July 22, 2020

More thoughts on Wendell

“There are thousands of worlds in all of us. Gorgeous, terrible, wild, contradictory, imaginative fascinating worlds.  
To know someone deeply is to know a universe contained in skin.”  

~ Victoria Erickson 

Wendell Rodricks had a unique contract with life. 

How else do you explain the long list of laudable achievements; pioneer of minimalist resort wear in India, author, revivalist of the Kunbi saree, ambassador of all things Goan, environmentalist, talent scout (everyone from Anushka Sharma to Deepika Padukone) outspoken LGBTQ rights activist, travel and culinary enthusiast, relentless supporter of young talent, recipient of Padma Shri in 2014 and the the Chevalier de l”Ordre des Arts Et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2015.  

How did he manage to turn over the mind’s terrain and find fresh inspiraton again and again? 

And how do you explain his greatest achievement, the ability to ‘Give it Away’.  

Give it Away. 

I wonder if even Wendell understood. 

The Wendell that I know simply did not appear to have the grasping that is a human trademark. By that I mean, Wendell would impart ideas, stories, inspiration freely. He let go of his creations, gifting his kurtas and flowing, bias cut dresses to friends. His compliments and critiques; both flowed. He stepped back from his eponymous label to allow Schulen Fernandes to carry his legacy forward. Wendell gave away so much of himself and his time, like it was a renewable resource. He once wrote: When I turned forty, Simone Tata told me, “Life has been good to you. Now give back. Give Saturday morning to charity and social causes”. The last time we met he updated me on his life’s dream: to convert his 450 year old home Dona Casa, in his ancestral village Colvale, into a Museum of Goan Costume. Moda Goa. And for this, he and Jerome have given their very house away.  

Perhaps he found it let go easier than others due to his boundless curiosity, which brought him in contact with endless inspiration and energy. A part of his special contract with the universe. Follow your imagination. Create, teach, challenge and heal. Pay it forward. Share your blessings. 

Not to say that success came easy. “I did face rejection many times. I was disappointed not to get an internship at YSL (Yves Saint Laurent). But that led me to India and it became a positive move eventually. In the initial years I had to fight off requests to add embroidery to my clothes. I stubbornly stood my stand as I was sure my minimalism would eventually get accepted,” Wendell said in a 2012 interview. 

I met Wendell in my late teens. He collaborated often with Farrokh Chothia and shooting in those days afforded the luxury of long conversations and deep familial bonds. Wendell styled me, but more than that, he and his partner of many years, Jerome took me in, gave a sense of home and belonging to a lost young woman, ‘a queer mixture of east and west, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere’ as Nehru wrote. 

Did he see in me traces of the 22 year old young man who left India for Oman, worked in hospitality for four years before taking a leap of faith to study fashion in Los Angeles and paris? Someone who wanted to be stirred by life and not follow the accepted path? As he did before returning to India in 1988? 

Wendell revived my modeling career multiple times. In the early 90s I was known as a runaway model and when I would re-appear after each mysterious sojourn, Wendell would look at me with an appraising yet unjudgemental eye, make a few phone calls and promptly put me on the cover of Femina, announcing my return. I never thought of him as a ‘fashion friend’. He was authentic and emotional and utterly himself to everyone he met. He was and will always be my family. In my book Close to the Bone, I wrote: Over the years he had styled me, nurtured me, hosted my parents at his home and when his father was in the Tata Memorial Hosptial for cancer treatment, we had gone together, an unspoken invitation between old friends.’ 

I will never forget the way he humanized me at the height of my modeling career in the 90s, seating me next to the smartest person at the dinner table: ‘because she might be pretty, but when you speak to her, you will understand what a beautiful mind she has.’ I was enthralled by the conversation, my imagination kindled by discussing the best bouchons in Lyon and the influences on Wendell’s next collection, but also by his way of evoking his heritage and family’s stories to say: this is where I’m going, but this is where I’m from. And I will never forget.’ This had the effect of creating an intimacy with whomever was close by.  

Wendell moved to Goa in the early 90s with Jerome. It was an audacious move for the time, met with equal amounts of disbelief and awe. To know a culture’s past is to secure it’s future- To learn nothing about a culture’s past is to place its future under threat, writes author Janice Pariat. These are words that Wendell lived by and the impulse that led him away from the centre of the fashion business in India at the time. 

As he wrote:  

‘While in Paris, I encountered a phenomenon that impacted my young mind. I met many professionals who worked from home in quaint villages and yet maintained contact and presence in the urban scene of the capital… even internationally. After seeing the quality of life of these ‘villagers’ who saw urban success, I vowed that I would work out of my ancestral village of Colvale in Goa. Seeing first hand that a village life can catalyse the creative thought process rather than thwart it, like a rushed life in a metro, I moved to Goa in 1993.’ 

It was in Goa, on his native soil, that Wendell’s political and social beliefs became stronger and stronger, with quiet support from Jerome.  I observed Wendell transform gradually into a lion hearted champion of environmental and social causes and an advocate for LGBT rights. 

It was also an audacious decision to be living openly as same sex partners in the 90s in India. But Wendell and Jerome imbued their relationship with a grace and dignity that seemingly transcended narrow mindsets.  As Wendell himself acknowledged, many of his achievements were possible because of his ‘lover’ and their singular bond. Looking at Wendell and Jerome, was the greatest testament of ‘Love is Love.’  

Wendell wrote: ‘As a child my father instilled in me that ‘a good night’s sleep was ensured with honesty and truth’. I live by that dictum and became an openly gay man and activist, thanks to Dad. I was not going to dissolve a young Indian woman’s dreams of a blissful wedded life to the misery of knowing that her husband was gay and sleeping around with one night stands. For society? No!’ 

‘My darling Lisa, 

Goa awaits whenever you feel like 
The door is wide open’ 

Wendell would sign off with a French ‘Bisou.’  

And both he and Jerome meant it. I became a frequent inhabitant of the guestroom in Casa Dona Maria in Colvale along with a rotating roster of friends and family.  My visits solidified Wendell’s role in my life, as friend and guide. Elongated moments, exultantly happy and free. Guzzling water from old Grey Goose bottles. I enjoyed travelling slipstream behind ‘Jendell’ watching life became variously textured. One Christmas season I met Mario Miranda then exulted in ‘Krugg time’ at the Altinho house. But it was when Wendell pulled out his guitar and strummed ‘You’ve got a friend” that the Gaonkar with his abiding love for his Goan village emerged. In this way, on evenings filled with music and intimate conversation, in an heirloom filled room, Wendell helped many realise their worth and encouraged them to live their best life.  

On evenings like this, it was like he had swallowed the sun. 

When my parents came to visit, he wheeled my mother all over the sites in Goa, refusing to allow stairs, nor any other obstacles to prevent their enjoyment. I never forgot this gesture, nor what he said after, ‘thank you, Lisa, and I must thank dear Barbara for giving me a better understanding of what it’s like to live with a disability.’ 

I also experienced my share of gentle chiding from Wendell, in his self-appointed role as my guardian. ‘Stay away from their negative energy. You don’t need them in your life Lisa. It’s all about this silly thing we call money. They have no heart. Love you too much. So had to tell you.’ 

Wendell was opinionated and blunt, and I’m sure there are many who are smarting still from the lash of his tongue.  

But always at the center of everything he did, was heart. Always heart. 

This passion for the land of one’s ancestors in the hands of an artist like Wendell became a rich vein of exploration across disciplines. In his weekly updates, I learned of many of his endeavours, everything from desiging the Goa Police force uniforms to reviving the Kunbi Sari. 

But  it was in his workshop that I watched my friend come alive: 

‘How do you do it, my dearest Wendell?’ I exclaimed, watching him twist and drape fabric in what appeared a form of wizardry to my eyes. 
The muses really hover at your shoulder more than most ‘ 
‘Tell me about it.’ He shot back.  
‘They come to me like phantoms at all hours of the day and night. Really! At times I feel they will drive me mad’ 

The rigor and discipline I saw in Wendell, presented a counterpoint to the traditional, urban work ethic- in Colvale, work was led by an unfettered mind, curious and committed, surrounded by natural bounty.  

He once shared the distillation of his design aesthetic, based on what Chanel said, “Take away everything you can that a garment does not need. But retain the emotion”. 

Wendell’s garments are threaded through the narrative of my life, in a way that surely transcends fashion. And somehow threaded throughout his garments was his faith: faith in me.  

The red carpet for Water; draping me in a Kunbi sari post cancer sporting a chemo cut, my wedding gown. Each of these pivotal moments was marked by a Wendell creation I wore. Aatish Tasveer wrote: they had also lost the style and confidence that comes to people who know their culture before they know another’but because of Wendell’s eye, his abilty to absorb and harmonise contradictions, I was always confident in carrying my mixed identity proudly out in the world, wherever I roamed. 

Even after I left India, He sent regular updates, sustaining my connection to his habitat through food, through describing the first rains in Goa and how the palms danced immodestly. 

And always, his world pivoted around this mission: to learn and let it go. He taught at SNDT, wrote books and researched relentlessly, took a course in museum curation and shared. He continued to give it all away. 

He was proud of me, he understood my questing spirit more than most. I suspect so much of Wendell has seeped into the way I view the world, particularly his firm but dignified way of challenging the status quo. You don’t have to yell your rebellion from the rooftops. Some rebels wear impeccably cut linen kurtas and birkenstocks 

When I was on my recovery tour of India after treatment for Multiple Myeloma, a stem cell transplant, we celebrated my rebirth with a bacchanalian celebration at Farrokh’s home in Goa, ‘the kind of fun that is increasingly rare as we grow older’, as I wrote in my book ‘Close to the Bone.’ I’m sure it was Wendell who set my birthday cake afloat in the pool on an inflatable mattress.  

When I told him I was getting married, he rejoiced in a way that made me miss my mother , who had recently passed, just a little less.  

‘We are ardent Lebanese foodistas’ Wendell wrote approvingly, after I shared my future husband’s ethnic background. And the caterer’s menu. And it was a given that Wendell would design my gown. An appropriately east meets west mashup. The only problem was I was in Canada at the time, the wedding would take place in Napa and Wendell of course was at home in Colvale.  

‘Wedding gown. 

First two options. Please be brutal 
Hope you like’  
His sketches filled my inbox.

I trusted him implicitly. I managed a quick trip to Goa where we revelled more than brainstormed, and then I let go. My wedding planner would send frantic messges; she wanted an image of the gown to match the flowers. She was aghast that not only did I not have a gown in hand, but I had no clue what it would look like. She didn’t understand my faith.  And that I had been tutored by one of the best, to let it go. The gown arrived a day before we boarded for Califoria and it was perfect. I get teary even now. Perfect. 

Even as he didn’t attend my wedding he was there, his love embodied in the fall of the fabric, the flourishes and very Wendell-like touches 

That train…the blusher! 
You are the best bride I ever dressed. 
I love you we love you both 
God bless! 

Finally in 2014 I brought my husband to meet ‘the in laws’. By then Wendell and Jerome had become cruise junkies, frequently found on a luxury liner for months at a time, exploring south America or the Cape of Good Hope.. But that Christmas season we would spend getting slobbered on by Athena, and Sophia and revelling in ‘Jendell’s’ impeccable hospitality. I will always carry those images of my Wendell, relaxed in his lungi, Sophia the beloved boxer at his feet, his handsome, mobile face erupting into fits of laughter. We were moving to Hong Kong and Jerome and Wendell gave us a long list of people to meet, to make the transition to a new city softer, and more welcoming. 

I will never forget those celebratotry days and nights, leading to 2015. As Wendell once wrote: 

‘For the celebration of every single day, I do not have to look very far. My partner of twenty nine years has a philosophy worth embracing. “Do it for yourself and celebrate everything”. So a glass of great wine is not reserved merely to make an impression or flavour an event; it can be sipped by us together… ourselves. On any Goan night to savour the vintage. The fact that the glass arrives on a tray with a single hibiscus, glowing with colour, is an indulgence we have imparted to our staff. 
> Our middle class roots taught us otherwise. My mother was initially horrified that green tea arrived in a Limoges cup and saucer. Why not? Do we keep such luxuries only for special persons and events? Are we not special enough ourselves? 
> Over the years, my mother saw my partner’s wisdom. She emptied her ‘show case’ in the ‘hall’. The crystal and ceramic that were displayed but unused began to be a part of her daily life. 
> Between Gandhi, a group of friends who unknowingly inspired my life and my partner, I have learnt to live in harmony with society and myself, creating a balance between frugal and luxury, restraint and indulgence, divinity and hedonism. It is a philosophy as diverse as life itself!’ 

On January 1st, a still day when the village roads were full of vacant intensity, in the aftermath of celebrations, Jerome, Jason, Wendell and I took a stroll to visit relatives  

in Carmurlim. I sat next to Wendell on the balcao of his clan’s ancestral home. I lay my head on his shoulder and Jason took a picture. I looked down and saw our legs crossed legs, so articulate in the way they casually brushed. I took a picture and looking at it today, I understand our roots are tangled, dear Wendell, yours and mine and forever will be. I have caught myself both crying and smiling ever since I heard of your passing. And I know you would prefer I laugh. And pop open some Krugg. 

Thank you Wendelly. For shining on all of us. For learning so much and letting it go. For giving us so much to celebrate. I love you. 

You leave the world all the richer for your presence. 


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