Mumbai: Jerusalem-based Jewish scholar revisits his childhood in Nagpada

Feb 11, 2018, 08:06 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Jerusalem-based scholar Dr Saul Shapir revisits his childhood in Nagpada to lay the finishing touches to 120 plaques and a heritage guidebook that together will ensure that the city’s rich Jewish legacy stays alive

Dr Saul Shapir, his daughter Orly and son Alon walking down New Nagpada Road that formed an integral part of his childhood. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Dr Saul Shapir, his daughter Orly and son Alon walking down New Nagpada Road that formed an integral part of his childhood. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Ground floor, Taiyab Building, 16, New Nagpada Road, Byculla, Bombay-8. Dr Saul Shapir, Jewish scholar and professor, and 'Byculla boy' - as he likes to call himself - will never forget this postal address. It's a balmy morning in February, and the gregarious Bombay-born Baghdadi Jew who's settled in Jerusalem, is back in his favourite neighbourhood that once constituted his home, school, synagogue and playground. "We lived right here, in Taiyab building, and would play along this road as eight-year-olds. It's unthinkable to do that now!" he chuckles in a deep baritone. "I've lost count of the times I've returned here since our family moved to Israel," he replies, when we ask of his longstanding love affair with the city. But this trip is extra special for the Bombayphile [we've taken the liberty of coining this term]. His children, daughter, Orly and son, Alon, were keen to accompany him, to retrace his early life in Mumbai.

Inside the compound, large ovens made out of clay were used for Matzoh baking (unleavened bread) before Passover. As a school kid, Saul and his friends would pick leftovers on their way home
Inside the compound, large ovens made out of clay were used for Matzoh baking (unleavened bread) before Passover. As a school kid, Saul and his friends would pick leftovers on their way home

There's another reason that's made this trip memorable. Last week, the Maharashtra government and MTDC announced their support towards the setting up of a memorial for the Jewish community in Awas, Alibaug, as well as for the installation of 120 plaques at sites across Mumbai that have a Jewish connect. The latter is Dr Shapir's pet project; he has also wrapped up his newest title, a heritage guidebook of 14 walks around the city that will act as a companion for users as they set out to locate these plaques - which are being designed in America. Both are expected to be ready by late 2018.

A close-up of the damaged plaque at the entrance to Jew Garden (now called Tukaram Mane Udyan). The garden is believed to have been built on land that was once a Jewish cemetery. A new plaque will be installed here
A close-up of the damaged plaque at the entrance to Jew Garden (now called Tukaram Mane Udyan). The garden is believed to have been built on land that was once a Jewish cemetery. A new plaque will be installed here

By now, Orly and Alon are soaking in the nostalgia that emanates from the Baroque-styled Taiyab Building. He points out to the exact spot on the ground floor where his grandmother would regale them with stories. Orly, a psychologist by profession, is doing a voiceover in Hebrew of the experience for an AV phone clip while Alon, who works in finance, is listening intently to his father. As we observe Orly's memory project, she smiles back, "All this while, we had only heard of this part of Abba's [Hebrew: father] life. Now, we can to join the dots."

A replica of the plaque with dummy text. They are being designed in the United States and will have information in English, Hebrew and Marathi
A replica of the plaque with dummy text. They are being designed in the United States and will have information in English, Hebrew and Marathi

Twenty minutes before this photo album moment, we sip on chai with the Shapirs inside the Baghdadi Jewish Compound that houses the Magen David Synagogue (named after Sir David Sassoon). Shapir senior greets members of the community, and a group of foreign tourists. He shows us the bench that his family would occupy during service. "In the middle of prayers, I would tell my father that I wanted to visit the restroom and instead, would play with my friends," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

In the same compound, the Sir Jacob Sassoon School (named after Sassoon's grandson) reminds Dr Saul of another chapter. "I spent only a few months here after I returned from Barnes School (Deolali) where I studied for two years. Yet, it holds a special place," he says in between clicking frames of kids at play. We walk past the EEE Sassoon School and move southward, towards the Nagpada Gate. "We would run through the gate after school, and head to Johnny Golawala for his colourful ice candies," reminisces Dr Saul, pointing to the spot where the narrow gully meets with New Nagpada Road (now Sofia Zubair Road). Another establishment nearby, which was once an Irani café, is where he drank his first Pepsi Cola.

He stumbles upon several footnotes along the same road that are now sepia-tinted shadows of his past - the garden outside Hume Memorial Church where he would play with friends, Nagpada Neighbourhood House, where they would swing in a "jhoola" [he explains its meaning to Orly and Alon]. Dr Saul recalls watching Tarzan and Flash Gordon for one anna at a long-gone cinema hall.

We reach a buzzing junction, where the Khada Parsi statue stood before it was moved to its present location near Byculla railway station. "It's still known by that name," he informs his children, while giving them a crash course in Hebrew about what 'Khada' and 'Parsi' represent.

We reach our final stop - Jew Garden, renamed as Padmakar Tukaram Mane Udyan. Sadly, the welcome isn't a pleasant one. On either side of the gate, the original plaques stating its origins and important details have either been vandalised or cemented over. "Hopefully, when we install the new plaques and release the guidebook, it will help restore some of the forgotten legacy of the Jews here, including this landmark," sighs Dr Saul. Quickly shaking off the disappointment, he guides us to the exact spot inside the garden where he posed for a photograph as a young boy on the same day that he left for Israel. After sharing the moment with his children, he underlines the experience with what became the cue for the headline of this story: "This feels like another homecoming."

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