Meher Marfatia: The adventure lies in finding out


January 28, 2020

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ONCE UPON A TIME book launch on Saturday February 8, 2020 at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

Four years after Meher Marfatia started an essay series in this paper that explored the forgotten bylanes and people of Bombay, a book will preserve these stories for posterity.

Mumbai, as a city, can surprise you. The more you search, the more there is to find. But, it’s also quickly altering. City chronicler, author and Sunday mid-day columnist, Meher Marfatia was aware of the transience of the Bombay she was born into—one that she felt she was losing “unimaginably fast”. It was, in a way, the genesis for the idea of a fortnightly column with this paper. “Luckily, when I shared the thought of an in-depth column with [the editor] Tinaz [Nooshian], she was super receptive,” she says. That’s how Once Upon A City launched in mid-2016.

A typical day of research for Meher Marfatia for the Once Upon A City fortnightly column in Sunday Mid-day involves legwork through a designated neighbourhood, making notes on-the-fly and working closely with the photographers. Pic/ Atul Kamble

The column couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. “When I researched three Catholic villages of Dhobi Talao and came to Cavel [in Chira Bazaar], the women in its fish market told me it was a timely visit, the market was shutting down forever in another two months. It was in fact, gone in two weeks,” says Marfatia, author and publisher of Laughter in the House! 20th-century Parsi Theatre and Little Mumbai: All The City’s A Playground.

Three years on, Once Upon A City has taken a life of its own, with a selected set of 50 alphabetically arranged columns, which she has expanded on, into a book, published by 49/50 Books. The 276-pager, priced at Rs 1,000, will be available at bookstores and online starting February 8, when it launches at the Kala Ghoda Festival. “The attempt is to feature suburbs and midtown localities with the same depth [as the Island City]. Rich in details to be discovered, these are more challenging as there is some amount of ignorance regarding how they formed and flourished as pivotal hubs contributing to the city’s growth and well-being. In today’s troubled times, let’s not entirely lose sight of the legacy of philanthropy and social welfare we’ve been bequeathed. There will still be a generation carrying this forward,” says Marfatia.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Once Upon A City is a series that is evolving and growing with every column. Why and when did you decide to publish the essays into a book?

It was waiting to happen. Even before Sunday mid-day readers began mailing to ask if this could not become a book someday, I realised within a year of the column printing, that I just had so much still not shared. There was material of two kinds with potential for a book. Firstly, all the research and interview notes that couldn’t fit into the paper, despite an already generous word count allotted. I create shadow files storing extra nuggets.

Then there are the mails that followers of Once Upon A City send soon after a piece appears. Each generously offers more information, personal memories of growing up in that neighbourhood, even photographs. How could all these inputs—theirs and my own unpublished notes—not find their way into a compilation of expanded essays? Incidentally, the book has some outstanding photographs by Foy Nissen and Sooni Taraporevala, which have not been seen in the columns. Plus, we’ve added 50 maps.

You’ve expanded on the original essays published in this paper. Did that require additional research?

Oh yes. In fact, it felt great reconnecting with the people featured earlier, updating myself with their lives in the places we had originally met (in not a few cases the physical landscape changed within a year or two, for a variety of reasons: redevelopment, accommodating the Metro, vacating dangerous buildings). There were fresh interviewees, as well, whom I was vaguely aware of while doing that beat, but could not get to in time to make it to the paper—the tyranny of deadlines!

The book also holds fresh goodies, such as first-person accounts. There’s veteran journalist Kalpana Sharma on growing up in Model House in a multicultural area like Kennedy Bridge, touching Procter Road. Actor Keith Stevenson describes how his parents’ salon Raechelle, yet under the Kemp’s Corner flyover, was a warmly welcoming spot that nurtured lifelong relationships, besides contented clients.

So many readers associate the column with nostalgia. But in the introduction, you’ve written of how your essays are also “impressions of Bombay’s people and precincts very much rooted in the here and now as well”. Do you feel that essays like yours, tend to get pigeon-holed as nostalgic accounts?

Sure, Once Upon A City rides on nostalgia. Its mandate is recreating and documenting life as it unfolded in Bombay’s bylanes dating back up to a couple of centuries. But it has never resorted to relying on pure nostalgic accounts alone. That’s repetitive and pointless after a while. Not to mention dangerous—giving yourself up to the past might mean an inability to face living in the present. Preferable to walk the path of more immediate oral history, linked to current scenarios. Bombay is a beautifully working-class city. Hearing its wonderful diverse voices, giving shape to their thoughts and aspirations is essential to any worthwhile narrative.

Street performers strike a dramatic pose on the Chowpatty promenade. The photograph by famed photographer and documentarian Foy Nissen makes it to the book. Pic/ Foy Nissen, Courtesy the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation

Waxing eloquent about a majestic British-era monument means nothing without complementing the dry details— that several readers are already aware of anyway—with conversations with ordinary people who live in its shadow, wake up around it to a certain lively routine, want to engage with their environment by learning more about it themselves. I tell them, “Let’s find out together. Will you take me to someone who may know more?”

They’re enthused, it becomes a kind of community project. I head to many vicinities with no more than a smidgeon of knowledge. Which is okay. The adventure lies in finding out. As the Kannada fiction writer Yashwant Chittal put it: “I don’t write what I know. I write to know.” Finally, it’s about “making the little stories of Mumbai matter”, as the subtitle of Once Upon A City says. Unearthing them leaves me happy and humbled.

These essays were produced every two weeks. It’s not easy, considering the research and legwork involved. Which, according to you, was your toughest find? And why?

It isn’t a bit easy but extremely gratifying to meet people on different kinds of home turf. The line to toe is being persistent without being prying. This is a blessed column, and now, book. Both generate plenty of goodwill all around. I now have readers invite me over, asking when I’m visiting their gully, promising to put me in touch with those who could help.

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I remember a tough time in Wadala. Its oldest residents voted it ho-hum and when I got there, kept questioning, “Why Wadala? It only has some good schools.” Well, it might appear a bit barren initially. Winding gradually eastward up Antop Hill, you will stumble on a landscape leavening to a charismatic cemetery and tomb acres suffused with love and light.

Bombay bursts with hidden treasures, not obvious gems strewn around like Delhi. Look closer, with care, it’s all there…in the middle of madly dug roads, squalid surroundings heave with vital, living history if we choose to so see the scene.

A story, which is your favourite, or that has stayed with you?

Next to impossible isolating a favourite. There is untold charm and serendipity to encounter at several junctures. Tony SoBo is all very well, but the inner city pulls me in, fascinated by its buzz and vibrancy and surprises. There is unimaginably much—complex histories of socio-politics, textile mills, cinema entrepreneurship—that makes Mahim, Matunga, Dadar, Parel, Shivaji Park, Bombay Central, Byculla, Dongri and Dhobi Talao exceptional. And Bandra, of course, where I was privileged to grow up.

In the middle of research on the road, I’m often caught by moments that make me smile, if not laugh out loud. While walking round and about admiring the Khodadad Circle quadrant of Indo Saracenic-styled buildings, I chanced on a pavement florist. He seemed tired at the start of the morning, sweating as he explained to an angry customer how trains running late delayed him. Finally, he pointed to what his young daughter had painted on his T-shirt, for a lighter view of nearly daily stress: “Haar ke aage jeet hai, Dadar ke aage seat hai (There’s victory after defeat, there’s a seat after Dadar)!”

Out of curiosity, why did you opt for self-publishing? How tough, from your own experience, is it to self-publish, especially you are very much involved in the design process?

That the amazing creative freedom of self-publishing offsets the crazy slog of the whole process is something my friend and collaborator [on two editions of Parsi Bol] Sooni Taraporevala pushed me to understand. I acted on her advice, which I’m real grateful for. You bet it’s tough—from the gigantic task of financing it (Once Upon A City has the good fortune of being backed by six gracious sponsors), to the logistics of production entailing designing and printing, to dealing with booksellers and the press. You need to identify a truly dedicated team to shoulder the work a whole publishing firm would. I’ve struck gold with a crackerjack bunch, my Fab Four: Kermin Colaco, Praveen Bhandary, Ferriel Palkhivala and Payal Joshi. I’m hugely thankful to them. And, as always, to Bombay herself.