FOR those who love Mumbai but missed the weekly column written by the author Meher Marfatia in the tabloid Mid-day, Once Upon a City is perfect. The book is largely a compilation of essays written for this newspaper column, with additional details included.
Meher Marfatia’s hard work is apparent throughout the book. She has read books about old Bombay, gone on guided city tours, trudged the streets, knocked on doors, listened to long-winded stories and then sifted out the details to present readers with that right mix of unknown facts, colour and nostalgia which holds the same happy anticipation experienced before tucking into a plate of Mumbai’s bhelpuri. Mumbaikars are sentimental about their city and any book that tells the city’s story is bound to appeal.
Some stories are a reminder of a time of better governance. Bellasis Road, for instance, is named after Major General John Bellasis, who in the 1790s constructed a kilometre-long road to house the victims of a famine in Surat. Bellasis himself lived on Siri Road. At one time, it must have been a sylvan space; even now, despite the city gnawing away at its edges, Siri Road is still one of Mumbai’s gems. It is a path that turns off from a traffic-infested intersection and winds up at Malabar Hill through a mini urban forest, complete with old trees and birdsong.
Bridge of breeze
Old local names also give an indication of how the city was in another time. It is difficult to imagine that Kennedy Bridge, now locked in a grid of buildings, was once called Pavan pul or “bridge of breeze”, a name given by the writer Saadat Hasan Manto in an era when most homes in erstwhile Bombay did not need fans because of the constant sea breeze. Manto used to work at the Jyoti Film Studios located at the base of the bridge. It was at Jyoti Studios—owned by Ardeshir Irani, who directed Alam Ara, India’s first talkie—that Manto wrote the screenplay of Kisan Kanya, India’s first indigenously processed film.
Present-day conflicts over community and caste seem almost ironic when one gets a historical perspective.
The western suburb of Santa Cruz was populated by Goans and Anglo Indians. Bungalows were built, and the homogenous nature of the locality is described by a resident to the author when she says “trays of Xmas treats were delivered between homes till the late 1980s when builders started claiming cottages and the camaraderie blurred”.
Local residents recall a time when one neighbour requested another to position his porch so as not to obstruct her view of the newly built local gymkhana. The request was acceded to, and the descendant of those gracious individuals recalls a past when “There was great mutual understanding… we’re the settlers. It hurts that those brashly muscling into the neighbourhood see us as strangers.”
Stories are often told by old residents, and this personal nostalgia adds a new charm to the localities. Khetwadi, a network of tight lanes with overhanging buildings, has now largely gone the way of the rest of Mumbai, with cottages being replaced by high-rises. Fortunately, the stories remain.
The film-maker Manmohan Desai of Amar Akbar Anthony fame was a Khetwadi resident where he was known as Manji. He loved the physical and emotional closeness with neighbours. “Manji did not mind nosy neighbours enquiring: ‘What has Jeevan Bhabhi cooked for lunch?’” The character of Anthony in the film is believed to have been modelled on a local Khedwadi bootlegger who used to yell out to Desai: “Kya man, Desai, tum toh apun ka bhai hain [What man, Desai, you are like my brother].”
While it is nuggets like these that the reader mines the book for, more photographs and detailed captions would have been welcome. Also, an index would have added greatly to the appeal and use of the book.