The back stories of Bombay

Updated: Dec 02, 2019, 07:55 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Seeped in its crevices and corners, the city is also home to hidden gems that add to its rich, multi-layered history. These must also be documented and celebrated like their obvious, more popular counterparts

Fiona FernandezWe were nearing the end of our walk at the historic Sewri Christian Cemetery. It was centred on Bombay's famous folk, its civic bosses and creative minds who were buried on this plot over centuries since its existence. Today, high-rises tower over their tombstones while a thick canopy created by centuries-old trees offer a striking divide between past and the present.

Interestingly, the one-hour experience to flag off the inaugural chapter of Walk with mid-day had extended to well over 90 minutes. The 10-12 participants — all mid-day readers who were picked via a quiz that the paper had carried — didn't seem to mind the extension at all, despite the rising humidity levels as we neared noontime. On the contrary, their queries continued well beyond the stipulated buffer time, over rounds of cutting chai in the asbestos-roofed assembly area.

On many occasions while taking the group on this walk I realised that I had to move beyond the set plan of stopovers. Interesting epitaphs were spotted, curious designs on tombstones were discussed, and debates around the origins of names inside the largest consecrated Christian burial ground in Asia meant it had led to a beautiful unravelling of histories along the way. I could almost imagine a smiling Arthur Crawford, the then Municipal Commissioner of Bombay whose decision let to the establishment of this cemetery in 1865, look down with pride at the renewed interest in the space.

Clearly, mid-day's intent to take lovers of the city on guided tours to show them slices of history seemed to have worked here. But as I left the sprawling site behind to my urban life and goings-on, a thought stayed on. Apart from our museums and landmarks like say, the Gateway of India and Flora Fountain, or even living heritage spaces like the Royal Opera House and the Art Deco ensemble that are in our line of vision, there must be countless such examples of the city's rich historic past, built on layers of episodic developments – the unseen treasures of the city. How amazing would it be if these are brought alive and documented in a sensitive way for more Bombaywallahs and tourists to appreciate and soak in.

On the few occasions when I have strolled past a favourite neighbourhood of mine – around Hindu and Parsi Colonies — the same feeling has emerged. I have also felt this need during countless walks around the quieter lanes of Colaba, off Causeway and Fort, in the gullies around Bhuleshwar and while speeding down the Freeway, as I looked at the port side of Bombay. In those streets and corners, many structures [that are still standing] would have possibly been witness to a Bombay in churn, especially with a closer look at building names, designs and curious shapes of their facades, or even the shapes of their balconies and entrances.

Recently, during an interview with noted architect Brinda Somaya and her daughter, Nandini, this need was further emphasised as talk veered to the Development Plan guidelines and how priceless parts of Bombay were under threat as a result of road widening plans. The many pyaus that dot the old city and their disappearance is a classic example of this undocumented history that we've sadly lost. While the cemetery and the invaluable stories it has preserved remain secure within its walls, it is the parts of the city that lie exposed to the threat of redevelopment that need to be swiftly chronicled by the heritage community lest we lose more layers of its magnificent past.

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