Watching the world go by: Life from the steps of Mumbai’s historic Town Hall

The neo-classical Town Hall was designed by Colonel Thomas Cowper of Bombay Engineers and completed by his colleague Charles Waddington in 1833 at a cost exceeding Rs 6 lakh.

Written by Srinath Rao , Salman Hashmi | New Delhi | Updated: July 19, 2015 1:01 am
A group of youngsters on the steps of the Town Hall A group of youngsters on the steps of the Town Hall

On most days, passersby crossing Mumbai’s majestic Town Hall can spot Puja Singh, 22, sitting on its cascading steps between 4.30 pm and 5 pm. Exposure to sunlight is imperative to cure her vitiligo, a disease in which the skin loses its pigmentation. “I love the isolation which the steps offer. People often wonder why I am sitting in the heat, but it doesn’t bother me. A friend accompanies me occasionally, but my phone keeps me company when I am on my own,” the Santacruz resident says.

Envisioned originally as the pride of colonial civic planning, history looms large over the Town Hall. While old timers still refer to the nearly 200-year-old building as the Town Hall — Queen Victoria’s proclamation liquidating the East India Company’s administration of India in 1858 was read out here — it also houses the Asiatic Society and the State Central Library. Today though, lovers, friends and sunlight-starved citizens have replaced British governors, freedom fighters and tax collectors on its stairway. It has become the city’s favourite spot for a think-about and some quiet time.

As one sits on the stone, now tarnished with years of exposure to nature, one finds the best seats in the house to watch life flow by in the megapolis. The view of the sea is obscured by vegetation, but the immediate spectacle is no less panoramic. Suhas Jadhav was a young boy when he first held his father’s hand and climbed these steps. That day he had watched elders debate the merits of development schemes for their village, 69 km away. Now 49, Jadhav, a sales officer in a south Mumbai firm, is an important member of the Wanjale village panchayat that meets once a month on the steps. Arguments, he says are lively, but never get out of hand. “People stand up to make their point but sit down just as quickly, there is never any abuse,” he says. Unlike the pre-Independence era when his forefathers lived in the Fort area and hence found it easy to meet at the Town Hall, panchayat members today are scattered all over Mumbai and beyond. However, they continue to meet on these steps. “I hope our children do the same too. I don’t know what power there is in these steps, but they inspire us to think ahead,” says Jadhav.

A fashion show by Italian designer Valentino in 2004 A fashion show by Italian designer Valentino in 2004

The neo-classical Town Hall was designed by Colonel Thomas Cowper of Bombay Engineers and completed by his colleague Charles Waddington in 1833 at a cost exceeding Rs 6 lakh. It was elevated by means of a grand staircase comprising 30 steps made of Kurla Basalt rock. The book Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle, edited by Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha, and made available by the Indian Navy’s Maritime History Society, Colaba, mentions, “the second step from the bottom of the Town Hall was the datum level marking the sea level for the city. In a nutshell, this was the nucleus around which the entire Fort area grew.”

Conservation architect Abha Lambah, whose firm has been appointed by the state government to restore the ageing structure, says the steps were a unique multi-purpose public space in a city starved of them. “In any other country, the steps would have been cordoned off, but in Mumbai, the y are like an amphitheatre where you can watch the world go by. In a sense, they are like the Benaras ghats,” she says.

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Harsha and Nilesh Lele, who live in Chembur, say they are reminded of New York’s town hall every time they come here. After dinner, the couple drops their five-year-old son Aarav at their parents’ place and drives 20 minutes along the freeway to get to the Town Hall. Coffee in hand, the two spend some quiet time together watching people. “There are people from different walks of life here. For instance, there’s a man who does the Shatapauli (the Ayurvedic practice of walking 100 paces after a meal) on the landing of the steps regularly,” Nilesh, a marketing executive, says.

An old image of the Town Hall An old image of the Town Hall

Zero Point Bombay carries an excerpt from the memoirs of former Bombay High Court Chief Justice MC Chagla, which notes an incident that dates back to November 1923. In the middle of an election campaign, Chagla and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were leaving the Town Hall to get some lunch. Jinnah was contesting as an independent Muslim candidate from the seat he had resigned from to protest against the Rowlatt Act. As the men were climbing down, Jinnah’s wife, Ruttie came up bearing ham sandwiches. A startled Jinnah is supposed to have told his wife, “Do you want me to lose the election? Do you realise that I am standing from a Muslim separate electorate seat? If my voters were to learn that I am going to eat ham sandwiches for lunch, do you think I have a ghost of a chance of being elected?”

Those who frequent the steps say, the stairs embrace their stories of love, loneliness and need for company as its own. Aurangabad-based Prashant Dhainje, 21, doesn’t think twice before hopping into a bus whenever he misses his friend Swapnil Bhosle, who is studying at the Government Dental College in Mumbai. A trained musician, Bhosle brings his guitar along whenever he and Dhainje head for the Town Hall. “We have been coming here for a year now. I enjoy playing the guitar on the steps. It replenishes my soul,” Bhosle says.

While the boys are irregular visitors, a young couple never fails to turn up on its steps. With the exception of one day, Divesh Hatiwala, 25, and Pratiksha Mhatre, 23, have met here every day in the last five years. They part at 6.15 pm, just in time for Mhatre to take a ferry home from the Naval Dockyard. “I remember how I cried all the way to the dockyard, the day he couldn’t meet me. If we don’t come here, the day doesn’t seem complete,” says Mhatre.

At the other end of the age spectrum are two seamen — Sitaram Bhosle and Subhash Gurav — of the Indian Navy who have made the steps their adda for the past 26 years. “We have spent time here watching children play, students studying and admiring the greenery on the other side of the road,” says Gurav, 59.

If the steps have witnessed the blossoming of relationships, they have also been privy to cultural performances, ranging from fashion shows to movie shoots to open-air music concerts. Singer Shubha Mudgal has fond memories of performing here. Of her two performances there to date, the second was in 2012, during the bicentenary celebrations of the Asiatic Society. “Performing there makes the music accessible to diverse listeners — students, scholars, music lovers, artistes and in fact, anyone who may be passing by. I have had taxi drivers listening in for a short while and that makes you realise that music works its magic on so many kinds of people…,” she says over e-mail, adding, “No student of Hindustani music can forget that the great Gauhar Jaan performed at the Durbar Hall in the Asiatic Society building, only a short distance away from the steps where I was singing.”

Sunil Uthaya, 65, a retired shipyard worker, has been visiting the steps since 1975. He recalls public performances here in the 1990s by music legends Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha Khan and others. “Even today, I can clearly recollect what a treat it was to sit on the steps and watch them perform,” he says.

Over time, the nature of interactions on the steps have changed. “In the 1980s, vagabonds had started taking over the place. Drug addicts would come at night, have sex behind the pillars and people would litter the place. But police intervention restored equilibrium. I love the steps, but they have lost their charm. Earlier, people would engage easily with each other and speak on politics, technology and science. These days, people are reluctant even to introduce themselves,” says Uthaya.

The search for a bit of breeze brings Dockyard Road resident Karshan Bhai, 40, to the Town Hall steps at night every few weeks. There is very little scope of fresh air on Dockyard Road where buildings are tightly packed, or in the Fort area where he works. Like him, Crawford market resident Robert Pinto, 52, too, is a late-evening visitor, who reads his newspapers and meditates on the steps. Often, he brings his accounting and works late into the night under the light thrown by two large lamps. Keeping him company are two white stray dogs. These days though, Pinto is dismayed to find the steps littered with broken beer bottles, wrappers and spilled food.

When the lamps flanking the Town Hall are switched off at 10.45 pm, it is time for Ashok Rajguru to go home. While his family scrambles to collect water from the taps between 8.30 pm and 10.30 pm each night at Agri Chawl in Palika Street, Rajguru,55 remains half-hidden in a corner of the steps, chewing his tobacco. He is three years away from retiring as a sweeper with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and comes here looking for some quiet. He had had to quit studies at the age of 12, but now he attends a Marathi medium night school. “There is a lot of noise at home during those two hours. I like the peace here. This is also the only place where I can have tobacco. My children throw away the packets at home,” he says.

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