TRAVEL FO­CUS

CAN A CUL­TURE WALK HELP YOU REDISCOVER YOUR OWN CITY?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - BY SATHYA SARAN

IDRIVE THROUGH Parel in Cen­tral Mumbai on an av­er­age of three days a week. It is as crowded as a crowded area can be, with pedes­tri­ans, cars, hand­carts, twowheel­ers and buses, ce­ment mix­ers and the oc­ca­sional cy­clist vy­ing for space on the roads, and veg­etable mar­kets and fruit sellers nudg­ing one an­other on the pave­ments.

A walk through all this in the early hours of the evening, when crowds with minds fo­cused on get­ting home push aside any­thing in the way, was pure folly. But I was drawn by cu­rios­ity and a need to bet­ter un­der­stand this part of the city that had be­come a part of my reg­u­lar land­scape. The high-rise build­ings that dot the area in in­creas­ing num­bers in­di­cated that what re­mained of what once was would soon give in to the new, oblit­er­at­ing any ves­tige of the his­tory of the place. And that, I told my hes­i­tant self firmly, was enough rea­son to brave the dan­ger­ous known.

THE JOUR­NEY BE­GINS

So there I was, part of a small group of his­tory seek­ers, gath­ered out­side the ticket win­dows of the Parel rail­way sta­tion, strain­ing to hear what our guide was telling us over the clat­ter of pass­ing trains, the cries of hawk­ers and the gen­eral sounds that sea­son the air of a me­trop­o­lis bustling through a work­ing day.

It is al­ways in­ter­est­ing to know how places are named. There are al­ways many views, passed on through leg­end and his­tory. We are still in doubt about the ex­act ori­gins of the name Bom­bay (now Mumbai), and Parel fol­lows suit. Though one story claims de­scent from a god­dess, I choose to be­lieve the more ro­man­tic ver­sion: that the bell-shaped, pur­ple flower that bum­ble­bees love ex­plor­ing, is what the area is named after. Lo­cally called the trees bear­ing these flow­ers grew in pro­fu­sion here be­fore hu­mans claimed the land for houses and a rail­way. Per­haps, in the 1840s, when a per­son set out to the outer reaches of the then city to work on the rail­way, he would shout that he was go­ing to where the parel trees grew, and the name stuck.

Parel rail­way sta­tion was once the proud prop­erty of the Great In­dian Penin­su­lar Rail­way, whose logo is still em­bla­zoned on the orig­i­nal build­ing con­structed in the mid-19th cen­tury. The sta­tion was func­tional by 1877. To­day, some of the orig­i­nal old cast iron pil­lars can still be seen, em­bed­ded in the ce­ment that holds the stair­cases. Thou­sands pass by, not know­ing that they are rush­ing past a sen­tinel of his­tory.

BRIDGE TO HIS­TORY

At any given time this old bridge is bur­dened: it serves as one of the con­duits con­nect­ing the eastern and western sides of Mumbai, a city di­vided by rail­way lines. Two rail­way sta­tions, the Parel sta­tion and the El­phin­stone Road sta­tion, open onto the bridge, which means thou­sands rush through to catch a train or on their way out. For an en­tire cen­tury, the bridge has wit­nessed the change in its for­tunes, and borne it all with for­ti­tude.

The stone bridge is a won­der of en­gi­neer­ing. Built to or­der, it was pre­fab­ri­cated in Glas­gow, and as­sem­bled here, where it stands to­day. A plaque on ei­ther side of the bridge ram­part bears wit­ness to the fact that it was built in 1815. When the rail lines had to be elec­tri­fied, the en­tire bridge was lifted to ac­com­mo­date the new tech­nol­ogy. The stone steps lead­ing down to the road be­low on ei­ther side of the bridge and the nar­row pedes­trian walk­way along the sides of the bridge were all part of the orig­i­nal plan.

In 2015, when the bridge com- pleted 100 years, the man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany in Scot­land sent a let­ter in­form­ing the cus­to­di­ans of the bridge that the pe­riod of guar­an­tee was up, and the bridge was now no longer their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In­ci­den­tally, the road along the bridge re­veals old wa­ter pipes, still in use. They bear the im­print, Made in France 1927.

Will the an­gel of his­tory match the de­mon of de­vel­op­ment that might wish to re­place the bridge with a mod­ern ce­ment and steel one that can ac­com­mo­date more traf­fic? Only time will tell.

ARCH OF PROGRESS

Just out­side the sta­tion, is the arch cel­e­brat­ing the Ra­ha­tor Me­mo­rial Methodist Church. The old build­ing, dated 1908, is gone with­out a trace, but the mile­stone of hold­ing ser­vices in Marathi, Hindi and three other lan­guages con­tin­ues.

We spot an­other church with orig­i­nal stone work, and tiled roof, this one built by John Adams. The stone came from quar­ries in sub­ur­ban Kurla and Malad, now built over. And the basalt, from the Dec­can, is from the still live vol­cano in Mau­ri­tius, that the con­ti­nen­tal drift brought to In­dia. The orig­i­nal weath­er­cocks stand on top, and as we walk past the semi­cir­cle of arches, the sound of car­ols be­ing re­hearsed fil­ter through the stained glass win­dows.

PAST IMPERFECT

Walk­ing onto a path that turns off un­der the bridge, we en­ter a quiet space, lined with trees. The oc­ca­sional scooter or car goes past. There is no ev­i­dence of the fre­netic ac­tiv­ity we left be­hind just a few min­utes ago. We en­ter a clear­ing which ex­poses to view a build­ing in gross dis­re­pair. Once this was a bustling hostel for the young men who worked at the loco work­shop at Parel, which is still func­tional. Parts of the stone build­ing are in per­fect con­di­tion. The in­te­ri­ors have crum­bled in places, and old stair­cases and iron fit­tings are ex­posed through bro­ken win­dows. This is an ar­chi­tec­tural marvel.

A banyan with red flow­ers hid­ing among the leaves, a leafy peepul and the bel, which bears the wood ap­ple fruit: all sa­cred trees of In­dia add a quiet peace to the place.

Will the rail­ways not ben­e­fit by giv­ing this out to a bank or a ho­tel? The build­ing can be re­fur­bished from the in­side, and will stand for an­other cen­tury as a salute to his­tory.

THE HID­DEN DAR­GAH

We walk back onto the main road and turn off to stop at a shop where two men are cut­ting planks of ply­wood. The shop hides the tomb of Hazrat Ab­dul­lah Shah Baba, and is con­sid­ered a dar­gah. The de­vout are al­lowed to en­ter and pay their re­spects at spe­cific times of the day. The rest of the time, the tomb is hid­den. We are in­formed that shar­ing space with a holy relic en­sures the Baba will save the space from be­ing sold to a devel­oper. Will it?

WE, THE PEO­PLE OF IN­DIA

This in­nocu­ous build­ing, built after the bubonic plague ravaged Bom­bay, when the Bri­tish de­cided to pro­vide more open liv­ing spa­ces to a pop­u­lace crammed to­gether, is part of In­dian his­tory. It was here that for 26 years of his life, Babasa­heb Ambed­kar, the ar­chi­tect of the In­dian Con­sti­tu­tion, the first from his com­mu­nity to get a for­mal higher ed­u­ca­tion, the great so­cial­ist thinker who also cre­ated the so­cial cir­cle in a space still ex­ist­ing in Parel, lived.

We climb the nar­row steps, and smile at the peo­ple who smile at us, know­ing why we are there. At the end of the cor­ri­dor on the sec­ond floor stands a tiny shrine to the Bud­dha and a bust of Ambed­kar. Rooms 50-51 were the rooms he oc­cu­pied. We chat with Ro­han, whose grand­fa­ther, Kal­i­das Tadelkar, was a col­league of Ambed­kar and was gifted the place by Ambed­kar when he moved out. Ro­han works with a travel agency and is proud of his home. As we leave, I no­tice a Bud­dhist flag in yel­low and saf­fron flut­ter­ing on a pole out­side. The only nod to the build­ing’s his­tor­i­cal heritage.

We stop at other sights, and it is 7pm when we dis­perse. I climb the stairs to the sta­tion to catch my train. My feet are tired. But my heart and mind are rich with the golden nuggets of his­tory.

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