The city of lights: Here, it will always be Bombay

She is 100 and still the queen. Step into Marine Drive’s past, where Nargis broke no-entry rules and women once cycled into the breeze.

Written by Smita Nair | Updated: December 29, 2015 11:19 am
A Friday evening at Marine Drive is like all others, dramatic. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar) A Friday evening at Marine Drive is like all others, dramatic. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar)

It’s 4.30 pm in Mumbai. The evening breeze is yet to flow but the bikers are already revving up amidst the busy traffic. The curve’s oldest connoisseurs, the couples, are out too.

At Marine Drive, a Friday evening is like any other, dramatic.

We are walking the 3 km arc between Nariman Point and Chowpatty with historian Deepak Rao, 66, a lover of Iranian cafes, single multiplexes, afternoon beer and “everything Bombay”.

Even for islanders, who have been pampered all our lives by the Arabian Sea on all sides, the first sight of the rushing waves is always humbling. At Marine Drive, the seafront is a narcotic.

We are on this walk to mark a birthday: the drive, or more symbolically, the 20-foot high wall bordering the sea completes 100 years this December. We are headed to the northern end of the drive, where a stone inscription on a lamp post outside Pransukhlal Mafatlal Hindu Swimming Bath Trust, near Chowpatty, records its birth year, 1915. It’s the only landmark on this stretch that reminds the city of the drive’s imperial name, the Kennedy Sea Face.

Historian Deepak Rao on the drive. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar) Historian Deepak Rao on the drive. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar)

Sir Michael Kavanagh Kennedy, after whom the drive was named, was dead in 1898, much before the western shore reclamation actually began. A Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, he held one of the highest awards conferred to citizens of the empire in India, the Knight Commander of the Star of India.The first phase of the Backbay Reclamation was named after Kennedy — in the long tradition of naming streets, landmarks and monuments after prominent British citizens who contributed to the growth of imperial power in India.

As we continue to trek north, we cross a younger neighbourhood of Art Deco buildings. The last of these rose between the late 1940s and 1950s to accommodate Partition refugees from Sindh, already familiar with a Karachi waterline, and later a growing elite migrant population. These buildings share a different pin code from the older European quarter.

Rao points to a building named Meghdoot. He speaks of a night in 1972 when the then police commissioner SG Pradhan raided an apartment in the building after neighbours complained of “noise nuisance from the sound of music from the dance studio”. The errant tenant was a dance teacher and the famous Protima Bedi, and true to her ever vigorous spirit, she didn’t give a damn.

Old buildings on the seafront. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar) Old buildings on the seafront. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar)

We walk past the gymkhanas, built for every community. Parsi Gymkhana Tennis Courts, Islam Gymkhana, PJ Hindu Gymkhana and Catholic Gymkhana stand like brothers, with no high walls between them. There are couples here too, behind parked cars, sitting on a bench underneath a black umbrella in winter. One girl just kissed the boy. “This is Bombay. Always a lover’s city,” Rao says, raising his golf cap up in the air. A line of men sit with their backs to the couples. They are engrossed in a cricket match at the Wilson College Gymkhana.

Ahead, as we walk down the bridge to the bay side, the vintage lamp post comes in sight. There is a crowd here today. A boy is taking a selfie with a girl. A group of women are looking for someone to photograph them. Having paid obeisance to Kennedy’s memory, we are back on the seafront.

On our left is the vast bay bordered by the wall, a symbol of industrial reclamation of the 1920s. “The tetrapod-shaped rocks came much later, probably in 1960s. They were meant to break the wave’s energy and avoid erosion,” says Rao. Old timers recall nights spent watching the wave rise to forbidding heights.

Mumbai’s most democratic public space. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar) Mumbai’s most democratic public space. (Photos: Prashant Nadkar)

At the promenade, the sun is about to set. There are families, loners, couples, groups of friends. Except the sea, nothing is real here, everything is reclaimed—even if this is a city of dreams backed by commerce, industry, and ambition. Under the glittering lamps, the scene defines what Mumbai has always stood for: limitless desire.

But when the sun sets, cameras pop. Priti Ruparel, a resident, describes it best: “It’s a paradox. The sun sets here, but it lifts you always.” In a gathering held this month to celebrate the drive’s birthday, resident Kishore Parekh from Bharat Mahal said: “Chaplin said if you cry in the rains, no one will know. It applies best at Marine Drive. Everyone will remember crying freely here on the busiest road of the city.” Ruparel says that at a time when debates over intolerance disturb and divide, a walk here changes everything. The city’s concrete seawall probably is the only place where everyone is equal. Everyone moves to give you a seat. It belongs to nobody. It belongs to everybody. You ask Rao what he likes about this place, “Everything. One comes here to forget,” he says.

The Art Deco buildings that face the sea too have a history of diversity. A 1947 Bombay street directory archives the drive’s original cosmopolitan neighbourhood. The residences of WA Wright, DS Richer, C Ireland, Capt Westgarth, Dr JG May and Lt Comdr VH Torpy jostle with those of Mrs SD Cama, C Karmakar, V Mahmood, JH Bharucha and Miss S Vajifdar. It is a street with remarkable architecture and the most beautiful balconies. “What a feeling it was to stand on its corner balconies and stare at the gulmohar trees on the other end where Walkeshwar today stands. Nowhere do you see such long or beautiful balconies anymore,” says Pradeep Mandhyan, an advocate and a resident.

Suraiya with Chetan Anand (in a coat) at a party at Chateau Marine. Suraiya with Chetan Anand (in a coat) at a party at Chateau Marine.

As we reach the centre of the arc, we come across three identical buildings — Keval Mahal, Kapur Mahal, and Zaver Mahal — built by Kapur Chand Mehta. “The British Military Intelligence had its secret service war office requisitioned in Keval Mehal between the years 1935 and 1945. Letters and postcards foreign nationals received and sent were censured in this apartment,” Rao says. Mehta later also built the charming Roxy Cinema. “But people will always recall him for the lift that went right into his living room, on his fifth floor residence,” says Rao.

Next to it is the Krishna Mahal. On its ground floor lived actor Suraiya, just four blocks away from her famed rival Nargis’s house in Chateau Marine. Later, Sanjay Dutt’s first cousin Azhar Hussain, who was sceptical of the tabloid rivalry between the actors, shows us a photograph of Suraiya eating sweets in that house. Azhar has a favourite Nargis anecdote too. “She would always drive her Riley classic into ‘No Entry’ signs and when anyone dared to point out the error, she would honk and yell at them. She always had a fiery temper,” he says.

The Chateau Marine apartment, he says, hosted some of the best parties during Nargis’s mother Jaddan Bai’s lifetime, with her music and poetry sessions attended by all who mattered in the film industry. “Raj Kapoor, Prem Nath, Dev Anand, Joy Mukherjee—they were all there. After all, she would sing with Bade Ghulam Ali and Vilayat Khan in this very house,” he says.

A few floors above him lives Dhun Lentin, wife of Justice Bakhtavar Lentin, who served in the Bombay High Court from 1975 to 1989. Dhun is 82 and shares memories unlike the “Donald Trumpish mood that the city shows these days”. Dhun recalls seeing floors of the neighbouring Sea Green bustling with soldiers. “Two buildings in Marine Drive were requisitioned as war property,” she says. Her anecdotes take you to a time when women cycled on the drive, and drove cars like the Classic Dodge.

The Lentin family moved into their fifth floor apartment on September 1, 1939, the first day of World War II. Memories of taking the double decker bus No. 123 still linger, when she would walk down to see a crowd outside her building to get a glimpse of Nargis. After 1947, she remembers ‘To-Let’ boards dotting the street. “The Europeans had vacated and the new residents were mostly migrants from Sindh,” she says. “The rent was Rs 250 a month.”

We continue with our walk, and ahead stands Deepak Mahal, which once housed the US Army and Air Force offices. We continue to walk, as Rao recites the name of restaurants from yesterday: Gourdon, Napoli, Bistro. “The city never slept even then,” he says.

The movie Bombay Velvet, based on author Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables outlines the greed and corruption that went behind the famous Backbay Reclamation. In it, Ranbir Kapoor speaks a line which ought to have gained cult status by now.

“Bambai ke bahar India hai”.

In many ways that one dialogue sums up the city and Marine Drive.The sea doesn’t differentiate here, and perhaps for those few hours when the necklace shines, neither do its citizens. Come to Marine Drive. She is 100 and still the queen.

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