The first families of Goregaon, the Topiwalas and Samants, have bequeathed Bombay a legacy that goes far beyond the suburb
Girish Samant, son of socialist patriot Baburao Samant, and Baburao’s architect brother Vinayak Samant, flank a model of their ancestral Samantwadi cottage which five generations of the family occupied in east Goregaon since 1891. Pic/Nimesh Dave
You think you’d know a man over 30 years. I met director and film guru Vikas Desai in Europe in the summer of 1988. Young and travelling solo, I was warmly embraced by his family who continue to call me “third daughter”. Yet, I’ve only just discovered my old friend is actually Vikas Desai Topiwala - great-grandson of Anant Shivaji Desai Topiwala, who left Walawal village in the then princely state of Sawantwadi, at age 11, a rupee in his pocket to carve his life in 19th-century Bombay.
Filmmaker Vikas Desai in his Rajkamal Studio office, Parel, stands beneath the hanging cap of his hat maker great-grandfather, Anant Shivaji Desai Topiwala (portrait inset), who rose to become one of the most famous philanthopist industrialists of his day. Pic/Bipin Kokate
Sheer grit and guts saw Anant Shivaji Desai rise to be counted among the city’s richest landowners, whose descendants, in turn, spun extraordinary success stories and charities like Topiwala Medical College at Bombay Central and Topiwala Theatre in rustic Goregaon. Flooded with perfect sun and soil for mango, guava, papaya, jackfruit, drumstick, toddy, cashew and coconut trees to sway in its gentle breezes, Goregaon was a cluster of the villages Pahadi, Goregaon, Eksar and Aarey.
Activists Mrinal Gore, Baburao Samant and George Fernandes at Baburao’s daughter Neelam’s wedding in the 1970s
The path of the Topiwalas runs poignantly parallel to their relatives’, the Samants - socialist contemporaries of “Paniwali Bai” Mrinal Gore (she campaigned for drinking water in the suburbs) and her husband Keshav. No, Goregaon isn’t christened after the activist couple, it predates them. Ghodegaon was the horse trading centre under Maratha rule. Warriors bought horses from Ghodegaon market after trial trots in Ghodeghoom, a rugged hilltop 10 kilometres away.
Girish Samant, property developer and activist, guides me through Goregaon’s gullies. The soft-spoken 64-year-old is the son of late freedom fighter Baburao Samant, revered for his entrepreneurial ethics. “We are the aborigines of Goregaon!” Girish laughs. Five generations of Samants, from the Kudaldeshkar Gaud Saraswat community, occupied a cottage with a scenic garden, a wall away from the bungalow where Girish and wife Sukanya now live. Great-grandfather Ramchandra Samant arrived in 1891. His son Balkrishna grew up there. Next was Girish’s father, Baburao, the sarpanch of 1950s Goregaon who shaped its finest democratic moments. Theirs was among three pucca homes in Goregaon’s tangle of jungles and huts. There was nowhere to go except an annual jatra between Goregaon and Jogeshwari.
Goregaon got its railway station in 1862. From their verandah the Samants heard whistling steam engines puff grandly into platform place. “The station became part of our home,” shares a lady of the house in a film recording the family’s centenary year in that ancestral home. Braving a pond full of snakes and frogs to cross before they entered the station, the Samant children lolled on platform benches for fun, joined by gossiping mothers and aunts who gawked as they people-watched. Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar were regular commuters, with Filmistan Studio nearby, in a level era when glam stars thought nothing of hopping aboard public transport to shoots.
Baburao’s 81-year-old architect brother Vinayak tells me he and their sister Vasudha Patil deeply admired their elder sibling. “He taught us honesty is everything in life,” he says. Describing the bond between the Samants and Topiwalas, Girish says, “Vikas’ father Motiram held my father in high regard and assigned him responsibilities in family trusts.” Motiram Desai’s mother was Girish’s grandfather Balkrishna’s cousin.
Vaulting over flyovers to midtown Parel, I stare up at the small, round headgear that started it all. On a wall behind Vikas’ desk in Rajkamal Studio hangs the cloth topi of Anant Shivaji Desai earning his scions their sobriquet. It appears almost to crown his 70-year-old great-grandson in blessing from four feet above. Vikas will not wear the topi out of respect – the last Desai to was his son Hith as a little boy tearing around to play Topiwala Topiwala! Forebears looking benignly from mounted portraits include music composer Vasant Desai and the legendary V Shantaram, father of Vikas’ vivacious wife Tejashree.
“I picked up family history from a pair of unusual sources,” Vikas says. “One was an imposing dhoti-clad character, more major domo than cook, Govind Baba, in our Peddar Road bungalow. The other was my father’s uncle Vasant Samant, proprietor of an interesting one-man shop on Sunkersett Road in Thakurdwar - a ladies specialty store stocking utensils, perfumes and talcum powder.
Compelling circumstances led to “Topiwala” appended to the Desai surname. Eight-year-old Anant Shivaji Desai’s business acumen budded at a tiny chana-kurmuri counter where he helped his father. On his death, he was forced to leave Walawal village for Bombay. A relative pressed a rupee coin into his hand, eight annas of which was ticket money for the 13-day boat trip. Two months after, finishing the chinchuke (tamarind seeds) and kilo of rice his mother had packed, he fainted of hunger at Grant Road station.
Employed as a labourer at that station, he learnt tailoring in a mill during his lunch break. Those sewing skills won a series of orders. By 1872, he specialised at stitching caps that beat competitors with their superior style. Bombay’s best hat maker’s typical attire was often a pagadi (turban) and bhikbali (earring at the top of the ear) worn above a coat swathed in a jariwali uparne (shawl). An appreciative clientele of Parsis, Muslims and Gujarati sethias paid handsomely for quality caps fashioned by Anant Shivaji Desai, titled Rao Bahadur Topiwala by the British.
Anant Shivaji Desai also crucially established himself as the sole agent for Raja Ravi Varma lithographs. After the iconic painter’s death in 1906, he acquired the rights to the Baroda and Mysore collections and published these. Buying the artist’s studio and selling his art was an important move. Prise open the frame of a Ravi Varma print, you will invariably read beneath: ‘Anant Shivaji Desai Topiwala – Ravi Varma Press’. Vikas elaborates: “I have memories of the Raja Ravi Varma press in Malavali being revived by my father (Motiram Desai) and of the picture department in our shop at Moti Bazaar.”
Besides his signature topis, Anant Shivaji Desai dealt in silver, copper and brass kitchen implements. While his son Narayanrao continued trading in metals, Narayanrao’s son Motiram Desai pioneered anodised aluminium in India and introduced velvet fabric as well. Motiram and his step-brother Sitaram became empire builders with philanthropic zeal. Not forgetting his father’s travails on reaching Bombay, Narayanrao had acquired chawls, residential colonies and student hostels at Thakurdwar, Lamington Road and Sikka Nagar to house fellow community members migrating to seek employment in the city. He also set up the Rao Bahadur Anant Shivaji Desai Topiwala Charity Trust, one of the largest such trusts in the city at that time.
“My great-grandfather had already started several medical, educational and religious trusts around 1900,” says Sitaram Desai’s daughter Janhavi Desai Topiwala. His son admirably ensured that schools, colleges and hospitals opened in their native district of Sindhudurg. Narayanrao passing on prematurely, his elder son Motiramshet illustriously managed the empire. “In the 1940s my father inherited 350 forest land acres in Goregaon,” Janhavi says. “Of these about 140 were acquired by the Aarey Milk Colony. The Topiwala Ganesh Temple trust was set up by him in east Goregaon. But I’ve never lived there.”
It is evident Janhavi is very fond of Vikas and Tejashree. Her cousin shot his first feature film, Shaque, in the racecourse view flat of her father whom he called Bhau Kaka. Vikas says, “Our great-grandfather laid the foundation of high school education in his native region – Topiwala High School in Malwan is considered among the best in the Konkan belt.”
My thoughts fly to the long years. I’ve been visiting the Desais every Ganpati week, always struck by this graciously understated family. I was close to Vikas’ beautiful mother Sunita (Aaiji to all), yet missed connecting with her husband Motiramshet, who would gravely preside over the puja. So remarkably unassuming that few realised the exceptional gifts he gave the city. Vikas glowingly recaps a 1946 episode. Congress kingmaker and the party’s star fund collector, S K Patil, requested Motiram Desai’s donation towards a college for Nair Hospital. The merchant magnanimously handed Patil a blank cheque to fill with any amount. Patil wrote Rs 5 lakhs and the Topiwala National Medical College was born. Vikas adds that cricket’s Ranji Trophy was actually intended as the Topiwala Trophy. But Ranjitsinhji died around then and his name came to commemorate the championship.
Back in Goregaon, spanning the bridge that links Samantwadi in the east to the crowded west, we witness more munificence. Washington Plaza mall was the Topiwala bungalow where Vikas’ parents married. “Major political agitations and elections were fought from here,” Girish points out. Patriots and visionaries, his father Baburao and the Gores staunchly stood by the common man. Providing housing for the poor and protecting them from demolition drives, they remain inspirational figures for their compassion.
Arriving at Topiwala Theatre, a multiplex today, I learn it was constructed by Sitaram Desai in 1969, with Asia’s first Mirror Screen – two screens flashed from one projector. Outside the train station, at Persian Bakery (Licence No. 3 in gram panchayat ledgers), Firdause Irani informs us his father Shapur woke Goregaon to mawa magic and khari crumbles in 1951. Girish remembers scalding his feet on hot coals as a kid unwisely sprinting across rail tracks for a birthday cake from this counter.
We pass what used to be a quarry, a dhobi ghat, finally reaching Amba Mai Mandir: the right spot to reflect on this small suburb’s big history. To salute a humble hat tailor who made himself one of the greatest industrialists - and taught his clan that conscience can be married to commerce.
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org