Gone are the days

Aug 25, 2012, 07:52 IST | Piroj Wadia

As new projects including bridges and flyovers look set to change Mumbai, a nostalgic look at Kemp's Corner flyover, witness to the Mumbai's transformation

All this talk about flyovers and elevated roads which dot Mumbai’s landscape makes me nostalgic about the city’s very first flyover — the Kemp’s Corner Flyover or whatever name it is called by now. Until five years ago, I lived just across it. We watched it being built in the early to mid-1960s. Our unequivocal objections then were that the beautiful tree-lined road was to give way to a concrete road, which would deprive us of our privacy and the greenery. The southbound route (present day 83, 86, 84 Express) bus stopped right at our entrance. My younger uncle would head for his site at Aarey Milk Colony; a servant would stand on the balcony and alert him as the bus appeared at the far end of the road.

Many films were shot at Kemp's Corner
Bollywood attraction: Many films were shot at Kemp’s Corner

The growing traffic and the installation of traffic signals necessitated the flyover. As the bridge was being built, uncles – both civil engineers – would explain the intricacies of pile driving, the building of a pillar, the mixing of concrete and finally why a spread of metal sheets are put in as joints. We felt the first flush of privacy being intruded; my mother protested, as she had to replace lace curtains with drapes.

Mumbai's famous Kemp's Corner
Old view: Mumbai’s famous Kemp’s Corner, as it used to be in its early days

The bridge had a soft opening —the visit of Pope Paul VI, the first ever Pontiff to visit India. It was also our first exposure to television and film crews as a jeep carrying two cameramen preceded the Pope’s motorcade. One of the outriders, a senior police officer, was known to us and was among the force’s best outriders. Whilst everyone lined the route and our balconies to cheer the Pontiff, we tried to attract our friend’s attention. The Catholic servants went on their knees in reverence as the motorcade passed by.

Kemp's Corner bridge
All for bill: The Kemp’s Corner bridge was closed to traffic 24 hours before the arrival of former US President, Bill Clinton

The flyover was declared open a few weeks later, the state cabinet and other dignitaries drove up and down the flyover. The flyover became the city’s newest attraction for a joyride (very much like the Worli-Bandra Sealink) and flocks of pedestrians started walking the length. Very soon, two policemen were posted on either side of the bridge to deter pedestrian traffic. My friends and I took advantage of the road at midpoint which came down from Hanging Gardens – we would split into two groups and run in opposite directions. The havaldars, then clad in blue half pants, with puttees and sandals had a tough time chasing us.

Naseeruddin Shah, Ali Husain and Javed Akhtar
Book-ed: Naseeruddin Shah, Ali Husain and Javed Akhtar at a book launch at Crossword

Since we lived on the third floor, we had an unparalleled view. Kemp’s Corner has always been the route for VVVIP traffic; countless motorcades of visiting heads of state and other dignitaries have driven past Kemp’s Corner. Hence, our extended family and friends would ‘drop by’ to see the Queen or whoever was driving past. The last such flutters were when the Shah of Iran and Queen Farah Diba visited Bombay (as it was known then) and in 1981 when Prince Charles arrived. Other notables included Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Pope Paul VI, Coretta King, our own Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad, etc.

Traffic jam at Kemp's Corner Bridge
Up in the sky: Traffic jam at Kemp’s Corner Bridge during an air show

In the early 1960s, Prince Philip was the first British Royal to visit India post Independence. His visit was a precursor to that of Queen Elizabeth. Crowds lined the roads, as the pilot car approached loud cheers rent the air; the Prince, who was perched atop a convertible, waved and smiled. As the motorcade turned at Babulnath, an elderly Parsi gent excitedly picked up a vendor’s basket of roses and threw it into the Prince’s lap. But when the then US President Bill Clinton only sped past in his bulletproof car, we knew Kemp’s Corner was only a thoroughfare, not a drive through.

Thanks to the flyover, traffic moved smoothly from Peddar Road to Babulnath Junction. It was Bill Clinton’s visit which brought out the boon of the flyover. It was closed to traffic 24 hours before his arrival for surveillance. Chaos was the buzzword, as cars were snaking down the service roads at a snail’s pace. So whoever thinks that they could demolish this priceless thoroughfare and replace it with the new elevated road which will span Haji Ali to Babulnath or beyond should think hard: What will happen to the traffic while the other one comes up?

The flyover also brought its share of misery. Passersby found a new wall to relieve themselves. Our neighbours on the first and second floors who were left with little or no view had to also endure the stench. However, one of our neighbours hit on a solution. It was a regular sight as the burly gent rushed down the stairs with a stick in his hand, he would sneak up from behind and wallop the miscreant, or else he used his trusty air gun and stung the bare derrieres from his window.

The speedsters in the city made it a racetrack in the late night. Revved bikes and screeching tyres startled many of us out of our sleep. On New Year’s Eve, the Kemp’s Corner Flyover was the scene of car crashes on account of drunken driving. On one such night there had been as many as three crashes and the last one involved six cars. The traffic police soon placed speed breakers.

The flyover has been the location for countless film and ad film shoots. Kundan Shah shot a scene of the runaway coffin from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron under the flyover. Many a potboiler had its chases start and finish in Singapore and midway land up at Kemp’s Corner. One Sunday afternoon, Anil Kapoor and dancers cavorted up and down the flyover.

The maids in our building were a star struck lot. When the late Manmohan Desai’s unit was shooting a chase sequence with Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor for Suhaag, the neighbours complained bitterly about burnt food and singed clothes as the household help took over the balcony. Nocturnal shoots were even worse for either I would be woken up at 1 am by my maid to see the shooting or the next morning with my cup of tea I would get the lowdown on the previous night’s shoot. I had no interest in watching these shoots, since I was with a film magazine and visiting sets was a duty.

When Mumbai’s second flyover — which connected Marine Drive to Princess Street — was being built, it was not without incident, as part of it collapsed during construction. So has been the case with the one at Lalbaugh in Parel and others. Neighbourhood lore has it that the Kemp’s Corner Flyover will outstand them all as it has been blessed by the Pope.

The road, which led from Hanging Gardens down to Kemp’s Corner, wasn’t just a foliage hanging wall as it is now. A neighbour would take his son, my brother and me for a walk on a trail, which ran parallel to the road. We would be encouraged to wear brown canvas shoes, a cap, carry a water bottle and a stick. He would probe and prod out insects, creepy crawlies from their holes and give a nature talk. We discovered the chameleon, and a variety of lady bugs, beetles, caterpillars, etc, on those Saturday morning walks.

As I now drive past or visit Kemp’s Corner, I discover so much has changed that I almost can’t recognise the street where I had lived, till about five years ago. It has about six high-end stores, a spa, an organic food café, and more to come, I am sure. The two familiar, old landmarks are the Pet Shop, as Ebrahim & Sons is now known, and Chinese Room. Of course, round the corner heading down to Gowalia Tank still stand the three old guards – the paperwalla, the dry fruit store and the toy shop. Hira Stores, the kirana shop, has now turned into a DVD / Blue Ray library-cum-store. Chinese Room was the area’s first Chinese eatery; it replaced Mazda, an Irani café. The first softee ice cream machine was placed at the entrance of Chinese Room and we were agog that we could have two flavours in one cone or cup.

The change had been setting in about a decade or so ago, when a cane furniture shop turned into a sari boutique. The HMT showroom gave way to Satya Paul, Kimaya and Deepika Gehani. Noah’s Ark, a furniture boutique, had been taken over by Raymonds for a high fashion store first called Be, then Species; the latest avatar being Hobby Centre. Soon after Be moved in, so did Crossword on the ground floor of the building where I lived. The Pet Shop is now topped by Amara, a spa and an organic food place.

Maybe they should rename it Couture Corner, but no, the taxi drivers will be puzzled. Kemp’s Corner has long since been named Ardeshir B Godrej Chowk; once a friend asked the cab driver to take him to Ardeshir B Godrej Chowk. “Vikhroli nahin jayega, saab,” was the response. So Kemp’s Corner it still is.

The name originated from the Kemp & Co., a chemist & drug store, which stood at the corner, roughly next to the gate of the Towers of Silence/Doongerwadi, where the police chowki now stands. A family occupied the first floor and the said Kemp & Co. was on the ground floor with a doorway on two sides. It had a weighing machine with a huge dial. Patrons went there weekly to weigh themselves.

The building was demolished to make way for the flyover. We must credit the BEST for naming the bus stop Kemp’s Corner. Even today you can still buy a ticket for Kemp’s Corner. At the other side of the corner (what is now Om Chambers) was Palmer & Co. a bakery with a confectionery-cum-patisserie. Palmers baked their breads at the back of the shop, so three times a day the air was filled with the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread.

Where a beauty parlour now stands under the flyover, there was a cold storage called Philimore. It is believed that many homes in the neighbourhood set their clocks according to Philimore’s clock. My grand uncle, a retired civil engineer, set his watch accordingly. One day, he found the branches of a tree were obstructing his view. He promptly called the divisional head of the Public Works Department and a large part of the morning was spent by the tree trimming squad lopping off enough foliage so that he could see the clock.

The Air India hoarding has remained unmoved from India House which was the neighbourhood’s first ‘modern building’. The furnishing showrooms still remain, along with the India Cane shop, the drycleaners, the two beauty parlours, and the third which came up under the flyover. Kwality’s – famous for its mulligatawny soup, butter chicken and grilled sandwiches – has been replaced by Pizza Hut; as have been so many others.

Noah’s Ark shouldered out the Bank of India, which moved a building away; to Delstar. The old Bank of India was complete with gleaming brass grills and finely polished wooden furniture; at the entrance stood a racing bicycle. It belonged to a Mr Sarkari, a bank employee who cycled to work each day. Years later, I discovered that he was among the city’s best speedsters.

The Bank of India has now relocated next to Shalimar Hotel. Where Delstar stands, there was a bungalow which belonged to a Parsi lady Mrs Mehta, who let out her garages to many a tenant from the neighbouring buildings to park their cars. As the bungalow was replaced by a building, the quiet main road was built over by the flyover.

Kemp’s Corner is also no longer the quiet, friendly neighbourhood; barring some old familiar shopkeepers… 

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