Of tenderness and tension on miracle mile

Updated: 19 January, 2020 07:49 IST | Meher Marfatia | Mumbai

In the polarised present to grapple with, Mahim's LJ Road suggests how diversity is the only hope ahead

Under the Muslim rulers of Gujarat, at the tomb of Sufi saint Hazrat Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, the Qazi of Mahim, rose one of Bombay's oldest mosques. It was constructed by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1431. A 10-day Urs festival in December pulls pilgrims in flocks to the shrine where Mahim Police Station cops are first to offer a chadar. Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar
Under the Muslim rulers of Gujarat, at the tomb of Sufi saint Hazrat Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, the Qazi of Mahim, rose one of Bombay's oldest mosques. It was constructed by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1431. A 10-day Urs festival in December pulls pilgrims in flocks to the shrine where Mahim Police Station cops are first to offer a chadar. Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar

picOrdinary to extraordinary, every road has a story behind its name. That of Lady Jamshedji Road in Mahim is warmer than most. Distraught after miscarrying the daughters she conceived, Lady Avabai Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, wife of First Baronet, Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, prayed at Mount Mary Church. Local Kolis rowed her to it in a boat between Salsette and Mahim islands. When a child survived, in the 1840s she donated R1,57,000 to construct the Mahim Causeway, bridging the dangerous swampy distance, vitally linking south to north Bombay.

Random "development" ruins the serene palm wadi that Mahim thought it could remain. But a dense cosmopolitanism, from St Michael's Church to Victoria Church, lends this communally vibrant stretch of LJ Road a certain beauty. Devotees kneel at pews surrounded by the sound of the call to azaan, even as Maharashtrian wedding revellers halt mid-dance for a Christian funeral procession.

Under the Muslim rulers of Gujarat, at the tomb of Sufi saint Hazrat Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, the Qazi of Mahim, rose one of Bombay's oldest mosques. It was constructed by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1431, the year also dating the Haji Ali dargah. A 10-day Urs festival in December pulls pilgrims in flocks to the shrine where Mahim Police Station cops are first to offer a chadar.

The cover of Mirza’s book, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, where he featured childhood haunts in this neighbourhood
The cover of Mirza’s book, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, where he featured childhood haunts in this neighbourhood. Pic/ Ahish Raje

Once the marshy capital of the seven islands, Mahim derives from "Mahimavati", meaning "miraculous" in Sanskrit. In the demonic days we live through, little lanes here hum with unexpected tenderness amid trauma. Crown Bakery's wall clock may have stopped ticking on its closure to accommodate the Metro corridor. Not before keeping doors open to customers for 65 years, even through the riots. "I saw men being shot on the road outside," Rohinton Khosravi remembered. "How to shutter down when people most need something to sustain them?"

In the darkest hours, on LJ Cross Road 1, Janaki Kanemar was touched by unforgettable kindness. "Wearing a saree and big bindi obviously identifying her, she ventured on the deserted road to bring our maid home," says her daughter Shobha Rao. "A Muslim we barely knew escorted them protectively." Everywhere, as dreaded knocks on doors got louder, fearful Muslims gave Hindu and Christian neighbours and friends their valuables for safekeeping.

Ann Gracias on the balcony of her Ferreira Mansion flat on Sitladevi Temple Road. The four blocks of this 1937-built complex have been home to any number of actors, dancers, film producers, directors and writers, including Saeed Akhtar Mirza;
Ann Gracias on the balcony of her Ferreira Mansion flat on Sitladevi Temple Road. The four blocks of this 1937-built complex have been home to any number of actors, dancers, film producers, directors and writers, including Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Despite such fine diversity, LJ Road has suffered the savagery of mob fury and violence, especially in the city's ignominious 1992-93 phase. Starting from its timber market, the blood of coldly hatched pogroms spilt on this street, gang wars gripped it, bootlegging still sullies it. So, the sister shrines of Vitthal Mandir and Hazrat Gaitan Shah Peer Rehmatullah dargah, on Mori Road near iconic St Michael's Church, are a welcome sight. Having celebrated the same century year, they nestle a companionable foot apart beneath an ancient banyan.

A couple of cross lanes later comes Ferreira Mansion, handsomely built in 1937 on Sitladevi Temple Road. Its star residents included actress Leela Chitnis, kathak legends Sitara Devi and Gopi Krishna, producers Kidar Sharma and Gulshan Rai. And Akhtar Mirza, the scriptwriter of Naya Daur and Waqt, whose five-time National Award winner son Saeed propelled parallel cinema way up with Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Naseem. His themes squarely secular, their polemical creator said in an interview, "Words like democracy and patriotism have lost significance. There's a need to retrieve them."

Arif Merchant, third-generation proprietor of Victoria Music House & Circulating Library, the treasure trove of comics and classics on LJ Road since 1950
Arif Merchant, third-generation proprietor of Victoria Music House & Circulating Library, the treasure trove of comics and classics on LJ Road since 1950

The iconoclast credits his father for urging him to question. In his book, Memory in the Age of Amnesia, Saeed is inspired by the inhabitants of Ferreira Mansion's four blocks. "I was a vessel, absorbing stories of these people, their hopes, dreams and idiosyncrasies." More specifically, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, describes hangouts like Paradise Cinema, Paramount Restaurant, his favourite falooda joint and Bombay Scottish School.

Fascinated by lurid posters of Paradise's weekly changes, I piece its past with a cousin owning it. The Dubash clan spun movie magic much before Paradise. Shavaksha Dubash, an engineer, and his doctor brother Bapuji became film exhibitors (followed by Shavaksha's sons Jemi and Fali), opening Royal Cinema in 1914 in the Pila House theatre district. In 2014, the surviving partners, Niloufer, her sister Meherzin and mother Alloo celebrated the Dubash centenary in showbiz. Their location is an asset, middle class Mahim an accurate barometer of public taste. Whistles and whoops echo in the marbled interiors, very vocal responses to hit songs with dance moves in the aisles, aping screen idols. "An Ajay Devgn fan jumped onto a POP ceiling decoration to try the Singham pull-up," Niloufer laughs.

The shrines of  Vitthal Mandir and Hazrat Gaitan Shah Peer Rehmatullah dargah have stood almost entwined under the same banyan for over a hundred years. FILE PIC
The shrines of  Vitthal Mandir and Hazrat Gaitan Shah Peer Rehmatullah dargah have stood almost entwined under the same banyan for over a hundred years. File pic   

From Victoria Dry Cleaners and Dyers, Ignatius Quadros walked daily to Paradise for evening chai with the Dubashes. He worked for Leach and Weborny before becoming the proprietor of Blue Angel Laundry at Tardeo in 1965. "Victoria was a laundry he took over in the early 1990s," says his son Valerian. "We innovate in competitive times, operating German, Italian and American machines."

Next door, another institution alludes to Victoria (Our Lady of Victories) Church, with an 1885-inscribed cross. "My grandfather Abdullah Jaffer, who came from Surat, sold his own books along with soaps and detergents," says Arif Merchant in Victoria Music House & Library. Arif's father Noor Ali consolidated those collections in 1950. Perched on a small stool, I'm dwarfed by towering piles of classics and comics stacked in glorious variety. With Diamond Comics' Mahabali Shaka and the Disturbed Soul, you can pick Ifor Evans' Short History of English Literature.

In a particularly distressing week, St Michael's displays a topical notice board—"JNU: Jesus Necessitates Unity". Past messages have opposed GST and supported the forests of Aarey. The city's oldest Portuguese Franciscan church, from 1534, hosts Novena masses that thousands across the country attend nine consecutive Wednesdays. This site saw an 1853 struggle between Bishop Anastasius Hartmann and the Padroado faction. Under vicars apostolic, the church faced dissenters wanting control with the Padroado section. Leading the vicars, Hartmann expressed he would "rather die a martyr than surrender to schismatics". Their adversaries blocking all entrances, he and his followers lay besieged within for a fortnight, till civil authorities intervened and the church reopened under the Padroado group.

An early 20th-century view of densely wooded LJ Road, then just a palm wadi with bullock carts the only mode of land transport. Kolis are believed to have rowed Lady Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy in a boat to Mount Mary’s Church
An early 20th-century view of densely wooded LJ Road, then just a palm wadi with bullock carts the only mode of land transport. Kolis are believed to have rowed Lady Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy in a boat to Mount Mary’s Church 

"There were such a lot of us. Today we look like newcomers," says musician and model Raymond Albuquerque, explaining the Catholic exodus to Borivli and Orlem. We chat in 1939-built Marie Villa, belonging to his childhood buddy Oscar D'souza, who interjects, "Raymond and I practically lived in Crown Bakery." Sharing the history of her husband's family from Aldona, Goa, Oscar's 97-year-old mother says their plot was acquired by her father-in-law Joaquim D'souza, a chartered accountant with the Port Trust.

Accompanying me to crisscross lanes, Oscar introduces Ann Gracias, who serves slices of rum-soaked Christmas cake the moment I enter her Ferreira Mansion home. It being the feast of the Epiphany (January 6 marks the twelfth night bringing the Magi to Bethlehem), her crib continues to light a Nativity manger with barn animals, to which she has added ethnic creatures like a metal pig from Moradabad and Agra stone elephant. The former Burlington's merchandise manager paints an unimaginably bucolic picture of LJ Road farmers tending vegetable fields and the dawn tinkle of bells on cows drawing well water.

Winding past Travasso Wadi where Stanley Travasso rents vintage cars, we enter the avenue of pretty Silvan Mansion, Clarence Villa and Rose-Mary Villa with an angel and star carved into its facade. In a cul-de-sac opposite the chapel hides Spanish teacher Audrey Lopez's red-walled cottage. Christened Edelweiss, weaving her parents Edward and Gladys' names as best possible, its garden is fragrant with peppercorns and petunias. "This is Kote Wadi land near Mahim fort given to my maternal grandmother, a Miranda, as her wedding gift," she says. "Cottages around have simply vanished."

St Michael’s Church in its earlier avatar. The city’s oldest Portuguese Franciscan church, this was constructed in 1534 by church builder Antonio do Porto
St Michael’s Church in its earlier avatar. The city’s oldest Portuguese Franciscan church, this was constructed in 1534 by church builder Antonio do Porto

Gone, too, is Paradise Restaurant and Stores, whose plum pudding residents ordered by the boxful. "What will you search, many old haunts have disappeared," murmurs Meher Irani. He sits in Shafi Manzil, at what was Maiyar Cold Drink House, now Ahura Cuisine. Across the road, conversation proves tough when I reach iconic Paramount Restaurant in a briskly busy lunch hour.

Parsis beyond Contractor Baug and Khan Estate colonies revere the aura of the Soonawala Agiary, traced to Aden. That thriving port had large numbers of Parsi traders. An agiary erected for their worship in 1883 by shipping magnate Cowasji Dinshaw Adenwalla was consecrated with fire (atash) of holiest Adaran grade. When the British left Yemen, relocating Parsis determinedly brought back the fire that nurtured them on foreign shores. Flown on a chartered Air India Boeing in November 1976, the sacred flame "rested" at Mahim's Soonawala Agiary, before being escorted by a convoy barring other traffic on the Bombay-Poona highway, to finally glow at Lonavla's Adenwalla Agiary.

From her Canossa Convent years, Shobha Rao recalls hawkers waiting after school with boras, sheng, chanachor and raw mango. "We greeted stylish church-going aunties, clicked studio pictures at the Urs mela, sang bhajans in Sitladevi Mandir for good exam results. LJ Road exemplifies the cosmopolitan living that Bombay is proud of."

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First Published: 19 January, 2020 08:00 IST

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