Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In Bumbalo Country

Kaumudi Marathe 
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

Bombay lore abounds with fishy stories. Since what we today call Bombay was originally a group of seven islands, surrounded by salty water and marine creatures, that's hardly surprising. Neither is it surprising that one of those islands should be named simply "fish village" or Macha Grama - Mazagaon.

According to J F Bulsara, in his book Bombay in the Making, Mazagaon was a "great fishing town peculiarly notable for a fish called bumbalo, the sustenance of the poorer classes. The Franciscans possessed a church and monastery there, the Portuguese owned houses and the Bhandaris and Kolis living in the locality manured palms, distilled liquor, fished, and on holidays attended the temple of Khadakdev." But the "village" which is one of Bombay's two central islands (the other being Bombay Island where the Fort is situated) has much more than the bumbalo to its credit.

This eastern locality has been the site of battles, the subject of romantic writing, and has provided the soil for mangoes so famous for their flavour they graced the court of Shah Jahan. When the British took over the city, Mazagaon was also "the most important of Bombay's dependencies." In the days of the Raj the area housed dockyards and saw mills, was home to English merchants after the fire of 1825, and had "the greatest concentration of English and Parsi occupation by the early 19 th century." It was a stronghold of Roman Catholicism and to this day has a large percentage of Indian Christian residents, in its quaint colonies.

The smoky smell of wood fires burning mingles with the cool morning air and the light is golden as the people of "a village within a village" begin their day. Matharpakadi is a Christian settlement, stretching out over innumerable lanes on both sides of Matharpakadi Main Road. Although the colony is today part of an urban area, it has grown organically, more an evolution through time than an effort by urban planners. The result is a small but beautiful, closely worked bit of embroidery on an otherwise formal, straight-woven fabric. Its cottages and two storey houses are inward-looking, blocking out the world - a haven for the inhabitants.

The houses of Matharpakadi are built in stone and plaster; with wooden roofs and trim; cool, inviting stone floors; deep verandas or balconies; intricate jaffri work and ornamentation. At the end of one lane is a heavily decorated shrine - a young mother and child, hands clasped, place a bunch of flowers before the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Down another cross lane are larger mansions, belonging to once-wealthy clans. There is peace here still - huge trees block off much of the noise. The sunlight creates gossamer patterns through lattices, and dapples the ground in a most entrancing manner. Plump cats saunter by, a quartet of ducks frolic in a little brown pond; an old bent woman sits in a balcony, dressed in the printed frock typical of her community, praying on her rosary. Somewhere in the depths of an old house, behind the lace curtains, through the dark corridors, lunch is being prepared.

Matharpakadi continues all the way to the Harbour Line tracks. On the main road again, we work back southwards to the St Peter's Chapel and school. On the way is another of those familiar corner restaurants Bombay so delights in, reminding us that dinner was a long time ago and breakfast would be a welcome thing. Little boys who go to St Peter's, or to the better-known St. Mary's of Mazagaon, swear by the locality's kheema or omelette pao. Indeed it is delicious - spicy mince gravy flavoured with lemon - or slightly greasy masala omelettes to be mopped up with the "pao" of the Goan community. The morning air has whipped up an appetite. Many pao-maska later comes a spot of chai. Regulars order it in a quaint way - "Chai" they say, "paani kum, double." Ensuring a cup full of milky, sweet tea instead of a watery brew.

St Peter's Chapel

St. Peter's Chapel is one of the most enchanting of Bombay's churches. The original structure was built from funds donated by "one Mr Shephard, resident ofMazagaon" in 1858. The caretaker Malcolm says that the present location was given to the parish because the earlier one was acquired for the construction of a new railway line to Sion by the Port Trust. D A Pinder in Bombay Past and Present mentions that too but no other record validates the theory that the structure was moved to a new site stone by stone. What is certain is that the building was enlarged somewhere between 1870 and 1875, to make it the dignified monument it is today.

A three-storied construction with arched windows and an unusual Moorish dome, St Peter's is spacious and airy. Though only used once a week by the schoolchildren - at one time it was a diocese - it is well maintained. Somewhere along the line its fluked dome with four smaller domes on the corner of its square base was altered. The five-sided apse - the semi-circular area behind the altar - has finely carved stone grills, which soften the light that falls upon the place of worship. Covering the nave or central aisle is a semi-circular vault over which sits a pitched roof. The ground floor has been hidden below a porch - it is now a basement canteen for students.

Locked up in a small room near the altar is all the Church ornamentation. A winding staircase, decorated with pigeon feathers and cobwebs, leads to an elevated balcony over the entrance where the organ was once placed. And thence up to the twin belfries. Clutching onto the oxidising, timeworn bell and looking out across Mazagaon, one sees building upon building in the haze. Suddenly behind the church and school a refreshing expanse of green, the Joseph Baptista Gardens.

This twin of the Hanging Gardens at Malabar Hill was named after Joseph Baptista, mayor of Bombay from 1925 to '26 and Father of the Home Rule Movement in India, and built over the Bhandarwada water reservoir, which serves Central Bombay. From here is visible much of Bombay Island with its familiar landmarks - Victoria Terminus, Rajabai Tower, the domes of the Prince of Wales Museum, and the branching off of the central and Harbour railway lines. To the east are the dockyards.

The Bombay Port Trust which was constituted in 1875, embarked in 1908, "on the great Mazagaon-Sewree Reclamation Scheme which was completed in 1912 and added 583 acres to the area of Bombay." Even today Mazagaon retains its dockyard orientation, with its bunders and wharves, and its auxiliary services along P D'Mello Road.

Cranes and cargo trucks are visible from the gardens. But as one climbs upwards, all the wheels and smoke of industrialisation are left behind. One visitor says, "It's like being outside a city, yet within it. From here one can observe its busy-ness while at the same time remain detached."

It is pleasantly cool on this hilltop and though families are out in hordes, there is space for everyone. Here one can see the sun rise and set - a rare treat. The crowds increase as the day wears on and the ber, tamarind and boiled peanut vendors make a tidy sum of this, "day of rest."

Reluctantly back down the steep steps again. But on to a most interesting site where "all Bombay and its people in their hundreds and thousands turned out from all parts of the compass to view this new fairy-like thing..." - the first hot-air balloon ascent, "around 1852 when a certain Mr Kyte took off amid the haystacks..." This place was to become famous for more reasons than that spectacular one though. By and by we shall come to them.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 12 May 1994.

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