Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Where Bombay Began

Kaumudi Marathe
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

Everywhere is a swarm of humanity. Like bees from a hive people emerge, flying out of Victoria Terminus, Churchgate Station and flowing out onto the streets in the direction of their offices at the Fort, today one of Bombay's biggest business areas.

Map of Bombay
This busy-ness of office days- people rushing, peddlers hawking, car horns screeching, policemen whistling - this hum of life makes it impossible to stop and observe, to stroll and linger over the infinite beauty and grandeur of the buildings, fountains, public wells and avenues of the "historic core" of Bombay. One is just pushed past by the flow.

So God made Sundays. All the bees were back in their hives. Without them the view is clear on Vir Nariman Road, straight through from Marine Drive, past Flora Fountain and Horniman Circle to the majestic Town Hall. This rare view across the island is magnificent.

Pavements can be seen to step upon, clear roads tantalise, the cloudy monsoon sky is a parasol for walkers. We go past the statues of city luminaries-Sir Dinshaw Wacha standing sentinel at the modern Churchgate junction, flanked by Mahadev Govind Ranade, Sir Hormusjee Cowasjee Dinshaw, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Sir Jamshetjee Jeejeeboy on either side of the road. At the 125-year-old Flora Fountain, a few tourists desultorily take pictures, somewhat disconcerted at seeing the area so empty.

Close to the fountain site there was in colonial times a gate leading into the "fortified town". This was the original Church Gate, named because of its proximity to St Thomas' Cathedral, Bombay's first Anglican church, at Horniman Circle. This gate, along with the Apollo and Bazaar gates, and the Fort walls, was demolished in 1864 for the purpose of expansion and hygiene.

First fortified by the Portuguese in the 1500s and then by the British from 1665 on, for whom it was a "trading settlement adjacent to the harbour", the Fort was on Bombay's most central island. As Gillian Tindall writes inThe City of Gold, it had a "tongue of land to the north, on the eastern (harbour) side, then called Dongri, Dongaree, or Dungharry (hilly area in Marathi) and a far more important promontory on the western side forming the curve of Backbay and consisting of Malabar Hill and its smaller neighbour Kamballa Hill."

The seed around which the colonial town grew in semi-circular fashion was the castle built by the Portuguese Garcia da Orta and later used by the East India Company. The white residential area was to the soul of what was then called Bombay Green. The native area was to the north.

Teresa Albuquerque in Urbs Prima in Indis mentions that the Green was in the early 1800s used by Parsi children as a playground. They called it a "chakri" because of its circular shape. Today it is a garden in the middle of Elphinstone Circle which was laid out in 1865, and renamed Horniman Circle in 1947 after the "pro-freedom" British editor of the Bombay Samachar press.

The garden is enclosed by exquisitely worked wrought-iron fencing and gates. Originally British green in colour, they are now gaudily painted gold and silver but their beauty is unmaskable. On weekdays the park is a haven from the city's noise and fumes - bookworms are often to be found there at lunchtime, munching apples and pouring over some tome from the Asiatic Library across the road. Today its lush lawns are in use for snoozers.

This part of the Fort, still distinctly British with its Raj architecture is well-known to many Bombay wallahs for they see it everyday and it is captured on innumerable touristy postcards. Beyond Horniman Circle, Town Hall, Pherozeshah Mehla Road however, moving north towards VT, is a place that fewer people might know. The only residential area left in the Fort, this is the native quarter or

"Black Town" where the Parsi, Bohra and Bhatia merchants lived and run their shops. In narrow lanes grandiosely called Parsee Bazaar and Bohra Bazaar Streets families resided in closely built four to five storey tenements made of wood and stone, their balconies forming a canopy over the road.

Perin Nariman Street - old Parsee Bazaar or Bazaar Gate Street - appears very much as it was when first constructed. Even though a lot of buildings in this area burnt down in the great fire of 1803 it is said that many of the ones that replaced them are still standing.

Though the architecture is now a melange of original pillars and wood frame structures with concrete, the feel of the lane is retained in the old house number plates and heavy wooden doors with iron knocks and bolts. Although most Parsi clans moved to the "suburbs" of Malabar Hill and Byculla in the 1860s, the vestiges of their inhabitation remain-the water fountain and clock at the foot of the road erected in memory of Bomanjee Hormasjee Wadia, the agiary secluded in its cleanliness from the rest of the street, a building called "Jerus" and a 100-year-old shop belonging to one Nowroji Nusserwanji Shroff.

The character of the neighbourhood changes as one nears VT. Here the wealthy Bhatia community lived and owned property. From paper shops, suddenly to Mathura Dairy Farm, and opposite, a restaurant called "Pancham Puri Walla". The names of the cross lanes too reflect the origin of the inhabitants - Manohardas Road and Maruti lane. And in true Uttar Pradeshi style there is a Bholanath Banarasi Pan wallah at the corner.

A thin glimpse of VT is available from here, rising up behind another of Bombay's little circular gardens, the Bhatia Baug, at the site of the Bazaar Gate, the northern most entrance to the town.

Goculdas Tejpal, a wealthy cotton merchant who lived here, had his name noted for posterity in the annals of Bombay history by donating money to poor students, founding Anglo-Vernacular schools and building GT Hospital, a teaching medical centre affiliated to Grant Medical college, inaugurated in 1874.

As their names implied, Parsee and Bohra Bazaar Streets were major market areas of the colonial city with everything available here from delicacies for the homesick Englishman - raspberry jam, Cheshire cheeses and sardines - to lace, wine, baubles, pins and cigars. Of the ten public markets that the city boasted in the mid-19th century, four were in the Fort. Beef, mutton, vegetables and even bread were available there.

However life can't have been easy, there was no adequate drainage till the 1870s, no public lighting system till 1843, and only well water for Fort dwellers till 1860. One contemporary journal wrote, "If anyone will walk through the filthy lanes of the native town his wonder will be not so much that pestilence should at times assail us as that we should ever enjoy 'an immunity to its ravages." Although historically this area is one of great value, that journal's description is still applicable, despite, the amenities available to modern residents.

Also true is the description of their equanimity - despite all the problems inherent in living in such a crumbling and crowded locality, it is wondrous that people should continue lo survive happily. But they do. Like bees they will re-emerge fresh on Monday morning and fill the streets of the Fort once more.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent

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