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Mumbaikars know Shanta Gokhale as a prolific writer, theatre personality, and warm member of the cognoscenti. For those of us hailing from beyond city limits, she’s the author of the evocative Rita Welingkar (1995), and among her acting chops, suspenseful Om puri-starrer Ardh Satya (1983) immediately stands out. But in Shivaji Park, Gokhale gingerly sets aside these influential moves to paint a portrait of her neighbourhood and its central grounds, Shivaji Park.
Gokhale has spent 78 years looking down from her flat in the area’s Lalit Estate, watching the old coconut trees and huts be replaced by dusty roads, cricket boot camps and that famous statue of Shivaji (did you know it’s one of the rare pacifist ones and does not wield a sword?). Being the second unspoken sentry over the area, Gokhale’s research is lent an objective air of narration. She states in her author’s note that not featuring in the book herself (except for the resident’s view) is a conscious choice. This foresight allows the mini tome to become a reference book for the generations, moving beyond the restricted realm of being a celebrity-heavy diary entry.
This is not a general encyclopaedia of every connection to Shivaji Park. Instead, it has razor-sharp focus (kudos to Gokhale and her editors), knowingly omitting modern-day Mahim, Matunga west and Prabhadevi. But for pre-history’s sake, you can’t skip out on the kingdom of Mahikavati, which later became Mahim. Settlers came from higher up in the Konkan coast at the behest of King Pratap Bimb of Champaner. They weren’t exactly democratic about it— the chronicle of Mahikavati, as collected by a historian, shows the casteist distaste Bimb had for the indigenous fishermen and Adivasi folk living in Mahim, the ‘good Brahmins’ moving in with a saviour complex.
If you look at Shivaji Park today, some might say the past has carried on, the area often labelled as a stronghold of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena. At the same time, the grounds’ iconic presence as a rendezvous for the freedom movement and its diversity of speakers, make sure that label doesn’t have too much to adhere to. Gokhale is clear that despite the many political rallies in the area (enough that citizens filed a pIL about the noise), the average resident prefers the heterogeneous mix of communities and beliefs. Gokhale the resident steps in here, noting how she grew up playing with Tamil children, hearing church grumbles from the Goan Pereiras (the new portuguese Church seemed far less gilded than what they were used to), and sniffing at the aromas of East Indian curries wafting up from a flat below.
Inseparable from Shivaji Park is its role in shaping Indian cricket, notably at the Sharadashram Vidyamandir and the Shivaji Park Gymkhana. But Gokhale points out there are many more sporting areas inside, pinpointing the dedicated mallakhamb zone. You might’ve seen a snippet of this traditional sport on reality dance shows, but Shivaji Park is the figurative pole on which the legacy of this aerial yoga has continued in Mumbai—so much so, that it hosted the world’s first mallakhamb championship.
With a large volume of (sometimes dry) facts fit into less than 200 pages, moments of reader fatigue do creep in. But then there’s the historical showstoppers that are absolute gems. Case in point: the Bombay plague of 1896, which, it turns out, actually led to the formation of Shivaji Park, and holds lessons for urban planning amid the outbreak of disease. How? Read the book and find out!
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