Es­says on Mum­bai



OR those who love Mum­bai but missed the weekly col­umn writ­ten by the au­thor Me­her Mar­fa­tia in the tabloid Mid­day, 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 gnawjy­oti ing 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.


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

Once Upon a City Mak­ing the Lit­tle Sto­ries of Mum­bai Mat­ter

By Me­her Mar­fa­tia in as­so­ci­a­tion with Mid-day

49/50 Books 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. $

The book has the right mix of facts, colour and nos­tal­gia about the city to hold the reader’s in­ter­est.

Pages: 276 Price: Rs.1,000

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