Meher Marfatia: 'A great city and a terrible place'
Life lessons from years of mapping Bombay's local history
Uma Pocha with accordionist Goody Seervai at one of Adi Marzban's musical revues. Her zesty song Bombay Meri Hain became the city anthem, celebrating everything ordinary to extraordinary. Pic Courtesy/Meher Marfatia
Why do I write what I do? From a hefty heap of answers to the question, I'll stick to: because it makes me a learner for life. I observe keener now: "Little things mean a lot" Kitty Kallen sang. Her 1954 ballad, belted out by the indomitable Uma Pocha, who we just lost, is like a lodestar. Well into mid-life, I observe like never before. Sometimes there are delayed epiphanies. "Bombay meri hain" Uma crooned, her hot beat for the city becoming its heartbeat. Composer Minoo Kavarana (Mina Kava courtesy HMV publicity) was my father's school senior. As he tested his wife Naju's lyrics in our Bandra home on a Sunday morning, my brother and I giggled at the "Bom bom bom bom" chorus staccato. Unaware we were witnessing the start of a smash hit. "You heard my song before I did!" Uma teased decades down when I interviewed her for a book on Parsi theatre — she was Adi Marzban's "queen of song".
Freedom fighters and Indian National Theatre thespians Malatiben and Damubhai Jhaveri with their Bharatnatyam dancer daughter, Parul. Pic Courtesy/Parul Sastri
Mindfulness is mine: Rush-rush unseeing and miss the most incredible circus on every street corner. Tales to trivia, I seek stories where I'd walk past. I remained long baffled by the fountain pen-shaped door handles of Jhaveri Bros in Metro House. Mystery solved researching Cinema Road. I discovered Shyamdas Jhaveri's shop introduced the Mont Blanc luxury brand to 1960s India — and there those pens yet are, nibs jauntily pointing north. Who can look at Marise Marrel salon of Churchgate quite the same way after knowing the actress Nargis used to drive up in an Impala, from Chateau Marine round the corner, for facials and steam baths? More excitement on discovering the only undertaker in the world appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire: John Pinto on Byculla's Clare Road is honoured with the title for stellar services in repatriating 26/11 terror victims to their countries.
The sailors' monument at Cooperage commemorating bravehearts of the 1946 naval uprising against the British, sculpted by Neelkanth Khandvilkar. At least 500 prisoners of that struggle were interned in a camp at Mulund, the suburb once a Mauryan empire outpost
It's believed Wadala stemmed from "wad", or banyan. I caught a folksier meaning at the Shaykh Misri Dargah, from its mujawwar caretakers whose ancestors served saints. A fierce tiger from the hills above prowled hereabouts. Its eyes glowing in the dark, christened Wadala, from "wagh dola", literally "tiger eyes" in Marathi.
I'm proud of Freedom City: This soil of struggle is where hundreds of humbling episodes of patriotic passion played out. Before passing away in 2014, feisty Malatiben Jhaveri related how she marched to jail in her red khadi sari (for defiantly lobbing a piece of shell back at a British soldier in the August Kranti at Gowalia Tank). Heeding that stirring Quit India call, Gandhian Usha Mehta ran a secret radio station from New Era School. Her courage inspired pupils like musician Vanraj Bhatia and broadcaster brothers Ameen and Hamid Sayani.
Suburban Mulund had a role in the insurrection the British dubbed the Naval Mutiny, a year before Independence. Almost 600 protesting signallers, stokers and sweepers in Mulund prison camps chanted "Not mutiny but unity". Interestingly, the then Navy chief, Admiral John H Godfrey's assistant, Ian Fleming, based "M" in his Bond books on Godfrey. A 90-year-old I met in Ghatkopar was confined to Yerawada jail as a 15-year-old rebel, jumping wall to wall in the neighbourhood secretly delivering copies of the banned newspaper Harijan Bandhu.
Babasaheb Ambedkar sat at Table No. 4 of The Wayside Inn, diligently drafting tracts of the Indian Constitution in 1948. "Bent over foolscap sheets next to neatly rowed pencils and an eraser, he sometimes asked for a pen," recalls proprietor Pervez Patel. Traffic jams aren't half bad: They force you to stop and stare. Oft caught in one on Mahim's LJ Road before the Sea Link rose, I'd lean from the cab to admire lurid posters announcing Paradise Theatre's latest change. Muscled Mithun Chakraborty grimaced "in and as Boxer" on a hoarding I was once stuck in front of. Serendipity soon gave such scenes an ancestral link. My cousin married Niloufer Dubash, whose grandfather Shavaksha bought Paradise in the mid-1950s. Film exhibitors, Shavaksha and his brother Bapuji had built Royal (granted Licence No. 1) in 1914 in the Pila House district. The tin shed with a hand-cranked projector even provided a zenana section for women wanting entertainment in seclusion. So make those halts happy. More invigorating than irritating, the slowest traffic has sprouted robust story ideas. Why go by without a glance when you can cast around curiously.
City maniacs make fine friends: As they collect, connect, communicate. Bombay hamaari jaan, we chroniclers are a generous community. Unlike academia, rife with scholar rivalries and ballooned egos, we're bound by our simple love: this city. Heritage hounds swap notes about places they crave explained some more. We save letters, salvage sepia, hoard maps, treat brittle books tenderly as if they're babies. My go-to greats earlier were Sharada Dwivedi, Nuvart Mehta and Ratan Lalkaka. Today, I turn to Deepak Rao, Saleem Ahmadullah, Kurush Dalal, Rafique Baghdadi, Bharat Gothoskar, Vinayak Talwar and Simin Patel, besides Bombay buff editors Naresh Fernandes and Sidharth Bhatia, and conservation architect Vikas Dilawari.
What we do is vital: This is satisfying slog. "I see history as past, present and future," a friend messaged. "Past is where the action was, present because it shapes and touches me, the future brings culture and inheritance." The resonance of unearthed fragments — memories, objects, experiences — goes beyond nostalgia. It stirs dialogue. This column is a space for shared thought, the conversation continuing awhile. A month after the last printed, I still have one foot there on Siri Road, finding responses for readers' querying mails: Where was the wooden wharf close to the Duke of Wellington's cottage? If the Stocking Tree is unique to this lane, doesn't the rare Elephant Ear Tree grow close too? (Yes, in Kamala Nehru Park.)
Dig deep, dig different: True treasures don't dot main roads. So go search. Colour, character, grit and grime tangle noisily in what appears to be. What is lies intriguingly hidden. Urban legends in needle-narrow alleys of Pydhonie and Bhuleshwar leave me gobsmacked. I love the city's sole sun temple here, Lilliputian three-feet-tall shops and a pair of canons embedded vertical in the ground to tether horse reins. These stand not far from Phophalwadi Lane, the only BMC road to pass through a building. Beyond, the facade frieze on the former Cotton Exchange displays a chain of events from the fibre's boll-and-bale stage to the final cloth packed for London. The Panjrapole in this Gulalwadi part of Bhuleshwar is the city's largest animal shelter. It was funded in 1834 by two soft sethias, Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Amichand Shah, following Bombay's first recorded riots, the Dog War of 1832 when Parsi traders beat back British orders to rid the town of strays.
Odd is good and imperfect perfect: And ever the twain should meet. Perseverance pays in unusual ways. Fun facts wink come-and-get-me. Do and the most delectable stories with a twist tumble forth. Tracking the Teen Batti vicinity, I was amazed to find the gubernatorial seat since 1885 has, besides the private beach, its own pin code (400035) — the rest of Walkeshwar is marked 400006. But few things stun people more than the revelation of a different Parsi time zone. Why are Agiary clocks 38 minutes behind time? They chime to local, or Bombay Time, 38 minutes behind Indian Standard Time determined by the Kolkata meridian. When other watches point to 3.38 pm, those Burma teak pieces will always stoutly show 3 pm.
Perspective is everything: In a city crumbling due to neglect, the gift of fresh eyes helps deal with shocks and surprises alike. A shop counter in a banyan bark, a gatepost scooped with a niche for St Anthony's statuette passersby bow to, an istriwala sweating over his iron because any fan would blow twigs off the nest a bird tries piling in his kholi... all affirm faith, enterprise and goodness. Architect Charles Correa made the distinction: "Bombay is a great city and a terrible place." Sheer optimism has people hang on to home names like Sea View — though a family I know changed theirs to Sea Glimpse when brazen towers blocked that view of the waters. And cheers to the confidence with which an Art Deco building liftman told me, "You come for old people, main bhi yahaan kaafi purana hoon." How many years? About 15-20 he replied, crushed that wasn't deemed ancient enough for Once Upon A City.
The brave and the beautiful: Deserve and pick the best. On a guided trail to Mendham's Point (Where's that? Watch this space or join the walking tour company which pointed it out to me), I chatted with a young photographer smitten hard by this city of dreams on July 26, 2005, when it drowned under fatal floods. "I've lived in Delhi and all over the country," she said. "Nowhere have I felt as safe as I did that day in Bombay." She decided right off to shift, claiming the city's little kindnesses chose her. And I recall a favourite nursery character, that tubby, thoughtful bear, Winnie the Pooh, say: "The smallest things take up the most room in your heart."
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at email@example.com
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