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Can heritage walk help rediscover your city? Here’s a Mumbai that was forgotten

A two-hour walk through Central Mumbai’s most crowded areas will turn anyone into a time traveller

brunch Updated: Apr 02, 2017 13:27 IST
A glimpse of  Parel railway station
A glimpse of Parel railway station(Supriya Kantak)

I drive through Parel in Central Mumbai on an average of three days a week. It is as crowded as a crowded area can be, with pedestrians, cars, handcarts, two-wheelers and buses, cement mixers and the occasional cyclist vying for space on the roads, and vegetable markets and fruit sellers nudging one another on the pavements.

A walk through all this in the early hours of the evening, when crowds with minds focused on getting home push aside anything in the way, was pure folly. But I was drawn by curiosity and a need to better understand this part of the city that had become a part of my regular landscape. The high-rise buildings that dot the area in increasing numbers indicated that what remained of what once was would soon give in to the new, obliterating any vestige of the history of the place. And that, I told my hesitant self firmly, was enough reason to brave the dangerous known.

The journey begins

So there I was, part of a small group of history seekers, gathered outside the ticket windows of the Parel railway station, straining to hear what our guide was telling us over the clatter of passing trains, the cries of hawkers and the general sounds that season the air of a metropolis bustling through a working day.

It is always interesting to know how places are named. There are always many views, passed on through legend and history. We are still in doubt about the exact origins of the name Bombay (now Mumbai), and Parel follows suit. Though one story claims descent from a goddess, I choose to believe the more romantic version: that the bell-shaped, purple flower that bumblebees love exploring, is what the area is named after. Locally called parel, the trees bearing these flowers grew in profusion here before humans claimed the land for houses and a railway. Perhaps, in the 1840s, when a person set out to the outer reaches of the then city to work on the railway, he would shout that he was going to where the parel trees grew, and the name stuck.

Iron pillars from 1877 can be spotted around Parel station (Supriya Kantak)

Parel railway station was once the proud property of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, whose logo is still emblazoned on the original building constructed in the mid-19th century. The station was functional by 1877. Today, some of the original old cast iron pillars can still be seen, embedded in the cement that holds the staircases. Thousands pass by, not knowing that they are rushing past a sentinel of history.

Bridge to history

At any given time this old bridge is burdened: it serves as one of the conduits connecting the eastern and western sides of Mumbai, a city divided by railway lines. Two railway stations, the Parel station and the Elphinstone Road station, open onto the bridge, which means thousands rush through to catch a train or on their way out. For an entire century, the bridge has witnessed the change in its fortunes, and borne it all with fortitude.

The stone bridge is a wonder of engineering. Built to order, it was prefabricated in Glasgow, and assembled here, where it stands today. A plaque on either side of the bridge rampart bears witness to the fact that it was built in 1815. When the rail lines had to be electrified, the entire bridge was lifted to accommodate the new technology. The stone steps leading down to the road below on either side of the bridge and the narrow pedestrian walkway along the sides of the bridge were all part of the original plan.

In 2015, when the bridge completed 100 years, the manufacturing company in Scotland sent a letter informing the custodians of the bridge that the period of guarantee was up, and the bridge was now no longer their responsibility.

Incidentally, the road along the bridge reveals old water pipes, still in use. They bear the imprint, Made in France 1927.

Buildings, such as this one from the British era, are a part of India’s history (Supriya Kantak)

Will the angel of history match the demon of development that might wish to replace the bridge with a modern cement and steel one that can accommodate more traffic? Only time will tell.

Arch of progress

Just outside the station, is the arch celebrating the Rahator Memorial Methodist Church. The old building, dated 1908, is gone without a trace, but the milestone of holding services in Marathi, Hindi and three other languages continues.

We spot another church with original stone work, and tiled roof, this one built by John Adams. The stone came from quarries in suburban Kurla and Malad, now built over. And the basalt, from the Deccan, is from the still live volcano in Mauritius, that the continental drift brought to India. The original weathercocks stand on top, and as we walk past the semicircle of arches, the sound of carols being rehearsed filter through the stained glass windows.

Past imperfect

Walking onto a path that turns off under the bridge, we enter a quiet space, lined with trees. The occasional scooter or car goes past. There is no evidence of the frenetic activity we left behind just a few minutes ago. We enter a clearing which exposes to view a building in gross disrepair. Once this was a bustling hostel for the young men who worked at the loco workshop at Parel, which is still functional. Parts of the stone building are in perfect condition. The interiors have crumbled in places, and old staircases and iron fittings are exposed through broken windows. This is an architectural marvel.

A banyan with red flowers hiding among the leaves, a leafy peepul and the bel, which bears the wood apple fruit: all sacred trees of India add a quiet peace to the place.

Built in 1908, the architectural details on this structure must have once been a sight to behold (Supriya Kantak)

Will the railways not benefit by giving this out to a bank or a hotel? The building can be refurbished from the inside, and will stand for another century as a salute to history.

The hidden dargah

We walk back onto the main road and turn off to stop at a shop where two men are cutting planks of plywood. The shop hides the tomb of Hazrat Abdullah Shah Baba, and is considered a dargah. The devout are allowed to enter and pay their respects at specific times of the day. The rest of the time, the tomb is hidden. We are informed that sharing space with a holy relic ensures the Baba will save the space from being sold to a developer. Will it?

We, the people of India

This innocuous building, built after the bubonic plague ravaged Bombay, when the British decided to provide more open living spaces to a populace crammed together, is part of Indian history. It was here that for 26 years of his life, Babasaheb Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, the first from his community to get a formal higher education, the great socialist thinker who also created the social circle in a space still existing in Parel, lived.

We climb the narrow steps, and smile at the people who smile at us, knowing why we are there. At the end of the corridor on the second floor stands a tiny shrine to the

Buddha and a bust of Ambedkar. Rooms 50-51 were the rooms he occupied. We chat with Rohan, whose grandfather, Kalidas Tadelkar, was a colleague of Ambedkar and was gifted the place by Ambedkar when he moved out. Rohan works with a travel agency and is proud of his home. As we leave, I notice a Buddhist flag in yellow and saffron fluttering on a pole outside. The only nod to the building’s historical heritage.

We stop at other sights, and it is 7pm when we disperse. I climb the stairs to the station to catch my train. My feet are tired. But my heart and mind are rich with the golden nuggets of history.

Senior journalist Sathya Saran is a former editor of Femina magazine and has authored several books, including a biography on filmmaker Guru Dutt

From HT Brunch, April 2, 2017

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