Updated: February 24, 2020 6:32:59 pm
In January this year, a potted plant arrived at Lucy Fernandes’s home with leaves the “colour of life”. Her friend and “gossip partner” had sent it. The last sapling he had gifted her in 2019 had grown up to match her petite height and was abloom with “candle-shaped flowers” — something she was waiting to show him. In nearly three decades of friendship, Wendell Augustine Rodricks, writer, historian, lecturer, fashion designer and a Padma Shri, whose saris reached the closets of former US First Lady Michelle Obama, and Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, was also a good listener to his friend Lucy.
He would push open his neighbour’s gates, walk-in unannounced and sit for hours on her modest couch, listening to a widow’s memory of her late husband, sharing village gossip (“What man, Lucy, I am telling you!”), discussing the origin of Konkani words, and indulging her with “stories and biscuits” from all the fancy places he visited.
Fernandes, 75, once a househelp at the Rodricks ancestral household, where she “ground masala and washed clothes” for Rodricks’s grandmother, sits in her balcao, the spot where she always waited for her friend. He never stopped teasing her (“How do you always look so young, Lucy? Tell me the secret!”) when he visited with his partner, Jerome Marrel, for all her family ceremonies. Till last month, he was sharing photographs of flowers from his garden with her.
While the fashion world has mourned the passing away of an icon, it is in Goa, in the quiet village of Colvale, where Rodricks breathed his last, and which was home to him for 27 years, that his death is felt the most, disturbing the village’s ennui, his absence equally cruel and emphatic. Villagers recall the sight of Rodricks, sitting by the village patto (bridge) and enjoying the evenings by the Chapora river, and are incredulous that they will see him no more. “Wendell never had pride, it’s difficult when someone like that leaves,” says Fernandes.
In his autobiography, The Green Room (2012, Rupa Publications), Rodricks wrote about a lineage that went back centuries to this tiny village. The Rodriques were Gaoncars, “the original settlers of Colvale”. The family name changed, because a clerk in the colonial-era army, where his grandfather Joseph Baptista served, spelt it that way.
Born in Parel on May 28, 1960, a year before Goa’s liberation from Portuguese rule, Rodricks’s life was a long, adventurous journey. He grew up in a single room in Terrace Building in Mahim, “a glorified chawl, typical of Bombay”, and then later lived in Marinagar Colony near the railway station. He wrote about waiting tables for JRD Tata while interning at the Taj Mahal hotel; slaving at a club in Oman to earn for his family of five; being “struck dumb when Barbra Streisand entered an elevator” in a hotel in Los Angeles, where he had gone to study fashion; and, finally, meeting his partner Jerome in Muscat on October 19, 1983.
In his death, as in life, Rodricks made a statement. On the eve of the funeral, clergymen arrived late into the night at the Rodricks and Marrel home to offer their blessings and prayers. The funeral service saw the presence of two of Goa’s most influential priests, Father Dr Maverick Fernandes and Father Joaquim Loila Pereira. “Despite Wendell being an openly gay man, it was wonderful of the top hierarchy of the church to concelebrate the final service and celebrate his life. It was a powerful statement in an otherwise conservative society,” says Dr Oscar Rebello, a political commentator.
Nearly 30 years ago, that was not the Goa or the Colvale that welcomed Rodricks and his partner. His friend Servo Fernandes, 73, recalls the confusion the couple threw the village into: “The men wondered ‘What is a gay couple?’ And why were so many pretty girls, dressed in the most modern clothes, visiting them, and staying back every week?”
For a sleepy village, which stirred to life only during a theatrical funeral or the annual plucking of the Mankurad mangoes, or a nice catch of ladyfish at the Chapora river or during the feasts of St Francis of Assisi, a “ladies tailor” hosting such parties was unheard of.
Fernandes recounts how Rodricks went about gaining the village’s confidence, and always insisted on meeting everyone with Jerome, “like a good churchgoing couple”, as another villager described it. Rodricks insisted that all invites — to baptisms, weddings or tea parties — included Jerome. A village was prepped to meet his better half.
Slowly, the famous parties acted as a bridge, with Rodricks and Jerome opening their doors to fellow Colvalkers. In a few years, the villagers were a part of the team, holding lights and assisting the designers and his models in fashion shoots in the village. One of the most memorable shoots involved model Ujjwala Raut, topless, “posing on the hills of Colvale …among a herd of buffaloes, wearing a white sari, the pallu fluttering in the wind”.
In 1992, Rodricks was at the peak of his career. He had launched his prêt line, a collection of whites which became his signature style. But the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the riots that followed, changed everything. In The Green Room, Rodricks wrote of his masterji, Tawquir Sheikh, “arriving at our home one day, breathless and terrified” at the attacks on Muslims in his neighbourhood. “I stroked his head and cradled him in my arms, thinking about leaving the city of my birth,” he wrote.
At the Rodricks’ ancestral home, now the label’s working studio, Sheikh, 54, looks vacant. He was spotted by the designer in 1988. He recalls how stricken Rodricks was by the riots, telling him that “the city is gone”: “1993 ka lafda thha, Hindu-Muslim ka jhagda,” he says. Besides, both were convinced: “Bambai main majboori se rehte hain, khushi se koi nahi rehta. (You live in Bombay because you have to, not because it makes you happy),” Sheikh says. On March 12, 1993, when 13 bomb explosions ripped through Bombay, the designer was at a jewellery contest at The Leela, Andheri. As he took an empty train home, Rodricks realised his Bombay chapter was over.
In May that year, the owner of a 450-year-old traditional Goan residence in Colvale made him an offer for the home. The Casa Dona Maria remained the couple’s home for over two decades, till the designer decided to convert it into a museum. “I wanted to live my life in the land of my ancestors. I wanted to live in Colvale as a proud Gaoncar. This was my destiny,” he wrote. Sheikh recalls the early days spent cycling and swimming by the beaches in Goa with Rodricks, and his “only friend” teaching him “a thousand ways to cut and design a piece of cloth”. Those were the days Rodricks learnt to enjoy cooking, a skill which gave him great pleasure till the end.
In the years he spent in Goa, the designer perfected an aesthetic of minimalism. When he travelled for his shows, he never carried more than three suitcases, with one holding “enough” clothes for 60 models. He believed, Sheikh recalls, that “clothes should be easy to wear” and “easiest to remove”. “The fewer the beads, embroidery and sequins, the happier he was; he was the happiest when the cloth was just one straight piece with no zippers, buttons or any attachments. Bling, he said, was attention, a simple cloth a statement,” says Sheikh of the man, who showed him the world, from Malaysia to France, Abu Dhabi to Sharjah. In Frankfurt, Germany, on an evening in 1995, it was Rodricks who taught him to walk an escalator. “He didn’t let me fall, ever again,” he says.
Like all those who worked with Rodricks, Sheikh recalls his striking sense of comradeship. “I never got to know him as a celebrity. Everywhere he went, he would fight and ensure we were in the same hotel, given the same food and five-star treatment. With him, I never knew the difference in class or religion,” he says. The designer taught him that green rooms are “great equalisers”. During one show in the 1990s, Sheikh remembers lining up in an Andheri green room with Salman (Khan) and Sanjay (Dutt) as they waited to use the loo. “Wendell and I laughed that evening,” he recalls. “Such simple things made him most happy.”
“Unlike many designers, who fear that their students will copy their designs, he would spend hours going through our work, training us, repeating till we learnt,” says Paulina Fernandes, 32, who worked under him in Goa, as a fashion assistant for over four years. “I often saw the poor and less privileged at his offices. My colleagues were all from difficult backgrounds as he gave us an opportunity,” she says.
But it was his re-discovery of Goa and its traditions that gave Rodricks a new creative direction. “One needs to learn Wendell, if you need to learn Goa,” says Isménia da Veiga Coutinho, his Portuguese teacher, who began teaching him in December 1999. It started with a friend of the Goan cartoonist, Mario Miranda, commissioning Rodricks to write a chapter on pano bhaju, the costume Goan women wore to dance mando, a traditional plaintive song of passion, Coutinho recalls.
His research gave birth to an obsession. Rodricks went on to study the history of Goan costumes by interning at Museu Nacional Do Traje, Lisbon, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. To read the archives at the many state libraries he visited, he needed to know Portuguese, a language with a very tough grammar. Coutinho says: “I am a very strict teacher and I do not care even if the Pope comes to my class. Everyone around me seemed to know he was a celebrity. To me, he was a sincere student, always asking the right questions. He learnt a rich language like Portuguese in one month, the grammar, the tense and even the accents.”
Rodricks went on to write a coffee table book on Goa, and spent another decade in research. He scoured Goa’s archives, travelled the length of Konkan to study the pre-Inquisition period, to learn how people draped before the Portuguese arrived on Indian shores. Travelling to remote pockets of the state, he would often call Coutinho to inform her of his finds — fabrics that celebrated trade routes, the home altars, clothing and embroidery of the early centuries — all of which will now find a place in the Moda Goa Museum and Research Centre in Colvale, a costume museum of international standards.
Rodricks’s interest in crafts in the last few years also helped local artisans to connect with a larger market. His “most important collection” came in 2010, when he began to revive the Kunbi weave, the lone sari of the state, belonging to the Kunbi tribe. “I told him no one wants these anymore. But he wanted to give employment to the tribals, who still weave the saris. No one should be forgotten, he always said,” Coutinho says.
In the 1990s, Colvale had one Catholic home with a landline and car. So, when Rodricks drove his new Jeep, it was an event. “All the auntylog on the road to Mapusa were given a lift. His Jeep would resemble a local bus, with ladies using it to bring fish, vegetables, and God knows what. He dropped everyone home,” says Sheikh. Mahesh Tuenker, 52, general manager of Retreat N Style India Private Limited, the parent company that owns Rodricks’s label, says the designer’s brief was: “We will do a small but a happy business.” For Tuenker, Rodricks will live through “his beautiful Mont Blanc handwritten notes” and the lessons he taught. “Always respond to anyone who writes to you. You may agree, disagree or delay in helping, but respond first.”
Vinayak Mandrekar, a painter who limewashed his walls and who later became his driver and most trusted staff, recalls how the designer taught him to drive his Jeep, and the French classes he got the staff to take before taking them on a two-month vacation to Paris. “He insisted we would enjoy the vacation with a new language. But he had to give up. We learnt only four words and kept repeating bonjour bonjour,” he says. Mandrekar says that Rodricks taught him, most of all, to love other cultures. Every Ganesh Chaturthi, he would be the first to arrive at his home, as the designer loved the elephant god. Cook Denis D Souza, 42, and dog-caretaker Erush Kerketa, 25, are in denial. D Souza recalls how in the early ’90s, Rodricks would encourage him as he taught him to cook. “He would say the loveliest of things about my food. It’s only when I would eat it myself I would realise how pathetic it was. He never thought scolding helped and gave us hope. I learnt soon. Till his last party, one rule though was sacred, never repeat a dish. Learn to cook new things.” Kerketa, who took care of his dogs, says he never recovered from their deaths. “He asked us to plant a garden on their graves. He cried every night since their death in December. He would always sleep with the dogs, I never understood it. Since his death, I am sleeping with the new adopted dogs. Now, I understand,” he says.
Vasanti Dargalkar, 55, who helps out with domestic tasks in the village, recalls how once, when a villager flaunted his birthday ad in a newspaper, she got Rodricks to put a “happy birthday from Wendell” ad in a rival paper. Dargalkar could not muster the courage to attend the funeral and chose to sweep a villager’s home, “working mechanically” allowing tears to fall on the floor. “It’s difficult to say (why he meant so much). I think it is because (unlike others), he saw us,” she says.
Rodricks found happiness in Casa Dona Maria. In interviews, he called it a “Parisian life” — travelling for work, but returning to the countryside to “live life” and plant mulberries and breadfruits, and chat with his neighbour.
Emilia Mariquiniha Zuzarte, neighbour and confidante for 20 years, recalls her friend, the committed parishioner who always insisted on walking back from church. “‘Why does everyone take a car to church?’ he would wonder aloud at all the fancy cars that passed us,” she says. Living right across the wall from her, at Casa Dona Maria, the home which now will host the museum, Rodricks asked the 82-year-old to his house parties (“he wanted me to hear him play the guitar”), for her recipes (“the sungta ambotik (prawn curry) which he never tired of eating”), and her bottled vinegar. She now has his memories and the “most beautiful rosaries from around the world” handpicked by him. “He fought all kinds of injustice on our behalf. And never said no to the needy,” she says.
The vestment of the priest who did the homily was designed and tailored by Rodricks a decade ago, on the request of Zuzarte.
“Aunty Mariquiniha” as he called him, recalls days when he would ask her to make Bolinhas de Coco (coconut cookie), his favourite. “It’s one kilogram of rawa and sugar. Four big coconuts, grated dry on a grinding stone, and 12 gaunt egg yolks. Wendell loved the eggs from my fowls so I would only use those for him. Add nutmeg and elaichi to measure. I would mix all this at 7 pm. We would talk across the wall, or he would walk over. Then at 10 pm, after dinner, I would add 100 grams of butter. And leave it overnight. In the morning, he would walk me to church and return. Once rested, I would make small balls and bake till golden. Wendell would finish it off in one sitting. They were always made slightly crunchy and to his taste,” she recalls. Neighbour Viveka Bandekar 43, is inconsolable. On days Rodricks was in Colvale, mornings always meant a soft-spoken man at the windows, praising her kitchen garden. “A wall divides us, we often heard laughter from their house. I would always tell myself, what a happy family. They started living here, after they turned their old home to a museum,” she recalls. “I was on the way to our temple when I heard the news. I said, let me still go and pray for his soul. I stood in front of my idol and cried for him. He meant a lot to all of us,” she says of her garden friend. “Every season Wendell was curious about the plants, he loved the local spinach I grew, the brinjals and the red radish. His favourite was rose apples,” Bandekar says.
In 2019, Rodricks shot off letters and led a signature campaign to save a mango grove in the village, and the 100-year-old St Anthony Chapel, right at the mouth of the village. Residents recall how he used his clout to get them appointments with government offices and travelled with them to argue the matter — though, eventually, the trees could not be saved from a proposed highway.
Rodricks’s generosity and memories of his humility now seam a village. His benevolence speaks across the village, in the local gym, and the village schools where toppers receive a scholarships in the name of his parents, Felix and Greta. Off the runway, he used his privilege to train, teach and groom Goans. Cheryl Saldanha, a senior lecturer at Goa Government Polytechnic, where the designer was a faculty member, consoling a child who had broken down after a presentation. “These are simple stories but he gave his all to Goa and Goan students. He taught us about fashion and cloth, and that we can reach the sky if we are professional and set high standards. The children he has taught are too many, and they will always carry a Wendell in them,” says Saldanha, whose students came in a bus for the funeral.
For all those whom he touched, his grave, under the canopies of a tall zambllam and a mango tree inside the cemetery of St Francis of Assisi Church, offers some solace. “My cousin, a musician, is rested next to him. He died two days before. At least, Wendell, a lover of mando, will have a musician for company,” says Servo, his friend from Colvale. “He is back to his aboriginal land. He has returned from his travels.”
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