Thursday, May 10, 2012

Coming Full Circle

Kaumudi Marathe
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

There are days in everyone's life, which are perpetually bathed in a golden glow - of sunshine, cool breezes and a feeling of well-being. The King's Circle Sunday was one such day. The air was fresh and the neighbourhood looked washed clean as if by rain. The summer heat could hardly he felt under the shirish and gul-mohur trees.

With most shops around this Matunga circle closed for the weekly off, the booksellers had room to spread out on the pavement. Passers-by stopped to browse through old issues of Harper's Bazaar, Lancet or Pig and book enthusiasts journeyed here from across the city, searching for that special find. Perhaps the autographed copy of a novel, or tucked into the page of a textbook, an old tram ticket, itself an antique.

In the days when trams were still in use in this city, the Bombay Improvement Trust held a meeting to discuss the development of the Dadar-Matunga Scheme, "and the garden proposed to be laid out at the highest point of Vincent Road, due east of Matunga station". The King Emperor was to be asked permission for the naming of this circular garden (finally built in 1916) as "Kings Circle" and for the avenue from Crawford Market to Sion Causeway as King's Way.

The avenue got built only for a short length up to the old tram terminus at Elphinstone Road, and even without official sanction the name of the garden stuck. Today King's Circle lends its name to the locality branching out around it, towards Parsee Colony on the one hand and Shankarmatt on the other.

In the lanes leading off from the garden are three-storied houses with balconies overlooking the road. Homes with large yards, decorated by fragrant mogra and parijatak trees. The residences of middle-class South Indians; names like Keny and Kamat recur frequently on nameplates. Even without this clue however, the origin of residents is obvious from the pungent aroma of sambar bubbling on countless stoves. And, of course, there's the shop that sells tea, coffee and Coimbatore butter!

In the next lane is the famous Cafe Madras, in whose unpretentious interiors the smell of sambar and mulagapudi is even stronger, tickling the taste buds. But the names of dishes on the menu are incomprehensible - pessaratte, adai and tuppa - needing a translation from the waiter. All three items are variations of dosas, made with moong dal, or chana dal or arrowroot and udad dal, and garnished with chopped chillies and onion.

Invigorated by unusual flavours, we walked around the garden and turned onto Hormusji Adenwala Road leading to Parsee Colony, one of the better-planned and more self-sufficient residential areas of Bombay. The streets are, without exception, tree-lined and clean, flanked by pavements meant for walking on. The area has been systematically planned making it easy to locate addresses; there is none of the bustle, noise and confusion of the crooked lanes in the city's old "native quarter".

In Matunga, as in neighbouring Sion, there were only saltpans and forests till wealthy Parsees moved here, away from the growing crush of the city early in the 1920s. "Well within living memory," writes historian Gillian Tindall, "this area was still open land sprinkled with trees, a pleasant spot for a Sunday picnic".

There may be no woods here today but the spot is still more than pleasant and full of surprises. A whimsical decision to turn of the main road led to the discovery of a large fairytale-like structure, with a high, white dome, stone columns and delicately arched windows. This is the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute, oddly reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.

Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute
The foundation stone for this building was laid in 1917 by the Baron Willingdon of Ratton, Governor of Bombay from 1913 to 1918. But the Institute was established in 1887 and named to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. As part of the jubilee celebrations also, the station for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway was named the Victoria Terminus and the first sluice of the Victoria Dock was opened by Lady Reay. The Institute was first housed at Byculla in the old premises of the Elphinstone College but moved to its present location in 1923. Its grounds contain hostels for scholars, a cricket ground, gardens conducive to either work or leisure, and an English-style country house for the principal's quarters. The jewel of the whole complex however remains the splendid yellow and white main building.

Sitting across the road, one can look over the stone walls past the wrought iron gates. The silence is broken only by a few furiously chirping birds and "an unbelievable breeze blows here beneath the trees a dry leaf folk and rackets across the road like a tin can. Its as lonely in its path as l am without you."

Nearby, under an old street lamp, a lone man waits for his tardy beloved.

Then, around past Five Gardens, full of children playing ball, skipping, riding on mini merry-go-rounds and eating roasted peanuts. Here, an era ago, a band would play for Sunday walkers. Into Parsee Colony. Muncherji Joshi Road, the main street, is named after "the principal founder of the Parsee Colony and Parsee Housing Society". This Zoroastrian neighbourhood is a blend of well to-do homeowners and recipients of the famed Parsee philanthropy, which made leading families like the Wadias and Petits build not only housing blocks but also schools, parks, dispensaries, old folks' homes and reading rooms.

That day most pedestrian traffic flowed towards the Rustom Faram Agiary for prayer. Parsee dowagers, hair perfectly silvered, intricately embroidered heirloom saris held in place by jewelled brooches, marched purposefully through its portals. Young boys, locks well oiled and gleaming carried sticks of sandalwood for burning, and the stone horses holding up the temple's verandas gazed mysteriously skywards. The agiary doors were temptingly ajar - would that they let us in?

On porches, in rocking chairs, retired gentlemen indulged in lazy noontime chat; palatial mansions with Grecian columns, deep balconies, polished woodwork and sculpted gardens with fountains, bird baths and statuettes spoke of a world of soirees and tea parties; Parsee teenagers gathered in a hall for a "youth assembly". Jane Austen would have been at home here. And perhaps even in the Koolar and Company Restaurant with its straight-backed wooden chairs and marble topped tables, its gleaming jars of sweets and biscuits, and its ceaseless glow of contentment.

A lifetime of such Sundays could never be enough.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 14 July 1994.

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