Every time Jayaram Muthuswamy arrives in Mumbai, he knows his chosen destination. Near Crawford Market, on the third floor of Narasimh Mansion, is New Vasantashram Boarding and Lodging House, a place that Muthuswamy, a septuagenarian gemstone dealer has been frequenting since 1963. In a tradition started by his father, whose line of business the son has continued, this lodging and boarding institution overlooking LT Road has had his patronage for almost 53 years.
In his youth, Muthuswamy used to live here for seven months at a stretch, away from his wife and sons. At dawn, before setting out to deal with the famed diamond and gemstone merchants of Opera House, he would head for a brisk walk on Chowpatty. In the evenings, he would chat with other lodgers as they ate New Vasantashram’s Udupi meals. “We never made friends here. We are all businessmen and friendships are not advisable in this line,” says the astute merchant.
New Vasantashram’s lifetime customer, gemstone trader Jayaram Muthuswamy (below) has been lodging here each time he has visited Mumbai in the last 53 years. His old room used to be where the restored lobby area (above) is, but a replica of it has been made on the adjacent side with the economical furnishing of lodges. Pics/Shadab Khan and SNEHA KHARABE Sneha Kharabe
In honour of one of their most loyal clients, New Vasantashram’s owner Sujata Pilinja Rao wants to call Muthuswamy’s room the ‘Jayaram Bhai Special’. It is shared by three other lodgers and speaks of efficient economics — a comfortable bed, hooks to hang one’s belongings from and a cupboard for storage. The room, No. 37, however, is a replica of the original — the adjacent 36 — that disappeared when the 69-year-old lodging underwent a much-needed facelift at the hands of Rao and architect Suprio Bhattacharjee.
“In a city that is fast transforming through unrelenting gentrification, New Vasantashram would be perceived by an aspiration-driven city as ‘down-market’. Despite regular maintenance, we had to deal with the connotations of lodges as ‘seedy’. We were wondering how to keep the place relevant and scale it up while maintaining the spirit of what lodging is supposed to be about — community and affordability,” says Rao, who inherited New Vasantashram along with her sister in 2002, when their father and founder Pilinja Laxminarayan Rao, passed away.
The struggle is not just theirs. The story of Mumbai’s boarding and lodging facilities is uncharted territory; they play cameo roles in few theses by historians. In her study of South Indian settlers in early Mumbai, historian Dr Mridula Ramanna notes that bachelors came in the 1940s and ‘50s to stay in lodging and boarding homes in Matunga. “It had several boarding options, but they were mostly messes, not restaurants. Most seasonal migrants, especially Brahmins, were keen on lodging and boarding at places that catered to their sub-community. The Iyers and Iyengars had different tastes as did the Tamils and Keralites,” she says.
The sense of community was strong in most lodges, making them a home away from home. Historian Dr Mohsina Mukadam, who researches food history, recalls the nearly century-old Madhavashram Lodge (now called hotel) in Girgaum, which catered to Marathi Brahmins.
Narasimha Mansion, near Crawford Market, which houses New Vasantashram. Rao says that it is rumoured that the building was once owned by a Rajasthani royal, who used to keep elephants in the atrium, which is now taken over by these upper level floors. Pic/Shadab Khan
However, with the change in composition of people and redevelopment activities, says Ramanna, the original owners, people and buildings in Matunga have disappeared. However, the demand for lodges — their economics and sense of familiarity — has not dwindled. And, lest we think that it is only applicable to the lower strata of society, let’s not forget the so-called “upper” caste customers and gemstone merchants like Muthuswamy.
Keeping it classy
When we visit New Vasantashram, the entrance through Narasimh Mansion is lined with glossy children’s books and the fading hand-painted signage advertising the third floor lodge. As we climb up the stairs, the change is dramatic.
A four-bed room at New Vasantashram before it underwent palimpsestic restoration to reveal layers of turquoise underneath. Now, the doors and furniture have an authentic distressed appeal. PIC/SUPRIO BHATTACHARJEE
In the hands of Bhattacharjee, the contents of the old lodge have been used to form the new. Calling it a ‘palimpsestic restoration’, the Andheri-based architect says, “We stripped away the yellow and brown oil paint on the doors and furniture to reveal a vintage turquoise underneath.” Layers of plaster and paint were also stripped from the building’s support structure. Old ladders and beams have been repurposed to form lighting fixtures, ship lights have been sourced from Daru Khana for the long corridors, and the cabin-like rooms have been opened for space. There is even a “god-room” now, with an assemblage of holy portraits.
Sujata Pilinja Rao
New Vasantashram could now appeal to the traditional lodger as well as the young backpacker at a time when hostels and dorms are becoming popular. “Instead of focusing on an exclusivist high-spending bracket, we kept the sense of community alive, even among the younger crowd. The faux distressed (weathered) look is fashionable nowadays in boutique hotels and stores; however, here it’s authentic as these revealed layers are a part of the original space anyway,” says Bhattacharjee.
There was a time when Rao’s father would suit up and wait at Victoria Terminus, asking travellers to sample his setup. Now, you can book a single bedroom here for as little as R450 a night via online travel portals; New Vasantashram is one of the few old-world lodges to go digital. Rao’s uncle Subbha Rao (Ramanna as his loved ones called him) ran the Udupi cuisine boarding at the lodge, which is no longer active. Now, lodgers are happy to have an outsourced à la carte breakfast.
The one thing that New Vasantashram is still trying to understand, however, is how to deal with frisky couples who want to spend a night, just one night, under its roof.