India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
February 24, 2020

Growing Up With Wendell

Author and poet Urvashi Bahuguna remembers the guardian and friend of her childhood, sharing a perspective missing from obituaries on his public self.

You probably know him as a famous designer, as one of a handful of publicly out gay men in India. Tributes and obituaries have poured in over the last few days, but most of them have been about his contribution to fashion, about the unfinished work of opening the Moda Goa Museum of Design in Colvale, Goa that his partner of thirty-seven years, Jerome Marrel, will bring to completion now. He left a mark, that much is clear, on his industry, on local conservation issues, on his parish which he cared about deeply. He normalized being a gay man in India who lived with his partner.

But he was more than that – people are always more than their known avatars, have always lived more than an obit could ever hope to hold. I met him at the turn of the millennium when I was eight years old and he was forty. Unlikely friends.

He became, overnight it seemed, my mother’s best friend over a common love of design, Indian textiles, Goan architectural heritage. There is no word for what he was to me and my sister, no word for someone you spend that much time with in your formative years. He was part friend, part guardian. In the otherwise ordinary days of our childhood, he was a constant.

At our birthday parties, he would organize the games. He would bring a box of assorted chocolates, break them into bite-sized pieces and kids would have to guess the flavors correctly to win. He would come early to blow balloons for a ridiculous, aggressive game whose objective was to burst the balloon by sitting on it. I can see him so clearly right now in our driveway in Porvorim supervising this boisterous entertainment.

He took me to movies my parents would never have suffered through – superhero movies, epic fantasies, animated fare. As we sat in a small theatre called Samrat in Panjim watching the third installment of the Lord of the Rings franchise, The Return of The King, and the battle for Middle Earth raged on screen, he whispered, “They all need manicures.” I shushed him, appalled and amused at his takeaway from what I saw as a magnificent and unprecedented spectacle. Since he passed away, I keep asking myself: who else have I known who would cheerfully accompany children (not their own) to watch movies that clearly do not personally interest them? I remember his energy – it was a current strong enough to carry other people, including myself, along with it. He would illustrate my school projects. I remember a chemistry chart in particular – it took him under five minutes to fill up a 3 feet by 2 feet piece of paper with sketches of funnels, test tubes, Bunsen burners. He drew the front of my friendship’s day cards one year.

He knew every bird call, and he recognized every speck flying high overhead when he took us out on his boat in the backwaters of the Mandovi river. I have only met one other person who isn’t a birder that can pick bird calls apart that expertly. What he knew, what he was able to recall went far beyond the average person’s ability. He grew and bottled his own pepper which he gave us in jars labeled Colvale Pepper in his own handwriting. That house and that garden in Colvale with Jerome, his dogs, and his beloved staff were the center of his world. When they buried him in Goa’s red earth, I thought: this is where he would want to be.

He taught me the simplest soup recipe I know and I use it to this day. I made chorizo a few days after he died because I have memories of eating it first at his table in the form of chorizo pulao. I have looked at every article of clothing, every gift I received from him that is still in my possession. The keys to my room are strung on a keychain he gave me with three charms on it – a bird, a Christmas tree, a heart. Jerome and he gave the people in their life a notebook that noted every place they had travelled to. I used it to note my own travel, tucked boarding passes and entry tickets inside. I flip through it to see his familiar, almost calligraphic handwriting.

I received the call from my mother from an awful patch of signal in Goa. I couldn’t make out who she was saying had died for several seconds. Since I learnt that he passed away, this is what has played on my mind hour after hour – I want to reach him, wherever he is, to say: you need to know that I loved you, that I know that you loved me. In my mind, I can see him in front of his bookshelf in Colvale handing me a book to read, setting up the DVD player for me in his Altinho house, sitting in his rocking chair on the verandah, coming out of the kitchen at the other end of the house. Near that kitchen is a bathroom where he kept a stack of fashion magazines you could read, is a bathroom where he taught me how to use shaving cream to more cleanly shave my underarms.

Last year, he read my first collection of poems which is deeply personal, and said, “Thank god you haven’t written about me. I wouldn’t want to come under your microscope.” Strange how that keeps coming back to me – not how proud he was of my poems, but this detail. Instead, I find myself looking at him through a prism – I can see his face on so many days over so many years. I see him entering my apartment in Delhi years ago and my dog, Whitney, pouncing manically around him with joy. The fact that we had moved from Goa to Delhi had made no difference – he was the most loving person she knew and it was a greeting she reserved for him alone.

I see him making sand castles with us on countless Saturdays at Utorda beach. I see him assembling a fire at a picnic on a hillside near Revora. I see him sitting in my living room in Porvorim in a Goan-Portuguese armchair translating with my (pitiful) input a speech into Hindi for an event he was doing. Years later, his Hindi skills far surpassed mine. In the school I attended, Sharada Mandir, there was a special celebration for the graduating students in the tenth grade. He made the dress I wore that day. The morning of the function when it didn’t fit just right, he altered it. My mother dropped me off at school in the shiny blue Santro we had at the time. He told me later that after I walked in, my mother called him and burst into tears. He knew she’d never have told me that.

I write this not to cement myself as part of his story, but to tell you – and perhaps, him – that I knew the best of him, that the pain I feel is a measure of how well he loved me, that nothing in the public eye matches the way he stood over the stove in our cramped kitchen and boiled an orange with tea leaves when I had the flu.

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