First bridge, last rites and midtown memories

Published: Apr 14, 2019, 07:20 IST | Meher Marfatia

Stuck in traffic? Take time to savour historic Kemp's Corner's striking architecture and streetscape

First bridge, last rites and midtown memories
Palmer confectioners, beside Kemp & Co., the pharmacy that named Kemp's Corner; Pierotti was Palmer's star baker. Beside Palmer's is seen the still standing, beautiful Renaissance Revivalist-style mansion simply signposted 'No. 125 Kemp's Corner'

Meher MarfatiaTo think a joke like "What did one banana say to another? Marry me, I'm akela" got Amitabh Bachchan guffawing. He and Anwar Ali, comedian Mehmood's brother, cracked such non-stop corn in Allah Beli, the Kemp's Corner cafe, now the Gangar Opticians showroom. Struggler buddies, paid a few hundred bucks for eyeblink roles as boys singing and drinking in Merchant-Ivory's 1970 film Bombay Talkie, they celebrated there with kheema pav and paani kam chai.

Though familiar haunts like that Irani eatery have vanished, this palm-fringed street retains immense charm -- St Stephen's Church till the Parsi Doongerwadi, faced by India House (of the Air India hoarding) till shop-crusted Chinoy Mansion. Prescription chemists in a roofed store, Kemp & Co. christened Kemp's Corner.

The city's first flyover transformed the area's east end from 1964. Unused to a cement giant nuzzling their windows, residents resented the invasion of privacy and worried that pissing passersby had new walls to relieve themselves. To inaugurate this civil engineering marvel, the motorcade of Pope Paul VI, the first Pontiff to visit the country, got an excitedly gathered public genuflecting.

Oxen pull a Silver Ghost chassis in its shipping crate, arriving at the Rolls Royce car showroom at Kwality House in 1921
Oxen pull a Silver Ghost chassis in its shipping crate, arriving at the Rolls Royce car showroom at Kwality House in 1921

Manize Salon, cosily cocooned under the flyover, relocated close to the spot Manize Kharas introduced it in 1959 in a yellow-washed bungalow. "Manize was truly enterprising," her nephew Cyrus Driver says. "She stocked Bombay Dyeing fabrics, had a cubicle with two chairs for hair and beauty treatments, a small ice cream counter and mezzanine tailoring space. In 1974 this became India's first exclusive jeans store, Jean Junction."

Beside Kemp, in what is Om Chambers today, confectioner L Pierotti presided over Palmer's Bakery, whose bestsellers were flaky palmier pastries and savoury patties. "The smell of their oven-fresh bread wafted wonderfully over the road to us," says Senior Counsel Darius Khambata. "I often dream of Adenwalla Lodge and Aminia from my childhood." Of the homes he cherishes, Aminia remains. The late 19th-century Adenwalla Lodge had wide steps reaching its portico. Khambata literally straddled that residence of his grandparents and the family's rented apartment in Aminia, a wooden plank leading to Aminia off the verandah.

The Kemp's Corner flyover, between Malabar Hill and Cumballa Hill, was the city's first in 1964. At the left is India House, probably the first modern flats on this block still strewn with century-old residences in vintage architectural styles. Pic/Shadab Khan
The Kemp's Corner flyover, between Malabar Hill and Cumballa Hill, was the city's first in 1964. At the left is India House, probably the first modern flats on this block still strewn with century-old residences in vintage architectural styles. Pic/Shadab Khan

Four generations of Cassums have occupied terrazzo-tiled Aminia, bought by Joosub Cassum in 1933. His grandson Ameen recalls rooms luxuriously sprawled 25 by 25 feet with ceilings 17 feet high. The Cassums enjoyed hearing Khambata's father Jangoo's Western classical music records. Darius says, "Dad told me Shankar, of Shankar-Jaikishan fame, from neighbouring India House, stood fascinated under our window listening."

Sonatas and symphonies streamed from most Kemp's Corner homes. Young Khambata and his friends were regaled by surgeon Tehemton Udwadia tinkling "London Bridge is falling down", sitting comfortably in his sadra vest at Nazir House. Before the building converted to the glass-fronted branch of Standard Chartered Bank, Dr Udwadia's wife Khorshed (sister of Dr Adi Nazir) whose family property this was, ran Pushpa Milan from it. Collaborating with Interflora, that florist delivered beautiful blooms between continents.

Junaid Shaikh (right) at 1940-established Precious Hairdressers, with one of its oldest employees, Ikram Hussain. "The Ambanis and movie stars to half the cricket world, including Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar, have sat in our chairs," Junaid says. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Junaid Shaikh (right) at 1940-established Precious Hairdressers, with one of its oldest employees, Ikram Hussain. "The Ambanis and movie stars to half the cricket world, including Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar, have sat in our chairs," Junaid says. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

From Kwality House, hugged by Chinese Room for half a century, Baji Chinoy watched Bombay drive by. He and my music lover father exchanged LPs, especially proud of the Polydor vinyl "Neville Chinoy: Tribute to a Prodigy", showcasing the virtuosity of the concert pianist son whose sudden air crash death left the family grief-stricken.

Across, India House became the strip's modern landmark in 1958. Why "India House", I ask Rashid Oomer. His father Suleman Haji Ahmed Oomer owned properties at nearby Westfield Estate, where Salman Rushdie grew up, and Oomer Park, before this one. We resort to conjecture. The Anglophile senior Oomer, exhausting the pucca Brit-ness of Windsor Villa, Devonshire House, Balmoral and Belvedere, was probably compelled to name subsequent structures Kohinoor, Baug-e-Sara and India House.

Orthodontist, Dr Keki Mistry, at his India House rooms. His children (from left, clinic coordinator Kainaz Mistry, and dentists Dr Rushitum Mistry and Dr Saiesha Mistry) now practise here. Pic/Shadab Khan
Orthodontist, Dr Keki Mistry, at his India House rooms. His children (from left, clinic coordinator Kainaz Mistry, and dentists Dr Rushitum Mistry and Dr Saiesha Mistry) now practise here. Pic/Shadab Khan

"Beginning work at India House in 1961, I could afford only Sulemanji's storeroom for a clinic," orthodontist Keki Mistry says. "I'm grateful he ensured water and electricity, essential for dentistry, and even gifted me a Shanks pedestal basin." A founder of The Indian Orthodontic Society, the octogenarian adds, "Dust thrown up during the flyover's erection was maddening, but this bridge eased life for a lot of folks."

Two major India House favourites are felled: Kwality Restaurant of the Ghais and Band Box launderers with the saluting cardboard bellboy mascot stood by Bharat Furnishings, India Cane House, Khilji Upholsterers and M Miller Drycleaners. Raechelle Hairdressers, named for actor Keith Stevenson's mother and run by both parents, has welcomed clients since opening on a 1958 summer morning. Its interior decor by Anglo-Hyderabadi architect Eric Marret, the salon then catered to royalty, diplomats and film stars. Hillway Drug Centre -- not confused with Hillway Library in the same building -- was established by Mr D'Souza, former manager of Kemp & Co. He dispensed JRD Tata a very effective cough and cold concoction whose formula D'Souza alone knew.

Kulsum Sayani with her sons Ameen (left) and Hamid, who went on to rule radio broadcasting, outside Pervez Mansion in the 1940s. She published Rahber (Leader) in Devnagri, Urdu and Gujarati from this home - a newspaper which advocated simple Hindustani as a unifying language
Kulsum Sayani with her sons Ameen (left) and Hamid, who went on to rule radio broadcasting, outside Pervez Mansion in the 1940s. She published Rahber (Leader) in Devnagri, Urdu and Gujarati from this home - a newspaper which advocated simple Hindustani as a unifying language

Opposite India House, five centuries ago, city Zoroastrians were bequeathed the picture-perfect Doongerwadi to dispose their dead in the first open-to-sky dakhma, or Tower of Silence, in 1672. These are the vast tracts of Dadyseth Hill, the considerable wealth of textile merchant and philanthropist Dadibhoy Dadyseth. Trading with Europe and China he brought India the cotton screw, compressing cotton into bales.

A stunning mansion on these acres, 125 Kemp's Corner, in the Renaissance Revivalist-style, belongs to Contractor Charities. With semi-circular arches, carved spandrels and balustrades backgrounded by airy balconies, this is a building conservation architect Vikas Dilawari pronounces ready for adaptive reuse. Stone columns with ornate capitals complement the ground floor's Minton tiling. Upstairs, Motibai Contractor's portrait hangs in each of her children's cobwebbed rooms with teakwood louvered doors. Her husband Nowroji gazes enigmatically, in Masonic Lodge regalia, from another frame.

Gardens spilled seasonal flowers up to the where the road divider is, an old gardener's grandson tells me. No. 125 kids like Goolu Adenwalla, from its tenanted first floor, sneaked berries from bushes of No. 127 where Dr Homi Mehta resided within shouting distance of his workplace, the BD Petit Parsee General Hospital. "He was Police Surgeon of Bombay. We stole sour cherries, dodging cops who patrolled his compound," she chuckles.

Rowed alongside, the Advani brothers' Shalimar Hotel opened in 1962. The original names of a pair of its F&B outlets endure: the bar, Maikada, Persian for "watering hole", and Gulmurg, offering the most succulent kababs and chicken makhanwala. "Those decades rocked with live music," says joint managing director DS Advani. "We had performers weeklong. Entertainment tax killed it all." Honoured guest Satyajit Ray mentioned detective hero Feluda check into Shalimar in an Adventures of Feluda
book. His son Sandip revisited the hotel to shoot the series' Bengali movie version, Bombaiyer Bombete, Bandits from Bombay.

Much interesting Indian theatre emanated from jaali-balconied Vitthal Court, beside Empire Estate, explains thespian Gerson da Cunha. "Living on a high floor, Ebrahim Alkazi staged Theatre Unit plays on the terrace, a sixth-floor walk-up. I climbed times out of number for his production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, cast as the beastly Pozzo. It set a trend: Plot was no more as important as Playing. Two hundred audience members sat on stands to watch dozens of sold out shows. Traffic and parking weren't deadly at Kemp's Corner in 1961."

Kemp's Corner resembles an ongoing St Mary's School reunion. Too many interviewees prove old boys. Aware I married one, they share buoyant to boisterous stories -- "Millionaire (couturiers) was Atta Tailors where we played hand-cricket waiting for the bus" to "God, how we stole Bull's Eye sweets and Phantom cigarettes from Variety Stores!"

Beyond the Petit Sanatorium lie more luminously embellished facades. At Banoo Mansions, Roshan and Dara Sinor tell me the 1909 building is topped by a magnificent crown because it rose just ahead of King George V and Queen Mary sailing into Bombay in 1911.

The poet Adil Jussawalla recreates life at Sunama House around 1940. In a section of the family flat, patients healed at The Natural Therapy Clinic of his father Jehangir. "From terraces bordering one wing you saw Malabar Hill, until Grand Paradi broke the view," Adil says. "And the thin barber of Francois Maison salon here bore an uncanny resemblance to Italian star Vittorio Gassman." At Sunama House too was Bapsy Pavry who became Marchioness of Winchester. When the aristocrat husband strayed to his ex-girlfriend Eve, James Bond creator Ian Fleming's mother, Pavry flew for a flaming confrontation to her home in the Bahamas.

Lording city salons from 1940 is this road's Precious Hairdressers. I chat with Junaid Shaikh whose grandfather Habib was a tailor till he set up this "excellent service at affordable price". Junaid cuts for customers once his grandfather's and father Jamil's. "Loyal clients land from America, London or Belgium and head straight here," he says.

Remembering that veteran radio broadcaster Ameen Sayani once lived at Pervez Mansion in Cumballa Hill Lane, I talk to the 87-year-old legend. In Cumballa Chambers opposite the Sayanis, New Era School teacher Amy Moos hid nationalists Aruna Asaf Ali and Achyut Patwardhan. "They came to us for meals. We knew never to reveal they were underground. I associate Kemp's Corner with patriotism and passion for the larger good."

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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