The first ray of sunlight awakens up the birds, and ushers in a brand new day. The weather is cool, much cooler than the highway I have just left behind. And the trees — mango, jamun, raspberry and chikoo — create a cocooned, delectable nest, cutting out every trace of city life. In short, bliss. Welcome to Aram Nagar, 2013. Spread across 16 acres with 357 row houses, this township bustles with activity — be it elderly women hanging clothes on the line, pumping water from the borewell pump, or the priest ringing the first bell at the Ganesh temple. Side by side there are giant buildings housing ad agencies, television production houses, gyms and even furniture stores. Amid cycles and rickety Fiats that have not been used in years, fancy cars too dot the area. Today and yesterday live in harmony here, almost.
How it all began
“When we moved here in 1949 from Karachi, things were different,” remembers Haresh Butalia (name changed on request), who is one of the oldest living tenants in Aram Nagar, which was formed as military barrack during World War II. “After the Partition in 1947, it was turned into a transit camp for Hindus who came from across the border from Karachi and Sindh. Aram Nagar I and II were then called Machimar and Kakuri camps,” says Butalia, who lives with his two sisters, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Around 1950s, Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) redid the row houses — asbestos roofs, kadappa stone floors, bathrooms were attached but toilets were outside. Water connection was common outside. Nostalgia drenches Nitin Desai, 65-year-old resident, who says Aram Nagar used to be a fisherman’s village, with no lights. “The sea was farther away and it was shallow enough for us to go swimming. The two-room houses had wooden beams and brick walls. Everyone used to know everyone. Now, it is not the same. For almost 16 years, we continued to live in the barrack-style home, facing many hardships.” The Mumbai Nagar Palika bus routes started for the first time in 1953, after which BEST came in. We lived in simple times. There was only one person in the colony who owned a radio. During winter, we would spread our beds in the verandah and sleep under the stars, straining our ears to listen to the radio playing in the nearby house. Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor used to come here to shoot,” recalls Desai, adding that whenever someone died, the entire community used to extend support to the family. “We knew each other by name. We used to screen 16mm-print films in the maidan. 1965 to 1980 were times good for us,” he concludes.
The past 10 years have seen Aram Nagar undergo another transformation as secondary and tertiary residents have come to reside here, bringing with them the charms and luxuries of city life and peppering the vicinity with stylish homes. While Aram Nagar, which is divided into part one and two, has been mired in development controversies, the views of residents are also divided for and against turning this heritage area into another skyscraper project.
Eighty-five-year-old Hariharan says, “I am against the demolition, which will steal Aram Nagar of its heritage value. Can you get such area anywhere? Here, we are the masters of our home.” On the other hand, Desai is waiting for the day the redevelopment will begin for real. “The houses are in a bad state,” he says. A fine balance While the reports of the controversy are not unknown, it is interesting to see how the last 10 years have seen commercial offices and set ups making their presence felt in Aram Nagar.
For Nihar Mehta, who set up Tribal Route in 2006, the idea was to find a store that would reflect his home-crafted products. “I wanted something earthy, grounded. A glass store with shelves was the last thing on my mind. That’s when I tumbled upon this area, where greenery was intact.
This area has interwoven the heritage of Aram Nagar with urban eccentricities. It’s a good mix, I’d say, as change is inevitable,” says Mehta, who also tells us about an 85-year-old woman who recently passed away. “She used to narrate tales from the early days. Over a cup of chai, she once spoke about the smuggling activities that used to take place at the Versova beach. On days, they would be told not to venture out into the sea, as a ‘landing’ was in process.”
Eleven years ago, Dr Sunita Patel moved into flat no 178 in Aram Nagar I with her husband and two children — a son aged 20 and daughter aged 23. “From living in Four Bungalows, which is in the middle of a major traffic junction, this new home was bliss. The ground here is natural without any concretisation, we have gardens at both entrances, there are trees all around and the sea is close by. It’s perfect,” smiles Patel, as her face exudes a happy glow. During the 2005 deluge, Patel recalls that theirs was the only area that wasn’t flooded. “When a neighbour reached home from Juhu and told us that there were waist-deep waters, we didn’t believe me. As there was no electricity, we only saw the deluge news the next day. We consider ourselves lucky,” recalls Patel, adding that excess water had seeped into the ground, as there was no concrete layer to clog it.
Around last year, the couple thought their kids needed a bigger space and wanted to give the children separate rooms. “We even zeroed in on a three-BHK flat but at the last minute my son backed out. He said he didn’t want to leave Aram Nagar’s spacious ground and the bungalow-style home,” smiles Patel. And, their home is a delightful abode — a cobbled path leads into the garden, which is vibrant with periwinkles, hibiscus and red flowering vines. They have retained the 18-feet high ceiling of the original structure. “One entry is dedicated to my clinic,” says Patel.
In the past five years, Aram Nagar has transformed into an ‘ad-hub’ explains Amardeep Galsin, who set up the office of her television and film production company Blue Magic Films in 2010. “We looked at a lot of places, but this one stole my heart. The open space, chirping birds and the out-of-Mumbai feeling is awesome. We can just step out of the office, take a walk and ideate better. It’s a cosy nest surrounded by mango trees. We see the same faces every day and I have so many friends I wave at when out paths cross.”