Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Yesterday's Streets

Kaumudi Marathe
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... it was the season of Lights it was the season of Darkness... we had everything before us, we had nothing before us." It was the tale of two cities.

In the outer world rushed Bombay traffic; along Marine Drive, along Marine Lines, to the north, to the south, to work, to home, to a cinema, to the shops. In the inner world a different life hummed, sealed as in a cocoon, shrouded in its culture and tradition, with occasional signs of modernisation slowly filtering in.

"The Muslim heartland... where two-thirds of the street signs are in the cursive Urdu lettering, delicate as insect tracks," where the visitor is instantly labelled as one who does not belong, where men throng the streets and mosques are on every corner, where the calls of the muezzins echo between buildings and fascinating smells of attar and spices decorate the air. Bicycles lurch past ill-balanced scooters; men manage to traverse roads without bumping into other men, handcarts, trolleys and all the paraphernalia of Indian street life. On the road it's bright hot - in the deep houses, dark. Noise and bustle; all appears to be chaos.

Yet, there is method in the madness. Every local knows what is happening around him. "If the police were to come looking for you now," says a frequent visitor, "people would be able to trace your every step for them."

This is the area around Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy Road, the heart of the Native Town, which extended northwards from Crawford Market in colonial times. The Bazaar area where the Gujarati Bohra, the Konkani, the Khoja and the Aga Khani Muslim have, according to chronicler, J F Bulsara, "congregated, even with their appropriate, distinctive trades and their jamats and jamatkhansas, their mosques, maktabs and madrassas."

The vibrancy of the bazaar atmosphere is alive even today. From the mutton and fish market which gave the Chor Bazaar Road its name of Mutton Street to Imamwada where umbrella and kite sellers sit, from Bhendi Bazaar Road where one can buy lungis, pearls, surma and attar to the Bohra area of leather merchants on Raudat Tahera Street. And clustered above or behind shops are homes, many built between 50 and 150 years ago, crumbling, held up in places by concrete and steel supports, their ornamentation faded and broken. Families appear to live very much as their ancestors did.

Walking north on the main road, one reaches, just short of JJ Hospital, a narrow lane leading to the BIT Terraces. One of the later projects built by the Bombay Improvement Trust the colony is an outstanding example of low-cost housing. The Trust, set up in 1898 (two years after the great bubonic plague which underlined the need for clean roads, proper housing and sanitation in Bombay) built this colony for its municipality workers. It consists of two chawls and a set of four storey tenements clustered around courtyards.

Though architecturally ordinary, the RCC and brick structures with-sloping Mangalore tiled roofs, wide gutters and broad streets between them are sturdy. Over half a century later, they may need a coat of paint and minor repairs, but they are certainly more humane and useful than their modern counterparts.

Nearby is Piru Lane with its narrow mosque, delicately painted in green, pink, and white. Though its doors are shuttered, worshippers stand outside, hands upraised to God. The lane, named after Piru, the havaldar of a Bombay governor, leads to Imamwada and the Mughal Masjid of the Irani Shi'as. At the lmamwada, "Mohurram is observed, and taziahs and shrines preserved... it is over a hundred years old," wrote Samuel T Sheppard, early this century.
Mughal Masjid

The Masjid is set behind a tank where men perform wazu before prayers. Women cannot enter by the main gate. For them there's a side entrance, separated from the grounds by a jaali that provides meshed glimpses of the mosque's facade. A shaded path runs along the compound wall and in the silence on this side of the grill, a breeze blows; it is a novel feeling being in this soft, cool world of women.

Bhendi Bazaar Road got its name from "its rows of bhendi, Hibiscus populnea". Here were stabled, in the 1800s, fine Arab horses and "a little later in the century Bombay became well-known as a centre for horse-trading. (Gillian Tindall in The City of Gold.)

Many restaurants in this area are called Shalimar; the most famous is a falooda place at the Bazaar Road junction. Lovers, families, businessmen stop for a glass of kesar falooda, "milk cold drink" or shikanjbin. Soon the restaurant is full and a phenomenon unofficially called spoon bashing begins. To melt the ice cream in the falooda, experts bang their spoons up and down. Like so many pastimes in India - nibbling tobacco in the palm, chewing paan, massaging the feet in a train - this rhythmic tap-tapping is a soothing exercise.

On the other side of Bhendi Bazaar Road, which leads to Chor Bazaar, are RaudatTahera Street and Null Bazaar on Bade Imam Street. This market opened in 1867 and was so named because the city's main drain flowed past this point, "on its way to the sluices at Varli".

At Null Bazaar, with its close-set stalls, all manner of prayer goods are available - racks of loban, dhoop and other incense piled up like fragrant blocks of granite; peacock feathers, biscuits and utensils; sweets in rainbow hues; equally colourful decorations for celebrations. Aromatic spices, and boxes overflowing with dates evoke the Arabian bazaars of lore. In an adjoining lane, there are only pots for sale. Big pots, little ones, squat pots, long ones, pink pots, white ones, earth red and black ones.

Kochra Drinking Fountain
and Cattle Trough
Nearby is the Kochra Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough, erected by Oomer Haji Ismail in 1952. At one end, an impromptu hair saloon has sprung up. Under a plastic awning, an entrepreneur cuts "baal for rupees seven and daadi for rupees three". The fountain basin is now a sink. The barber calls himself "HAIER DEREES" and applies Vicco cream enthusiastically on a client's face.

Saifee Masjid
Across, on Raudat Tahera Street (earlier called Dhabu Street) sit, by tradition, the leather merchants. Dominating this "lane" is the Saifee Masjid, built 50 or 60 years ago. Outside, vendors sell ridahs, topis, prayer books, tasbees, coconuts and pale pink roses to devotees. Nattily dressed Bohra gentlemen in shervanis and white and gold embroidered headgear saunter past, comfortable in their world.

A world decaying and collapsing, sometimes into penury, sometimes catching up with the times in a show of glass and chrome. Tomorrow maybe they will venture into that other city. But for now everything they need is right here. In the heart of the native town.

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

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