Meher Marfatia: Tall tales from a hilltop
Now far from the avenue of pretty villas that it was, Altamont Road struggles to accept newer avatars
Jinx and Anand Akerkar hold the inaugural copy of Top of the Hill, published by Shirish Shah for the Altamont Road Area Citizens Committee, of which Anand was an editor. The newsletter reported on a Revitalisation Plan mooted by concerned residents like architect Ratan Batliboi, which, with BMC sanctions, tried to take aboard issues such as streamlining utilities, regulating parking and allocating clear children’s play spaces. Pics/Bipin Kokate
First things first. It isn't Altamount but Altamont Road. Signboards persist with the "u", plus postal address sanction spells Altamount. But Colonel Altamont served the Nawab of Lucknow before settling on this Cumballa Hill slope up from Kemp's Corner. In his book, Altamont Road and Other True Stories, philosophy scholar Sheryar Ookerjee insisted, "Not Altamount, please".
Now SK Barodawala Marg (that 1926 sheriff's home is Rizvi Park today), the street ranks among the world's 10 most expensive. Ookerjee's grandfather, Cursetjee Manockjee Cursetjee (grandson of Cursetjee Manekjee Shroff, the Khada Parsi of the Byculla statue), bought a bungalow - presently Pushpak building - in 1907 from the Portuguese de Ghas family, amid an orangey-yellow sea of gulmohur and mango trees lost to road widening.
First edition of the street's local newsletter, Top of the Hill, in December 2005
Reassuringly, outside the Mafatlal mansion, an ancient banyan spreads wide roots like some arboreal angel with sheltering wings. Mafatlal Gagalbhai of Ahmedabad initiated a thriving textile trade in 1905. Generations have clambered over this tree fronting his Bombay home. "We hid in its every crevice in Chor Police games," says great-granddaughter Anuradha Mafatlal Singh.
Opposite, on fairy-lighted lawns of her childhood home, the Khandelwal bungalow Prem Nivas (its charming champa hugged by that beautiful banyan leaning across the road to it), Anuradha Mahindra launched Verve magazine in December 1995. As text editor, I met wonderful women we'd featured and introduced cover girl India Hicks, Mountbatten's granddaughter, to activist actor Priya Tendulkar. "I was bitten by the publishing bug hanging around the paper stall at the start of our street," Mahindra laughs.
Altamont Road old-timers Ragini Dalal and daughter Monica Merchant outside an ancient banyan fronting the Mafatlal mansion. Dalal lives in Pushpak, the building that stands where the Cursetjee bungalow belonging to Sheryar Ookerjee’s family once was; Merchant is a stone’s throw away at Sai Manzil. Pic/Ashish Raje
That was in Maskati Corner, earlier Tata Mansion, built by Khorshed Bulsara's grand-uncles. "My family's kiln made our wall bricks," she says, showing her great-grandfather Rutton S Tata's initials, RST, on one. At her daughters' room window we admire a wild fig tree attracting parrots, koels and a coppersmith sound much like a hammer hitting metal.
Up the bend was Washington House, the US Consulate building that Jehangir Vazifdar designed and Lodha Altamount replaced. "I couldn't believe I was seeing this mini America in Mumbai, down to Thanksgiving dinners hosted," Mahindra says. Round the corner, Roman Stores got its foreign moniker because expats brought Kraft cheese and Japanese tea to sell from 1959 when Jethalal Murji Chheda and brother Dungarshi set up the area's sole provisions shop. "Young man, I'm your customer," JRD Tata said, welcoming Jethalal's son Girish duck a rain shower under the awning of JRD's Scottish-style cottage on elevated rock, The Cairn.
Zarine Khambatta supervising seamstresses in the sewing workshop of Butility Products, her store for embroidered baby clothes which counted royalty and movie idols among elite clients. Pic courtesy/Noshir Khambatta
Two illustrious granddaughters - Mountbatten's and the Mahatma's - were a hedge across each other the night Verve released. A wall separates Prem Nivas from Prabhu Kutir (once the villa of Baghdadi Jew businessman Victor Sassoon) where 80-year-old Usha Gokani, daughter of Gandhiji's son Ramdas, resides. Her son Dr Anand Gokani says, "We're a hill that's become a township. Ambani and Lodha created statements of power, not buildings of relevance. Overnight the Antilla monstrosity replaced the Khoja orphanage."
The 1894 orphanage, Bagh-e-Karim, was named for baronet businessman Currimbhoy Ebrahim. As a child Sangita Advani visited it on her birthday. She loved listening to strains of Padma Vibhushan Arvind Parikh's sitar waft from his Palmera home. That private gully is dubbed PROVAD: acronym of Palmera, Rizvi Park, Olympus, Venus, Ashiana and Dilkoosha. Sangita's father LU Advani was the developer of Venus and estate agent for Olympus developed by Mohan Advani, pioneer of Blue Star. Piloo Mody was Olympus' architect. Mohan Advani's daughter Suneeta Vaswani shares that three of her father's siblings sought refuge from Karachi in Shyam Niwas on Warden Road - "'Olympus is for my Shyam Niwas family,' he said."
Foy Nissen, The British Council’s 1970s representative and ardent Bombayphile, photographed in his Olympus apartment by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari who considers Nissen his mentor
Dilkoosha neighbours Naseem Khan and Usha Parkash chat in Parkash's garden flat. I learn of an agreement letter to the Chief Presidency Magistrate, between Badraddin Tyabally Barodawala and Taley Mahomed Khan, the Nawab of Palanpur procuring Dilkoosha in 1954. Beside, Ashiana was Bungalow 5 with the Botawalas on the first floor. The Dutch Consul General's and Washington House families primly called in playing kids for 4 o'clock milk and biscuits, reminisces 98-year-old Sheila Botawala. "At our place they attacked Nilgiri pancakes and chocolate fudge," says her daughter Miriam.
Another blind lane off, Anstey Road was named for Judge TC Anstey. At its end, in Jupiter Apartments, lives Saleem Ahmadullah, my go-to mentor for exploring the city. Crisscrossing the road, I reach what was Chattan, Tarachand Gupta's landmark bungalow, redeveloped by the Rahejas. Manufacturing steel fabrications for train wagons, Gupta outlived three sons. He was stoic as a chattan - a strong stone hill - says his grandson Nikhil.
The porch of 31 Altamont Road, home of the Cursetjees (now Pushpak building), from where a pair of Buicks would grandly roll downhill. Pic courtesy/Pervin Mahoney
Five-floor Chapsey Terrace seemed soaring to Goolu Adenwalla in the 1940s. "I live in a high-rise," she wrote to pen pals. Himanshu Dwarkadas mentions the building has belonged to his family from great-grandfather Chapsey Jeevondas' time in 1926. Playwright Adi Marzban's flat was the rehearsal venue for stars of the Parsi and English stage. His radio plays were scribbled between chess moves with the Adenwallas in their apartment above.
Jinx Akerkar fell in love with Chitrakoot and the airy spaces around it - "We looked over Flame of the Forest trees to the sea." Her husband Anand was an editor of Top of the Hill, the Shirish Shah-published newsletter reporting everything from revitalisation plans for Altamont Road to peacocks strutting behind Olympus. "A thousand homes were sent this free of cost," Shah says. "It was great communication between citizens and the Altamont Road Area Citizens Committee." The Akerkars' actress daughter Avantika says, "I whizzed on roller skates with a gang of 20 kids. You proved your worth on steep slopes of buildings like Pemino."
Russi Khambatta with his daughters in the Khambatta Hall garden, opposite which is seen the former villa of Victor Sassoon who was hailed “JP Morgan of the East”; Prabhu Kutir has replaced the Sassoon bungalow. Pic courtesy/Noshir Khambatta
In Navjeevan Kutir from 1964, Amfico Agencies chairman Keki Cooper drove an Alvis Convertible "when two cars passed every hour". His beautician wife Kamal opened her still popular salon here. From their kitchen window they enjoyed a view of Rolls Royces purring out of the Dadiseths' Greek-type mansion which became Prithvi Apartments.
A slant from the Dadiseths stood Khambata Hall, now Nishant. Erected in 1918 by Hormusjee Khambatta, who supplied coal to ships in Bombay harbour, it was laid with chessboard tiles from the quarries of Carrara. Hormusjee's grand-nephew Noshir Khambatta recalls his mother run Butility Products from the bungalow. Its embroidered baby clothes and cribs won classy clients including the Maharaja of Kashmir and, Noshir's sister Rashna Dalal adds, "Shashi Kapoor looking like a god dropped from heaven". An eminent Khambatta Hall tenant was Dr Jivraj Mehta, Gujarat's first chief minister.
Interestingly christened Bombarci, built in 1925 for heads of the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway, derives its name from those letters: BB&CI. In 1949, BB&CI merged with the Gaikwads' Baroda State Railway to form Western Railways, whose General Manager's official residence Bombarci continues to be. Paranjoti Choir conductor Coomi Wadia's home, on marrying jeweller Nariman Wadia, was close - "With gladioli flowerbeds we had so many coconut trees, I never bought a coconut for my curries." A hop away, facing the Indonesian Consulate is the South African Consulate, flush with Terrace Cama where English professor Mehroo Jussawala and gynaecologist Hilla Banaji were murdered.
Old-timers miss the Friendly Ice Cream stall outside the orphanage. Capitol Electronics below Raj Mahal was a stereo repair adda bonding music buffs on Saturdays. At raddi shop-turned-library, Kamal Book House, in Maskati Corner, Buddhichand Maroo took up a sales job in 1957 to pay for his studies. With robust Kutchi acumen he established Shemaroo Entertainment five years later.
Raj Mahal is my favourite on the road. Legend has it this was called The Castle. Skyward turrets do lend this jewel of a structure such an aura. Filmmakers Srila Chatterjee and Mahesh Mathai's attic guestroom boasts its own trapdoor entry. Meher Davis has spent 68 years walking over "1903", the year of the building's construction, exquisitely etched in mosaic chips wreathing garland motifs around that date on the floor of her ante room.
Burge Cooper, helming AudioVision India, describes his surgeon father Soli Cooper riding horses to Carmichael Road via red mud paths. Beyond Bagh-e-Karim, jungles echoed with jackal howls. Discovering a cobra in his bedroom, Moez Mohemadally says, "Altamont Road was peaceful to the point of deserted. You felt the air float differently in its countryside ambience which wouldn't let summer heat touch us."
The Coopers occupied Rustom Villa which, with Ruttonsha Lodge, became Saahil, Harish Mahindra's home. From Sai Manzil next door, Vernon Miranda smiled to see the industrialist's son Anand's baaraat dance the few-feet distance to his bride Anuradha Khandelwal in Prem Nivas. With wooden staircases and fretted verandas, Sai Manzil was initially Yusuf Mansion, after owner Abbas Motabhai's son. "Sitting at a cotton tree to read, I saw a lovely city sprawl beneath," says Rashida Anees from the Kajiji family there.
Vernon's distinguished father CJV Miranda was Deputy Inspector General of Police, State CID, before becoming the first Director of the Anti Corruption Bureau, seizing smuggled gold and diamonds worth millions in the '60s. Retiring from police service, he was appointed Chairman of the Maharashtra Public Service Commission. "I last met him wearing a suit in an Electric House bus queue," says urban historian Deepak Rao. "He was a graceful man from a graceful era."
Just as well that he didn't live to lament the trite towers of mega magnates blot out the essential elegance of Bungalow Boulevard.
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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