Meher Marfatia: Sophocles and sizzlers at Scandal Point
Colonial class to Boutique Boulevard, the seaside strip of Breach Candy still spells midtown magic
Speak of symmetry and serendipity. After 26 years of growing up on Hill Road, Bandra, I've spent a ditto span of the next 26 discovering the delights of Warden Road, Breach Candy.
Christened with geographic logic, "Breach" was suggested by a gap in the rocks the land mass formed, linking its Arabian Sea flank to the Mahalaxmi and Byculla flats. "Candy" was the Anglicised way to say "khind", or "pass". Warden Road was a nod to Francis Warden, chief secretary to the Government of Bombay. The current road sign honours Bhulabhai Desai, eminent jurist and philanthropist freedom fighter.
The arch leads to Parsee General Hospital, Warden Road
Marriage brought me to one of the Breach Candy strip's first skyscrapers in the 1960s — 11-storeyed Peacock Palace (the national bird did once roam its grounds — easy to imagine considering the Towers of Silence acres at Kemps Corner yet have strutting peacocks). It was sold to a Sindhi builder by the Mecklai family whose ancestral seat earlier graced this spot opposite the American Consulate. The Aga Khan had himself presided over the 1936 housewarming ceremony of Mecklai Mansion.
I'd often catch sight of my Goan cook engage RK Laxman in neighbourly banter, our kitchen level with the cartoonist's living room window in the next building. Laxman's space journalist son, Srinivas fondly remembers cricket games on the Anand Bhavan lawns diagonally across, with children of the country's foremost nuclear scientists. Facing the Laxmans and us was the Saklatvala bungalow, on a stretch called Top Khana because of canons positioned to beat seaward enemy attacks. Next door, Battery House earned its moniker likewise.
A majestic gateway was presented by the limestone arch that straddles Bomanjee Petit Lane. Heralding the path that leads to the BD Petit Parsee General Hospital, the arch may have marked the boundary of the hospital opened to counter a plague outbreak. The lovely monument overlooks rockery at Scandal Point, dubbed for a romantic wartime association — it offered secluded niches for soldiers stealing sunset moments with their lady loves, amid the caw-caw of crows readying to nest for the night.
The Band Box mascot
In line with Scandal Point, plum positioned Breach Candy Club oozed snobby irony. It boasted the country's largest pool, shaped like undivided India, despite a Whites Only membership policy. Foreigners were fascinated as fishermen strolled outside shouting "Lobishter!" on Saturday evening, their fresh catch served at lobster curry luncheons on Sunday. Beside the club, Breach Candy Hospital rose in 1958 to English architect Claude Batley's design.
Royalty glided past in gleaming Rolls Royces… till the Maharaja of Wankaner's property became the US Consulate, the Maharaja of Bhavnagar's seat became Sophia College and the Maharaja of Vansda's palace became Anand Bhavan. What would such purple splendour be worth without a cultural core? Defining 1950s Bombay's artistic fervour at Plot 89, the Bhulabhai Desai Institute cast a luminous glow over a city proud to have it. A veritable cradle of creativity, this hub was where Akash Ganga stands today.
The estate, Hasman, was tended by Madhuriben, Bhulabhai Desai's art connoisseur daughter-in-law. She was ably helped by trustee and manager Soli Batliwalla, a friend of Bhulabhai's son Dhirubhai. Audiences walked up six flights of stairs to watch Ebrahim Alkazi plays. His drama school at the institute, the theatre guru staged Greek tragedies like Sophocles' Oedipus Rex while a young MF Husain sketched posters announcing Euripedes' Medea. Grateful painters like him, Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Bakre, Gaitonde and Ara were provided balcony studios at rents of a rupee per day.
Pheroza Godrej recalls a dinner at which Madhuriben and JRD Tata agreed to convert the abandoned landfill across Hasman into Tata Garden. At Breach Candy all her life, Godrej heard her father describe the street as home to the country's highest taxpayers. She set up Cymroza Art Gallery in 1971 at Hormuz Mansion where her mother Mitha Shroff ran Miniland nursery. A hop away, aristocrat Sir Dhunjibhoy's Bomanji Hall was headed by Lady Frainy Bomanji who insisted local children addressed her as Mummy Darling.
The residential sprawl many a Mummy Darling reigned over enjoyed iconic eateries between the 1950s and 1970s. Bombelli's was always more than a coffee shop, despite its ambrosial black forest cake and classic coq au vin. Its Polish piano player made way for a three-piece band comprising Georgie the pianist, Darryl the guitarist and Philip the drummer who shook up the dance floor. For regulars Bombelli was a haven away from home. Courting couples, my parents included, exchanged dreamy stares here. Beside, in place of an Irani barber, Touche's marinated the most succulent sizzlers in town.
A little off-street, Oomer Park and Westfield Estate — where Salman Rushdie grew up — owe their origin to Anglophile landlord Suleman Oomer. Running out of pucca Brit names like Balmoral, Belvedere, Windsor Villa and Devonshire House, he called a building Christmas Eve just because it was tenanted from December 24, 1936.
Colonial hangover to Boutique Boulevard, the street has morphed. '… Past the cardboard bellboy of the Band Box laundry, the road leads us home' wrote Rushdie in Midnight's Children. Longtime residents remember the cleaning company's cutout figure propped at its entrance. Visibly changed from when I arrived a quarter century back, this palm-fringed, breeze-kissed strip still exudes charm enough to have my hand follow that Band Box mascot's trademark gesture. Salute.
Write in to Meher at: firstname.lastname@example.org