Article By Meher Marfatia | Mid Day
Few roads are ushered in more sweepingly. The city’s first flyover at Kemp’s Corner, from 1964, does this for Hughes Road — segueing smoothly into the street that honours Sir Walter Hughes, first chairman of the Improvement Trust that developed New Gamdevi as a model “suburb” in 1908.
Constructed between Cumballa and Malabar hills, the bridge overarching a central junction owes its solid aesthetic to structural engineer Shirish Patel. Discovering that the site had a 19th-century quarry which cut away rock deep as 25 feet, Patel changed the design, yet finished the challenging project in a record six months. Kamal Mulla remembers leaning from the veranda of her home here as a young girl, awed — “It was a real thrill watching the flyover take shape,” she says.
The bridge welcomed Pope Paul VI, first pontiff to visit the country. Subsequent motorcades glided past, carrying the Shah of Iran, Coretta Scott King and the English royals. Manize beauty salon beneath the bridge used to be Phillimore Cold Storage, according to whose clock the neighbours set theirs. The Dayals in Mohammedbhoy Building did. The third floor flat of finance consultant Vivek Dayal — earlier occupied by the Maharaja of Rajpipla, ADC to the Governor of Bombay State — is the apartment his ancestors rented in 1940. Four generations have warmed its mosaic-tiled interiors: grandfather Shambhu Dayal, father Kapileshwar, Vivek and his daughter Ananaya.
Owned by industrialist Currimbhoy Ebrahim, Mohammedbhoy Building was home also to Central Bank of India pioneer Sorabji Pochkhanawala, Elphinstone College principal Homai Shroff and journalist Piroj Wadia whose mother promptly replaced lace curtains with thicker drapes for privacy when the flyover loomed. Facing them (till cranes hauled it to Hanging Gardens), Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy’s statue split Hughes and Ridge Road near Kemp & Co., prescription chemists naming Kemp’s Corner. The one-storey structure had a machine with a giant dial on which patrons weighed themselves weekly.
Below the Dayals, I drop in on digital storyteller Siddharth G — to solve the Mystery of the Mannequin in the Balcony. This quirky, south-gazing headless wonder has always piqued public curiosity. “How my man intrigues everyone!” Siddharth laughs. He picked the paint-peeled figure from a junk pile discarded by the Levis branch on Colaba Causeway. The fun ups with occasional accessories. At Christmas a jaunty Santa cap is donned directly on the open-to-sky neck. Michael Jackson’s death added a fedora and white gloves.
This column from 1926 in Khareghat Colony has the distinction of being the oldest and only war memorial — other than the one at India Gate, Delhi — to be erected by civilians. It bears the words: “In pious memory of the Zoroastrians who died doing their duty during the Great War of 1914 to 1918.” Behind is a subsequent cenotaph inscribed with the combined names of heroes losing their lives in the Second World War, the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962 and the Indo-Pak battles of 1965 and 1971
Bang beside Mohammedbhoy Buliding and better known as “the Chinese Room building” (now an Italian eatery, the old restaurant would be celebrating 60 years today), Kwality House saw Sobya Merchant’s great-grandfather from Kutch establish Ebrahim & Sons in 1928. He imported provisions and bakery items, then converted it into the “Pet Shop for all doggy needs”. Original Burma teak panels ring glass doors at the entrance which animal lovers have trooped through since the 1960s. Ebrahim Merchant’s shop was tended by son Abdul Rehman and grandson Yakub, Sobya’s father. Motley customers have included Charles Sobhraj, BB Paymaster, government of Maharashtra chief secretary, and JRD Tata.
Descending daily from Altamount Road for Bombay House, Tata would famously halt his black Hudson at the Delstar building bus stop — where passengers queued for Routes O-1 and O-2 — to offer four people a ride into town. Among them was Rusi Shroff of Khareghat Colony. The octogenarian’s parents were the first tenants in their 1935-constructed “donor building” (different benefactors contributed blocks designed with bungalow-style porticoes by English-Italian architects).
“We enjoyed large front gardens cut for road widening in the ’60s,” says Kamal Mulla. “Every garden grew a distinct tree: cassia, laburnum, rusty shield bearer…” The Shroffs had a delicate drumstick tree sway in theirs. Rusi remembers summer nights when a busker yodelling vintage tunes strolled to the gates. Their shouts echoing, itinerant vendors shrilly hawked wares, from matka kulfiwalas to clothiers like the Chinese peddler belting out “China shilk, China shilk!”
At the other end of the colony the corner high-rise Aderbad shades a pair of very special cenotaphs. The column, dating to 1926, is the oldest and only war memorial — other than the one at India Gate, Delhi — erected by civilians. Angled right from it, in 1925-built Nadirsha Dinsha Building, former pilot Pestonji Bhujwala mentions the many metamorphoses at the start of the street. Furniture boutique Noah’s Ark gave way to Hobby Centre and the long reigning HMT watch shop to a rash of fashion spaces. The Bank of India Ltd. dropped both “The” and “Ltd.” (words indicative of pre-nationalisation) once it jumped buildings from Kwality House to Delstar.
Before diamond jewellery stores replaced them, gleaming car showrooms with ramps flanked New Era School. Dharam Palace was a Dunlop godown, Crossword Bookstore was French Motors selling Landmasters and Ambassadors, Westside was United Motors and the Porsche showroom was State Trading Corporation displaying brands including Chevrolet. Above it, educationist Dolat Doongaji started New Activity School in 1953, on a terrace owned by the Tejpal Trust.
The MK Sanghi Group netted car dealerships after brave beginnings in 1920s Jodhpur State where Mahendra Sanghi’s father Seth Motilal opened a general goods stall on a Rs 5,000 loan. Convinced he could sell cars as he had food and garments, he wooed Maharajas, biggest buyers of British era cars like Rolls Royce and the Austin 7. In 1952, the Government of India asked manufacturers who did not have plans to make cars locally, to shut shop. The Sanghis virtually restarted operations with vehicle manufacturers like Telco, Hindustan Motors (the Ambassador Mark II most popular), Mahindra & Mahindra and Maruti-Suzuki. Settling to market the indigenous vehicles on Hughes Road in 1962, the company held other prime dealerships in ensuing years, including Mercedes-Benz in the early 2000s.
Outlasting most auto giants, Metro Motors is the oldest car showroom on the road in the century-old Art Deco gem Motor House. For over an impressive eight decades it has represented several companies, from General Motors India for Cadillacs, Buicks and Pontiacs to Standard Motor Products for Standard Heralds, Gazels and Vanguards. Relatively recent dealerships have seen Nissan, Mitsubishi Lancer and Mercedes models parked in the sprawling quarters.
In an inner hall of the Vatcha Gandhi fire temple, the fragrance of sandalwood envelopes me. Eighteenth century-born Modi Sorabji Vatcha Gandhi was the great-great-grandson of Modi Hirji Vatcha Gandhi of Surat, who bequeathed the city’s Zoroastrians the dakhma, or Tower of Silence, to dispose their dead. That was 1672 at Doongerwadi, from where mossy trellises slope to Vatcha Gandhi Agiary which Hirji’s descendant later built.
Like Vivek Dayal, homemaker Feroza Chavda finds herself third in a four-generation row privileged to live in Hill View, starting with maternal grandmother Meherbai Coyajee Kohiyar Paymaster. “Ahead of her time, she trendily retained her maiden name, to which she just tagged Paymaster,” says Feroza. The metal gate she swung on as a child is yet there. But almost gone is Kotak Kunj next door, the exquisitely wrought facade already sheathed in ugly corrugated sheets signalling demolition.
A sniff further, Cafe New York continues dispensing beer and brun even if Cecil, the Irani joint opposite, has disappeared. Historian Zareer Masani writes in And All Is Said: Memoir of a Home Divided, his Swatantra Party leader father Minoo “made do with half a bun and cup of tea at Cecil Café opposite the small flat where he was a lodger with a political friend”.
At the height of the Quit India protest, Gandhians rallied by Usha Mehta ran a secret radio station from 1930-introduced New Era School. Their crackling courage inspired pupils like musician Vanraj Bhatia, broadcaster brothers Ameen and Hamid Sayani, and a roster of committed stage artistes.
Much before the street was renamed Sitaram Patkar Marg, the 1928-founded Ratan Tata Institute (RTI) proved an icon at the Hughes Road-Babulnath intersection. It essentially gave gainful employment to scores of underprivileged women. The readymade dresses department was weaned by Simone Tata. When her son Noel was born in 1957, she noticed a dearth of smart baby clothes. Husband Naval suggested she initiate a fine line of hand-stitched apparel: the result being Hers and Bambino. Seamstresses in the laundry section above these shops fix rosettes on Navjote frocks, restore gaara sarees and polish zari kors (borders) to glinting perfection. Exactly across, the flagship RTI food kitchen ovens ting tremulously, rolling out pastries, tarts, quiches, biscuits and rolls. “RTI spells trust, the best quality reasonably priced,” says president Kamal Pandole. “We’re told there is no place for our ideals but we persist.”
The gentility is fading. Jagged paver blocks jut out, trip-traps for the silver generation ambling from century-old homes. A grey-haired lady in Khareghat Colony’s Parakh Dharamsala wearily asks, “Which Bombay road is the way it should be?” I tell her the cabbie ferrying me knew where to go only when I mispronounced the destination as Hew-jis Road. “That’s what I mean,” she says with a roll of her eyes.
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org