Why Bombay cares: Giving up the Ghost

Bandra, ‘Queen of the Suburbs’, is under threat as the authorities plan to turf the dead out of their graves

Why Bombay cares: Giving up the Ghost

Vidyadhar Date

Mumbai’s peace-loving Catholic community can be very assertive when it comes to perceived injustice that cuts close to the bone. It is also extremely resourceful and well organised, with an excellent information network. That would explain the speed with which hundreds gathered on 7th January, in the large hall of St Peter’s Church on Hill Road, within hours of the municipal corporation serving a notice for taking over part of the old St Peter’s Church cemetery on Kadeshwari Road in Bandra.

A solid, seemingly indestructible cream stone building with lovely playgrounds on either side, both St Peter’s and St Andrew’s Church, a little further away, are highly visible landmarks in this suburb by the sea.

The cemetery in dispute, though, is in one of the least known and lesser privileged areas of this once-queen of the suburbs. During a recent walk in the neighbourhood, I discovered there are three ways of reaching it. One is via a narrow road between Shahrukh Khan’s mansion, Mannat, and pioneering art gallerist Kekoo Ghandy’s stone house, Kekee Manzil. The municipality seems to have deliberately kept this road in a bad shape to deter people from using it; in fact, it was actually closed some years ago— to protect the screen idol from being disturbed? Who knows!

From this road, one ascends to Mount Mary, and then takes the pathway down to Peter Dias Road and Kadeshwari Road, which leads to the Kadeshwari Mata temple through a down-and-out area with some really poor dwellings. (The plusher approach to the temple is through a lane that originates between Bandra Fort and Taj Land’s End hotel.)

The second approach to the cemetery is from Mehboob Studio. Few know about the third which originates behind the Bandra Reclamation bus terminus. This is the route I took. As I walked through very narrow lanes, I stopped to talk to an old East Indian Marathi-speaking Christian Koli fisherman living in an old house with a gorgeous carved wooden door. We spoke about the Bandra reclamation, which saddened him. “The sea used to be near our house, we could anchor our fishing vessels here, all that space is gone, and with it our livelihood.”

The cemetery, which was once a seaside cemetery, has also had its sea taken away; just as the adjacent Sea Beach View housing society no longer has any sea view left. After having purposefully walked towards this nondescript and completely isolated cemetery, I suddenly find it difficult to peer inside. A female security guard, who it turns out is a Gujarati-speaking Christian, tells me in Hindi, “Is ke upar lafda chal raha hai.

There is an ongoing proposal that land be taken from the Jewish cemetery nearby, but there have been no protests, as there are hardly any Bene Israeli Jews left. Even in the past, I always found it locked, with garbage piled outside. The Jewish cemetery in Panvel, on the other hand, seems to be well maintained, as documented by long-time Panvel resident and architect, Smita Dalvi.

The dilapidated Bandra cemetery area does not fall within the tourist circuit through the quaint old Ranwar and Pali villages with their charming architecture. Sachin Tendulkar’s new building—dull and prosaic as it is—is on the tourist circuit. Interestingly, his earlier home, La Mer, is fairly close to the cemetery in a relatively downmarket area. Might he have chosen to live there because it was off the beaten track, away from the public gaze? (Aishwarya Rai also lived in La Mer.) What stands next to it now is an abandoned building with a notice pasted outside, suggesting issues of ‘enemy property’ from pre-Partition days. Abandoned, but not empty, as a nearby resident did tell me that some commandos occupy it now, invisible to outsiders.

Just as road-widening in the area is seen as part of a gentrification project involving displacement of the poor, so too the taking over of cemeteries in order to make room for more high-rises for the rich. (This is prime land whose value will go up further with the proposed links to the coastal road.)

The tranquillity of Bandra has been under threat for some time, now it is only going to get worse. There are still some lovely old bungalows left untouched, especially in the Salsette Catholic Cooperative Housing Society, which is more than a hundred years old. While each has its own distinctive architecture and beautiful gardens, some bungalows have wisely not paved their compounds with cement, thereby showing themselves as good civic citizens with a care for the environment—the ground absorbs rain water and prevents run-offs during the monsoon. Unfortunately, the municipal corporation shows little understanding of ecology, mindlessly destroying greenery and replacing it with cement, concrete, steel and artificial turf. Knowledgeable residents who complain are turned away with remarks that they are out of sync with new ideas. The only idea that seems to count is for contractors to make some money. Even that would not be so bad if the greenery was allowed to breathe.

Projects like the coastal road, heavy motorisation, and the privileging of vehicular traffic over pedestrian traffic continue to reveal a lack of concern about the safety of common people. More than a decade after the notorious Salman Khan case, the footpaths near the accident site remain as negligible (and neglected) as before.

Thousands of people walk to Mount Mary Church but unbelievably there is no footpath at all on the ‘upper class’ Mount Mary Road. This is nothing but callousness on the part of the authorities. It would be naïve to think that the absence of footpaths here, or in Pali Hill, or Malabar Hill, is just an oversight. It is a deliberate violation by the civic body of its own norms. Footpaths will eat into the parking space, which is free! Has anyone ever heard of the BMC contemplating taking parking fees from these extremely affluent residents? No. This is how the common people subsidise the rich, many of whom live here on land leased by the government at ridiculously low rents, which it does not care to increase. In short, the rich benefit at the expense of the poor.

Bandra has been badly let down by the authorities. The recent so-called improvement project outside Bandra West station— with those atrocious steel barricades—has resulted in a nightmare of congestion, confusion and cacophony. Nowhere in Mumbai will you find another suburban railway area that is so horrendously ill-planned. Traffic was so much easier earlier. Now, buses and auto rickshaws are made to squeeze through a narrow lane. So much of space is utterly and inexplicably wasted, and it is now so difficult to walk from one side of the station to the other. Life should have been so much easier with more space opening up in the wake of the demolition of existing structures. What is the use of spending crores of rupees, as has been done in the restoration of this heritage station, if this is the result, after all these years of work?

As if it weren’t bad enough to torture the living, now the authorities will not even spare those that are dead and gone, who are surely turning over in their graves at the very thought of being turned out of their eternal resting places.

Surely the former queen of suburbs—and all its denizens—deserve better.

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