The Parsi colony in Mumbai’s Dadar neighbourhood is unique. It is the world’s largest concentration of Parsis, now down to its last 80,000 despite the community’s wealth and education.
Locally, this central urban enclave is everything that this great Indian city is not: low-rise, languorous, its 25 acres embracing 14 gardens, its roads lined with pavements and 30 species of tree including the rare mahogany and ebony. Bird-call triumphs over traffic-honk. Most exceptionally, it is untouched by Mumbai’s signature slums.
But this year, the placid colony has been in a roil. On a blistering Sunday in April, for the first time in memory, the Parsis marched in protest. Too sophisticated to shout slogans, they walked to the statue of the colony’s founder, Mancherji Joshi. Leading them was his granddaughter, Zarine Engineer, veteran of many a battle to preserve the colony’s pristine heritage.
The object of their cool fury wasn’t the carts dispensing aloe vera juice to the walkers, yoga practitioners, the laughter-club members who descend on the colony’s huge greens, nor the dubious “beautification” by local councillors driven more by kickbacks than aesthetics. The real and present danger was the Street Vendors’ Act 2014, bringing in Mumbai’s No 1 enemy: hawkers.
Licences had been issued for 544 street stalls here and in the adjacent Matunga Hindu colony (as sylvan, if less homogeneous). The allotment showed scant regard for the community’s fire temple and schools, which continue to replenish communal bonds.
The Street Vendors’ Act was prompted by the constitutional right to livelihood, but it would have spelled the death of the unique colony. The hawkers – and their illegal brethren who would inevitably follow – would have strangled the streets with clutter, garbage and raucous cries, pushing schoolchildren and the enclave’s predominantly ageing residents perilously off the pavements.
The protest, taken up by civic and heritage activists, spread to other wards which were to be similarly “hawker-fied”. The outrage found a fortuitous ally in the wider condemnation of the latest, and manifestly absurd Mumbai Development Plan – a planning blueprint up to the year 2034 which threatened to develop the city’s remaining green zones. Under this combined onslaught, the plan was kept in abeyance. Then, last week, it was completely withdrawn: a new municipal commissioner has taken over, who realises the folly of destroying those rare enclaves still spared the clutter of hawkers.
This is paradise rescued for the thousands of Mumbaikars who draw on these green lungs. For the Dadar colony’s Parsis, it is inheritance regained. The brutalisation of their genteel space would have been the last nail in a coffin, already filled with paranoid hurt. This once-distinguished community, having created much of colonial Bombay’s glory, has been been pushed to the margins. The hawker invasion was seen as a denial of their last little acre.
Roll back more than a century to another Mumbai development plan: the Bombay City Improvement Trust’s Dadar-Matunga-Wadala-Sion scheme of 1899-1900, which was the first planned decongestion of the plague-afflicted town centre. A total of 440 acres of marsh and forest were developed to relocate 145,000 people in a residential, commercial and institutional mix. Buildings limited to three storeys, airy parks, sanitation and street layout were all blueprinted.
Mancherji Joshi, an engineer working for the improvement trust, persuaded its elders to wrest 25 acres for the Parsis of Bombay. The purpose-formed Parsee Central Association Cooperative Housing Society was given a 999-year lease of 103 plots, with certain covenants restricting their use to Parsi Zoroastrians alone.
Initially, only the intrepid were ready to leave their traditional comfort zones in Bombay’s southern Fort area: “Live in that faraway jungle? Has our brain gone to pasture?” But new infrastructure soon eroded this resistance: an arterial road from the central Crawford Market, a tramway extension, and a new bridge connecting the Great Indian Peninsular Railways’ central and western lines.
In 1924, Kaikobad Tarapore came to live in one of the first three new buildings. In 2014, his grandson Zubin turned a flaking outhouse into the charming Cafe 792, an outlet for 17 local Parsi home-caterers and croissant and cake-makers. He sits shooting the breeze with his two partners, pretty Jahan and the swashbuckling Danish (not pronounced as in the pastry, but “Daanish”). Ava Mobedjina – creator of a storeyed macaroon torte – drops by, as do other colony-ites.
They joke with the Parsis’ characteristic corny humour, and discuss jazzercise, bicycles, which of the colony’s youngsters are an “item”, or whose cousin is visiting from Australia, Canada or New Zealand. They no longer hang out on the iron railings of the Five Gardens because “now there’s too much riff-raff”. Prompted, they talk of the trees they clambered on to pluck mulberry, the juicy white and purple “jaamun” and, of course, mangoes. “Remember how that show-off Fali had to be rescued by the fire brigade?”
Dinaz, fair and willowy like so many of this once-Persian race, came from “outside” to marry colony-boy Hosi Wadia, over 40 years ago. “DPC [Dadar Parsi Colony] is an extended family. Generations have lived, celebrated and grieved together here”, she said. “In the early years, if I screamed ‘thief’ in the tranquility of the afternoon, a dozen young men would appear in a trice still in their pyjamas and sadras [the Zoroastrian’s ritualistic muslin vest] and thrash the daylights out of the fellow.”
As this island city’s real estate turned into a goldmine, by the 1980s several of the colony’s buildings began to be “redeveloped” with the addition of new floors. When these were sold to outsiders who were ready, willing and able to pay bigger bucks, the old Parsee Central Association fought and finally won a six-year legal battle to retain DPC’s monoculture in 2006. Such communal exclusion may be anachronistic, but it was a psychological boost for a once-lionised community now in its winter of discontent.
The next threat has retreated with the shelving of the hawker licences. But for how long can this urban idyll remain? Its ethnic and architectural signature, profligate open spaces and suspension in time are all unreal in a multicultural, overcrowded 21st-century city.
While a major celebration of Parsi culture in New Delhi has just been announced for next March, Mumbai’s desperate population is eyeing the Dadar colony greedily. The Parsis’ numbers are tumbling (the birth-death ratio has plummeted to 1:7). Their last bastion in Dadar is in double jeopardy: from external seizure and the siege within.