Meher Marfatia: Small tales of big crab

Legends surrounding old Chembur throw up surprises about one of our largest eastern suburbs

Atul Chemburkar at Chembur's biggest market, named after his father - Bhaurao Chemburkar Mandai. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Atul Chemburkar at Chembur's biggest market, named after his father - Bhaurao Chemburkar Mandai. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Atul Chemburkar is a happy man. That's to be expected of someone suffixed with a surname vitally acknowledging his ancestors. For long years, they owned 1700 acres of an eastern belt of city land. Generations of Chemburkars have witnessed critical changes in brashly booming Chembur — one of 15 villages of Trombay Island, linked to the mainland in 1910.

Flashback to when enterprising Gopal Narayan Mantri, a local art teacher, introduced Chembur's "bus service", joining two Chevrolet cars for the purpose. When whole neighbourhoods ran out to watch wandering entertainers like Dombari ropewalkers and Makadwalas performing monkey tricks and actually parading bears door to door. When taxi drivers declined passengers fearing they'd be mugged in deserted Chembur while scouting for "return fare".

Conversations with Chemburkar in the Jaswant Bagh (named after his freedom fighter great-grandfather) cottage the 77-year-old architect shares, with his paediatrician wife Jayashree and dachshund Dessiree, prove a crash course on Chembur beyond usual suspects RK Studio, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Deonar abattoir, chemical refineries...
Polluted haze to verdant maze is a mind shift you easily make, exploring traditional gaothans of Chembur and Charai in this sprawling suburb's noisy heart.

Pictured from the archives of ayurveda and herbal product manufacturers, Sandu Pharmaceuticals, who have been operating out of Chembur since 1902. This is a 1950s picture showing women bottling one of their popular syrups
Pictured from the archives of ayurveda and herbal product manufacturers, Sandu Pharmaceuticals, who have been operating out of Chembur since 1902. This is a 1950s picture showing women bottling one of their popular syrups

Chembur stems from the Marathi "chimboree" (big crab), like Kurla from "kurlya" (little crab). How did rural Chembur earn, eat, entertain and evolve? In what way did it change as a post-Partition refuge for immigrants? When did the hoot and howl of owl and jackal get silenced here? I learn a lot from the researched notes my guide generously hands over, titled 'Chembur as I Saw and as I am Told About'. Originally from Rajasthan, Chemburkar's chartered accountant father Bhaurao and grandfather Harishchandra would paddle from Sion to Chembur in a canoe. At low tide, sun-hardened soil withstood the tread of bullock carts carrying Pathare Prabhus (kshatriya warriors), Kolis (fishermen), Bhandaris (mango cultivators) and Agris (saltpan caretakers). Balancing on a 12 inch x 5 feet wooden plank on wet earth, young Kolis went "mud skiing"— loading their catch in a basket on the plank, they propelled it by riding the contraption with one hand and one leg, using the other hand and leg to pedal the plank forward. Under Portuguese rule, before the British, industrial activity was centred round the mint, called Payali.

After the Chevrolet experiment, Dodge buses trundled along in the 1930s. The conductor routinely reached for a stick to shoo cattle calmly blocking the road. The Sindh influx saw fresh routes ply from 1947, thanks to the entrepreneurial Bathijas' and Bhavnanis' services, extending from Ghatkopar to Mahul and Sion to Trombay.

The inauguration, on May 16, 1963, of the Saroj Sweets shop from the owners of Chembur's first dairy - A1 Saroj. Founder Damodar Krishnaji Marathe (extreme left) and his wife Saroj are seen in the photograph. Beneath the ‘Welcome' on the blackboard is scrawled 'No Sale Today'!
The inauguration, on May 16, 1963, of the Saroj Sweets shop from the owners of Chembur's first dairy - A1 Saroj. Founder Damodar Krishnaji Marathe (extreme left) and his wife Saroj are seen in the photograph. Beneath the ‘Welcome’ on the blackboard is scrawled 'No Sale Today'!

Vijay Cinema provided the sole public entertainment, located where Akbarally's rose later at Chembur Naka. Its asbestos sheet shed had no balcony and only one projector, necessitating three intervals in which film songs blared. Houses were spaced far and few, and the nearest railway station, Kurla, was a couple of miles away. So, patrons didn't exactly throng to Vijay theatre until exiled Sindhis and Punjabis poured in, spiking Chembur's population eightfold and crowding its cinema hall.

In his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow, Salim Ali describes Chembur as 'A delightfully sylvan haven of moist-deciduous jungle among hillocks of the Western Ghats. The highest, Trombay Hill, just over 300 metres, forms part of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Chembur of those days was memorable for its peaceful jungle flavour and considerable wildlife. Such rare townsfolk as one met were, like ourselves, vacationing visitors on weekend trips to their farms. The howling of jackals at dusk, inseparable from Chembur, ceased years ago, and hyenas have disappeared. The spirited song of the magpie-robin regaling us at daybreak is one of my most cherished ornithological memories. They bring back carefree vacations in Chembur every time I listen to a magpie-robin's song.'

A chirruping orchestra greets us yet as we roam gaothan paths no broader than eight feet and walk into Mangalore-tiled homes of Chemburkar's classmates. We stroll through Pawanputra Vyayam Mandir which produces Arjuna and Shiv Chhatrapati Award winners in gymnastics, rhythmics, power lifting and mallakhamb. Round the corner at Chemburkar's Fitness Plaza, national gold medallist Pradeep Chemburkar tells us mallakhamb is the ultimate exercise for flexibility and agility.

Shorn of chunks of its character and even "heritage" classification recently, the gaothan sprouts monstrous buildings up to 14 floors tall. I ask 70-year-old Chandrabhaga Varoshe, about to retire for an afternoon nap, what keeps her rooted. "Amche Chiplun gaava saarkhe ugda aahe (It's airy like our Chiplun village)," she replies.

If Atul is a Chemburkar, I think of family friend Shivdev Gorowara as "Mr Chembur". The spry 80-year-old — who, incidentally, completes 28 years as Honorary Consul General of Seychelles next Sunday — takes uncommon pleasure in pointing out pretty paths ringing his cosy bungalow on Road 13. Together, we crisscross the wooded grounds Sandu Pharmaceuticals occupies since 1902. Clusters of aloe vera, sandalwood and bhringara creepers grow on the property where Shashank Sandu runs the 114-year-old business with his brother Nagesh. Govind Krishna Sandu, their grandfather from Rajapur in the Konkan, founded this herbal and ayurveda products company with his four brothers.

Besides these five Ayurvedacharyas' portraits, the temple here has a Hanuman murti, carved from a rare single black stone, discovered at the bottom of the 80-foot-deep well we peer down. The Sandus dispense free medicines daily — "Our grandfather was inspired by Tilak's message of working for the good of the nation," Shashank explains. The air crackles with humming bird and koel calls. Their collective clamour will soon be outdone by evening parrot shrieks. Burma teak rafters and doors with weather-beaten iron latches adorn each roofed structure along our track. I'm thrilled to spot a 1920s census sign nailed into the wall of one, recording: 'E91 Chembur'.

Losing ourselves in a marvellous mesh of tree-lined lanes off Diamond Garden, we admire charming Catholic-owned cottages. The community retains a steady presence, worshipping at churches like Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Old-timer Anette D'Cruz describes: "In Chembur of the 1940s 'Church' was St Anthony's Pavilion where St Anthony's Homes Co-operative Society members gathered for prayer, studies and sport." Chembur wasn't a parish till 1954. Its faithful went to St Stephen's, Marouli, for baptisms and burials. Braving bumpy kachcha roads by bullock cart, Marouli's priest rode into Chembur to hear confessions and celebrate Mass for 40-odd families before returning to his base.

A whirl of whistle-stop halts
includes one at 18-holed Bombay Presidency Golf Club. Pointing to a sepia-tinged photograph of its earlier avatar, the affable Gorowara exclaims, "That's my Chevy at the entrance!"

Dodging insane traffic past dizzyingly rowed stores outside Chembur station, we arrive at Saroj Sweets — a small shop with a great history. In 1945, Damodar Krishnaji Marathe from Dhulia bought buffaloes in Vadavli village (the golf course today) and became the first to distribute milk in Chembur. Ten years later, A1 Saroj Dairy, named for his wife, was set up in the Gaothan to supply milk, ghee and butter to residents readily welcoming these necessities. Procuring the finest available grinders, boilers and ovens, he next inaugurated Saroj Sweets and Restaurant in May 1963.

In the Marathes' office, two storeys above snaking customer queues, we are flanked by huge, spotless kitchens. Cans of quality ingredients are being emptied. I try not to be distracted by the divine scent of burnt milk and kesar stuffed in mithai mounds as Sheshnath Marathe speaks of legacy. Teary with emotion, his wife Manisha adds, "My father-in-law told us, 'Festivals are for everybody, give people the best quality, priced reasonably.' When a kaju katli batch was slightly off, he threw it all into Vashi creek."

A hop onward, we chat with Mukund Vokkalkar, whose father Narsinghrao Jettoji, from Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh, became Chembur's first plumbing contractor in the 1950s. Next up is Chembur's first laundry, its visiting card distinctly coloured saffron, white and green. In 1949, Ram Borade opened Jai Bharat Laundry on this strip dotted with huts and chawls, his grandson Bhushan at the counter informs. With uncanny timing, Mahendra Kapoor's 'Mere desh ki dharti' wafts soulfully someplace close. The refrain echoes as I look at the logo on the laundry card: its initials — JBL — blazing boldly across the map of India.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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