Thursday, May 10, 2012

Building Blocks

Kaumudi Marathe
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." Independence Day dawned clear and bright this year but a late rainfall at night seemed to have washed the streets of Bombay clean. Apart from a few enthusiastic jubilants and bus drivers, who had no day off to celebrate, the roads were empty.

There had been an exodus from the city for the long weekend. We escaped too that morning, down past Chowpatty, spot of many a public meeting during the Freedom Movement, named for its four channels of water, formed by the "incoming tide, before reclamations were made." This frolickers' beach was once a cremation ground. Lokmanya Tilak, whose statue watches over the sands today, was the last person to be cremated there. Past Chowpatty, down Hughes Road, turning east into Gamdevi.

Here, just off Pandita Ramabai Ranade Road, is a colony built by the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT), just one of their many residential projects across the city. Strangely like the Hindu and Parsee Colonies at Dadar-Matunga in atmosphere, this area was built around 1911. Well-known for a multitude of reasons, the neighbourhood's three main streets were named after the trees the BIT planted along them - Laburnum Road, Alexandra Road for its Alexandra Laurels, and Cirrus Avenue.

Mani Bhavan
During the Freedom Movement in the beginning of this century, 19 Laburnum Road must have been one of the best-known addresses in town. For here, at Mani Bhavan lived the Mahatma, whenever in Bombay, for meetings, talks or collections of money for the cause. From here, Gandhi launched the Salyagraha in 1919, and 13 years later, the Civic Disobedience Movement. And here he collected money for the movement, through the Tilak Swaraj Fund (TSF), in 1931. Overwhelmed by the generosity of Bombay's citizens, who contributed about Rs 98 lakhs to the TSF, Gandhiji praised the city, calling it "Bombay the Beautiful".

Beautiful is certainly a description applicable to Laburnum Road. Maisie Wright, a missionary teacher living at the Gamdevi University Settlement from 1928 to 1953, wrote in Under Malabar Hill that "I walked down Laburnum Road, wide and straight, shaded with laburnum trees, similar houses, all exuding strong odours of Indian cooking, occupied by the extended families of Hindu doctors and lawyers." Sixty years later very little has changed.

The sky is all but hidden by a canopy of leaves; the wide pavements carpeted with yellow blossoms and bright red "gunja" berries. Apart from three new apartment buildings at the end of the street, which fortunately stick to the line of the older structures, the houses are pretty much as they used to be. How fortunate these residents are, to be living in the heart of the city, with all the comforts of a small town neighbourhood around them. Gardens, well-planned homes, and walkways; the things that make a city life so much more pleasant. No filth, noise or disorder here.

Indeed the peaceful nature of the area is reflected in the Spiritual Centre at No 2, Laburnum. At the door there is a sign which reads: "Ego Stand: Please leave your ego on this stand."

It gets cooler and more lovely the deeper one goes towards Goragandhi Chowk. Here are more stately homes - at the corner of Tejpal Street; which leads to the Sheth Goculdas Tejpal Charities, and Krishna Sanghi Path, is the two-storey Barry Villa. A delicate pink, with a semicircular veranda entrance, in keeping with the corner plot, the bungalow built in 1912 is clean and well maintained. Sadly, however most homeowners have enclosed the verandas and balconies - the lungs of the house - with sliding windows or even walls, thus preventing light and air from finding their way in. Dhun House on Tejpal Street is a fortunate exception. A long, horizontal structure rather like an army barracks, its beauty derives from its wooden railed balconies, freshly painted white. Couples lean against railings, sipping an enviable cup of tea, chatting, enjoying the freshness of the morning air. Plants hang delicately down from holders; cane easy chairs, bric-a-brac and an elegant iron and wood jhoola are almost storybook touches to a pleasant scene. In one room where a child can be seen reading, sunlight floods in gloriously.

Krishna Sanghi Path ends at one entrance to August Kranti Maidan. If one turns right onto Alexandra Road, renamed Kashibai Navrane Road, a singular phenomenon will be observed. This street is a veritable champion of women's education and welfare. It houses the Arya Mahila Samaj, the Dr Kashibai Navrange Memorial Hostel for Women Students, the Pandita Ramabai Hostel, the Shanta Ashram, and a girls' school. St Columba School for Girls was established in 1832 but the present school buildings were probably constructed early in the 1900s. Made of black basalt and brick, neatly worked. St Columba's is a dark, sombre building, relieved only by its green wrought iron fencing and shrubbery.

Navrange Road is also interesting to car enthusiasts for its roadside exhibition of vintage cars ranging from a black MG coupe convertible to a sleek silver Jaguar and also specimens like the larger version of the Hindustan and the old, rounded Italian Fiat 110D, all very much in keeping with the character of the locality.

Back down the street to the entrance to August Kranti Maidan. The grounds have been divided into a number of smaller parks, some with jungle gyms for children, others left bare for sports. The walkway, fragrant with trampled rain tree flowers, is closed to automobiles and thus a joy to walk down. Children, up early for Independence Day parades now play, despite drooping eyelids, hopscotch or cricket, while the older ones saunter in groups, twirling the tricolour. A corner of the maidan has been given over to a park where a memorial column has been erected in Gandhiji's honour. But how wonderful that the remaining space has been converted for the use of children, the inheritors of the "tryst with destiny" that led to India's independence.

By now the sun is high in the sky and city-sounds at full pitch. Somehow on this bright day, brilliant with flashes of orange and green, the air is festive, the feeling of a people awake and alive to the reality of freedom.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 18 August 1994.

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