Meher Marfatia: Of masala kings and baronets

Published: Nov 13, 2016, 06:05 IST | Meher Marfatia |

The long standing trademarks of Old Tardeo Road equally tell how much has not changed in this area, along with all that has

Ms Bhesania was our French professor. Fragrant with her generation's 4711 cologne, given to absentmindedly leaving laundry tags on pastel-print skirts and announcing she lived at Gamadia Colony. She may have been directly related to the Tardeo address, I now find from a pair of legends about The Ship at that colony entrance.

A story explaining this motif, alongside the lettering of Shireen Mansion, is told by 83-year-old Gool Mistry. Her parents were early tenants in the 1938-erected building. Their landlord Burjorji Bhesania's trade involved transporting grass bales between Bombay's seven islands in boats — so the nautical image. The theme was part of the prevailing Art Deco trend as well. Pre-independence Bombay architects toyed with non-colonial design. Ships, trains and planes, symbolising travel, speed and the surge to hit horizons beyond the Arabian Sea, embellished new exteriors.

Himanshu Patel, from the third generation of the Motilal Masalawala family which pioneered packed masala mixes to sell both locally and for export. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Himanshu Patel, from the third generation of the Motilal Masalawala family which pioneered packed masala mixes to sell both locally and for export. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

I trail Mistry's nephew Darayas through Old Tardeo Road, or Javji Dadaji Road. If this hogs the arterial distance from Nana Chowk to Haji Ali, our chosen beat is Nana Chowk to Ganga-Jamuna theatres. Yet, it's impossible to ignore icons cornering the stretch's west-east axis, MM Malaviya Road, where Bombay's mall madness regrettably bloomed with Crossroads in 1999. We sniff butter bliss at Sardar Pav Bhaji and hot bread at Behram Irani's 1919- established Shahpur Bakery. Beside them, Batliwalla Agiary compound glows with Diwali diyas which wink light on us scouting for remains of sheds which once tethered tongas. Guarding the 1865-consecrated agiary's gates are Sumerian lamassus — human-headed figures on a bull body with bird wings. This is also where mid-day had editorial offices at Everest Building, when freelancers delivered typewriter-clicked text in envelopes. Researching a 1989 piece, I discovered Tardeo was christened from palm Tads flourishing below Cumballa Hill; with a deity installed, the term Tad-dev was coined.

Stepping north-south, at the JD Road end of Sonawala Building, I see Himanshu Patel of Motilal Masalawala. Shelves spill with 80 varieties of spices and pickles, bestsellers being Kashmiri chilli, dhansaak and garam masala. "Rashmi Uday Singh buys from us," Patel proudly says. His grandfather, Motilal Nathabhai Patel, from Sojitra, sold salt and saris before deciding masala was what Bhuleshwar needed in 1912. He began currying favour with Tardeo locals 25 years after. Motilal's son Rajnikant, Himanshu's father, joined him. Another son, Purshottam, pioneered packing masala mixes in 1948. They employed women pounding powders traditional style till 50 years ago. Ultimate purveyor of Parsi cooking ingredients, the shop's condiments coat many an aromatic meal in colony kitchens. Vendors shouting "Bheja-kalejeeeeee!" reassure these confirmed carnivores of meat treats. Fewer takers indulge the poor man daring to cry "Paneeeeeer!"

Next in line, the Narrondass
Manordass gold refinery is rooted on the plot owned by Mukul Sonawala. It isn't every day that one greets a tenth generation partner of a company, I think, meeting Mukul's son Anshul. Mukul acknowledges great-great grandfather, Narrondass Manordass, who began business in 1788, and grandfather, Gordhandas Purshottamdas Sonawala, a cotton and stock market merchant — "I'm just the caretaker of what my forebears created with great vision."

The "Ship" announcing 1938-built Shireen Mansion in Gamadia Colony has a pair of engaging stories behind it
The "Ship" announcing 1938-built Shireen Mansion in Gamadia Colony has a pair of engaging stories behind it

My vision, for the moment, is a lot less lofty. I dream of mango barfi and jaw-jamming sticky halwa hawked at Joshi Budhakaka Mahim Halwawala around the block. Instead, of course, I visit two more Sonawala Building fixtures. "Bombay Pharmacy was the area's only chemist in 1965, with Bombay Medico at Bhatia Hospital. There are 20 today," updates Lalit Shah, whose father Kantilal's goodwill won Bombay Pharmacy a faithful customer following. At Tardeo Book Centre next door, Vallabhbhai Shah juggles jigsaw impressions — the Dongri tram rumbling a U-turn at Tardeo Circle, the still standing bus stop of the scenic Sea Route (123 to RC Church via Marine Drive) and
MP Mill across the path paving way for Ganga-Jamuna.

Sharing a wall with ruins of the city's first twin screen theatre is The Reward building. I have a phone chat with the daughter-in-law of Jamshed Master. His sisters, Alla and Tehmi, supervised each brick laid here 80 years back. Sporting a sturdy sola topi, petite Alla would boom stern instructions from a hand-held horn to nervous labourers atop scaffolds. Sacrificing their jewellery as investment, the ladies were rewarded by people rushing to rent. Up in her fourth floor bedroom, octogenarian Dolly Malbari recollects a Tardeo of fields and forests with peacocks. "And I had waist-long golden hair," she sighs. "Californian poppy oil from Burlington Store downstairs saved it from going grey fast."

Shireen Mansion
Shireen Mansion

A facing ethnic bastion, Talmaki Wadi, is in its 75th year on this strip. Among the city's oldest housing societies, it is home to hundreds of Chitrapur Saraswats, originally from Kanara. Pharmacologist Srikar Amladi, a resident from 1942, says, "This wadi provides a rallying point for our small community." Yards away, Cama Montessori and Primary School soldiers on since Sohrabji Jassawalla and his teacher wife Banoobai opened it in 1933.

Past Marwadi Chawl's garment shops gleaming ludicrous signs like Show Fine and Mark Man, come Chikhalwadi and Bhatia Hospital, which was a 24-bedded maternity ward in 1932. Then there's PAC, the Parsi Amelioration Committee outlet offering lacy mutton cutlets and crumble-fresh nankhatai — shortbread cookies Persian chefs learnt to knead from the Dutch docked in Surat. Waking soon to winter mornings, loyalists will warm akuri breakfasts with PAC's vasaanu and eeda paak, ghee-soaked savoury and sweet fudge. Delbar Mendis talks of her grandmother, Lady Jerbai (whose husband Sir Noshirwan Engineer was the first Indian Advocate General), founding PAC in 1938 to encourage self-reliance in underprivileged Parsi women.

Architectural gem Dhun Lodge, whose cementing and final demolition lost Tardeo more than a little lustre. Pic courtesy Simin Patel/Bombaywalla
Architectural gem Dhun Lodge, whose cementing and final demolition lost Tardeo more than a little lustre. Pic courtesy Simin Patel/Bombaywalla

A detour into hushed Motibai Street reveals the most charming wooden balconies and rafters I've set eyes on. Hormazd Mansion and Rati Villa especially exude character. Moving on, I stumble upon Balsaras' Central Shorthand and Typing Institute, quiet anachronism in a crazily wired world. Touching 80, the very personable Khorshed Balsara runs government-recognised courses introduced in 1953 by her husband Sarosh, former principal of Government Law College. Surprisingly, enough youngsters seem to be at work. I ask 11th grader Isha Valsur what pulls her to Pitman's script. "It'll help my medical studies," she answers. Teenagers to surgeons seek this service as a prelude to professional options. "Teaching shorthand is difficult," Balsara says, smiling with confidence which conveys she does so with ease.

Opposite Karai Estate (fronted by Swati Snacks of paanki and poodla fame) stood Cabinet Cottage and Cabinet House — in tribute to furniture genius Naoroji Dadabhoy's exquisitely crafted cabinets. He occupied the ground level of Cabinet House where the foyer boasted ceiling-kissing Belgian mirrors. Playwright Dina Mehta and her sister Shirin Darasha, charismatic principal of JB Petit School, were on the first floor, with general physician Noshir Ellis above. Their neighbour in Cabinet Cottage was athletics guru Jal Pardiwala. "He brought us children gifts from wherever he went to the Olympics," recalls Ellis's daughter, Dr Nergish Dastur.

Growing up at Karai Estate, Kamal Sengupta and Kashmira Parasnis chime in with memories. Sunrise behind the Wallace flour mill chimney... Bright flowering plants in the Boyce Agiary garden till it was halved for road widening... Grotty little alcoves of coal shops, jaripurana walas and cycle mechanics... Tea stalls blending brews scooped into brown paper bags with a small shovel...

But heritage haven lies ripped, the locality has lost its lustre. Dating to 1906, Dhun Lodge, opposite picture-pretty Sethna Agiary, shone with arched tinted glass windows and carved stone pillars. 'It's heartbreaking to report that on Christmas Day, Dhun Lodge was demolished, a year after it was flattened to a shell of its former self,' Simin Patel said in her January 2015 blog, Bombaywalla.

Gloriously green amid foul traffic fumes is the stately seat of Patel's ancestors, bought from a maharaja in 1850. Adenwalla Baug's two and a half acres hail from the 19th-century heyday of Sir Hormusjee C Dinshaw, whose clan earned recognition as uncrowned kings of Aden. His father Cowasjee had remodelled the port for thriving navigation between the Indian Ocean and Europe. Bankers and steamship firm managers, the Dinshaws hosted George V in 1911, arriving for the Delhi Durbar to celebrate his coronation. Chairs used at that function continue to grace the mansion. Nothing like a bit of baronetcy adding aura to the robust tadka that is Tardeo.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at

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