As a child, Lillian Paes lived in Dadar and the Bandra Fair in September was an annual pilgrimage she never missed.
Her family would join the long line of devotees heading to the Mount Mary Basilica, pray to Mary in honour of her birthday, and on their way back, enjoy some cotton candy from the stalls lining the road.
Bandra was a different world then. Most of the Catholic and East Indian residents knew each other; the fair was a quiet, religious event where youngsters met potential spouses and family news was exchanged over homemade treats sold at the handful of stalls.
Like so much else in Bandra, the iconic eight-day fair — a century-old tradition — has changed irrevocably. Just as the old bungalows have made way for high-rises and the East Indian villages been replaced by plush apartment buildings full of yuppie couples, the fair has become a mela of food and trinket stalls, giant wheels and revelling youngsters.
Paes, who moved to Bandra as a child 35 years ago, no longer prays at the basilica on Mary’s birthday.
“I go before the fair begins,” she says. “The fair has no true religious meaning for me any more. It has become a commercial affair. Given how much Bandra has changed over the past five years, with more buildings, more traffic and more cars per family, I think such a festival is not feasible any more.”
The youngsters — including some Bandra residents — meanwhile, feel this is unfair.
They say attempts to regulate the number of hawkers is unreasonable and they resent moves such as last year’s Bombay High Court petition, filed by a group of 250 local residents that included Paes.
Following a ruling in that petition, the number of stalls sanctioned for the festival — scheduled this year from September 11 to 18 — was limited to 155. This year, that number has been raised to 170 on Mount Mary Road and 90 more in a public playground nearby.
“I think there should be more stalls. The fair was much livelier in my childhood, when there were shops on both sides of the street and we lounged about in the area till late at night. That spirit of celebration is lost now,” said Shawn Fernandes, 21, a college student and Bandra resident. “It’s unfair for people to object to the hawkers. It’s just eight days every year.”
During those eight days, however, the Bandra Fair now attracts more than 1 lakh people, all of whom converge on the seaside suburb to eat, pray, shop and partake of the carnival atmosphere, choking the area’s narrow lanes as a veritable army of traffic policemen and security personnel try to police the crowds and help hundreds of vehicles navigate the strips of road that remain alongside the bustling stalls.
“I can’t take the crowds any more. I complete my pilgrimage to the Basilica before the fair begins,” says 67-year-old Cecelia Rodrigues, a Bandra resident and volunteer teacher with an NGO. “Even so, just living here is difficult during the fair. There is no space for our vehicles, and it becomes almost impossible to find a rickshaw or get onto a bus.”
The residents and revellers need to work together, says Teresa D’Souza, 66, a Bandra resident who has been selling flowers outside the church for 17 years but no longer works during the fair. “The festival has lost its joy, but if stall owners can be made responsible for cleanliness and order, it could work,” she says.