When Gandhi met Jinnah in 1982

Updated: Jun 25, 2019, 14:30 IST | Meher Marfatia

This SoBo stretch named for David Fremantle Carmichael of the Civil Services is now ML Dahanukar Road, honouring the first post-Independence Sheriff whose family occupied Shree Sadan mid-street

When Gandhi met Jinnah in 1982
Nikhil Wagle, grandson of the longest-tenured RBI Governor, Sir Benegal Rama Rau, outside the Reserve Bank of India bungalow on Carmichael Road

Meher MarfatiaSoft winds whispering between them, trees swish curtseys over palatial homes. This is Carmichael Road, rowed with regal residences Claude Batley and George Wittet imagined along the eastern cliff edge of Cumballa Hill. This SoBo stretch named for David Fremantle Carmichael of the Civil Services is now ML Dahanukar Road, honouring the first post-Independence Sheriff whose family occupied Shree Sadan mid-street.

The hallowed hallways of Bureaucrat Boulevard entertain august company. Especially in bungalows like the Municipal Commissioner's, Bombay Port Trust Chairman's and Reserve Bank of India Governor's. The 1920s-constructed Municipal Commissioner's mansion's colonial-style portico and arcaded verandah are visible in a scene of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, showing Jinnah and Gandhiji walk down the driveway. Interior shots were filmed at next-door North End, the BPT bungalow Wittet designed.

Sir Benegal Rama Rau and Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rau with Dr Radhakrishnan in South Africa, 1938. A leader in the Indian women’s rights movement, Padma Bhushan Dhanvanthi Rama Rau was also the International President of Planned Parenthood. Pic courtesy/An Inheritance: The Memoirs of Dhanvanthi Rama Rau
Sir Benegal Rama Rau and Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rau with Dr Radhakrishnan in South Africa, 1938. A leader in the Indian women’s rights movement, Padma Bhushan Dhanvanthi Rama Rau was also the International President of Planned Parenthood. Pic courtesy/An Inheritance: The Memoirs of Dhanvanthi Rama Rau

When Jamsheed Kanga was the 1984-86 Municipal Commissioner, his wife Firoza felt challenged filling 10,000 square feet of the cavernous C-shaped mansion. "Each room as enormous as an average Bombay flat", she was forced to borrow furniture from an assortment of aunts. The couple singles out the teakwood staircase as the bungalow's most magnificent feature.

Explaining civic protocol intricacies, Razaq the chauffeur insisted Kanga compulsorily switched on the "lal batti" of the BMC car, a formality the understated Commissioner wished he could shed. With the Shiv Sena in power and "a mayor who thought he was Chief Minister", Kanga urged, "The intelligentsia should take interest in their city's governance." Those were the years conservation legislation started to be scripted and Kanga went on to head the Heritage Committee.

Rowena, daughter of BPT Chairman, AL Dias, as a 1963 bride leaving from the porchway of North End, after which she joined her diplomat husband for a "honeymoon posting" in Bonn
Rowena, daughter of BPT Chairman, AL Dias, as a 1963 bride leaving from the porchway of North End, after which she joined her diplomat husband for a "honeymoon posting" in Bonn

Kanga's daughter Fareeda speaks of her father's unflinching correctitude. "The house wasn't air-conditioned at that time. Dad said, 'We're not spending taxpayers' money because you feel hot.'" He moved the box AC of their house at Cooperage into a small office room with a desk on which 11-year-old Fareeda climbed to sleep on sweltering afternoons.

"Painfully straightforward" is how Nikhil Wagle also sums up his grandfather, Sir Benegal Rama Rau, fourth and longest-serving (1949-57) Governor to grace the 1919-built Reserve Bank of India bungalow. While he served at financial and diplomatic postings with distinction, his wife Dhanvanthi pursued pioneering work with women's associations, which earned her the prestigious Kaiser-I-Hind gold medal.

The family of Jamsheed Kanga at the Municipal Commissioner's bungalow in 1985. Seen behind is a striking watercolour painting of the BMC Headquarters that Kanga discovered in a go-down, which he had cleaned and hung. Pic courtesy/Parsiana
The family of Jamsheed Kanga at the Municipal Commissioner's bungalow in 1985. Seen behind is a striking watercolour painting of the BMC Headquarters that Kanga discovered in a go-down, which he had cleaned and hung. Pic courtesy/Parsiana

The son of Sir Rama Rau's elder daughter Premila — writer Santha Rama Rau was the younger — Wagle says, "Carmichael Road resembled some family lane, a little gossip colony. Though I attended boarding school in England as a 5-year-old, summers spent with my grandparents gave me ideals to live by, in an age the raison of politics was
all altruistic."

From Villa Nirmala, his parents' home, Wagle bicycled to the RBI bungalow for breakfast. He was waved into the main gate by a silent, stocky five-foot Nepalese gurkha sheathing a huge kukri. At the end of their long dining table sat Sir Rama Rau, delicately partaking of one of two passions: mangoes. The other? Sartorial elegance in immaculately cut sharkskin suits topped by his Homburg.

Lady Jerbai Mody at Spiro Spero, Sir Homi Mody’s 1942-built bungalow which is presently the Japanese Consulate
Lady Jerbai Mody at Spiro Spero, Sir Homi Mody’s 1942-built bungalow which is presently the Japanese Consulate

Within lay three shiny kitchens: Indian, Western and Pudding, that quite quaint Commonwealth synonym for any dessert after multi-course meals, to which guests brought personal bearers who stood at discreet attention directly behind their respective employers.

The RBI governorship came later. Following High Commission assignments in London and South Africa, Rama Rau was appointed 1941-46 Chairman of the Bombay Port Trust. That was how he inhabited two of these government properties. Sharad Kale was another double innings man, in different years hosting Hindustani classical music concerts in the Commissioner bungalow's durbar hall and tea parties on North End's lawns.

A more receded residence set amid spectacular grounds, 1918-erected North End was BPT Chairman S Ramamoorthi's address from 1986 to '89. "The house taught me a nice new word — loggia — with a wonderful example to relax on," he recollects. "My botanist wife was delighted by the surrounding sea of green, particularly the mussaenda flowers. We missed peacocks that once strutted around the garden." Stung by his daughter dubbing him "Zero-time father" in earlier jobs, Ramamoorthi shunned work at home.

The family of AL Dias was luckier sighting the colourful national bird. The BPT Chairman at North End from 1960 to '64 saw peacocks freely roam the plot encircled by Tardeo Hill. His daughter Rowena says, "I was 'given away' as a bride from this home affording us the height of gracious living and luxury." She loved that loggia and remembers her father pottering about in the shrubbery. Those mussaendas thrilled Dias as they had the Ramamoorthis. "He was absolutely a mali at heart," laughs Rowena. "His greatest joy was planting mussaendas in our Goa house."

The government cognoscenti shared walls with ancestral establishments like No. 1 Carmichael Road. That was Sir Homi and Lady Jerbai Mody's 1942 bungalow, Spiro Spero. The Japanese Consulate today, the name is derived from "Dum spiro, spero", Latin for "While I breathe, I hope." Its Spanish-inspired contours held rooms with rare statuary, rich brocade sofas, Persian rugs and Chinese chintz, a library laid with panther skin on parquet and the terrace room with a smooth dance floor ringed by built-in seats. Crystal vases spilled canna lilies and chrysanthemums everywhere.

"This is Bombay's Beverly Hills, the city's best mile," declared Kali, the second of Mody's trio of sons. They shifted in the '70s to The Cliff, only yards away. It was built 50 years ago by jeweller Victor Rosenthal who handed the property to initial occupants in exchange for chows of pearls and a precious carpet.

Upturning the notion of the road as a bourgeoise preserve is the strikingly angled 1942 cottage industrialist-philanthropist Kasturbhai Lalbhai, of the Lalbhai Group, Ahmedabad, commissioned Claude Batley to draw. His grandson Sunil, the son of Siddharth Lalbhai, calls this gem a transit home in Bombay that generations of family and friends have flitted through. It completely mirrors the family's guiding principles of simple living and high thinking. Step onto in-situ flooring that glows cosily, to be greeted by woody fragranced air. Organically connected rooms are suffused with tender sunlight filtered through 42 sparkling windows and 21 doors (painstakingly counted at my request by Sunil's sister Taral) which welcome the verdure outside within.

Retaining traditional physical elements like chhajjas and sloping roofs to withstand Bombay rain, Batley used basalt stone excavated from the rocky site the cottage rests on. To suit the family's preference of avoiding the kitchen beside the eating area, he placed it a level lower than the living room. Their exquisite horseshoe-shaped dining table was selected by Siddharth Lalbhai's artist cousin Srimatiben (Soniben), who married Rabindranath Tagore's nephew Soumendranath.

Batley synced perfectly with Kasturbhai – whom American modernist Louis Kahn considered "the greatest natural architect" he ever met. Purposeful, persevering, an institution-builder par excellence and Padma Bhushan awardee, Kasturbhai Lalbhai had a Rajput linage traced to Osian, originally. His ancestors illuminated Akbar's court.

Rajasthan-rooted, too, are the Morarjis of Vasant Vihar, bought by Kirti (Kim) Morarji's grandfather Ratansi D Morarji in the 1940s. Kutchi Bhatias from Jaisalmer, the Morarjis rank among Bombay port's founding fathers, establishing the city's trade credentials. Kirti says, "My great-great-grandfather Morarji Gokuldas arrived in erstwhile Bombay as a stowaway from Porbunder. He was employed in a textile shop. When the proprietor left for a pilgrimage, he was given charge. Scaling up business in the owner's absence, young Morarji was presented the shop as reward." So began the Morarji Gokuldas Spinning and Weaving Mills story.

As Vasant Vihar is No. 8 Carmichael Road, Kirti's sister Jamini Ahluwalia christened her home store Bungalow Eight. Soirees of the 1950s-60s at house included Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (6th Baronet) and his wife Soonoo, Krishna and Gunottam (Raja) Hutheesing, Nitya and Premila Wagle, Keki and Ellen Modi, Jehangir and Shirin Sabavala, the Karanjias and the Commissariats.

Ratansi Morarji was a Theosophist contemporary of Annie Besant and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Kirti says, "I was blessed growing up around Krishnaji, whose followers streamed through our house when he visited." Cultural czarina Pupul Jayakar records her encounter with the philosopher, in J Krishnamurti: A Biography — "At Ratansi Morarji's house, where Krishnamurti stayed, I saw Achyut Patwardhan outside the entrance. He had become a revolutionary, but I knew him since we were children in Varanasi in the 1920s. We spoke before going into the sitting room to await Krishnamurti. He entered and my senses exploded; I had a sudden intense perception of immensity and radiance."

Octogenarian Nawshir Khurody from Darbhanga Mansion rode ponies here as a boy, trotting beneath trees then tagged by their botanical names. Next door, kind Sir Sultan Chinoy, who helped bring broadcasting to 1930s Bombay, invited kids he noticed hang at windows, wanting to be asked to his mansion for games of lawn tennis. Fascinated, they watched pigeon shooting and stared at a sadhu settled where Rashmi building stands. Evenings saw them chase gas-lighters carrying poles and ladders on cycles, begging to put on a lamp.

"Neighbourhoods we're brought up in impact our character in an undefined manner," says Khurody. "Sad to see skyscrapers on a street never snobbish, just gentle and non-judgemental, accommodating a happy mix of communities and tongues."

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly 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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