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Operation Beach Cleanup And The Aftermath Of Visarjan

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OPERATION BEACH CLEANUP AND THE AFTERMATH OF VISARJAN

Each year, thousands of Ganesha idols are immersed into the sea on visarjan days with pomp and ceremony. But these idols often don’t dissolve and, instead, add to pollution in the waters and the beach.

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The elephantine gentleman waded into the waters off Versova Beach, bobbed once, twice, thrice, and lo! – Ganesha vanished from the wooden platform in his hands, immersed in the sea. From the shore, his wife raised an arm in farewell with tears in her eyes. She gazed at a distant point where the waves must have carried Ganesha, who took the obstacles in her family’s lives away with Him.

The next family to brave the surf for visarjan encountered an obstacle, tripped over it, and found themselves submerged in the Arabian Sea along with their Ganesha. The first idol was precisely where it had been deposited, intact, and covered with just two shallow feet of brine.

We bring home a God, lavish love upon Him for a few days, and then – with great pomp and ceremony – dump Him in the sea.

A chatter of urchins splashed through the tide, retrieving those Plaster of Paris idols and lining them up on the sands. When I took a photo, a local busybody asked me to delete it; apparently, the artificially created idols – which were supposed to dissolve, representing the cycle of life – are holy, but Nature – whose cycles they disrupt – is not.

A limbless Ganesha, embedded in mud, buffeted by waves, watched the sunset, wondering about His fate.

versova beach cleanup visarjan

When I walk onto Versova Beach 12 hours later, there are more stranded Ganeshas than people. Strangers to one another, we wiggle our fingers into disposable gloves with an elastic snap and stride wordlessly to the Juhu end of the seashore. Over the course of one morning, we aim to make Swachh this little stretch of Bharat.

Every open space is a magnet for trash, but we have no trash magnet that can instantaneously attract and collect the thousands of things strewn across the beach. Bend, grasp, proceed; we repeat this routine ad infinitum. The volunteer nearest to me catches my eye and jerks his head at a marooned Ganesha. I nod, and in unison we inhale, heave up the idol, crab-walk to where others are amassed, set it down, and exhale. My gloves are torn already. As we move on to the next section of sand, a teenager refuses to abandon his still-filthy patch: “Yeh adda mera hai.

It doesn’t matter if the theme of your Ganpati was environmentalism and global warming; undissolved, it still ended up in the back of a pickup truck whose rutted tracks crisscross Versova Beach as it evacuates regiments of Ganeshas. Arms, legs, crowns: sea levels haven’t risen enough to claim them.

versova beach cleanup visarjan

The sea is at war with itself. Relentlessly disgorging more garbage on the shore, it also swallows some of it before we can transfer it to a tub of trash. Initially, my garbage route is determined by whichever stray scrap I first clap eyes on. Looking around, I realise that my zigs and zags have skirted a lot of litter; staking out a plot of sand using parts of idols as limit-stones, I focus on clearing one plot at a time.

I decide to specialise in plastics. Tugging at a plastic bag filled with mud and embedded in even more mud, I tug and tug until it rips apart in my hands and I fall flat my arse. From behind me, I hear the roar of a monster vehicle; the driver of a garbage excavator has slowed down so that I may deposit my fistfuls of detritus in its claw. Unexpected kindness.

Our toil is witnessed by two little girls and one little boy squatting on the beach. They’re quite finished but are too captivated by this growing squad of garbage enthusiasts to pull their pants back on. Pooping on the beach is a clichéd sight, but who are these people who brush their teeth by the sea? I hope the tooth fairy goes rogue and leaves cavities under the enamel of everyone who discarded tubes of toothpaste here. If you’re interested in some free market research, I can report that the most preferred brand of packaged milk consumed by those living along Versova beach is Mahananda.

versova beach cleanup visarjan

We chase the tide, bend, straighten up, and walk back to the collection tubs, squinting at the rising sun. My T-shirt is splattered with I-know-not-what and has ridden up to expose my waist, guaranteeing a tanned belt-line. I ask a young boy to take my specs off for me so I can mop my sweat with my shoulder. This Operation Clean-up successfully transfers several grains of sand from my sleeve to my face, transforming me into a human cutlet. My hips and knees are issuing appeals to the Joint Committee for Joints, and I have managed to strain my rear to such an extent that the only way I will be able to get out of bed tomorrow is to fall out of it. There’s so much left to clean; how will we finish?

Two to an overfull tub of garbage, we carry our pickings to a garbage truck. We tip it over the back, and a sudden gust blows some of it in my face. The sickly-sweet smell of garbage usually makes me retch, but today – and perhaps, after today – I am immune. A young woman in cut-off denims and aviators is in the back of the truck, hefting in the tubs, hemming herself in with garbage. I think I fell a little bit in love.

I spent two hours by the sea without ever really looking at it. Did we transform Versova Beach to Varca? No. But perhaps the amount of trash we did recover from the sea will ensure that it regurgitates a little less rubbish at Worli Sea Face and Marine Drive. Maybe our extra efforts to pick up those tiny packets of paan will prevent the deaths of a few forms of marine life. And I can only hope that next year, the God of Wisdom will help His devotees see the dearth of wisdom in how they worship Him.

Ganpati Bappa Morya!

Pudhchya varshi buddhi dya.

 
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In Conversation With Conservation Architect Vikas Dilawari

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IN CONVERSATION WITH CONSERVATION ARCHITECT VIKAS DILAWARI

Vikas Dilawari is a conservation architect whose work has won 15 UNESCO awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. From iconic buildings like the Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Flora Fountain to lesser known ones such as Byculla’s Taylor Methodist Church and Mumbai Central’s Lal Chimney Complex, the heritage structures he has restored are spread across the city and make one pause and stare in wonder. He is a tireless champion of restoration over beautification and conservation over redevelopment; in an interview at his Goregaon office, he spoke to Mrigank Warrier about his early days, long career and how the city is changing.

READ MRIGANK WARRIER’S STORY

The Study Of Architecture

The first time I really saw VT Station was when I went to give the entrance exam for JJ School of Architecture. I was a bad student in school; failed 9 subjects out of 10 in 9th standard, but passed in history!

My first preference was medicine, second was pharmacy, but a cousin was studying architecture, so we said, why not? I got a seat at LS Raheja. For three years, we studied the history of architecture with a brilliant professor who taught us so well, we were completely enamoured by it.

From second year to final year, I also had a job with Ved Segan, the architect who designed Prithvi Theatre. He was handling the first conservation project of the country – restoring the Gaiety Theatre in Shimla. Observing him, discussing things, reading books…got me interested in conservation. There were so many photographs of the site from which we would draw sketches and elevations; seeing those published gave you another kick.

My professors would say, “Whenever you’re travelling, keep your eyes open.” I used to teach my students to react to buildings. If you don’t like a building, what is the thing that you don’t like? Identify that. Buildings have a language, they have a behaviour. We all respond to buildings naturally through our body language. If you’re comfortable, you’ll stay, if you’re not, you’ll want to go out. What is that thing which attracts you? If you’ve identified that, you’ve solved half the Rubik’s cube for when you’re designing new architecture.

When the painter asks me what shade of colour he should paint, I ask him to scrape and tell me what he finds.

We were given a college assignment to redesign Crawford Market. My classmates who demolished it and designed fancy buildings in its stead got the highest marks. I tried to conserve the market and got fairly low marks; that was enough keeda for me to do my master’s in conservation.

Redeveloping Heritage Structures In Bombay

I did two Masters, from Delhi and from York. Just before I finished the first one, I was asked to relook and correct the listing of 624 heritage structures of Bombay; our new Development Plan was being formulated and there was a chance this list could be incorporated. For eight months, I roamed every street of Bombay, with an umbrella in the rains. I’m not boasting, but if you show me an arch or a blown-up detail of any building, I can tell you where the building is. I was once caught listing (the Chief Minister’s residence) Varsha! I had to call those who had hired me to get me out of trouble.

My turning point came when I met my mentor Foy Nissen. He was not an architect or professional historian but had contributed to most books written about Bombay; when any foreign author came, he would take them around on his scooter and show them the city. I asked him to review my listing; he gave me useful feedback and also put me in touch with some of the best architectural historians in the world.

Dr Christopher London’s thesis was on Bombay Gothic. When I was restoring Christ Church (Byculla), I wanted to know more of its history. Turns out, Lord Elphinstone was a bit lazy to go every Sunday from Parel where he used to stay to St Thomas Cathedral (Churchgate), so he decided to have a church nearer his estate: chal na, baaju mein hi jaayenge, pandrah minute mein pahunchenge.

There were so many photographs of the site from which we would draw sketches and elevations; seeing those published gave you another kick.

Just like doctors conduct a physical examination of a patient, we do the same for a building. We come to know how it has been tampered with; although the building is silent, it speaks a lot. There are tell-tale signs we identify. The goldmine is when you discover archival information from rare sources; there was once an information bulletin called Bombay Builder, which published valuable information about who built the building, its description, construction, materials, etc. So do the photographs in Rahul’s book (Bombay: The Cities Within, Rahul Mehrotra and Sharda Dwivedi) are also helpful; the aerial snaps were all taken by Hassler, a German spy.

When we were restoring the Bombay Municipal Corporation hall, we found old symbols on the walls – ‘BC’ for Bombay Corporation. We wrote to the Coats of Arms College in London for more information and painted it authentically. An etching that I accidentally found on the Net showed me how the water used to flow in Flora Fountain.

When the painter asks me what shade of colour he should paint, I ask him to scrape and tell me what he finds. When you remove the old wooden-base electrical switches, you find the original painted surface. Nowhere have I used a colour scheme which I wanted; I’ve always used the one which I’ve found.

The best part of my career is that the conservation movement and my career started at the same time. And the best part of my profession is that it takes you to unbelievable places. When I was restoring Rajabai Tower, I would go up occasionally; imagine the whole city below you! Such a fascinating sight.

Rethinking Conservation

If you go to a certain area and a building fits in with its landscape, you feel comfortable; when things are out of proportion, you won’t. If you drive across Mohammed Ali Road, you’ll be uncomfortable because high-rises have started coming up, but earlier, it had beautiful urban design, right up to KEM Hospital. The chawls which were built to a certain height with common setbacks and courtyards, the mills, the Hindmata theatre, it had everything; it was a well-woven matrix. Now the whole matrix feels alienated because the urban design is gone.

For a coin to have value, it needs to have both heads and tails. In Bombay, there is only heads: development, development, development. The Heritage Committee used to joke: ‘Tere naam (Vikas) se hi toh problem aa rahi hai!”

When you redevelop, you become a co-owner. Every tenant wants to become one, and it is this greed which is messing up the city. If a building with 16 tenants is redeveloped, it’ll have 40 or more users. The building’s footprint will remain the same, but the difference will be like sitting in a first-class compartment and a second-class compartment. Water, car parking, street width, natural light, ventilation…all need to be shared. Which is wiser – 16 or 40?

I’ve started rethinking conservation in a different way; if yesterday’s architecture is today’s heritage, can today’s architecture be tomorrow’s heritage? If it can, you can pull down the old structure provided the new one benefits the city. But if you can’t come up with something good, don’t mess around with something which we have inherited, that is better.

 

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Vikas Dilawari’s Restoration Preserves The Past For The Future

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VIKAS DILAWARI’S RESTORATION PRESERVES THE PAST FOR THE FUTURE

Vikas Dilawari is a conservation architect whose work has won 15 UNESCO awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Mrigank Warrier toured parts of Charni Road, Thakurdwar, and CP Tank with Mr. Dilawari and explored two of his conservation projects.

The Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsee Charitable Institution, 33, Maharishi Karve Marg, Opp. Charni Road Railway Station, Mumbai 400 004.
Hira Baug, CP Tank, Mumbai 400 004.

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Moments after we meet outside Charni Road station, Vikas Dilawari asks me to inspect its signature railings: “They’re a replica of those at the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway building (Western Railway headquarters) outside Churchgate station.” And just like that, a short tour of two of his conservation sites becomes an evening of introductions to Bombay’s omnipresent heritage.

Obscured as it is by the remnants of a demolished pedestrian overbridge, the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsi Charitable Institution is a Gothic Revival building I must have walked past countless times, dismissing it as yet another colonial edifice commandeered by an obscure government department that one must avoid on principle as a museum of paperwork. But this 1908 structure – the first project of Mr Dilawari’s 27-year career – is a school for children of all communities.

We admire the imposing façade of this gorgeous building, and I can almost picture it filled with students: scores of exuberant children scampering through the portico into the lobby and pausing for a beat; tipping back their tiny heads, they gaze up the wide, sunlit stairwell with open-mouthed wonder at the pitched roof, four high-ceilinged storeys above their restless feet. Some of the more daring kids might risk a slide down the burnished bannister before scampering off to class through corridors shielded by ornate wooden screens and balustrades. The recently trained bladders of the tinier toddlers may drive them to the toilet, where an intricately chiselled screen of Porbandar stone brings elegance to that most utilitarian of spaces.

The more pensive ones will savour the soft tread of their canvas-shoed feet on the teakwood stairs and pause on the Minton-tiled landings to contemplate the serene marble tombstones of Bada Kabrastan in the adjacent plot. But the performers amongst them will surely make a beeline for the many-columned hall with its stage and stone balconies and hug a stone pillar for how wonderful it feels against their cheeks.

Only the most dauntless will climb onwards to the fourth floor library – painted a most welcoming tint of green – for its vista of the sea right in front and Malabar Hill and Walkeshwar in the distance. I doubt their teachers permit them to step onto the terrace on either side as Mr. Dilawari and I did, where he immediately pointed out that the blue and white roof of Charni Road station clashes with the brick red roof of the Government Press behind it. And I’m certain no student is allowed to clamber up the Mangalore-tiled roof of the school and look upon the quiet sanctuary of the Cowasjee Jehangir Atash Behram next door and the domes of Victoria Terminus on the horizon.

Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsi Charitable Institution

But they and you and everyone else can admire the windswept statue of Athena, holding a spear and shield, visible at the very top of the school from the very bottom. “It could once be seen all the way from Malabar Hill,” says Mr. Dilawari. “But it had fallen down or been removed and was replaced by a hoarding of 505 soap for a very long time. It was quite a feat to place that statue at the top, at a height of about 80 feet, facing the sea.”

As we descend the stairs, Mr. Dilawari – a most affable man – issues stern orders to workers giving finishing touches to another round of restoration. His eye for detail does not waver even when we stroll on Thakurdwar Road: he points out the Art Deco turret and stairwell jaali of the Vinay Health Home building as well as two staircases in the same chawl: one original, wooden, and still beautiful, the other recent, metal, and ghastly. Walking with him, one develops a type of vision that strips every sight of its tasteless modern additions to visualise each structure as it was in its heyday.

Turning onto Nath Madhav Road, I immediately spot a corner of my favourite Mumbai building, the interiors of which – in a happy coincidence – Mr. Dilawari restored. If real estate is a status symbol, Hira Baug is the most glorious of them all. Built in 1905 by a wealthy Seth, its frontage – which abuts two streets – overlooks a traffic island and public toilet but once commanded a view of the historic CP Tank.

hira baug

Mr. Dilawari crosses the intersection with carefree aplomb, unmindful of the blaring traffic (“This is Bhuleshwar, nothing will happen”). With sweeping arms, he explains how just a ground-plus-one structure can have such a large footprint, how buildings across the street complement its curves, and how the balustrade of its recessed, triangular terrace is perfectly parallel to the front of an adjacent building.

Mr. Dilawari describes its design as “Gothic outside, Indian inside” (If I come across as an architectural expert in the following sentences, it is only because I am quoting him). The façade of Hira Baug has Western ornamentation such as trefoils (a raised outline of a three-lobed leaf) and finials (slender, carved projections crowning the apices of its roofs). But it also sports carved motifs of Indian animals, and its eaves are lined by finely-crafted, desi wooden lengths called fascia boards. The longer one examines its façade, the more detail it reveals.

hira baug

We pass through its gates to an oasis of calm. Mr. Dilawari explains how Hira Baug was planned keeping human senses in mind: the stone-paved courtyard hardly admits the din of traffic outside; a young woman sits on a verandah, studying. The structure is oriented to welcome the south-west wind, which sweeps through the building through louvered ventilators. The last rays of the setting sun shine upon its walls, tingeing its yellow ochre hue to something indescribable.

In photographs dating from before Mr. Dilawari’s restoration, Hira Baug appears discoloured, decrepit, and altered, with little consideration for its original design. We clamber up one of its many staircases to the gallery of a space now used as a wedding hall; once painted an odious grey all over, its original, colourful stencilled pattern with ‘HB’ at the centre is resplendent once again. The terrace next to it offers a splendid view of a hidden Art Deco clock tower right in the middle of Bhuleshwar. We walk along a balcony-corridor onto which a row of residential rooms opens; its cast-iron railings display the ‘HB’ motif as well. The windows of the rooms open into the quiet courtyard. The lower panes of their shutters are solid, for privacy, while the upper ones are transparent and admit sunlight. Hira Baug is a building designed for its people.

hira baug

As we leave, I see a man go up the stairs with a giant tiffin. Hira Baug was once a dharamshala whose rooms were subsidised by its shops;  the watchman Dubeyji informs me that, a century later, the rooms are still given free of charge to the families of cancer patients from out of town who need to stay in the city for months on end.

Mr. Dilawari says, “Any modern building is like a human being; until you’re 30, 45, 50, you’re fit. At 60, you start going for check-ups. The very fact that Hira Baug has completed 100 years without asking for external repairs is remarkable.” This resonates with the email signature of this man who spends his days protecting and preserving that which he loves most about his city: “It’s good not because it’s old, it is old because it is good.”

 

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Casing The Scene At The Bombay High Court

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CASING THE SCENE AT THE BOMBAY HIGH COURT

The Bombay High Court is the highest court in the state, hearing criminal and civil appeals as well as civil cases in original jurisdiction. Courtrooms are open to the public; photography and audio recording are prohibited on the premises.

Bombay High Court, Fort, Mumbai 400 032

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When a cop arrests your movement outside the Bombay High Court, you immediately fear that all those years of underage drinking have finally caught up with you. But – libertas! – he isn’t hauling me in to trial, he’s simply detaining me from obstructing the Justices, who zoom in through the Judges’ Entrance in sedan after white sedan. Another cop prowls the lawns behind the railings with a revolver, daring someone to do something stupid. Under the portico, white-liveried, red-turbaned bearers wait as their Lordships emerge from their carriages, hand over their briefcases and proceed to their chambers before court.

I expected a silent temple of justice; I found a buzzing airport. Electronic screens display the names of judges, the courtroom over which they will preside, and the number of the case they are currently hearing. As I wait for the elevator, a jocular senior lawyer chitchats with a former client and loudly mentions the name of a junior who just ‘happens’ to be standing in front of him. The embarrassed junior whirls around and greets him, which he acknowledges with a chuckle, then tells me a story:

“Many years ago, I was running late for my case on the third floor. Only one elevator was working, so I took the stairs. Now, you can see that my weight makes it difficult; I got to the first floor and paused for breath, got to the second floor and was panting. By the time I got to the third floor, all the damn lifts had started working!”

And just like that, I am at ease.

Before I know it, the courtroom is full, and there are people standing and blocking my view of the judge’s clerk listening to last-minute pleas, shaking his head, and rifling through his papers with the smug air of one indispensable to both judge and advocates. Lawyers swathed in black robes and white collars discuss everything but their cases; when a small white cat crawls in, they argue about how to evict the unauthorised feline personnel.

I expected a silent temple of justice; I found a buzzing airport.

On the dot at 11 o’clock, the Judge ascends to his seat from a private entrance. Everyone shoots to their feet, then whispers break out again. The Judge takes no note of this, but never have I seen a man more in control of an entire room.

I will spare you the details of each case, but suffice it to say that the Judge is as compassionate as he is severe, as witty as he is stern. Rarely does he allow anyone to complete an overlong sentence; staring over his glasses, he interrupts by asking an incisive question that cuts to the heart of the matter and terminates a well-rehearsed monologue. When a whiny lawyer pleads with him to accept her petition by repeating ad nauseum that she “went all the way to Nashik to get my client’s signature, My Lord,” he shoots back: “I don’t care if you went to Timbuktu, madam! For the 20th time, no.” When a defendant’s lawyer stares persistently at the Judge while making numerous requests to the plaintiff’s counsel, the Judge interjects: “Don’t look at me, look at him when you appeal to him!”

“I would, Your Honour,” comes the reply, “but I am too frightened of my colleague’s appearance!” Titters everywhere.

A case about an illegally occupied flat is heavily peppered with an acronym I assume is the name of a corporation; 20 minutes pass before I realise “HUF” stands for Hindu Undivided Family. I cannot resist smiling every time the Judge mentions a punctuation mark while dictating a judgement: “The arbitrator was comma to my very great dismay comma an advocate of this court comma against whom…”

Lawyers swathed in black robes and white collars discuss everything but their cases

Victorious lawyers leave the courtroom with barely suppressed grins. The one sitting beside me plays Minesweeper on his phone. Two Marathi-speaking women ask each other, “What the hell is going on?” A bored, somnolent intern sitting with his back to the judge’s dais blears at me with hungover eyes. I’m pleased to observe that the lawyers are uniformly courteous to all the non-lawyers in the room, often giving up their seats to senior citizens.

When the judge channels Hamlet by declaring that, “there is something rotten in the state of our commercial litigation”, I want to break into applause. When he discovers that the opposing parties are actually a father-in-law and son-in-law trying to defraud the court, he asks the latter’s lawyer if his client is present. When the lawyer expresses doubt, the Judge says he’s certain the man is the corridor outside. And he is. I am in awe.

Attending court is not unlike attending a performance of devised theatre. The set is spectacular, the protagonist and antagonist have places on either side of the stage, the storyline is unpredictable, and the dialogue is crisp, overlapping, but clearly enunciated.

But all eyes are on the director, who is sitting at centre-stage. Even the actors don’t how the story will end; only he does. Bound by a canon more hallowed than stagecraft, he masterfully guides each performance to its culmination. And after the last words are uttered, we realise that for some of the audience, the director’s directions are binding on the story of their lives.

 

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Time To Give Coffee O’Clock A Chance

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TIME TO GIVE COFFEE O’CLOCK A CHANCE

Coffee O’Clock is a café on Veera Desai Road, Andheri that serves a mean hazelnut cappuccino. Don’t be surprised if you find it empty; the neighbourhood residents are still getting used to its presence.

Coffee O’Clock, Shop No. 2, Nirmal LTD, Veera Desai Road, Andheri (w), Mumbai 400 053. Phone: 098208 31321

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For weeks after it materialised out of the ether, you could read the thoughts of locals passing by. We didn’t quite know what to make of Coffee O’Clock, yet there it appeared every time we looked, sandwiched like 12 Grimmauld Place between a Montessori school and my Wi-Fi guy. Like all sensible non-Muggles, we were wary of its nefariously tasteful interiors, so we – retirees hobbling to the park, Women of the House returning with plastic cloth bags full of vegetables, a befuddled istriwallah cycling by – stopped and stared.

Not too long ago, our little part of Veera Desai Road was a peaceful cluster of old, grey two- and three-storey buildings; the one now under construction is 21 storeys high. When a Domino’s snuck in and set up camp overnight, we knew Raju had started to become a gentleman. When a Café Coffee Day infiltrated our homeland and the traitors amongst us were caught trading cutting chai for a lukewarm cup of air-conditioning, we realised who put the gentry in our gentrification.  But when Coffee O’Clock’s mug besmirched our fair vista, we clenched our fists and had coffee at home like we were meant to. Sometimes, I wondered if it wouldn’t be nice to break the tedium of my daily filter coffee with something new. Coffee O’Clock is literally a stone’s throw away; naturally, I never went.

My uncle, who lives in the next building, asked me if I’d “managed to go to Coffee O’Clock” with an expression that suggested a visit to a bordello. His son, who had managed, admitted to his indiscretion in a tone that implied said bordello was located on some distant, insurmountable peak. “The owner is a Malayalee,” supplied another uncle, apropos of nothing.

The multitudes that queue up to admire our local Ganpati pandal gazed at the café like an art installation that made no sense. The small throng of garba revellers who bumble around our single bedsheet of a community ground peered at the occasional patron – obviously from a foreign pin code – as they would at someone who showed up dressed in the wrong colour for that particular raatri. Late one night, the sight of its warmly lit space made the itinerant kulfiwallah forget to harangue me with his saab-aaj-kuch-nahin-bika spiel; together, we contemplated Coffee O’Clock’s pool table (70 rupees per frame), which appeared to be the only table occupied by customers. “Saab, yahaan koi aata bhi hai kya?”

And why would they? It is situated two buildings away from the main road. There are no signs. Or nearby offices with suits who attend business meetings. Or colleges apart from a maritime training institute that busses its students in and out, so no coffee for them.

We didn’t quite know what to make of Coffee O’Clock, yet there it appeared every time we looked.

I began to worry for the coffee-shop I wouldn’t dream of entering.

And then, one day, a friend came home on short notice and I was out of coffee decoction (Gasp!), so I crossed over to the dark side – paying for coffee.

Coffee O’Clock wants you to know that it loves motorcycles; it reiterates this everywhere you look: biking magazines and keychains, a diminutive model of a racing bike, a wheel-shaped chandelier with bulbs instead of spokes, and a discomfiting sign that just says: “Coffee + Gasoline”. Here, PMS apparently stands for Parked Motorcycle Syndrome (don’t miss the Royal Enfield usually stationed out front), and a poster asserts, “Some do drugs, some pop bottles, we solve our problems with wide open throttles”. The men’s and women’s loos are identified by pictures of a motorcycle and a scooter, which isn’t sexist at all.

But on the wall behind the counter are black-and-white portraits of an elderly couple. I spot a small, well-tended altar. And I’m relieved by the absence of the usual coffee-shop din and the aroma of coffee designed to make you want to hand over your wallet to the barista and ask him to keep you topped up all day.

At 5.30 p.m. on a Friday evening, no one else is here. A young boy and a younger girl walk in, then go behind the counter; they are the baristas. We are all dressed in our home best. The girl takes my order, while the guy glares at me with suspicion as I write this. The girl sets down my hazelnut cappuccino (very good) and cookies (also good), says “sorry for heart” and grins; the floating foam heart in my coffee looks like a flat, pouting fish or a very large clove of garlic, depending upon which way you look.

I’m starting to like my coffee-shop. Umm, it’s not my coffee-shop, but I’d miss it if it were gone.

 

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Feast On Gujarati Food At Shree Thaker Bhojanalay

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FEAST ON GUJARATI FOOD AT SHREE THAKER BHOJANALAY

Shree Thaker Bhojanalay is a restaurant in South Mumbai that is famous for its Gujarati thali. It was established in 1945 and serves hundreds of thalis daily. The restaurant is closed on Monday evenings.
Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, Building No. 31, Dadiseth Agiyari Lane, Gaiwadi, Kalbadevi, Mumbai 400 002. Phone: 022 2201 1232

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The afternoon sun propels us along ancient lanes, bound by genes, hunger, and anticipation. Brother-1 has primed his stomach by skipping breakfast. Brother-2 asks, “Are we there yet?” I plod deeper into Kalbadevi, stupefied by the summer heat. It is The Sister who spots the Gujarati signboard: Shree Thaker Bhojanalay.
Up a staircase, past a blackboard announcing the day’s menu, and onto a bench facing the inner courtyard of an old, old building, we await our turn. This better be good, growls my stomach.
When our name is called, we charge into the blissfully air-conditioned dining hall, drool dangling from the corners of our lips. Probably.
Let us not waste words on ambience. There are tables. And chairs.
But the plates, the plates! Do you remember the scene from Jodhaa Akbar in which Jodhaa supervises the cooking of a vegetarian repast for Akbar and his court, served in what looks like a giant tray for each person? I count 11 – eleven! – vaatis on each thali. If I pop into the kitchen, will I be surprised to find Aishwarya Rai stirring a gargantuan cauldron of kadhi? No.
We are soon awash in the largesse of our servers’ ladles. First, they anoint our Giant Eating Surfaces with myriad chutneys; pakodis, snow-white dhokla, and the bafflingly named Veg Salonis then tumble in. Dollops of aam ras, doodhpaak, and chanaa dal halwa land with the flip of a wrist. Homemade portions of moong, aloo, bhindi, and some version of gatte ki sabzi rest in their receptacles, but not for long. Just as we are about to tear into our puris, bajra bhakris, and makai ki rotis, a server deluges our plates with a second avalanche of starters. Only at Shree Thaker, No doesn’t mean No.

At Shree Thaker, there is something – and lots of it – for everyone.

We feast in silence, pacing ourselves according to burps; talking takes time away from savouring this wholesome meal. Brother-1 unbuckles his belt. Brother-2 has eaten his way into a stupor and wants some coffee to perk himself up into eating more. I accept no more than a tablespoon (or three) of masoor pulao; rice – that old encroacher of the gastrium – will not impinge upon my efforts to consume my body weight in hot, sweet, nourishing Gujarati dal. Chicken soup is for coughs and colds; Gujarati dal is forever.
Entertainment is provided by a devilish server who, once he realises that The Sister detests ghee, materialises out of thin air from time to time and flings a spoonful of the offending liquid onto her steaming khichdi. “I’m being ragged”, she wails. It’s true; ragged with love.
The unlimited thali is a panacea to all the problems of modern dining: too many options, conflicting tastes, overpriced but middling fare, and portions insufficient for more than one-and-a-quarter persons. Brother-1’s appetite is a black hole, The Sister is allergic to garam masala, and the number of vegetables Brother-2 refuses to ingest is not insignificant. But at Shree Thaker, there is something – and lots of it – for everyone.
I would like to marry into the family that runs this fine eating-house. If they are reading this: pranaam to my future in-laws. I can cook and sew.
Photographs by Suruchi Maira 
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Tracing The Legacy of Jagannath Sunkersett

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TRACING THE LEGACY OF JAGANNATH SUNKERSETT

Jagannath Sunkersett was a city father who left his mark – and name – on Bombay through his immense contribution to its arts, culture, and education. Mrigank Warrier goes on a tour of South Bombay, tracing glimpses of the past that live on in the present.

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The evil that men do may live after them, but the good isn’t always interred with their bones. A few good men built this city, and their names survive, appended to their legacies: Elphinstone, Jeejeebhoy, Kennedy, Sassoon…and Sunkersett.

Jagannath Sunkersett (1803-1865) was a city father who wore many hats: businessman, landowner, educationist, reformist, founder of institutions, and benefactor of the poor; a polymath who spoke up for his native brethren to their British masters and did much to improve their lot. From Legislative Councillor to Member of the Committee Appointed for the Administration of the Hill-Station of Matheran, he accepted diverse roles and performed each with singular excellence.

By digging into digitised books and journals from the 19th and 20th centuries – and rambling around Mumbai in the 21st – I have attempted to carve out a pilgrim trail linking some of the many, many sites associated with the perseverance and largesse of Jagannath ‘Nana’ Sunkersett. Walk with me.

British South Bombay

We set off from Elphinstone College, which evolved from the Native School of Bombay – established by the eponymous governor who was favourable towards educating Indians – to the Board of Education to the Elphinstone Institution. Nana was Chairman of the Elphinstone Funds and member of the Board.

Elephinstone Coll

Let us not tarry overlong at Mumbai University, itself a descendant of the Elphinstone Institution, where six Sanskrit scholarships endowed by Nana’s son Vinayakrao Jugonnathjee Sunkersett in his memory in 1866 continue to sponsor students. Let us pay but a moment’s obeisance at the iconic Asiatic Society, which holds within its hallowed halls a statute of Nana, the first Indian member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in London and one of the Bombay Society’s founders. We must not omit to swing by Borabazaar’s Gunbow Street, which derives its name from a corruption of Ganbasett – Nana’s grandfather, who migrated from Murbad to set up a mercantile business within the fort walls.

horniman circle asiatic library

We take a moment’s respite by the western face of much-photographed Victoria Terminus; the sculpted visage at the extreme right of the row of faces is Nana’s. He and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy formed the Indian Railway Association to lobby the British to bring railways to India; this grew into the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (now the Central Railway), of which Jeejeebhoy and Nana were the only two Indian directors. Its first ticket office was set up at Nana’s premises in Girgaum, and he was on board the first train from Boree Bunder to Tannah on April 16, 1853.

Marine Lines-Girgaum

We now veer west and pad lightly between the two peaceful plots of Bada Kabrastaan. A bust of Nana catches your eye, nestled in a private crematorium named for the man who strove to prevent the Sonapur (Chandanwadi) burning grounds from being shifted elsewhere. One-and-a-half centuries later, the secretary of the Bombay Hindu Burial and Burning Grounds Committee remains a Sunkersett.

Inside the Crematorium

Traipse into a parallel lane, and you will find yourself at SL and SS Girls’ High School. Ages ago, ‘a crop of Indian graduates from Elphinstone College in Fort, under the umbrella of the Students’ Literary and Scientific Society, decided to set up a network of schools for girls. Young and relatively poor, they turned to leading shetias (merchant elites) of Bombay.’ Nana ‘donated a beautiful little cottage in his own compound to be used as a school-house…rent-free’, and against stiff opposition, enrolled girls from his own household in the school.

We come now to Girgaum Road – renamed Jagannath Sunkersett Road – a long chain of wadis from Dhobi Talao to Opera House. A nine-storey apartment building christened Sunkersett Smruti was once the site of the ‘country mansion at Girgaum’ of the ‘rich Hindoo banker’. In a report of a party thrown here to welcome Lord Keane, Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army, an 1840 issue of the Asiatic Journal reports that ‘The mansion of Sunkersett is one of the handsomest on the island, and is particularly distinguished for the beauty of its garden…the courteous attentions, hospitality, gentlemanly, and indeed highly polished manners of the host could not fail to impress all his guests with sentiments of esteem and respect.’

Sunketsett Smruti

Behind the bygone mansion is Nana Sunkersett Wadi, now a morose mix of chawls, godowns, and a BEST substation.

Byculla

We take a flying leap to the Victoria and Albert Museum and Victoria Gardens, now known as Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Jijamata Udyan. Nana was President of the Museum Committee, and his portrait hangs on its staircase landing. He was also President of the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India, which laid down exquisitely landscaped gardens at Mount Estate. Try to picture Nana at its opening, escorting Lady Frere through the arbour.

BDLM_003

As we make our way back west, we pass through Play House, which got its epithet from the Grant Road Theatre, constructed in 1846 on land donated by Nana. With this, the onus of funding entertainment moved from elite patronage to tickets sold to the hoi polloi. In 1853, it hosted its first non-English play, Vishnudas Bhave’s Ramayana, in Marathi. Raja Gopichand and Jalandhar in Hindustani and Parsi theatre’s Rustom Zabooli and Sohrab soon followed. The theatre building itself is long gone, but it cradled the aforementioned vernacular theatre movements – ancestors of the Hindi film industry as we know it today.

Tardeo

Soothe your weary feet with the assurance that your journey is almost at an end. As you descend Frere Bridge, you may ignore Sunkersett Municipal School on your left, now unrecognisable as the brick-red Door Step School. Gaze upwards at the cable-stayed hydra of the aakaashi paadchaari pul (skywalk) that crouches over Nana Chowk, home to a bust of Nana unacknowledged by motorists whizzing past. Turn right and stop for a photo-op at Bhavani Shankar Mandir. Constructed in 1806 by Nana’s father, its low, Konkan-roofed structure silently resists the oppression of the tasteless towers that hem it in. Next door is Sunkersett Mansion, an angular building that replaced another of Nana’s residences. Its grounds included a dharamshala and the Sunkersett Babulsett Charitable Dispensary founded by Nana in his father’s memory.

Bhavani Shankar Mandir 1

When we turn into Jagannath Lane opposite, you will not be surprised by the signboard claiming that East and West Villa – old, squat buildings – are property of the Shankarsett family. Nana is long gone, but his descendants and his gifts to the city live on. As you move to take your train home from Grant Road station by walking through Shankarsheth Lane – better known as Bhaji Gully – you may join millions of others before you who have sent a silent prayer of thanks to Jagannath Sunkersett and thought to themselves: ‘What a man! What a legacy! What a life!’

Photographs by Suruchi Maira

 
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Shanmukhananda-band

A Personal History Of Shanmukhananda Auditorium

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A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SHANMUKHANANDA AUDITORIUM

Shanmukhananda Auditorium is one of Mumbai’s most premiere venues for live Indian classical music performances. Among the legendary artistes who have performed here are tabla doyen Ustad Zakir Hussain, mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer, and vocalist Kishori Amonkar. Shanmukhananda Auditorium, Plot No 292, Com. Harbanslal Marg, Sion (e), Mumbai 400 022. Phone: 022 2407 8888

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At a quarter to five on a wintry Friday night, I walked out of Sion Hospital – my college, where I’d spent the night – with a barely repressed grin on my face. That day, I’d know what it’s like to be the first to enter iconic Shanmukhananda Hall. Every February, tabla doyen Zakir Hussain organises an almost day-long tribute concert at Shanmukhananda in remembrance of his father Ustad Alla Rakha, featuring a galaxy of top-notch Indian and international musicians. Free passes are issued an hour before each session, the first of which begins at 6:30 a.m. Covering the half-mile distance in a few minutes, I was sure I’d get prime seating, front and centre. Only to find that the queue for passes had spilled out of the Shanmukhananda campus and onto the footpath. These mad folks must have taken the 02:35 from Karjat or the 03:25 from Virar, wrenched out of bed in the dark by their love for classical music. How I loved Mumbai that day! My impressions of that sleep-tinged dawn concert are hoary: someone called Sivamani opening with a short percussion set. A Mr. Louis Banks settling on his piano stool to sustained applause. A young fellow named Niladri Kumar whose zitar didn’t let me nap. And a pantheon of other classical gods jamming with such little-known singers as Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan. I am a fourth-generation patron of Shanmukhananda. My great-grandparents – migrants from Kerala – became members of the Shanmukhananda Sangeetha Sabha (music association), whose kutcheris (concerts) were organised in the grounds of Don Bosco High School, Matunga. Convened in 1952, its inaugural performance featured pioneering vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who defined the Carnatic concert format as we know it today. The Sabha went on to present every leading artiste of the era; since its membership exceeded the capacity of the venue, each artiste had to perform twice. Spurred by Nehru’s comment about the lack of a sizeable auditorium in Bombay, the Sabha collected around 27 lakh rupees to build one. Completed in 1963, it can now accommodate 2,763 persons seated across the ground floor and two levels of balconies. Carnatic vocalist and guru Radha Namboodiri, also my great-aunt, became a member when she started learning Carnatic Music at age 12. She gives me an example of the auditorium’s impeccable acoustic design: Mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer forbade the use of mics in concert. Both he and vocal deity DK Pattammal (whom he was accompanying) performed without amplification, yet his beats and her voice carried loud and clear to the last row of the second balcony! Radha Mutthashi (grandmother) retains the memory of an MS Subbulakshmi kutcheri in which the sound system’s failure did not come in the way of her divine music reaching every ear in the house-full auditorium.

If music is a religion, Shanmukhananda is its Mecca: always there, always beckoning, always rewarding.

Radha Mutthashi has herself performed at Shanmukhananda in the ’70s and ’80s and returned as principal of its music school from 2006 to 2017. She jokes that part of its draw is its canteen, run by the same caterer since inception. Elegantly dressed mamas and mamis would mark their presence in the concert, then slip away during the thaniyaavarthanam (percussive improvisation) to snack on the cannonball-sized batata vadas and filter coffee. My father remembers what he was told about Shanmukhananda even before he visited: “The view of the artistes from the second-floor balcony is like the view of cars on Marine Drive from Malabar Hill.” He remembers attending Radha Mutthashi’s concert. And being in the greenroom prior to the performance of vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (also Radha Mutthashi’s guru), watching my great-grandfather effusively greet the legend, with whom he was friendly, and share a paan with him. Ghatam wizard Vikku Vinayakram, known for tossing his earthen pot into the air at the end of the rhythmic cycle as a bit of showmanship, accompanied him that day. As did mridangam virtuoso Umayalpuram Sivaraman, who momentarily launched his much heavier instrument skyward as well! My own recollections are more recent: of Sonu Nigam’s then six-year-old son Nevaan, hoisted in the crook of his father’s arm, matching him note for note as they sang the soulful Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin. Of an octogenarian Asha Bhosle, prancing about with a stick, sometimes struggling to hit the high notes, until she hushed her band with a wave of her hand and enthralled us with a voice-only rendition of Mera Kuch Saamaan. And of being blessed by the ethereal melody of Kishori Amonkar at midnight, when her rendition of raags Sampoorna Malkauns and Basanti Kedar transported her adoring listeners for two hours, to a better world, in the deep, dark night. If music is a religion, Shanmukhananda is its Mecca: always there, always beckoning, always rewarding. I leave you with one final reminiscence: When my parents and I wanted to attend a members-only concert, I called the office, confessed that we weren’t members, and asked if we might come anyway. The kind gentleman on the line (who shall remain nameless) answered, “Oh yes, of course! If anyone asks, take my name and say I invited you. You are most welcome”. Feature photograph by Suruchi Maira