It was a privilege to tell my Raconteur guide a little secret about Bandra that he didn’t
It was a privilege to tell my Raconteur guide a little secret about Bandra that he didn’tknow: something that would be of considerable interest to him. More of that in a bit; after all, Bandra perhaps has secrets enough for everyone?
You often come across accounts by people about “winding our way through Bandra’s leafy lanes”. It’s something of a cliché. Tell us something more, won’t you? Well, a young French friend told us that the biggest difference between Bandra and her home of Lyons was how green it was here. We were astonished to hear that. But not long after that, when our Raconteur guide actually leads us – chatty Millie from Melbourne and me – winding through this suburb where I live, I begin to see how much I had taken Bandra for granted. Cliché or not, this is a corner of the city still filled with dramatic trees. At some points where you stop to admire the view, they actually dominate the vista.
I mean, there’s history and stories aplenty in Bandra, and Raconteur has a treasure-trove of them. But it’s also worth remembering just what an unusual part of a throbbing city this is, because of its greenery.
We begin at St Andrew’s Church, and our guide, Jahan Peston-Jamas, points out what’s arguably its most visible and yet least-familiar feature: a huge cross on the edge of the grounds. Imagine: I had lived a ten-minute walk from here for well over a decade, and had strolled through these grounds countless times, before I noticed the cross, and only because someone once showed it to me. How I had managed to miss this soaring 17-foot-tall structure for so long, I cannot fathom.
From there, we thread our way through the fishing village of Chimbai. Jahan tells us how the faithful of different religions live together here. Here’s a Hindu shrine to Hanuman, and a few feet away is a glass-fronted display of Our Lady of Vailankanni; a Muslim butcher is only a few more feet away. “And don’t miss the undertakers!” says Jahan: one of them is working on an elaborate coffin as we pass. They are open for business and working hard as early as 9am. But that’s nothing. The night my uncle died several years ago, my mother and I walked over to this very undertaker at about 2am. By 10am, he had brought us a freshly-fashioned coffin, its dimensions nearly perfect for my late uncle, its polished sides gleaming in the sunshine.
In Ranwar a half hour later, Jahan can’t tell us anything about the parrot that sits on a parked scooter, watching us closely, squawking a bit and twirling around. But the bird tries to make up for him. For she (I believe all chatty parrots are feminine) burbles some words at me. They sound like either “Welcome, bud!” or “Get lost, dud!” Whichever it is, it is musical in the extreme. I manage to evade her attempt to get me with that strong curved beak, and run to catch up with Jahan and Millie.
We emerge from Ranwar and turn right to walk past the side wall of Mehboob Studio, remembering such classics of Hindi cinema as Hum Dono, Aandhi and, well, Dabangg 2. All shot here. Is it just a coincidence that that the Sahir classic from Hum Dono, “Abhi na jao chhod kar”, warbles from somewhere as we walk? Or has Raconteur managed to arrange it for us? Either way, it could have been me muttering the words, because when I stop to scribble notes in my little diary, my companions again get a few dozen yards ahead of me. “Don’t go now,” I want to warble, “leaving me behind!” I run to catch up, again.
This house on the corner ahead: I must have passed it several hundred times in my 20+ years in Bandra. Why have I never noticed the large Star of David right above the entrance? This is getting to be a feature of this walk: eyes that are opened anew to things apparently familiar. I can’t help musing on the irony of that feeling, coming as it does on this decidedly touristy tour of my own neighbourhood.
Standing on the corner outside the Star of David, we listen to Jahan explain the Jewish heritage of the bungalow. And that sets my mind wandering again. People first came to Bandra to breathe the clean air, to enjoy the space and the sea, to relax. There were rolling rice fields here as recently as 60 years ago. Now while I might have surmised all that from some basic knowledge of the city’s history, I actually heard more or less those words several years ago from my late friend Sophie Reuben, who moved here in the 1940s. She recalled that the rice fields were interrupted only by an occasional sprawling bungalow built by the intrepid Bombayite who realised that living in Bandra was even better than just visiting from Chinchpokhli or Girgaum. “Like that bungalow near Mehboob Studio,” she said. It amazes and dismays me that it has taken me all these years to stop and stare, today on a Raconteur tour, at the one she meant.
Neighbours were too far away to shout across to, said Mrs Reuben. “And anyway,” she said with a smile, “shouting didn’t fit in with life in Bandra.” But that was then. Circa 2014, on what’s likely the busiest corner in Bandra, I may just have to shout even to think those words.
Busy, yes. But also on this corner are three street signs for the same road. One spells it “St Sabestian”. The next spells it “St Sabastian”. The third spells it “St Sabistian”. All different, all wrong. Eventually, we wrench ourselves free of mauled Sebastians and walk on, up the hill and along the gauntlet of Bandra Feast stalls, all the way to Mount Mary Church. We notice the stalls because each one has the usual body parts sculpted from wax that you offer at the church. Aching knee, dodgy elbow, sprained ankle? Wax models for them all. There’s even a rather strange-looking pair of breasts that two young girls are giggling over. A little faith, leavened with these waxy offerings, might just cure your bodily complaints. And not just Catholic faith.
Jahan reminds us that this Feast, while centred on this church, is a truly secular phenomenon. In their thousands, people of every religion turn up here during this one week in September.
The tour has its downers, too. We end at Bandra Fort, overlooking the bay and a spectacular view of the Worli Sealink. These days, the Fort is just a rocky haunt for tourists and lovers who gaze at the crashing waves, plenty of whom are present today. But once upon a time…
… well, it never was much of a fort, really. Castela de Aguada (“Water Castle”) was built in 1640 by the Portuguese. Their warships would stop here for water, which explains the name.
But by the time it was built, Bandra had been in Portuguese hands for over a century. Before the fort, and substantially before the Sealink, battles had raged up and down this coast. The Portuguese campaigned from their ships, ravaging the country in repeated attempts to conquer. In 1534, a crusty sea captain called Diego da Silveira entered Bandra creek and burned down the fishing village he found here. That brought Bandra under the Portuguese crown for several generations. Bandra’s unique character, circa 2014, is arguably the legacy of a history that began then. And that unique character is why Raconteur conducts the Bandra tours.
So when we are done, and my mind is buzzing with all that Jahan has told us, I remember another legacy. Before Jahan leaves, I tell him about it. On the Carter Road seashore promenade, you will find plenty of benches, populated in the evenings by Bandra folk taking in the sea breeze. Each bench has a little plaque that remembers some well-loved soul. Two of them remember Phiroze Peston-Jamas. Yes, Jahan’s grandfather. Go ahead, Raconteur. Seriously, make that spot a stop on your tour.
The Bandra walk is one of five organised by Raconteur Walks; Rs 1,500 per person; enquiries and bookings on mumbaiwalkingtours.com; +91-9769187580