What I owe to Mumbai and its syncretic culture and my debt to Veerchand Niwas
In a nostalgic piece, Arun Sharma writes about growing up in Mumbai and how the city and its people shaped him. Quarrels were over water, scarce and more fundamental, and not about religion
Although I was born in Bombay, now Mumbai, my earliest memories are about returning to the city with my maternal grandparents when I was about four and a half. My mother had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and I had been separated from her soon after my birth.
Our journey from Churi-Ajitgarh in Rajasthan, where my Nanaji was a doctor at the Nemani hospital, was arranged by Seth Umadutta Nemani, one of the richest industrialists of that time and grandson of Seth Shivnarain Nemani, whose bust still adorns the Cotton Exchange premises in Mumbai.
The British had left India nearly seven years ago, but some Englishmen remained in the country, and I remember seeing an elderly English couple in the dining car of the train, eating their omelette with what looked like a tiny Pitchfork and knife. This amused me and was a topic of discussion for some time back in my Nanaji's house.
In Mumbai, we stayed at the Nemani Building at Chowpatty in South Mumbai where I enjoyed going up and down the elevator, a novelty. When we went to see my mother, a frail figure of a woman, barely twenty-three years old, she looked at me and my sister from some distance for a few minutes, fearing that close contact with her might transmit the disease to us. Our trip to Mumbai was over.
Three years later, after my mother died and my father remarried, I returned to Mumbai, along with my sister, once again; this time to stay with my father.
We lived in a one room house sans a bathroom and a toilet, on the third floor of a huge three storey building called Veerchand Niwas on the King Edward Road, renamed Acharya Donde Marg in Sewri, in Central Mumbai, where my father ran a dispensary for mill workers.
Each floor of the building had 40 or so one-room flats, with a central verandah running through the entire length. At each end of the veranda was a small area with three water taps and at the farthest end common toilets. The floor of the area from where you carried your requirement of water was paved with rough grey and black cement. The stink and filth of the place was compensated by the cordiality and warmth of the inmates. It was a community of nearly 200 people on each floor, living cheek and jowl with each other but amicably enough.
It was a mini-India and we had for our neighbours, Marathis, Tulus, Telugus, Tamils, Malayalis and Catholics, both of Goan and Mangalorean origin. There also lived in the building mill workers from the Ghat districts of Maharashtra and from Eastern UP. 10 or 20 of them would occupy a room and take turns to sleep, those returning from textile mills occupying the space vacated by others who went out on their shifts.
Occasionally groups of workers would get into fights. I remember one such fight taking place on the ground behind the building. All I could see from the balcony was people, their clothes stained with blood, being carried to hospital. Mercifully, these fights were never over religion or region. The quarrels would often start over water, a commodity more fundamental to human life than religion. Water, I remember, was scarce and was supplied for a couple of hours in the early mornings and again in the evenings.
Morarji Desai had been replaced with Yashwantrao Chavan as Chief Minister in November 1955, after Desai ordered police firing on protestors demanding creation of a separate state of Maharashtra. But Prohibition imposed by him was still in force. This spelt trouble for a lady on our floor, who sold liquor. There would be occasional police raids but she was rarely caught red handed, as someone would always run ahead of the police and inform her of the raid.
My father put me in an English medium school known as Our Lady of Fatima School, run by a Roman Catholic Order. The school did not have a building of its own and was run in two 10 x 10 feet rooms in a building opposite the Sewri Christian cemetery, established by Arthur Crawford, the first Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, in 1865.
We had a teacher by the name of Rosy Rodriguez. She was not interested in converting us to Christianity. Instead, she often told us about her brother, who lived in Scotland. She would inform us, holding his letter in her hand, that it was so cold and foggy out there that he could hardly see his hand that was writing this letter. We soon got tired of her frequent forays into Scottish weather conditions.
Sometimes, our classes would be held in the chapel. When a coffin was sometimes brought in for funeral service, we had to be moved out of the chapel. We would then move around the cemetery, a pristine forest spread over 44 acres. We would look at the gravestones and read out the names and dates of births and deaths of those buried underneath. Some graves had beautiful marble stone carving. Others had the Holy Cross on them or marble statues of Angels standing guard.
Little did I know then that the cemetery housed the graves of some of the most famous men of Mumbai. Among them were Frederick William Stevens, the architect who designed the Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and the BMC office across the road, George Wittet, architect of the Gateway of India, the Prince of Wales Museum, the KEM Hospital, Cowasjee Jehangir Hall and Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tatas. Also buried there are James Taylor, Secretary to the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and to the Bombay branch of the Asiatic Royal Society, and poet Dom Moraes, whose last remains were laid to rest there in 2004.
Mumbai has changed over the last sixty years, as all other cities. Its quintessential spirit however remains unaltered.
Indeed, if I do not recoil in horror like many Indians when I find a Muslim or a Christian sharing a seat with me in a train, it is because I spent a part of my childhood in the cosmopolitan culture of Mumbai and in the allembracing milieu of Veerchand Niwas!
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)