Alice in Bhuleshwar: Kaiwan Mehta

A book review of Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating A Mumbai Neighbourhood
by Kaiwan Mehta

While wandering through the streets of Mumbai’s old town, Kaiwan Mehta comes across a Venetian-style bust of a 19th century Bombay ‘merchant prince’ atop the Swadeshi Market along Kalbadevi Road.

A few streets way, he discovers a Jain temple, one side of which appears as if "a slice from a Gothic church facade has been cut and pasted here, embellished by alligators." In short, Mehta finds the densely packed streets of the area displaying influences from "havelis for Indian potentates to buildings designed out of Oriental and Victorian stencils." Mehta’s explorations of the stories behind these structures are at the heart of Alice In Bhuleshwar, the result of several months spent craning his neck at facades and diving into courtyards in Mumbai’s ‘native town’ localities, which he describes as the area between Charni Road and Marine Lines station.

The result is a slim book that bristles with interesting details and contrasts. Walking through the ornate Renaissance-style gateway into Bhatia Wadi, that traditionally housed Saurashtrian cloth merchants, Mehta, a Mumbai-based researcher in the field of cultural studies, finds a colony so conservative that consumption of eggs has only recently been allowed. In the same space, however, he discovers the work of 1930s writer Saroj Pathak, whose fiery stories speak of the claustrophobia of wadi life. (He also discovers that the ghost of the building’s founder prowls the courtyard, apparently unhappy with the way things are being run).

Mehta signposts the well-known but forgotten figures and events associated with the locality — Madhav Baug, for instance, was one of the sites from where the call for swadeshi was given, and the Servants of India building near Harkisondas Hospital saw the launch of the Dandi March in Bombay. There are other characters too, like Meherbai, widow of Cursetji Maneckji’s son, who lived in her bungalow in the ‘Whites-only’ locality of Walkeshwar, much to the dismay of her English tenants and neighbours, as well as the Parsee Anjuman. Then there is Sunil, a sweeper with the municipal authorities, whom his colleagues describe as a ‘kalakar’ (artiste) who has not got his share of fame. Mehta is skilled at drawing out the different layers of these characters and spaces, with their mixed narratives of gender, migration and (past) revolution.

Amongst the most absorbing portions of the book are those that deal with the different theatre traditions that flourished in the playhouses of Kalbadevi. Mehta dwells at length on the character of Jayashanker ‘Sundari’, the popular female impersonator of the Gujarati-Parsi stage of early 20th century Bombay. His descriptions of Bhang Wadi or Hathi Building on Kalbadevi Road are especially evocative. "The building is known as Bhang Wadi after the many retail opium shops that lined the gateway and the courtyard at one time. Today, the building is occupied by some small medical agencies….The courtyard allowed for lit-up night performances, where the working class and traders of Bombay sang to the tunes of fairytale theatre compositions." The entrance to the building is flanked by a palanquin-bearing elephant, with the phrase ‘Wisdom over Riches’ inscribed on its ample back.

For the most past, Mehta is a good ‘Alice’– a canny mixture of wide-eyed wonder and sharp insight. Walking into the newly renovated Morar Baug Wadi at CP Tank, for instance, he finds a ‘party hall’ with air-conditioning, glass doors and plaster-decorated walls. These indicate the new aspirations of the community, many of whose members have moved to more spacious homes in the suburbs. Unfortunately, Mehta also suffers from the academic’s weakness for jargon. His self-reflexive meanderings are often hard to keep up with. The book is also too design-heavy — its narrow pages are divided into two columns, making it a stressful read. The already muddy photographs are further burdened with dotted lines and clever captions. ("Looking out, within dark insides — reading streets, balconies and a motif", for instance, mars the charm of a perfectly nice image of a man reading a newspaper at his window)

Despite these irritants, Alice In Bhuleshwar is a useful addition to the bookshelves of Mumbai-philes as well as those who are curious about its ‘native quarter’. Given that many of the sites it explores may be slated for redevelopment soon, it is also a good companion to take along on walks through the neighbourhood to see the gais (cows), paris (fairies) and elephants it describes (while they still roam Mumbai’s streets).

Original article here.