On another trip, I stayed with a friend near Marine Drive and participated in a South Bombay ritual—an early-morning jog along the broad promenade by the sea. I took in the classic lines of the familiar art deco buildings along the curved bay, unchanged over the years.
But across the city, I noticed the peeling paint and the cracks in the walls, the grime, and squalor. I had planned to visit the slums of Dharavi, which were once a faint reality, later brought to our doorsteps by Slumdog Millionaire, but never made it. By then Bombay had become Mumbai, and I realized I had lost my city forever.
Overpowering the smell of drying fish
I stayed with my artist’s niece in Bandra’s Pali village during one visit. The overpowering smell of drying fish permeated the air, but she was oblivious to it. Her neighbors were designers and artists like her, all elated at finding living space in this old fishing village. This was the real Bombay, she informed me, not its suburban bungalows or high-rise buildings.
I watched a Koli wedding procession from her tiny balcony, with all the rituals and fanfare of a village wedding. Down the road was a medley of quaint Portuguese-style cottages with gables and porticos, holding out.
I met the “culvert boys” who had been a permanent fixture in the neighborhood in the 1970s. They had appropriated the stone culvert on Main Avenue and would congregate there after hockey practice. “We were the bad boys of Santacruz. With no money or prospects to ask out the girls we had crushes on, we watched the slicker boys from Bandra or town steal our girls,” said Norbert wistfully, when we met recently. Now, like most of his former gang, he lives abroad but still dreams of the old days when life was uncomplicated.
Last year, after a school reunion, I went with my old schoolmate Gloria to the Elephanta Caves across the bay. All along the ferry ride, a flock of seagulls accompanied us, waiting for the tidbits that were thrown at them. At the pier, we bought boras, green mango, and ripe guavas, and sprinkled rock salt and chili powder over them, remembering the hawker outside the school at recess. After returning, we stopped at the Apollo bar for paan cocktails. The multi-layered Bombay sandwich was just as delicious, and our neighborhood chaatwala still served the best pani puri in the city.
Bombay monsoons still retained their magic, when rain made muddy puddles in potholes that reflected the sky. One of the most fun things to do when I was younger was to throw a bundle of pitpit seeds (ruellia tuberosa or popping pod) into a bucket of water and watch them explode. Those were the years when a good book and lying in bed with the rain pattering outside was my idea of bliss.
When I returned to Santacruz to write this, I met an old classmate. Feroza lived in a dilapidated cottage in Willingdon Colony, one of 25 constructed in a large field opposite the convent school.
The six-acre colony was by far the most picturesque space in Santacruz, or even in Bombay. The shaded country roads, the village green, the hedges and low fences, the houses with bay windows and flower boxes were like the images evoked by our Enid Blyton books. It had an otherworldly air, and now even Feroza, the last of the colony’s occupants, seemed like a ghost from the past.
Builders had been eying the potential goldmine that was Willingdon Colony for years. Eventually, a deal was struck to evict the tenants with a sum of “goodwill” money or an apartment in a new building. Feroza had been one of those who refused the offer even as the builders and their goons threatened to evict her forcibly or worse. Her room still overlooked the old village green, now filled with debris.