Mumbai: New book relays terrifying account of property disputes in Bandra

Updated: 26 August, 2018 08:18 IST | Benita Fernando | Mumbai

Everyone wants a piece of Bandra, and such is the story documented in a new book, The House at 43, Hill Road

The Queen of the suburbs is not without her suitors. Bandra, one of the most coveted addresses in Mumbai, is famed for its quaint bungalows, throwback charm, and waterfronts. But, Bandra is also a battlefield. Even as celebrities, creatives and upwardly mobile youngsters aspire for the 400050 tag to their addresses, this is where property owners have to defend themselves from land sharks. Everyone wants a piece of Bandra, and such is the story documented in a new book, The House at 43, Hill Road.

Authored by long-time Bandra-resident, Brenda Rodrigues, this work of non-fiction takes you to a plot of land - once numbered 36, and later changed to 43 - on Hill Road. Search for it today, by carefully reading shop addresses, and you shall locate it with some difficulty. On it stands a ragged four-storey structure, leaky and mossy. As with everything on Hill Road, the only prospect here is shopping. But, this is where Brenda and her husband, Joe, fought tooth and nail to save their building some decades ago.

The villa on what used to plot no. 36 (now 43), built by Braz Rodrigues in the mid-1800s. This photo was shot in 1972, when Brenda, the author, and Joe, her husband and Braz’s great-grandson, got married.
The villa on what used to plot no. 36 (now 43), built by Braz Rodrigues in the mid-1800s. This photo was shot in 1972, when Brenda, the author, and Joe, her husband and Braz’s great-grandson, got married.

A gentle beginning
Brenda recalls the dispute in her author's note and writes, "[It] was the start of an ugly ordeal that lasted six years. We had heard of cases of people being forced out of their property, but never imagined we would one day become victims ourselves. In fact, it did not take long for us to realise that we were locked in a no holds barred fight not only for our property, but for our very lives and the lives of our two young daughters."

None of that worry is seen today on Brenda and Joe's faces when we meet them at their Khar studio apartment. The couple, aged 74 and 77 respectively, have retired to the tranquil of rustic Goa, making occasional visits to Mumbai. Brenda is an author, and Joe has been conducting training programmes for leading companies for more than three decades. "We fought 71 cases for six years, from 1989 to 1994. Around 1992, when I started writing about what we were going through, I would break down at times. Putting the events on paper served as a catharsis for me. Today I can pass 43, Hill Road without a twinge of pain," says Brenda.

The villa was redeveloped in the 1970s into a ground plus three floors building, with shops on the ground floor. The Rodrigues family was given three flats, including this one. Pics/Brenda Rodrigues
The villa was redeveloped in the 1970s into a ground plus three floors building, with shops on the ground floor. The Rodrigues family was given three flats, including this one. Pics/Brenda Rodrigues

Her writing was picked up by new indie label, Bombaykala Books, which waited till the matter wasn't sub judice to publish it. The book will be launched today at 4 pm, at Holy Family Hospital, Bandra.

Broadly in two parts, the book starts with how the house came to be built on Hill Road, leading up to the present, when the dispute and the violence started. Brenda traces the Rodrigues' family tree to Braz Rodrigues, Joe's great-grandfather. Braz was born in 1811 in Parwar, a village near Pali Hill that the British burnt down after the plague infestation. Braz became a rich man, through the course of marriages and his an aerated water factory that he owned.

Some time around the mid-1800s, Braz purchased a plot, numbered 36, on Hill Road, and built a single-storey structure with high ceilings, flooring of Italian tiles and a large attic. The spacious villa earned the nickname of 'burra ghar' (big house). But, the picture Brenda paints of that time, be it of Bandra or the Rodrigues family, is far from idyllic. Over the years, problems within the family and with tenants surmounted, but none so much as what she and Joe had to face first-hand.

Braz Rodrigues' grave inside St Andrew's Church, Hill Road. Pic/Atul Kamble
Braz Rodrigues' grave inside St Andrew's Church, Hill Road. Pic/Atul Kamble

Threats to life
"The house Braz built, one of the first to be erected on Hill Road, was one of the last to be torn down in 1977," writes Brenda. In the 1970s, Bandra was abuzz with talks of redevelopment, and builders would approach Lydia Rodrigues, Joe's late mother and a noted dressmaker, with several proposals. Eventually, an agreement was drawn up with one of them, and in 1980, a ground plus three storey structure replaced the bungalow. Three flats were given to the Rodrigues. The ground floor had five shops, one of which became Lydia's bridal boutique. The remaining four shops and three other flats were sold by the builder. A cooperative housing society was formed with all the occupants as members.

Lydia, Joe's late mother and a noted dressmaker, who owned the property
Lydia, Joe's late mother and a noted dressmaker, who owned the property

This is when the problem started for the Rodrigues. Some shop owners, who happened to be property developers, started making "amendments" to the building, without the necessary permissions from the housing society. The resulting tussle between the flat owners and the shopkeepers took a new turn when the builder, who developed the property and had a flat in the building, fell in with the shopkeepers' plans. Another flat owner, a reputed doctor-couple, also switched sides.

The worst blow, Brenda writes, was that most BMC officials, police and lawyers were seemingly bought off by the builders and shop owners, leaving them little room for redressal. Policemen would stall them for hours before they could file complaints; lawyers would pretend to be away; important letters regarding hearings were not delivered; and mobs collected around the house late into the night on a couple of occasions. Their daughters were sent away to Dalhousie, following a danger of being kidnapped. The most horrific among these accounts include a coup to trap Joe in an attempt to stab him. Joe recalls, "I didn't know much about the Maharashtra Cooperative Societies Act, but, in the course of the dispute, I had to arm myself with that knowledge. Several people told us that we had best give up and get out.

That made me more determined. Where most people would have given up on disputes like these, we didn't. Of course, there came a turning point." Brenda's narrative can either terrify you or inspire you. You may feel glad that you don't have property in a prime area to protect, or help you draw courage from this couple to fight for your house. Here, you will find all the intrigue, manipulation and suspense of television drama, but Brenda chooses to be documentarian, recounting every step of the case in great detail. It may leave you wondering if the dispute was going around in circles, but that is precisely how long-drawn and exhausting it was. Also, since the account is personal, it does not fully capture other sides of the story.

Moreover, at the heart of the tale, is the sad truth about the disappearing East Indian community, known as the original inhabitants of this city, who are continually selling off their property and moving away from their ancestral homes and even Mumbai.

So, some 10 lawyers later and a dispute that cost them lakhs of rupees, the Rodrigues finally decided to sell their property in 1994. How they came to that decision is a large part of Brenda's story. Joe says, "Today, when we pass through Hill Road, I have no regrets that we chose to leave. This is not the Hill Road we grew up in - it was much quieter. So, for me, it was not an emotional wrench to finally leave the House at 43 Hill Road. So, I told them, take this house and go."

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First Published: 26 August, 2018 07:51 IST

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