Born in Goa on 4 October 1909, Jose Matias Francisco Menezes – Joe, to friends – greets visitors with a firm handshake. Not surprising for a man who started using the walking stick only after his 100th birthday two months ago. “I give credit to my bicycle that I rode daily all over Delhi and Mumbai,” says Menezes. Though cycling helped him stay physically fit, much of his emotional well-being can be attributed to his passion for music. A professional musician, Menezes still offers piano lessons at his house in Bandra, Mumbai.
Menezes’s lifelong affair with music started when he was studying at Island School in Malar, Goa, where a Catholic missionary first noticed his sharp ear for deciphering musical sounds. Menezes learnt to play the violin at school, apart from the basics of reading and writing music. At 16, he received an offer to join a musical troupe that played in cinema halls in Malaysia and set sail on a 10-day voyage to Kuala Lumpur, from where he later travelled to Malacca and Seramban in the next five years. “While the movie was going on, our group of five violinists would sit below the screen and play the background music,” he recalls.
In 1931, he returned to Goa. Just days after coming back, he received an offer to play violin and saxophone at Bristol Hotel, run by a Goan, in Kanpur. “In those days, musicians needed to have expertise in more than one musical instrument to make a decent living,” says Menezes. “I used to play the violin during the lunch session and saxophone at dinner.” As British orchestra groups hired musicians on a contractual basis, his job profile kept changing every few months. From Kanpur, he travelled to Indore, Peshawar and Nainital on various musical assignments. “The British changed places according to the seasons,” he remembers. “During the summer, they lived at hill stations and in winter they shifted to the plains.” Unlike a lot of people, Menezes’s memories of pre-Independence years are not tinged with pain. “Those days were tough but I was not involved in the freedom struggle,” he says with candour. “Life during the British Raj was better. At least we did not have corruption and terrorism the way we do now.”
During one of his visits to Goa, while playing the harmonium in the local church choir, he met a young lady, Retinha. The two fell in love. As Menezes lived in Peshawar, Retinha travelled alone from Goa to Peshawar in 1941 where the two got married without the support of their families. Their son Albert was born a year later and daughter Sophia, in 1948.
Just before World War II, the family moved to Delhi where Menezes got a job as a music teacher at St. Columba’s High School, a stint that was anything but easy. “The boys were rowdy and the principal had offered me a year to train them to form an orchestra,” he reminisces. “That’s when I decided I would never teach boys again in the future if I had a choice.” Today he gives piano lessons to three students – all girls.
Disobedient students apart, Menezes recalls the breathless pace of his initial years in Delhi. “I used to go to the school at 6 am, then play at a restaurant during the lunch session, go over to my students’ houses to give music lessons and then go back again to the restaurant to play at dinner.” His hectic schedule hardly left him with time to think, let alone rest. “I had no weekly holidays and commuted all over Delhi on my bicycle.” Life switched to a more sedate pace when he got a job at the government-run Ashoka Hotel in Delhi where he worked for 10 years. It was the most secure job he had ever known. He even received accommodation at the staff quarters at Diplomatic Enclave in the Teen Murti neighbourhood – where then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru lived and Mahatma Gandhi often visited.
In 1968, Menezes decided to move to Mumbai. “My wife was keen to settle in North India but the climate didn’t suit me,” he says. The couple bought a house in Bandra. A few days after moving into the city, he got an offer to play music for films. Menezes joined the Cine Musicians Association and worked with music composers such as Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal and R D Burman. On the side, he also gave private tuitions in violin and piano.
He continued to play music for films till he turned 90, by when the hassles of commuting and the changing norms of the music industry began to get to him. “In my heyday, a large orchestra of 80-100 musicians was quite the rage,” says Menezes. “Eighty per cent of the musicians, though, were dummies who only pretended to play the instrument. After the recording session, musicians used to unwind with a drink, but I was always too busy to hang around.” He is glad he remained a teetotaller and feels his disciplined lifestyle has been an important contributor to his good health.
After retiring, he decided to offer tuitions at home rather than going to his students’ houses. Though, over the years, he had mastered the harmonium, piano, saxophone and clarinet – all on his own – he gave up playing wind instruments a decade ago on the insistence of his family who felt he was too old to exert himself. “It was with a heavy heart that I gave away my prized saxophone and two violins to music enthusiasts.” Today, he can still play the violin flawlessly, but the fingers that once played Mozart don’t comply so easily now. “My fingers and shoulders hurt a little now,” he remarks. After giving up his violin, Menezes focused on the piano.
Though he is adjusting to the aches and pains of life, adapting to the changes around him is not always easy. “Now there is noise and traffic everywhere and I rarely move out as there is hardly any space to walk,” he says with a touch of resignation. He spends his day playing music; meeting friends; going for a walk; reading; watching TV and teaching music. “Though it feels wonderful to spread the joy of music, I don’t encourage my students to pursue a career in music because the profession is riddled with a lot of uncertainty and you don’t earn much.”
His beloved wife passed away 10 years ago but his life is still filled with the laughter and conversations of four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His daughter lives nearby, in Khar, while his son, who has a house in Andheri, now lives with Menezes. “I wanted to dedicate my time to him, so I moved over to live with him,” says Albert, 67, who enjoys the long conversations they share about the good old days. For Menezes’s 100th birthday, Albert and his sister threw a party that was attended by 150 family members from all over the world.
Though Albert keeps him company, Menezes is fully independent. “I don’t visit doctors and I don’t even remember the last time I had fever,” he says. The glaucoma in his eyes is all that bothers him. Both his eyes have been operated upon for cataracts. “I did my second cataract at the age of 95 and the doctor was surprised to see such a good pathology report,” he says with justified pride. When asked if he has any dreams left to fulfil, Menezes has one small wish: “All I ask from the Almighty is to give me good health and happiness right till the end.”