Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Neighbourhoods Talk

Kaumudi Marathe 
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

A warm, lazy afternoon in Byculla. As its residents take siestas after holiday lunches, the streets of the erstwhile European suburb breathe easier. A walk down the main street at this hour is a pleasant, relaxed happening.

Tree-lined Clare Road was named after the second Earl of Clare, Governor of Bombay from 1831 to 1835. Constructed in 1867, the road still gives strollers glimpses of its colonial past amidst the present-day of a working class locality. Along the street innumerable hairdressing salons beckon, kebab and "pyali" wallahs sit behind their wares, which fragrantly lure the hungry buyer, and the smell of baking bread is a comforting aroma on the breeze.

Turning from Bellasis Road on to Clare, what a change of pace and atmosphere - from the noise, traffic and crowds of the former to the residential somnolence of the latter. History is everywhere in Bombay but on that Sunday afternoon in Byculla it felt as if one had taken many steps back into time where gracious dwellings sit peaceful in the shade, carriages or "gharries" roll by and churchgoers walk sedately to Mass.

Towards the end of Clare Road, near the Byculla Bridge where the Khada Parsee stands forlorn, half-hidden by the monstrous flyover, are three churches - The Convent of Jesus and Mary, the Taylor Memorial Methodist Church and, across the road, through a short lane, Christchurch.

It is this last, standing in the compound of the Christchurch school, which is one of the oldest churches in the area. Built in the neo-classical style in 1833, the same year as the famous Byculla Club on Bellasis Road, it is a strange cousin of the Asiatic Society in the Fort. The Society or Town hall was designed with a double row of Doric columns for its portico so these were supplied in "full number" from England. However by the time the columns arrived the building plans had been modified, so some that were not needed were used at Christchurch. The resemblance between the two buildings is striking. Originally "white-stuccoed", Christchurch is now a salmon-pink colour which nonetheless does not detract from its stark, modern facade and clean lines.

Indeed, this part of Byculla is a blend of the Christian, Muslim and Chinese communities, each an integral part of the neighbourhood's character. Located at the physical centre of the island city, Byculla was the coveted suburb of the Europeans. According to Meera Kosambi in her bookBombay in Transition, "This area was perhaps the most visibly European cultural space, with its elite club, the botanical garden and race course."Its spacious grounds are being hemmed in from all sides by construction in the area but the church and school still lie in relative peace and quiet. Shaded by the Cassi fistula (India Laburnum or "bhaya") trees, which probably give Byculla its name, it is an escape for people wanting fresh air and open spaces. Across, the newer Parish Hall resounds with children's shrieks at a gathering of Chinese residents.

The family of Parsi ship builder Lowji Nusservanji Wadia also made their home here as did Baghdadi Jew David Sassoon. His residence "Sans Souci" is now known as Masina Hospital. Sassoon built a synagogue on Sir J J Road, just around the corner from Christchurch in 1861. One of only two Yehudi synagogues in the city, the Magen David, now painted yellow and white, is a simple structure proclaiming the Ten Commandments in Hebrew at the doorway.
It looks solitary and deserted. The caretaker who has lived in the compound for "42 long years" says few people come there now. "Many have gone to Israel". Yet one devotee comes, bags full of her weekly shopping, scaring the pigeons in the hall rafters as she enters. A moment of worship before a long journey back to Chembur.

Next to the synagogue towards Clare Road is the Traffic Institute, a beautiful horizontal structure with an impressive facade of stonework, arches and verandas, somehow reminiscent of English cottages with rose creepers and ivy growing on the walls. "What a lovely building!" one exclaims to the policeman on duty. "Of course," he responds. "It's an old building, isn't it?" as if that's all the explanation necessary.

A shortcut back to Clare Road is through Christchurch lane, at the corner of which people stop for a dish of sizzling "pyali" - a concoction of potatoes and liver masala, topped with kokum juice, garlic oil, chillies, amchur, tamarind chutney and fresh onion. At the other corner is an old Chinese restaurant called Duke's exuding more oriental atmosphere than any new-fangled Chinese eatery.

Christchurch Lane snoozes in the sunshine. Mostly occupied by Christians there are one or two houses owned by Muslim joint families with names like "Haroon Court". Old retainers sit on the steps, after a morning's work, leisurely preparing pan. Opposite the end of the lane is the Convent of Jesus and Mary.

A small, narrowish church built in 1878, it is only one part of a complex that stretches back into unbelievably large grounds housing a convent and school. To one side of the church is a frangipani tree showering blossoms onto a statue of Jesus Christ. Not a car can be heard here: two girls use the silence to study.

Sharing a wall is the Taylor Memorial Methodist Church built by Gostling, Chambers and Fritchley in 1906. Its doors open at four o'clock and inside can be seen well-polished pews, a simple pulpit against a wood mural. The Indian setting of this English-built church is enhanced by the lotus motif in its stained glass windows. The preacher lives upstairs. From a distance the building resembles a "churchlike" house. The frilly curtains and the drying clothes lend to the misconception.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Europeans began to rediscover the charms of Malabar and Cumballa Hills and soon Byculla began to be bypassed for residential areas on the Western sea-face. Also by the 1850s the mill came to Bombay, springing up all over Byculla. From an upper class area Byculla metamorphosed into one with "a mainly industrial and working class residential character."

The Byculla Club on Bellasis Road was superseded by the Bombay Club on Chowpatty and the Royal Yacht Club at Apollo Bunder. The racecourse was moved to its present-day location at Mahalakshmi. Where the clubhouse stood is today the State Transport Depot. Builders vie with each other to build taller skyscrapers, drains overflow. Of colonial Bombay there is little trace.

The one monument on the road, which bears testimony to another age, is the crumbling St Paul's church. A simple stone structure built in 1872, the church is impoverished and needs maintenance. Reginald Victor, a middle-aged third generation Thakur convert to Protestantism, lives above the prayer hall. He runs a nursery and preaches to a congregation of 250 each Sunday. "The church was built without any foreign funds. The land was donated by the Government of Bombay in 1826. We couldn't build a church in Kamathipura so we came here. My father used to preach here. You know, Mala Sinha was married from this church." But now few people come and maintenance costs are rising. Victor who took over as priest in 1978 spends Rs 15,000 a year on the church's upkeep. But it isn't even on the heritage list, and how much can one man accomplish? "I've had offers for this land. But I've promised to look after St Paul's and that I will continue lo do."

Siestas over, Clare Road is beginning to rouse itself for Sunday evening pleasures. And on Bellasis Road of course, the activity had never abated. Life there is frenzied, passing St Paul's by. So very different from two hundred years ago?

If only buildings could speak.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 31 March 1994.

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