Grateful to the dead

Updated: Nov 21, 2019, 12:48 IST | The Guide Team | Mumbai

The 40-acre Sewri Christian Cemetery is resting place for old Bombay's movers and shakers. Walk With mid-day's inaugural edition last Sunday took 10 readers to discover the stories hidden inside the historic burial ground.

The group at the tombstone of Joseph 'Kaka' Baptista. The nationalist leader was one of Lokmanya Tilak's most trusted aides and also one-time sheriff of Bombay. Pics/ Pradeep Dhivar
The group at the tombstone of Joseph 'Kaka' Baptista. The nationalist leader was one of Lokmanya Tilak's most trusted aides and also one-time sheriff of Bombay. Pics/ Pradeep Dhivar

Our city is filled with layers, and in between each of these, is not one, but several stories of its origins and the great minds that helped shape it. Giving wings to this idea, we launched the new editorial property, Walk With mid-day, where experts from the newsroom head a tour for a small group to let them discover these little-known facets of the city. We flagged off the series with Graves of the Greats, where we took 10 explorers for an hour-long walk inside Sewri Christian Cemetery. Three of them share their experiences.

'A magical port-key to Mumbai's checkered past'

One of the nicest things to do on a Sunday morning is to explore nooks and corners of the city with a bunch of similarly curious explorers. And Walk With mid-day, an initiative to take readers on a curated walk to various parts of Mumbai, enabled this to happen at the Sewri Christian Cemetery last Sunday.

Cemetry
Mr Gaekwad, the manager at the cemetery for three decades, was happy to share nuggets of information with the group

Fiona Fernandez led us through the green and tranquil 40-acre cemetery, introducing us to its many residents and caretakers, both living and dead. We were welcomed warmly by three dogs and a few cats, and also by Mr Gaikwad, the cemetery's manager for 38 years.

We stopped by the graves and tombstones of nine persons (several of these well-known), and through this, got a glimpse of the cemetery's history as well as learnt about the various styles of gravestones that have been used. James Taylor, FW Stevens, Edward Mansfield, George Wittet, Fearless Nadia, Cecelia Wong Leo, FN Souza, Joseph Baptista and Dom Moraes. As we stopped by each of their graves, we learned a little about their lives and remembered their role and contributions. We also visited the Italian Prisoners of War Memorial (built after World War II) that is situated inside the cemetery, with its beautifully dressed and maintained slabs of Italian marble.

Cemetry
One-time sheriff of Bombay, and former editor of the Bombay Gazette, James Taylor's memorial was one of the standout graves on the trail that included a roundel. He was a suitor who had proposed to English classic writer Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre

At the end of the walk, we were left with a feeling of having discovered and connected with a magical port-key into Mumbai's checkered past. I resolved to revisit the cemetery with friends with whom I wish to share this experience, and discover more nuggets of the city's history.

Tanya Mahajan, 44, architect, Malad

'The experience was a memorable one'

Cemetry
At the main entrance to the cemetery. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

The picturesque cemetery, the quietude, the irony of modern tall buildings that stand at the backdrop of this quaint set up, coming across stories of many who passed away well before their time, reading the epitaphs of historical greats like James Taylor, FN Souza and Dom Moraes, the latter's tombstone stating, "I was not intended to rest, but I did," seeing life [flowers] bloom in the midst of death, with a dog as our constant for the hour-long walk. From the organisation to execution, Team mid-day left no stone unturned to ensure the Sunday was beautiful and memorable.

Nandini Viswanathan, 31, PR professional, Goregaon

'Finding Souza's grave was the highlight'

Cemetry
The grave of 'Fearless Nadia.' Born Mary Evans, she was known by her screen name Nadia, and became one of the first female actors who created an imprint in the Hindi cinema. Of Scottish-Greek parentage, she married filmmaker Homi Wadia, who cast her in some of her biggest hits like Hunterwali and Diamond Queen 

I was pleasantly surprised that there was a treasure trove of undiscovered history of almost 150 years tucked away at Sewri, an area known of late for its high-rises. Fiona Fernandez, our guide, was clearly very thorough with her research. Unlike other walks, this was not commercially-driven, which in turn helped the free-flowing intellectual discussion.

Cemetry
At the spot where architect George Wittet's grave once stood. It's been lost in the undergrowth at the eastern end of the cemetery, and sadly in complete neglect. The architect designed the Gateway of India, KEM Hospital and Prince of Wales Museum (now CSMVS)

Having a bordering interest in art, the highlight for me, was to have seen FN Souza's grave, a fact possibly unknown to even art connoisseurs. It was intriguing to see the documented history of nearly 600 Italian Prisoners Of War during World War II. I was amazed that people of high distinction and rank died of dysentery and the harsh Bombay monsoon. There is lots more to Bombay that remains to be unearthed. A special mention of Hemal Ashar of mid-day who was most welcoming.

Cemetry
Members of the group take photos of names etched on the marble vaults belonging to deceased Prisoners of War at the Italian War Memorial. These soldiers were captured by British forces from Africa and brought to India during World War II. They were positioned in various parts of India, and eventually moved to erstwhile Bombay

Zakir Merchant, 40, solicitor, Sleater Road

1867
The year in which the cemetery was established

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    Scenic frame as the morning sun settles on the tombstones and graves.

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    The group at the impressive tombstone of Edward Mansfield, a 26-year-old Peninsula & Oriental officer where his cause of death – 'his balloon had burst' – is etched on façade. 

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    A beautiful white tombstone depicting Jesus Christ carrying the cross

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    The grave of one of India’s finest artists of all time - Francis Newton Souza. He co-founded the Progressive Artist's Group along with other greats like Ara, Husain and Raza

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    One-time sheriff of Bombay, and former editor of the Bombay Gazetteer, James Taylor's memorial was one of the standout graves on the trail that included a roundel. He was a suitor who had proposed to English classic writer Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre

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    Members halt at Edward Mansfield's grave

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    At the spot where architect George Wittet’s grave once stood. It’s been lost in the undergrowth at the eastern end of the cemetery, and sadly in complete neglect. The architect designed the Gateway of India, KEM Hospital, and Prince of Wales Museum (now CSMVS)

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    At the grave of ‘Fearless Nadia.’ Born Mary Evans, she changed it to Nadia and became one of the first female actors who created an imprint in the Hindi film industry. Of Scottish-Greek parentage, she went on to marry the filmmaker Homi Wadia, who cast her in some of her biggest hits like Hunterwali and Diamond Queen

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    The group is all ears at the tombstone of Kaka Baptista. The nationalist leader was one of Lokmanya Tilak’s most trusted aides and was also one-time sheriff of Bombay

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    Mr Gaekwad, the caretaker of the cemetery for 38 years is a walking encyclopaedia on all things around the graves here

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    At FW Stevens’ grave. The architect was responsible for designing Victoria Terminus (now CSMT), the BMC building, Mulji Jetha Fountain, among many other landmarks in the city. He had co-designed the Churchgate office building with his son, Charles.

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    At the grave of celebrated poet and writer and Sahitya Akademi award winner, Dom Moraes who passed away in 2004

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    The entire group at the entrance to the cemetery 

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    The group en route the walk. The cemetery is spread across 40 acres and has been the resting ground for between 50,000-80,000 people from past to present. 

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    A contrast of the old and new. Skyscrapers in the backdrop as the trees growing inside the cemetery form a canopy with the graves in the foreground

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    The group walks past the main path with niches (also known as vaults) on either side. With increasing pressure and lack of space, cemeteries have made such options for the final resting ground of the dead.

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    Members of the group take close up photos of names etched in the marble vaults belonging to deceased Prisoners of War at the Italian War Memorial. These soldiers were captured by British forces from Africa and brought to India during World War II. They were positioned in various parts of India and were eventually moved to Bombay

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