Big cats and grand staircases

We can now adopt an animal each, announce the good folks at Sanjay Gandhi National Park. They have just lost Beauty, a young Royal Bengal tigress. This may be a great idea.

The city has never lacked fans of all creatures wild and wonderful. My thoughts turn to the time a big cat would roam my home: no less than a pet panther on the premises. The Breach Candy building I live in, named Peacock Palace — for colourful specimens of the national bird once strutting here — was earlier Mecklai Mansion.

An Italian tenant on the ground floor, Marconi, walked his panther on Warden Road as calmly he might a puppy. He'd rescued the cub that had lost its mother to poachers in 1950s Matheran. The baby didn't stop following Marconi's jeep despite several attempts to return it to the forest and ended up comfortable in the garden of his rented Bombay home. When the children of the house were born, the Mecklais requested Marconi to take the panther away.

A little southward, Churchgate residents were treated to the equally entertaining sight of Salim Barodawala jauntily strolling through the streets with his leopard. After some years he gifted this beloved pet to the Khandala zoo. Back at Breach Candy you could see Mecklai Mansion become menagerie manor, with panthers, peacocks and a pampered monkey adding amusing antics. Pega Mecklai introduced Jacko, a bandarwala's monkey, after a holiday in Matheran. Chhote Khan, the family Jeeves, used to let the simian sit on his shoulder picking nits from his hair.

Philanthropist and animal lover Bapsy Sabavala with Pheroze Antia in a scene from a play staged to raise funds for a local charity. Photo Courtesy/Moti Antia
Philanthropist and animal lover Bapsy Sabavala with Pheroze Antia in a scene from a play staged to raise funds for a local charity. Photo Courtesy/Moti Antia 

Four-legged favourites kept the public enthralled. If philanthropist Bapsy Sabavala's maverick moves made many a brow arch, it was also widely agreed she alone could raise charity funds with bristling brilliance. Often digging into her own pocket, she was passionate about issues from animal rights to free milk for poor kids. The dynamic daughter of Sir Cowasji Jehangir even actually presented with panache a pig to S.K. Patil in the Taj ballroom. That worthy minister, thrice city mayor hailed "uncrowned king of Bombay", found himself suddenly shaking hands with a wriggly pink porcine bundle thrust under his nose. The Shropshire-type pig was properly coached to greet guests with a display of etiquette at the animal welfare gala!

Dumb Friends' Night in 1952 was uniquely a pet parade and equine cabaret. Stealing the scene at this benefit event was Ataturk, wonder horse of showman Jimmy Bharucha, the only Indian to train at the Vienna Academy. In a dazzling equestrian extravaganza, he performed the waltz, tango and foxtrot, with moves practised over weeks by car headlights at Wellington Mews to avoid being skittish before bright ballroom lights of the final function.

The white dancing horse was jauntily led up the Grand Staircase in special leather boots fitted with crepe soles that were slip-proof on the steps he climbed. Vividly described in The Taj at Apollo Bunder by Sharada Dwivedi and Charles Allen, this story was told to me by Noshir Dotivala, veritable mascot of Gazdar jewellery store in the hotel. (Dotivala's other oft repeated tale was about him seeing Nehru nimbly run up that stairway to meetings, his entourage left to trail breathlessly behind their spry leader.)

Intolerant of any cruelty to animals, Sabavala struck fear in local tongawalas who unthinkingly hit horses and bullocks. She would very politely ask an errant driver for his whip, then threaten him a lick-lash with the same, asking "You know how it feels?" Adil Gandhy of Chemould Frames shares a warm account of 1960s Bombay benevolence that truly saved the Matheran horse which won him riding championships.

When Super Boy suffered a bad injury, everyone gave up hope... except Sabavala of course. Hearing of the case, the indefatigable lady was sure of getting help from Haffkine Institute in Parel. To transport an animal in that condition was impossible those days, the Railways were never called upon to do so. Ready to risk, heart in place, she did what she had to with cool nonchalance. She faked a telegram. Supposedly from S K Patil, it ordered the rail authorities to bring down Super Boy. "I'll explain later to Patil," she declared. "He'll understand." Graciously, he did. And Super Boy survived.

Meher Marfatia loves Mumbai. And adores Bombay. Reach her on: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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