Old Oases In Big Bandra

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OLD OASES IN BIG BANDRA

WORDS BY GENESIA ALVES AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY AMAL DUTT

In my very early teens, as the eldest of six children, I packed my bags to run away many times. I say “bags” and “run away”. I mean I stuffed a couple of t-shirts and a pair of shorts into an old haversack and walked slowly down the road, hoping like hell my mother would send a little brother scampering after me to implore me to come home. She usually did. And I would return in a huff, expecting a hot chocolate and a “there-there”. I’d make do with a maternal eye-roll and a broadcast: “Leave her stuff alone, you small kids”.

Now that I have three of my own, I still want to run away because of small children. But you don’t need to have small children to know there are days when you need a safe pocket in the void outside of the cluttered, clanking orbit that life in Mumbai has become.

Part of me thinks I shouldn’t tell you, but I will. And I hope you will respect the sanctity of both the secret and the space.

Open all day, they are silent oases usually peopled by one or maybe two souls, prayer books in hand, perhaps occasionally furtively dabbing their eyes.

Bandra has, rumouredly, the highest density of Catholic churches in the world. This is possible. The Basilica, St. Andrew’s, St. Peter’s, St. Theresa’s, Mt. Carmel’s, the Church of St. Elias, and St. Anne’s are located within a four square kilometre distance. In days before The Crowds, the bells of the angelus would chime across the 7 p.m. sky, from one church to the next. Young footballers on the field, working women rushing home with their bags of vegetables, retired widowers walking to church, the bhelwalla, the random delivery guy cycling down the road – they would all pause for a minute. Not all of them Catholic, but all culturally Bandra, they waited till the last echo of the bells and then continued.

The churches used to remain open all day. The old stone pillars of St. Peter’s were my favourite place to go to when the noon day sun or a harrowing day had taken its toll on my nerves. My mother had told me where she used to sit in church when she was a young woman. I chose that same seat each time, with a pillar to my right to put my head against.

Churches are closed for most of the day now. The Basilica is a tourist attraction, filled with stage whispering young things taking selfies that include the altar as a backdrop. The words “things have changed” must be the opposite of “I love you” or “all is well”. Things have changed. There is no point in making a list.

Outside at least three other churches though, and dotted around the suburb, are quiet, tiny places of prayer. And this is the secret. Open all day, they are silent oases usually peopled by one or maybe two souls, prayer books in hand, perhaps occasionally furtively dabbing their eyes.

Like all the Catholic religious spaces in Bandra, the chapels too are open to all. Prathnalaya and Fr. Agnel’s Ashram on Bandstand are beautiful. There is a functional modern chapel at Mt. Carmel’s. The hewn out of stone chapel outside St. Peter’s is always two degrees cooler than the outdoors.

I recently ran away to the chapel outside St. Andrew’s Church. It smells of the ocean (good and bad), and my grandparents lie just outside it. I spent a quiet ten minutes watching an elderly woman run through her rosary beads. When I came out, a young woman was taking some tourists through the cemetery, and I had to remind her to not make her Wiki-lecture so loud. There were people inside who had run away for a little bit. Maybe they were not ready for the mundane, noisy world to find them just yet.

Mt. Carmel Church, 81A, Chapel Road, Bandra (W), Mumbai, Maharashtra 400 050

Church of St. Andrew, 115, Hill Road, Bandra (W), Mumbai, Maharashtra 400 050