Fading royals, film stars and top cops

Updated: May 26, 2019, 06:14 IST | Meher Marfatia

That Queen's Road at Marine Lines enjoyed a colourful history is seen from the stories of even just six of its Art Deco buildings

Fading royals, film stars and top cops
An early scene of Queen's Road seen with palm trees

Meher MarfatiaTry Royal." Which of us hasn't heard these words when, weary of the corner chemist unable to dispense what our doc prescribes, we've hotfooted it to Royal Chemists on Queen's Road from wherever we are in the city?

But, Bakul Shah will tell you it isn't business as usual. Not the way it was when customers poured into Royal Chemists from the 1940s to recent years. Not after a string of pharmacies mushroomed in the Marine Lines lane behind, making hospitals in the vicinity insist on medications bought from their inhouse druggist.

Photographer Fram Ghaswala as a toddler, enjoying a "Horsie" ride on the deer-like figure once among the statuary outside Edena. The Raval Tiles & Marble showroom fronted the building where the Roop Milan sari shop stands today. Pic courtesy Fram Ghaswala
Photographer Fram Ghaswala as a toddler, enjoying a "Horsie" ride on the deer-like figure once among the statuary outside Edena. The Raval Tiles & Marble showroom fronted the building where the Roop Milan sari shop stands today. Pic courtesy Fram Ghaswala

If Marine Lines salutes the 19th-century Marine Battalion barracks situated close, Queen's Road acknowledges "aapri Rani Victoria" as some Anglophile Parsi settlers happily hailed the monarch. Desi blue blood duly coursed through. Rulers of principalities peppering Kutch-Saurashtra clustered at homes here, especially further south on
the street.

Keen to ferret out the stories of six Art Deco buildings, odd-numbered 89 to 99 north to south, I count off Queen's Chambers, Pearl Mansion, Shri Jorawar Bhuvan, Kala Niketan Building (formerly Victory Court and then Pravin Court), Edena and La Citadelle. Officers of General and Colonel rank initially occupied bungalows on this stretch. When military homes shifted to Colaba round about 1925, Queen's Road plots went on sale.

One of La Citadelle's distinguished tenants was JD Nagarvala, IP, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Branch, Bombay (1947-49). He was in direct charge of investigating Gandhiji's assassination case. Pic courtesy/Mumbai Police by Deepak  Rao
One of La Citadelle's distinguished tenants was JD Nagarvala, IP, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Branch, Bombay (1947-49). He was in direct charge of investigating Gandhiji's assassination case. Pic courtesy/Mumbai Police by Deepak Rao

Where a pair of railway tracks lay opposite, are six today. It is believed that, heavy trains rumbling past Bacha Nursing Home in La Citadelle, surgeons paused mid-procedure till total steadiness was perceived. This restraint particularly marked cataract operations. Old-timers remember a Victoria stand across the road. And Queen's Chemists, forerunner of Royal Chemists, uniquely sold Germskutter ointment soothing itches, eczema and ringworm.

I start with Queen's Chambers where architect Kersi Kapadia has lived above Royal Chemists for 82 years. "I'm possibly the oldest still around from the half dozen buildings you're interested in," he says, offering me Sunday evening tea with mawa cakes and flaky puffs from Sassanian Bakery. A graduate of the last batch from JJ School of Architecture ("then the only architecture institute in the entire East") affiliated to Royal Institute of British Architects in the UK, Kapadia landed a job in 1956 with Art Deco ace GB Mhatre's firm. Could he be prescient about the future of these 1930s buildings? "The life of RCC structures is 80-85 years. We'll be fortunate getting over 10 more. It's tough gauging the strength of foundations and piling."

Bakul Shah of Royal Chemists, oversees the shop his father's pharmacist cousin Mukundlal Gandhi passed on to his family. The original proprietor in 1944 was Popatbhai Bhikabhai. Shah recalls stars like Waheeda Rehman come personally to the shop where Mehmood too reeled off his comic film dialogues and entertained customers with hour-long mimicry. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Bakul Shah of Royal Chemists, oversees the shop his father's pharmacist cousin Mukundlal Gandhi passed on to his family. The original proprietor in 1944 was Popatbhai Bhikabhai. Shah recalls stars like Waheeda Rehman come personally to the shop where Mehmood too reeled off his comic film dialogues and entertained customers with hour-long mimicry. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

A gate away, Pearl Mansion's balconies zigzag accordion-like. At India Emporium in this building, Kanu Ramwani is the exceptional Sindhi on the strip dominated by cousins of the Motla clan carrying on the sari trade of their Dwarka ancestors. "Ladies from Borivli travelled to us for embroidered or printed chiffons and georgettes. The suburbs now pose stiff competition," says Kanu whose father Kishin Ramwani set up shop. Sobo loyalists like Asha Bhonsle come personally picking their nine-yard passions.

The chowkidar of 40 years in a neighbouring store admits sales are slumping — "Pehle achcha tha. We don't open doors to people often." Busier days have seen the star-struck security man usher in Dharmendra (solo) and Vinod Khanna (with wife).

Deepak Rao at Sassanian Bakery, off Queen's Road, with his seminal book, Mumbai Police. A long-time resident of La Citadelle, he shares that it was mainly European officers who once occupied the building. Pic/Ashish Raje
Deepak Rao at Sassanian Bakery, off Queen's Road, with his seminal book, Mumbai Police. A long-time resident of La Citadelle, he shares that it was mainly European officers who once occupied the building. Pic/Ashish Raje

Aligned with the Ramwanis, MG Cafe got named inverting the initials of Pearl Mansion landlord Gokalchand Mathradas, who held foreign liquor Licence No. 1 at Vine Vault near the Town Hall. For 45 years MG served the most scrumptious mutton samosas, sandwiches and fish curry. It had "couple rooms", inexplicably entered via an aquarium. The cafe added a popular Kwality Ice Cream stall after that brand was introduced in 1957.

Up the stairs were the Mistrys. A scientist confrere at Homi Bhabha's workbench, acoustics and design expert Burjor Mistry drew inventive sets for Hasa Has, Adi Marzban's topical 1960 musical on Maharashtra-Gujarat statehood, and plans for the NCPA. His wife Pola hosted All India Radio programmes with elan in an era when comperes chattered less and aired more. Legions of fans of her request show, Saturday Date, came of age in the '70s. My fellow columnist friend, Rahul da Cunha shares, "I carried my huge radio everywhere I went so I could listen at 10-11 pm to Yellow River, Jambalaya, Abba and Demis Roussos. Pola had the sexiest, most wonderful radio voice."

Architect Kersi Kapadia, who has lived in Queen's Chambers for 82 years above Royal Chemists, believes these 1930s RCC buildings may have a little over another 10 years in their present avatars. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Architect Kersi Kapadia, who has lived in Queen's Chambers for 82 years above Royal Chemists, believes these 1930s RCC buildings may have a little over another 10 years in their present avatars. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

Rowed up next is erstwhile royalty. Shri Jorawar Bhuvan honours 1896-born Maharana Shri Jorawarsinhji Pratapsinhji Parmar, the Raja of Santrampur, near Godhra in Panchmahal district. "Jorawarsinhji was my great-grandfather," says Kumud Barot Kedia. Her top-floor apartment is arrayed with Art Deco rarities and glass furniture. The Indian States store here referred to eclectic sari selections representing the country's princely territories. Beside it, Stella Loewy showcased European-cut cocktail dresses and slinky gowns.

The building with Kala Niketan emblazoned on its facade was originally Victory Court, a nod to the Allies in World War II. Changing hands, it was rechristened Pravin Court. The sari superstore giving it the current name, Kala Niketan Building, has hosted several Hindi film shoots. It was a basic counter in the 1940s. Hardworking Jayantibhai Parikh, who went on to become proud proprietor, is supposed to have slept nights on a small step leading into the shop. "With saris wrapped in tight bundles, he visited Parsi patrons whose tastes he understood," Shireen Vakil recollects hearing from her family who lived in the building since the early 1940s. They were witness, too, to nankhatai street bands striking brassy tunes on March 21st which celebrated Jamshedi Navroze, the spring equinox heralding the Irani New Year.

Kala Niketan Building had another Burjor Mistry. This one sewed the paghri gents wear to Parsi weddings. Between headgear by Mistry, blooms from Pearl Mansion florist Baimai Mehta and silk saris everywhere down Queen's Road, planning nuptials was a breeze. That might have happened in the comfort of Good Hope Stores and Restaurant — perhaps signalling post-war positivity again — which fronted Victory Court, as did a Racold Water Heater showroom years after.

Vikram Rao from Kala Niketan Building mentions how palms dotting the unbuilt landscape bent low with the force of south-westerly winds. On the more inhabited road they were supplanted by gulmohur, peepul and rain trees. Bhicoo Manekshaw maps the area evocatively in her cookbook, Parsi Food and Customs: "My grandmother's house had a lovely garden with mango, pomelo and chickoo trees. One side was a well and pomegranate tree… Fisherwomen would come with baskets of fish, practically alive from the day's catch across the railway lines (no reclaimed Marine Drive at that time) and return with large handas of fresh well-water."

Just beyond, the fast fading elegance of Edena frustrates residents. "What was paradise on earth in these beautiful buildings is pure hell," says porcelain artist Tehmi  Ghadialy who learnt the craft from her antique restorer father Dady. "My grandfather Framroze already owned Court View opposite Oval Maidan. Wanting a west-facing property, he bought Edena."

Children of all the buildings played in Jorawar Bhuvan's compound outside the John Roberts display of furnishings and saris. The baby among them, Fram Ghaswala from Edena, was allowed extra turns at cricket and fielded sweets packets Shireen Vakil's grandmother indulgently tossed from her Kala Niketan window. Older kids lowered him into a gutter to keep properly out of sight at Hide and Seek — "We never realised those were gutters, they were that clean!" Fram says.

Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari came to the Edena home of Dr VN Sinha, producer of the 1960 caper Kohinoor. Depressed by Devdas-type routines, Dilip Kumar was advised essaying lighter leads, as in this swashbuckler saga. To authenticate its Naushad melody, Madhuban mein Radhika naache re, he learnt the sitar and played a solo on the instrument. Even
his tragedy-inclined heroine must have smiled at their movie's hit status.

Fram's ophthalmic surgeon father, Kekobad Ghaswala, chose Edena over La Citadelle because its rent cost R10 less monthly (R60 to Citadelle's R70). La Citadelle was constructed with material from Simplex Tiles and Art Floorings, whose showroom fronted it. "It was built by my grandfather, Dr Ardeshir Bacha," says Parizad Feerick. "Dr Bacha's Memorial Belle Vue Nursing Home was on the fourth and fifth floors of the building which had impressive entrance pillars and interiors decorated with Burma teak. My brother, Dr Aoshnar Bacha, carried on till the nursing home's closure in 2012."

Climbing by step-angled windows up La Citadelle, I reach Sarosh Nagarvala's flat, two storeys higher than city pundit Deepak Rao's ground floor home which was earlier the residence of Bombay Superintendent of Police, O A Loveday. Alongside stood Beatrice, a Baghdadi Jew establishment tailoring women's and children's clothes.

Sarosh's father JD (Jamshed Darabshaw) Nagarvala, IP, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Branch, Bombay, 1947-49, was assigned direct charge of investigating the Gandhi assassination. "In the days I grew up, what you did on a sports field was more important than what you did in a classroom," says Sarosh, a boxer and athlete, renowned for his prowess at hockey and Bombay Gymkhana rugby, perfecting the art of the trailing leg and late tackle.

I'm proffered a viewpoint involving three generations of local newspaper walas. Bhupendra Upadhyay explains to his son Rakesh and me: "Every Queen's Road household subscribed to an Angrezi akhbaar by the 1930s when my father Ram Kishore started delivering papers. Mumbai Samachar and Jam-e-Jamshed circulated widely. Afterwards came a good daily. It was called mid-day."

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

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