Triple charm on the Chowpatty sands

Oct 21, 2018, 06:01 IST | Meher Marfatia

A trio of Renaissance Revivalist buildings in Chowpatty tell warm tales from over a century

Triple charm on the Chowpatty sands

Meher MarfatiaWho wants to be stuck in a snarl of city traffic? I do, occasionally. Delighted to slow-halt for the eyes to feast on a building as breathtakingly beautiful as it is shockingly neglected. Awed by Adenwalla Mansion at Chowpatty, I find fascinating this entire stretch, where "chau-pati" - "four paths" - channelled tide flows till the western foreshore was reclaimed.

With a magnificent dome supposed to be inspired by Oxford's neo-classical Radcliffe Camera building, Adenwalla Mansion's crumbling charms are happily not solitary. Rowed alongside in Renaissance Revivalist style, Noor Mansion and Orient Club rose at the start of the 1900s, separated by low iron railings bordered with jackfruit, white jamun and badam boughs.

Sam Thanawala at 95, flanked by his son Jal and grandson Zal, is Adenwalla Mansion's oldest living resident
Sam Thanawala at 95, flanked by his son Jal and grandson Zal, is Adenwalla Mansion's oldest living resident

Hugging the corner opposite Wilson College, Adenwalla Mansion exudes dignity in decrepitude. Gazing at its round balconies between imposing pillars, I imagine the 12,000-square-feet residence of Banoo Cowasji, whose father Sohrabji Cowasji Adenwalla commissioned the striking 1910 structure. Her suite of rooms fanned out to the ballroom with a grand piano - Zal Cowasji proudly mentions his grandmother was an accomplished pianist.

Banoo's niece Perin Cooper laughs, recounting that as children they ran out in vests and shorts to learn swimming in the sea. In a warm assertion of boyhood friendship enduring over years and continents, her brother Minoo Adenwalla, political science professor at Lawrence University, Wisconsin, phones his nonagenarian buddy Sam Thanawala every other week. "What a dear thing to do. He must wait until midnight to talk in my daytime," says Sam, who came to Adenwalla Mansion in 1933 "when the prettiest double flowerbeds were planted parallel in the compound where we roller-skated".

The Orient Club

In their Minton-tiled apartment, the Engineers recollect the garden lush with coconut trees around a magnificent Christmas tree. "The Adenwallas hosted terrace parties with drinks under the dome," says Sorab Engineer whose grandfather moved into what was a German Embassy flat. "Our ruined central stairway used to be soft-carpeted, with gleaming brass banisters."

A level lower, Sheela Sheth shares how, 80 years ago, her grandfather-in-law Occhavlal Nathjibhai was one of Bhuleshwar's first residents to shift to Chowpatty, hearing of these apartments on lease from a fellow stockbroker. On the beach, Sardar Patel and Bose delivered patriotic diatribes, her aunt Taru says. "With such fiery speeches there were also discourses by people like Swami Chinmayanada."

The Orient Club (Above), opened on May 1, 1900 as an exclusive gentlemen's club. Seen here are Gulamhusein Rahimtulla Khairaz, the Presidency Chief Magistrate who was allotted an apartment in the building, with his wife Sherbanoo, daughter of the first Ismaili Khoja Baronet, Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim
The Orient Club (Above), opened on May 1, 1900 as an exclusive gentlemen's club. Seen here are Gulamhusein Rahimtulla Khairaz, the Presidency Chief Magistrate who was allotted an apartment in the building, with his wife Sherbanoo, daughter of the first Ismaili Khoja Baronet, Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim

The ground floor of Adenwalla Mansion housed a pair of interesting organisations. The Aga Khan Gymkhana yet retains an office, consigned to dusty desolation. This was where male elders of the city's Ismaili sect once met for spirited evening rounds of billiards and cards. And Dadabhai Naoroji's granddaughter Perin Captain (who lived above Orient Club next door) helmed the premises of the Hindustani Prachar Sabha here. Founded in 1942 by Gandhiji, the Sabha conducted classes in spoken Hindi and Urdu, to promote Hindustani as a link language.

If Perin Cooper's family waved from Adenwalla Mansion to the Viceroy clipping down from Walkeshwar in a horse-drawn coach, on Noor Mansion's verandah, Gautam Patel cast a respectful glance at Pope John Paul II driving by in the bullet-proof "Popemobile". From the erstwhile Carlton Club in The Orient Club building, Niloufer Gupta's ancestors watched a succession of governors step out from carriages to escort elegant wives sashaying up the club's wooden stairs.

Dureshwar Beg Mohammed with her son Abubaker and granddaughter Shifa.
Dureshwar Beg Mohammed with her son Abubaker and granddaughter Shifa.

On a plot laid along the sands by the Improvement Trust, the Orient Club, now a card players' paradise, occupies the ground and first levels. The Carlton Club Chambers, on the second and third, accommodated Bench members arriving from the UK for trials held here. It was a properly Brit, self-contained operation, with hamaals hired from Surat, cooks and stewards from Goa - the English-fluent latter translating instructions for the Surtis. Prime-positioned in the Presidency judiciary, Niloufer's maternal grandfather Gulamhusein Rahimtulla Khairaz was allocated the third-floor flat in 1928.

The architect for The Orient Club, which opened on May Day in 1900, was Charles Frederick Stevens, son of FW Stevens who created the Municipal Corporation Building and Victoria Terminus. The motto "Absit Invidia" (literally meaning "May envy be lacking" or "No ill-will intended") displayed in the porchway, this exclusive gentlemen's club extended entry by strict invitation. It also somewhat snootily accepted only members' wives considered capable of good conversation and cutlery etiquette. Among the elite few was Gupta's grandmother Sherbanoo, educated daughter of the first Ismaili Khoja baronet, Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim. Across the apartment assigned to her Chief Presidency Magistrate husband resided the Bombay Mint Master, a Mr Mitter. That passed on to Scout Master of the Presidency, Naval Dordi, then becoming home to Shaina NC, whose NGO, Giants International, is a floor beneath.

Three generations of Beg Mohammeds in the hall of their 1910-built ancestral Noor Mansion
Three generations of Beg Mohammeds in the hall of their 1910-built ancestral Noor Mansion

Inhabitants of the flats flitted in and out of each other's homes, especially for joint celebrations such as the Zoroastrian Jamshedi Navroze and Shia Navroze on March 21, marking spring in Iran as well as the installation of Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law as the fourth Caliph. Newspapers like Jam-e-Jamshed and Mumbai Samachar were regularly relayed between the Dordis and the Khairaz sisters, with Dosu Karaka's Current, Russi Karanjia's Blitz, and mid-day.

On January 10, 1940, the Orient Club threw a lavish luncheon, at which the longest serving Viceroy advocated "Dominion Status of Westminster variety". Lord Linlithgow announced India an independent dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations led by King George VI. "Pre-Independence, Bhulabhai Desai visited Orient Club and came up to meet my grandfather," Niloufer says. "I was put on show as granddaughter of the Gandhian, Dr Rajabally Patel, from my paternal side."

Niloufer often played hide-and-seek with children of the staff, hiding under the Orient Club staircase. "Right from my birth this feels like a special space, with splendid horizon views, the silver froth of angry monsoon waves, small fishing boats bobbing in the waters and cooing pigeons nested in the eaves of our house."

She regales me with vivid accounts of life in both buildings flanking hers. Like catching movies at Lamington Road's Imperial Cinema, belonging to the Beg Mohammeds of Noor Mansion. "We would be four giggly girls in the special box meant for the family, who were my friends, munching wafers as we were entertained by the lovely singing star Leela Chitnis." Another glamorous tenant was the actress Bina Rai - "We tried to spot her leave for evenings out." On the second storey, the Beg Mohammed patriarch presided over a vast dinner table. Disregarding plush Chesterfields, the diminutive matriarch sat with her paan daan on a Gujarati swing in their beach-facing balcony.

In adjacent Adenwalla Mansion, Roda Patel was "Popatwali Aunty" to Niloufer's graphic designer daughter Rabia. Her Zanzibar Grey hollered kids' names, squawk-shushing them with "Chup, masti mat karo!" Rabia and I teeter tiptoed to trace an imprint on her hall's impossibly high beams. "Dorman Long & Co, Middlesbrough, England", we decipher, dating to the 1890s.

In his first-floor flat in bougainvillea-brushed Noor Mansion, venture capitalist Gautam Patel introduces me to Salim Nathani and Abubaker Beg Mohammed, neighbours bonded through early games of cricket and Monopoly. Salim says, "If you think we're close, our parents were even tighter." Abu's great-grandfather, cotton baron Aboobaker Abdulrehman Beg Mohammed, erected handsome-in-limestone Noor Mansion in 1910. With massive rooms topped by 18-feet-tall ceilings, it was named for Noor Mohammed, his father Abdulrehman's brother. "He commissioned the best materials like this still smooth Italian marble," Abu says.

The expansive Beg Mohammed clan, hailing from Kathiawad, was torn apart like thousands of families. "Among his siblings, my maternal grandfather Ibrahim alone stayed back at Partition," says Abu's cousin, Riyad Oomerbhoy." Riyad and sister Roohi moved to Noor Mansion with their parents in 1987 from the ancestral Oomerbhoy residence (the Postman groundnut oil brand was masterminded by great-grandfather Ahmed Oomerbhoy) just yards away – Sattar Sea View, popular as the Bachelorr's Juice address. Their flat was one of the last done up by the day's hottest decorator duo, Parmeshwar Godrej and Sunita Pitamber.

Gautam's merchant navy officer father, Arun Chandrakant Patel, explains 1947 reverse-routed his family to Noor Mansion. Sailing from Karachi on a Scindia Steam Navigation Company ship, Captain Patel's parents, Dr Sarla Patel and Dr Chandrakant Patel, worked in a clinic set up within the house. Their film world patients included musician Jaikishan Panchal and superstars Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni and Jairaj.

Till the 1970s, Sundays saw the city police ensemble toot snazzy tunes under the rotunda of the Babulnath Bandstand (Tulsidas Kilachand Garden today). Growing up on the grass of this park, Gautam Patel says, "The breezy beach before us, Bombay International School maidan behind us, the bandstand beside us, made that a brilliant Bombay to be brought up in."

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com/ www.mehermarfatia.com

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