Exploring Somnath Lane

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Somnath Lane shook off a questionable reputation to become a sleepy, quiet Bandra lane.

The portrait of Somnath Lane rendered here is not meant as a true history, strictly speaking, but rather an oral history as related to the writer by one of his many neighbours and other friends from around Bandra. Of course, oral histories can vary widely from person to person, even from day to day. This piece aims to capture the ephemerality of those stories--so essential to Bandra's complex internal mythology--and of the neighborhoods they describe, sometimes fancifully, sometimes even falsely, but always with love, which is its own kind of truth.

I first moved to Bandra about three and a half years ago. I’d spent the previous six months in a fancy flat in a gated highrise in a part of Lalbaug they called Parel principally for the sake of real estate developers and the clients they hoped to attract. It was a nice enough place and I hated it: the marble lobbies and having to give my apartment number every time I came in and the children who seemed to multiply by the week so that the pool, meant to be one of the building’s main selling points, seemed always to be overflowing with them.

So when I decided to move, I told my broker, Nanubhai, that I wanted the opposite. I wanted to live in a village area. I wanted a house with character (but a minimum of mould). I wanted a semi-furnished 1BHK with a full kitchen and bathroom and I wanted it for under 30k/month. By some miracle, Nanubhai conjured the perfect place out of nowhere—or rather, out of the backside of Holy Family Hospital, where my house, a small white concrete cottage with a sloping tin roof, sits in the shadow of a crumbling bungalow and a solitary palm tree.

Mine is a weirdly situated little place: to access it, you either walk through the gates of the hospital itself and around the back, where a congregation of drug addled cats nestles in piles of trash overflowing from a pair of rusted out dumpsters, or come up a tiny street called Somnath Lane, past a terra cotta-roofed Mangalorean club and a marigold-garlanded crucifix, across from which you turn into an even smaller gully where a dhobi with a tree growing through his roof presses clothes throughout the day. My gully would originally have been a chawl occupied by the domestic staff for the two big bungalows out front. Then, starting in the 1940s, Mangalorean migrants started moving in, one of whose names is still inscribed on the little black placard on my door: Thomas Mathias.

In the ’70s, when Bandra was in the thrall of Heroin, Somnath Lane earned itself a reputation for being the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.

Thomas’s sons Donald and Stephen are my landlords, and a finer pair of landlords you could hardly hope to find. Donald, in particular, is a constant presence around the neighbourhood, setting rat traps, playing with the pair of Dobermans who live in the bungalow in front of my house (the younger of the two is called Princess and she’s incorrigible), helping to repair pavers and petitioning the powers-that-be at the hospital—technically our collective landlord—when there are problems with drainage or anything of the kind.

Thomas, like most of the men who came to the gully in the ’40s and ’50s, had been a farmer back home but learned to drive a car when he moved to the city and worked here as a taxi driver. “At that time you could live on the 200 or 300 rupees you brought home each day,” Donald told me when we sat down to talk about the lane. “Not like now.” Thomas, he said, had even appeared on film once: in one of his movies, Dilip Kumar came out of St. Andrew’s Church and chose Thomas’s from among the cabs lined up outside the church’s gates along Hill Road. Donald couldn’t remember the name of the movie off the top of his head, but he remembered the license number of the cab his father drove in it: MRPP2242

In the ’70s, when Bandra was in the thrall of heroin, Somnath Lane earned itself a reputation for being the wrong side of the proverbial tracks. “People would go to the low compound walls of the school or in the jungle behind the bungalows to smoke,” Donald said. “And on the other side, in the D’Mello Compound, there were three or four notorious people.” One of those people, blind in one eye, was Daniel, who would terrorise children that made their way to the school gates, stealing the money their mothers had slipped into their school books. Other old Bandra hats have told me that Somnath Lane used to be where you came to buy your first bag of weed.

Back in the Rachana Compound, behind an old chawl and next to a pair of ugly concrete highrises that came up some 30 years ago, Donald showed me a broad, stone well, the roots of an overhanging peepal streaming down its eastern flank into a stagnant pool of pale grey water. “In the monsoon the water comes up so high and people would come back from playing football on the fields and run and jump in to wash off,” Donald said, “but there’s a rock there, below the surface, and 10 or 15 people dove in and hit their heads and sank to the bottom. There was all this muck down there so they would get stuck, and they’d have to use hooks to pull the bodies out,” he went on. “One time we had to get an army commander to come in when the hooks didn’t work and he dove down twice—the first time he couldn’t do it—and pulled the body up by the hair. That was in 1975.”

Mumbai changes; homes are built and lost and rebuilt elsewhere. There’s no place for sentimentality here.

Somnath Lane is sleepier now, even if the rest of Bandra isn’t. There are no opium dens and no bodies in the well, and Blind Daniel has stopped terrorizing the kids (he might even have died. I’m not sure). I don’t buy my weed here, and the old bungalows are mostly gone. The last two—127 and 126 Hill Road, the latter sharing my literally inexplicable address (just try getting something delivered here)—are likely to come down within the next couple of years, as is my own little house. The hospital (on a 99-year lease passed from the Bishop of Bombay to the Salsette Society to the Sisters of Charity in Pune to the Keralite order of nuns that runs it today) plans to expand. They want to build a new tower over the bungalows and new quarters for the doctors and nurses where the 25 houses in my gully currently stand (though, Donald says, chagrinned, the Doctors and Nurses already have good quarters out in Kurla).

The problem, Donald says, is not that they’re expected to move. They’re fine with that. Mumbai changes; homes are built and lost and rebuilt elsewhere. There’s no place for sentimentality here. The problem is that the hospital—funded handsomely, he assures me, by private financers in Italy—is only willing to pay 35 lakhs to each family, not even enough for each to purchase a small apartment in Borivali, and certainly less than the value of the land, which he estimates should be worth maybe 600 crores. Donald, who returned to Bandra in 2009 after 15 years working for cruise lines in the States, has had his fill. He wants to leave Mumbai again, wants to go back to the States where he says there’s a job managing a 90-room hotel in a place called Alice, Texas waiting for him. Still, he’s still manifestly proud of the avocado tree he’s planted in front of my house, of the work he’s done to support himself since moving back here and efforts he’s put in to keep the neighbourhood afloat.

For now, anyway, nothing’s going to happen: as with so much else in Bandra, it’s all tied up in litigation. The residents of the lane are suing the hospital for just compensation for their land. The hospital is pushing back. I suspect the hospital will win, eventually. “Even if they find against us—and how can they find against us!?—we’ll appeal it,” Donald said.

“Every law has a loophole,” he went on, brushing away the mosquitoes drifting aimlessly around the crucifix. “Even hanging has a loophole.”

Yes, I thought, it’s called the noose.

Somnath Lane, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050