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Some Spaces In Time

Slink off the edges of the teeming metropolis that is Mumbai - you will find that the old-world Bombay of mansions still breathes, albeit in short gasps

Some Spaces In Time
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In tiny bylanes tiptoeing off the main roads, or at the ends of long, wooded driveways, in the last inviolate preserves of an old city, or plumb upon the Arabian Sea, another Bombay hides its face. Here, the air blows in gusts instead of fumes, in old houses where the silence settles like a well-kept secret. The owners prattle strangely, of the tree they lost the other day, the snakes that keep visiting, the front door that lies wide open all night, most nights.

Every part of the city, every nook and corner of this teeming, quintessential metropolis - even the busiest and most congested - has its own memory lane. It’s usually not more than a five-minute walk to the Bombay of a hundred years ago - houses with high ceilings and wrought-iron balconies, narrow well-swept lanes, carved teakwood furniture and front gardens, where neighbours holler out to each other in familiar epithets bubbling with old-world bonhomie.

Designer James Ferreira’s blue-and-white wooden house is one of the few sacrosanct spaces in Bombay where you can hear the melodious, soothing twittering of newly awakened birds in the morning. Khotachi Wadi, a slight lane off the bustling Girgaum locality of Bombay, gets its name from the Khot family, who leased this land out to the East Indians to build their homes. Ferreira’s grandmother, his two aunts, they all live in the neighbourhood. It’s like living in an extended clan of yore. In fact, his grandfather met his grandmother from the house next door. "It’s like growing up in a village in the middle of the city," says Ferreira, who has seven siblings. "We never close our doors."

There is a distinct calm in the house that Ferreira credits to feng-shui (vaastushastra’s Chinese counterpart). Ferreira, with his 900-square-foot bedroom, seems to have seen the real Bombay only in his dreams. "My whole childhood, I dreamt of living in a one-room apartment; I was fascinated by rooms where the back of the room served as the kitchen and everyone lived together."

The big-family feeling has dwindled. People in the neighbourhood, Ferreira’s own siblings, have immigrated. And that’s not the only thing which has changed. As the original owners sell their properties and move out, the houses of the wadi are being altered, with scant regard for either aesthetics or architectural proportion.

Matharpacady village, in the Mazgaon area of Bombay, boasts some of the city’s oldest, quaintest houses. At 79, Parviz Mazgaonwala doesn’t want to leave the only place she’s ever called home. Her strident voice over the telephone disguises her frail stature: "If you are calling about my house, forget about it! I am not selling it to anyone." The wizened woman with thick spectacles cringes the moment someone mentions the beauty of the house, perhaps instinctively comparing it with times when it was far more beautiful. "We had mango, plantain, neem trees," she reminisces. "From ambavadi to kachrawadi, this has become." Now there are greasy godowns, warehouses and garages in the area, things are being stolen, all of Mazgaonwala’s friends are gone. "Only we are left like this," she trails off. "It is a tragedy."

Other residents of this village, which falls in the ‘heritage zone’, share Mazgaonwala’s insecurity. Sohel Degani’s balcony overlooks a village road which appears to have come straight out of old Goa, leading to the old chapel of the village. The encroaching modernity fills him with rage: "What do the heritage people do, nothing! Tomorrow, even if Matharpacady flattens out, nobody will care. " He points to the house across his own. "It’s been sold, like most other houses here, because the owners are old and retired and can’t look after it. The new buyer is waiting for this house to collapse so he can build something new."

Bombay became the first city to adopt a heritage regulation in 1995, listing out about 630 buildings as heritage structures meant to be protected. Forty-eight buildings were put in the grade I category (buildings of prime importance); the others were included either in grade II (buildings where internal alterations are allowed) or grade III (only of importance to maintain the essential character of the neighbourhood).

Says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah: "Though there is a lot of pride among those who own heritage buildings, they sometimes feel frustrated due to lack of funding for privately owned buildings." According to her, repairing these buildings involves careful restoration methods for timber beams and decorative details. "This requires specialist expertise and really substantial funding," she informs us. Add to that outdated rent control laws where tenants have been paying the same rent for years and often expect the landlord to shell out money for repairs. In other cases, willing tenants are discouraged to spend on maintenance because the landlord would rather sell the building and get out.

Like 74-year-old Parviz Dalal, who lives on the lower floor of Marine Mansion at Bandra Bandstand. This derelict, almost gothic house facing the ocean is more than 100 years old. And it sure looks that - the weeded pathway leading up to the house, the broken windows. But inside, the gusty sea wind blows freely and the square footage is generous. Dalal’s rent for a 2,000 square-foot space on the seafront is an unbelievable Rs 100 per month. "I’ve been here since I was a boy," he relates. "I married here, my child was born here. I would never leave." But those days, of petrol at 15 annas to a gallon, of horse-carriages, of few people and fewer cars, are gone. And those inhabitants are gone too. Rockdale, another large mansion on the Bandstand, stands deserted today. Only the haunted skeleton remains of what must have been a majestic structure in its own time; windowless hollows gape out at the sea. The watchman, a solitary figure on the property, says it’s unsafe to go in and see the place. And mentions something about the place being acquired by a big builder to raise a hotel here.

"In the old days, Bandra had a slaughterhouse," recalls Kekoo Gandhy, the owner of Kekee Manzil, one of Bandstand’s last well-maintained mansions on the seafront. "There was a joke those days: throw a stone and it’s sure to land either on a pig or a Pereira. Today, it will land on a Wadhwani or some such Sindhi builder or promoter."

Villa Vienna, belonging to Gandhy’s mother, once stood beside Kekee Manzil. It still stands. Only it is now renamed Mannat and belongs to Bollywood’s reigning star Shahrukh Khan. "I remember how I first met my famous neighbour," Gandhy chuckles. "I was angry because he’d had a ditch dug outside my house to instal his telephone lines. Shahrukh knocked on my door that night to apologise and invited me over for Holi celebrations the following day. At his party, Shahrukh came up to me when I was feeling quite out of place. Putting an arm around me, he said, ‘Now let’s do something for you.’ He carried me upstairs on to his terrace, dipped me gently into a tub of coloured water and then put me back on my feet again."

Gandhy’s house is full of stories, waiting to be told and retold. There is the old Grecian statue that once stood in the garden, around which the family posed for photographs. The grandfather clock still tolling the hour. Like walking into a museum where every piece - part of the household once and now on display, but not wrenched out of context - has its own past, its own little history.

The Rauts don’t like their house being called a museum. "It’s just a lived-in old house," says Maithili Raut, one of the inheritors of the 1889 property off Hughes Road that has housed five generations of her family. The 11 members of this extended family don’t find the maintenance of the chandeliers or the Victorian grilles such a problem. "We all pool in and do it together," says Maithili’s mother, Lalita. This year, for the Ganpati festival, the family repeated an old ritual - oiling the great-grandfather’s clockwork Ganesh, in front of which the mechanical mice go round and round in circles.

On the other hand, when Cowasjee Dinshaw throws open the doors of Adenwala Baug, it’s like entering the Dickensian chamber of Miss Havisham, sans the cobwebs. The house: 127 years old. The huge Swiss organ in the living room: more than a 100 years old. The candle and diva chandeliers: converted to electricity in 1915. The family portraits on the walls, the heavily-carved teakwood sofas, the marble busts of the Dinshaw ancestors - the long driveway retreating quietly off the busy Tardeo thoroughfare bears nary a hint of these things.

Dinshaw speaks nonchalantly of change: "I used to take half an hour to get to work by victoria. Now it takes me half-an-hour to get to work by car." But the discoloured mouldings on the ceiling, the faintly musty smell are signs that the house hasn’t taken the passage of time lightly. "We only stay here because of sentiment," says Dinshaw. "I’d take an Arabian horse over a Mercedes any day, this bungalow over a posh penthouse on Napean Sea Road."

Allison Eisa’s son would prefer that modern apartment in town to his seaside bungalow at Mahim, where pink bougainvillaea spill off the roof. The 80-year-old house faces Mahim fort, built in 1348 by the Sultan of Gujarat. But as the reclamation work for the Bandra-Worli sealink gets under way, the fort and the house are under the steady pounding of the sea. In the monsoon, the house shakes as the tide approaches. There is a gaping hole in the garden, where the land has caved in. Some part of the estate is already lost to the sea. Three walls have been built to protect what is left. A shirt has been carelessly flung upon the Eisa gate to dry. The slums in the area are as persistent as the sea. "My son is fed up, but I will stay here till I die," she says.

The disenchantment of the younger generations, the unaffordable maintenance costs for the retired elderly, the lack of conservation knowledge and guidance, municipal corruption, the loss of irreplaceable building materials, ill-advised repairs - all these threaten the survival of old-world Bombay. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority set up a Heritage Conservation Society in 1996. Its Rs 5-crore corpus fund is used to identify areas of heritage value and finance their preservation. However, there are no funds for restoring private houses.

Private owners can allow some part of their homes to be used commercially, in order to avail of the funding for public buildings. Or sell their unused fsi to raise money. There is also talk of converting and transforming areas like Khotachi Wadi or Matharpacady into tourism regions. And updating rent laws. But for now, the construction frenzy spurred by the increasing obsession in real estate trade in the rest of the city is making greedy inroads into these areas, gobbling up history and space. Wearing away the tenacity of these owners, just like wearing away old memories, is only a matter of time.

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