boy days at North Bombay but of a quieter sort. She would climb up the stairs, ring the bell and speak only in English and calmly ask for “alms”. I still wonder where she has gone. I have also seen english speaking elderly women (but not beggars) sitting outside shops calling out to people for money on the arcades of D.N. road Fort. They were fair skinned and wore western dresses. Not sure if they were Anglo Indians or Poor Parsees.This was about 15 years ago. Just about a week ago I happened to see a rather strangely dressed woman in her 60-s at Nana Chowk. She was doing the rounds talking to hawkers sporting a very unusual hairstyle. She had white ostrich feathers pinned on to her hair bun on the centre of her head. Such people bring variety to an otherwise mundane life. Without them life would be dull. I wish we could have a blog and articles about such people who add colour to everyday life.

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