Fiona Fernandez: The people will hold fort
After earning a well-fought win with the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble, the citizens behind the dossier are gearing for bigger challenges to ensure the precinct lives up to its newfound status
As soon as news that the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble had won the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site tag became a talking point on our timeline a few weeks back, celebratory messages, particularly from heritage buffs and pakka Bombaywallahs began to pour in not just from the city but beyond. One such message was from Jael Silliman, a Jewish scholar and author who was working on a digital archive about Calcutta's (sorry, we prefer the old name) Jews and its long, rich legacy in the city. She was elated and buoyed by the fact that a citizen's movement in Bombay had steered the dossier for 14 long years, and had won.
We had met Silliman last December in her home city, where she gave us a crash course as well as a guided tour of this legacy that we had until then only heard of but had never experienced despite our many visits. The Jews form a minuscule community - only 20 of them live in Calcutta - and yet, like the Parsis here - they have created an indelible impression on the character of the original city. Their contributions are everywhere - across its educational institutions, its infrastructure and streetscapes. But what blew our mind the most was our visit to the three synagogues that stood bang in the middle of some of the oldest parts of the city where we could literally smell the days of the Raj and sort of imagine what life must have been like in the early 1900s.
Time stood still here, for sure, but within the restored walls and floors of these places of worship, as Silliman's commentary took us back and forth in time, we realised something. It was the vision and dogged pursuit of the handful members of her community along with well wishing Calcuttans who had ensured that these citadels and footnotes from the past had survived. And rightly so, now Silliman and many from of her city's heritage community wanted these monuments to work towards finding its place under the sun, and aim for a UNESCO WHS tag.
Back to the Bombay chapter. A week ago, these citizen champions had gathered to celebrate the win, and more importantly, to discuss the plan of action to take things to the next level. One of my favourite parts was the reminiscing - of nostalgic anecdotes around creating the dossier, some laced with humour, of passing hats around to raise funds, of residents willingly opening their homes to host overseas experts, of those like the late Sharada Dwivedi who had stirred up the sentiment and passion all those years ago.
"These are all hardened warriors that you see in the room; they are sure to find a way out and ensure it stays," reassured a senior voice, when we enquired about the road ahead with regards to the fate of the beleaguered Watson's Hotel – once the toast of the city's rich and famous. The quiet confidence in his voice lifted our spirits. They were in it for the long haul. After all, most of them had seen it all, and knew what it takes - like hard-nosed war veterans, all grace, charm, and of course, grit.
As we scanned the room, one thing was clear - this was just half the battle won. The big challenge to maintain and ensure that the precinct survives and thrives after a hard-fought win is what they seemed well and truly ready for. We'll be cheering from the sidelines.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones... wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana Send your feedback to email@example.com
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