Glory days in Mazagaon, where Bombay once bloomed

[Book excerpt] Like the sea surrounding it, Mazagaon’s story has been about the ebb and flow of people, cultures, worlds and money.

 |  15-minute read |   25-01-2018
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Farzana Kazi remembers the December day the Indian Hockey Team dropped by at her father’s house on 2nd Gunpowder Lane, Mazagaon. It was during the 1982 Hockey World Cup and Qamar Kazi, former assistant commissioner of customs and central excise department and a hockey enthusiast, was the proud host of the team members who had dropped by for tea at his modest apartment in Rosary House.

The large bus carrying the players was parked outside the building, and the family, already well known at that time because of Kazi’s professional status and goodwill in the neighbourhood, was much in demand. A crowd had gathered outside to catch a glimpse of the players, who were chatting with their hosts. It was no ordinary curiosity. They had their eyes peeled for the man, who a few weeks back had been anointed the nation’s biggest traitor.

Farzana gets animated as she talks about Mir Ranjan Negi. The former goalkeeper who bore the brunt of India’s humiliating defeat against Pakistan in the finals of Asian Games that was held in Delhi on December 1, 1982. India lost 1-7, and Negi was stripped of his credibility and his career. The relentless attack on his personal and professional integrity was so destructive that the talented player quit the game for many years, only to make a stunning comeback as the coach of the team that won the 1998 Asian Games and again as the coach of the women’s team that won the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

at-home-in-mumbai_012318035908.jpgAt home in Mumbai; Chandrima Pal

Negi, who had been wrongly accused of throwing the match away as a covert Muslim and Pakistan sympathiser, was the inspiration behind the character of Kabir Khan, in the Shimit Amin directorial, Chak De! India. The film stuck to some of the facts about Negi’s humiliation and fictionalised the rest, to highlight religious bigotry, sexism and corruption in the field of sports, ethical and regional prejudices rampant in contemporary India. Negi and Kazi have been colleagues and friends for decades now, with the former acknowledging his support while writing his memoir, From Gloom to Glory.

In the quiet living room curtained by lush trees outside, taking several helpings of a delicious Malvani prawn and okra curry over steamed rice and listening to Farzana as she spoke about her life in Mazgaon, I wondered if anything has changed in the world. The world where Negi was demonised and the one in which Farzana brought up her two sons – Zamaan and Zeeshan. I thought about the camaraderie between Kazi, who lived through the worst communal riots in the city, and Negi who was wrongly accused of being a Muslim whose sympathies lay with Pakistan. Bound by the love of sport, unhindered by differences in faith or age.

A Google map view of Rosary House will tell you that the building is shaped exactly like a cross. A certain Roman Catholic gent, one of the many who had settled on this island since the 16th century, had built it. Over the years, it has been home to people from various communities, a microcosm of the city, known for its ability to draw the world to its heart.

Kazi and his family have lived here for 57 years. Mazagaon is a fascinating and often overlooked chapter from this city’s history. For those who came in late, it is one of the seven islands that were part of the city, now hidden between the Eastern Freeway soaring over the docks on the eastern shores and the swankier neighbourhoods on the other, beyond the historic P D’Mello Road that connects the north and south of the city. Rendered slum-free in 2008, this arterial road is yet to shake off its shanty-town legacy.

Till the 19th century, Mazagaon was home to the city’s elite. Striking stone and wooden mansions were constructed by the British and the Parsis, most of which have either been razed today or have turned decrepit. Darukhana, in Mazagaon, was always the industrial hub and is now home to ship-breaking and scrap-iron business that draws the occasional sculptor who rummages through the heap for bits and pieces for artistic installation.

At the height of their glory, the Mazagaon Docks attracted people from around the world – Chinese traders, Pathan moneylenders, Roman Catholics. The Chinese left with the India-China war, the moneylenders after Indo-Pak war and the global oil crisis was the last nail in the coffin for the docks, precipitating the downfall of this upscale neighbourhood.

Between the ageing dockyards, Darukhana’s ship-breaking yard, the crumbling houses of Dockyard Road that have often collapsed during monsoons, killing people, and the unstoppable tide of residential "towers" moving in from Byculla and beyond, Mazagaon, or My Village in Marathi, is a world within a world. Here gentrified islands thrive amidst a sea of chaos, squalor. And history is kind to those who have held on to their right to the soil.

mathar-pakhadi-mazga_012318105213.jpgPhoto credit: Mumbai Mag/Independent Blog

Mazagaon has been home to Agari tribals, Portuguese, Koli fishermen, Chinese, African slaves, Catholics and Muslims, mostly drawn to the job opportunities that the docks generated. The Chinese, African and Portuguese may have taken the first ship home at the earliest hint of decline.

But there were others who stayed on, survived the great plague of 1896 and the riots of 1992.

Mazagaon, once a sought-after address, was a global village with beautiful bungalows and gardens and well water that was sweet. One of the star residents of Joseph Baptista Garden on Bhandarwada Hill was Elizabeth Draper and her husband Joseph. Mrs Draper was acknowledged as the love interest of Laurence Sterne, author of the popular humorous novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.

City historian and journalist Rafiq Baghdadi has often spoken about how the Catholics dominated Mazagaon at one time. Now they are either moving out or living in the village of Matharpacady, a heritage precinct. "Life was like a timetable. At 7am, the siren from the Mazagaon docks would sound, followed at 7.30am by the one from the Scindia Shipping Co., and at 8am from the Bombay Port Trust. All the children aspired to work in the dockyards when they grew up. The whole area had only one telephone: the one at WEB bakery," Baghdadi said in an interview. The neighbourhood was known for its innate ability to embrace diversity, where children played freely on the streets, and doors remained unlocked.

It is now a patchwork of residential and dusty industrial stretches, heritage precincts and historical edifices waiting in the shadow of gated communities that promise exclusive, homogeneous societies. Rosary House is on 2nd Gunpowder Lane, which got its name in 1760 when the armoury moved from the Fort Area (Bombay Castle) to Mazagaon. The docks were completed in 1790 and within a few years an arterial road joined Mazagaon to the posh Malabar Hill.

But like all fads in this fickle city, Mazagaon eventually lost out to the more fashionable Byculla, and with the docks getting reclaimed, it was left dusty, decrepit and landlocked.

Factories – Farzana recalls the area dotted with engravers, ice manufacturers, and iron scrap dealers – came up in the area.

And the wealthy residents moved out of the neighbourhood. Vestiges of the old world remain in the only extant Chinese Temple, the flawless Matharpacady close by with its Portuguese style villas and cottages, the clutch of wooden bungalows and majestic Gloria Church off JJ Flyover.

Like the sea surrounding it, Mazagaon’s story has been about the ebb and flow of people, cultures, worlds and money.

gloria_church,_mumba_012318104300.jpgThe majestic Gloria Church. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Farzana’s parents have spent some of the most eventful years of their lives here. Qamar Kazi’s work with the customs department and his social work and community service meant he was a well-regarded person in Mazagaon. "People knew us," says Farzana who grew up here with her other siblings.

Apparently, Kazi’s popularity also stemmed from the fact that he managed to get many deserving candidates a job in his department, based on the sports quota system. He was also actively involved with NGOs working for cancer awareness among other things and used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to bring to light cases of corruption and wrongdoing by people in positions of power. But that was no immunity against the rioters during 1992–93, when the city burned.

Farzana, who was married and lived in Kolhapur at that time, was not around, but her parents lived through the ordeal in the neighbourhood that was home to several minority groups.

The nameplate that proudly bears Qamar Kazi’s name today had been removed at that time. There were rumours that masterminds of the riots were going around the peaceful neighbourhood, marking out the Muslim families during the day and returning to massacre them at night.

Thankfully, they did not bother Kazi and his family. But he and his wife were witness to some horrific incidents on the road that now looks tame, genteel. A man and his young son were trying to flee the rioters in a car. They were accosted right outside Rosary House, and the car was set on fire. The man, who was up in flames, managed to drag his son out of the car and collapsed near the building gate. Neither he, nor the boy survived.

In another incident, on January 10, 1993, Shahnawaz Wagle, an aspiring merchant navy officer was allegedly killed in police firing when a sword-wielding and stone-pelting mob gathered near the Dockyard Road Masjid. While a case of accidental death was registered by the police, his father Tahir Wagle claimed his son was dragged out of his house and killed in cold blood. His daughter was an eyewitness but the police reportedly refused to register a case. The Wagles fought for justice for twenty years, without much headway, even though the Justice Sri Krishna Commission report termed the death as "cold-blooded murder" and asked for a special investigation.

In faraway Kolhapur, untouched by the madness that had engulfed her city, Farzana kept receiving more such gruesome news from her parents every day. The elderly couple had also been advised to keep chilli water and home-made petrol bombs ready always. Children in the building were asked to keep cricket bats and hockey sticks handy. Not in anticipation of any gully game, but to defend, attack, protect, as the need may be.

Eventually the violence abated. Those who had fled from their homes in the neighbourhood either returned, or moved on. Kazi stayed on. He did begin to work on a bungalow in distant Panvel, but did not move there until 2000. Rosary House did not lie empty. His son moved into the flat, and kept the family roots alive and well.

mazagaon-s_012318103437.jpgView from the Mazagaon Hills before Bombay turned into a bustling metropolis. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Post 1992-93

After the 1992-93 riots, the demography of the area changed considerably. It seemed that more and more people were now keen to live only with people of their own community. Housing complexes with mixed group of residents were slowly giving way to glorified ghettos and gated communities – complexes that had begun to filter out families if their ethnicity, religions or food habits did not sync with their own. The fabled cosmopolitan fabric of the city was truly in tatters.

Was it because the city that was truly shaken to its core, singed, bruised and scarred in the riots, believed that there was safety in numbers?

Sharmeen Hakeem, author and journalist and a member of the Bohra Muslim community, recalls living in Bhendi Bazaar, the heart of the influential Bohra community till the riots. "Our house was right across the road that ran between the Hindu and Muslim homes. In 1994, we moved to Mazagaon, where a number of new complexes had just come up," she says. "Only for Bohras." At this time, the Hindus began shifting towards Parel, closer to their places of worship, and the Muslims began to fan out towards Marol and Mazagaon.

Sharmeen says the JJ Flyover almost ran between the Hindu and Muslim communities, who lived in peace till the riots. "Hindus wanted to live with Hindus and Muslims with their kind," she says, explaining how Bohra Muslims, who were moving out from Bhendi Bazaar, did not wish to share apartment blocks with anyone else. Not even other Muslims.

The new complexes have kept out people of other faith. "Just as Hindus in the suburbs, especially Gujaratis, and also Jains in some of the most expensive residential areas of south Mumbai," says Sharmeen.

At Rosary, the Kazis continued to live the way they always had. Farzana’s brother and sister took turns to live in the house as and when it was convenient for them. In 2009, Farzana too moved back to the house where she had grown up. "It was and will always be home for our family," she says.

Whenever any member of the Kazi family needed an open door, a bustling kitchen and comfort food, Rosary House was where they were headed.

The house remained a convenient stopover or meeting point for friends and relatives who would be in town for work. "At any given point in time, there were many people at home, staying over, having lunch," says she. Like in every Indian family, the parents were the anchor, the focal point around which the social network grew. A night halt could extend to a few days, months, even years before they were ready to move on. "But we all know that we can come back here whenever we want to," says Farzana. "This is the sun of our universe," she says.

Farzana, who had been a city-bred girl and Elphinstone College graduate, married and moved to Kolhapur. But she found it difficult to adjust to the environment. The sugar cane district, known for its wealthy, laid-back citizens, stifled her with what she says is the "frog-in-the-well syndrome".

"They are all too contented with the easy money that comes their way. Either they have inherited from their royal forefathers, (many families in Kolhapaur are descendants of the Bhosale dynasty) or they have inherited family businesses. There are luxury cars on the road and everyone is travelling abroad for vacations or to get a diploma. But they all come back to Kolhapur to continue living exactly the way they have done for decades – nothing really matters to them, neither are they interested in knowing what’s happening in Mumbai, let alone rest of the world," says Farzana.

Worried that her sons would get stuck in the peculiar rhythm of the city, Farzana would take the first train out after their exams and get them to Mumbai. She wanted them to stay clued-up on the big city life out there, by staying connected with the only Indian metro that was comparable to the best in the world.

The vacations at Mazagaon were eye-openers for the boys. Zamaan, who was a keen badminton player at that time, recalls his early brushes with the boys in the city. "I remember, cell phones had been launched at that time. I had barely used one myself. When I reached Bombay, I saw kids my age were making some good money on the side by buying and selling handsets. My eyes just popped out. I thought... achchha, aisa bhi hota hai!"

Zamaan was in awe of the "street-smart Bombay kids" even as he moved out of Kolhapur to pursue his passion for badminton and began getting a taste of the suburban Mumbai life, the Mumbai commute. Twice a year, he lived in a dorm in Thane to attend sessions at the Badminton Academy. When his grandparents moved to the Panvel bungalow, he started living with them, braving the daily commute on the local train.

In 2007, he started work with a company in Andheri East and his mother joined him for a while. She moved back to Mazgaon and Zamaan now lives in Bandra with his paternal grandparents, so that he can cut down on his commute time to his office, Millward Brown, in Andheri (East).

It was after he began living and training in Mumbai that Zamaan got a hang of the new rules and regulations of the game that had been enforced globally. "I went back to Kolhapur and realised everyone was still stuck in the past and no one was aware or willing to embrace the changes in the sport. That’s what Kolhapur is like," he gives us one of his glorious dimpled smiles. Despite spending time at various places in the city, Rosary House is still "home" for Zamaan.

It is where his grandparents and his mother lived. It is also the house where he spent many afternoons plucking mangoes from the neighbourhood trees, and eating them through summer afternoons. No, not the famous Mazagaon mangoes that used to bloom twice a year (in fact it found mention in Lallah Rookh written by Thomas Moore in 1817), but its distant cousin. This is where he shared meals and stories with his cousins and relatives who would always make it a point to drop by when they were in the vicinity.

Zamaan is the third generation of Kazis to live in Rosary House. How does Mazagaon compare to the suburbs with their more glamorous, youthful lifestyles? The curly-haired, charming young man speaks softly, but chooses his words well as he reminds us of that day in July 2005 when yesteryear actress and one of the most glamorous stars of her time, Parveen Babi, was found dead in her Juhu flat.

The incident created quite a furore when it emerged that Babi had been dead for days, her body rotting and no one getting to know till the stench blew sky-high. "That’s the suburban life for you," says Zamaan. "This place, Rosary House, has everything: connectivity, comfort and the warmth of people."

(Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.)

Also read: Why Nainital is haunted by September 16, 1880


Chandrima Pal Chandrima Pal @captainblubear

You are a figment of my imagination.

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