Meher Marfatia: Mother Bombay

She was the Urban Legend of Legends.

She was the reason I write this column.

She is especially top of mind this weekend, yesterday being four years since the city lost its living treasure Sharada Dwivedi.

Her heart beat for Bombay, her mind mapped Mumbai. She exquisitely scrutinised, studied and served up her beloved city from pre-colonial to present times. In books matchless for their stimulating content, brilliant archival images and fine production values. Bombay: The Cities Within, Banganga: Sacred Tank, Fort Walks, Anchoring a City Line: The History of the Western Suburban Railway and The Jehangir Art Gallery occupy pride of place on my shelves. I began collecting them from the mid-1990s when Eminence Designs, her publishing firm, introduced these veritable bibles for any city lover. I dip into them often, both as reference books and just for joy.

Sharada Dwivedi. Pic courtesy/Radhika Dwivedi
Sharada Dwivedi. Pic courtesy/Radhika Dwivedi

Moons ago when Lintas commissioned me to start a features magazine for ITC, I picked Sharada and Rahul Mehrotra as contributing essayists for the inaugural edition. It was before their outstanding collaboration as authors. Sharada wrote on the Company School Paintings of Bombay, Rahul on the art deco architecture of Marine Drive.

As we interacted on the piece I discovered two things. First, that her feel for the city was second to none. Next, that she knew my father for years. GS Mhaskar and Co, her family firm at Dadar, was a stockist for Tata Textiles with whom he worked. “How’s Homi?” became the fond question before I could be asked how I was. Dad, on his part, was delighted the daughter could connect in a different way with Sharada. She sees Bombay in sepia, there’s much to learn from her, he advised me.

There was. I did.

“Stay curious” and “Find out” were buzz phrases she swore by. I soon grew to respect a remarkable pair of her qualities — rigour of thought and the generosity to share it. Only a fistful of heritage historians can claim to toil as meticulously at detail. Fewer still have goodness or grace to fan out their knowledge as she did with consummate ease (too many scholars with less confidence in their findings don’t).

Charles Allen, who co-authored Lives of the Indian Princes and The Taj at Apollo Bunder with Sharada, said, “As a researcher she applied herself with an intellectual rigour quite without parallel, to which was allied an extraordinary tenacity and determination to get the facts. But, what really set her apart were her far-reaching interests, her humanity and the passion she brought to everything and everyone she touched.”

Intellectual and emotional in turn, Sharada was what an appallingly dumbed down city so continues to need. Thinker, fighter, campaigner and chronicler extraordinaire, she was crisply critical of lazy, dial-a-quote journalists whose insouciance spells disaster in print — “They should call themselves misreporters, not reporters!” she’d fume. Lucky for me she did offer information on the phone, freely and fully engaged with whatever I worked on. Four summers after my go-to mentor is no more, I miss her as much as I did jolted by news of her sudden death on February 6, 2012 at a premature 69.

More sadly, Mumbai suffers her absence. A protective hand over the city is gone, one that traced its remotest contours, unlocked its loveliest little secrets. Like the best crusaders, Sharada gathered and galvanised people. Mere months before she passed away, she cared to speak out against tackily concretised ledges among other sundry renovations at the Gateway of India that destroyed several trees. “Now you only spot booking offices, not statues,” she protested. “I remember the Beating the Retreat ceremony and the naval band perform. It was beautiful. That’s my memory of the monument.”

Memories of monuments, fragments of diaries, curly scraps of parchment, faded frames of lithographs, they were all her exciting daily companions... and ours to enjoy if we choose to. She has left behind an incredibly rich and relevant body of work. Importantly, it wallows not in nostalgia, instead pointing to paths ahead. Rather than simply root the city in some hoary past, she’s invited us to embrace it as a breathing evolving entity.

Here’s looking at you, Sharada — wherever in that sprawling celestial city of the skies you are — no doubt making notes of favourite niches in heaven for those fortunate to have followed you on earth.

Write in to Meher at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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