In the Kalbadevi area of South Mumbai lies a tiny, jam-packed road connecting Jagannath Shankar Seth Road to Old Hanuman Lane. It is ironic that a street so congested bears the name of the man who, in 1896, identified in Bombay the first case of Bubonic Plague, which spreads due to congestion. “Dr. Viegas Street”, reads a blue signboard at the beginning of the road. “The original name of Dr Viegas Street was Cavel Street, “Cavel” being a Portuguese rendering of “Kolwar”, or a Koli hamlet. Another explanation is that the street derived its name from the well known Cavel Church (1905) situated there, as Samuel T Shepherd writes in his book, ‘Bombay Street Names and Places’. It was later renamed in honour of Dr Viegas,” says historian Simin Patel.
In 1896, people in Bombay started dying of a mysterious disease at an alarming rate. Initially, when Dr.Viegas suspected the disease to be plague, he was met with doubt and scepticism. But he remained certain, and after examination by four teams of experts, was proven right. “A man of the masses”, as Kalpsih Ratna’s book “Room 000” (an in-depth narrative of the 1896 plague) calls him, Dr Viegas was used to the winding tiny streets of the poorer parts of Bombay. He made house calls to the poor, often for no charge. His merit lay not only in his medical brilliance, but also in his ability to exercise it tirelessly with a deep sense of compassion. Thus, he was well acquainted with the populace, and deeply invested in it; he is said to have inoculated 18,000 patients of the plague at great personal risk, while running campaigns to clean up slums.
In 1906, he contested elections and became the first Indian Christian president of the municipal corporation. In this position, he went on to further his agenda of improving public health and the conditions of the down-trodden.
Dr Viegas Street today greets you with the shouts of men busy loading and unloading trucks, textile stores, large packages stacked six feet high, vehicles and handcarts competing for space, and, if you are lucky, a little space on the pavement for you to walk on. “It is a transit street, used mainly for transportation of goods. It gets very crowded at times, but that is a part of life,” says Tejinder Singh, who works nearby.
The Swadeshi Market here, with myriad textures, colours and prints of cloth, is the nucleus of Kalbadevi’s Kapda Market. “This market is over 100 years old. Cloth from here is supplied to Mangaldas Market, Chirabazar, Mulji Jetha Market and all over India,” says a cloth trader working there. Cavel Church looks over the street to this day, as a statue of Dr Viegas looks over another street, from the courtyard of Cowasji Jehangir hall opposite Metro Cinema.
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