One summer afternoon while vacationing in Bombay in the late 1970s, the city’s history drew me in, one milestone at a time. The Javji Dadaji Road connecting Tardeo and Nana Chowk was the permitted exploration area. On the road, in Talmakiwadi, Asia’s second oldest housing society of the Chitrapur Saraswat community which had made Bombay it’s adopted home, lived my grandmother. Bhatia Hospital was the meeting point if we were lost.
On the pavement opposite the hospital lay a chiselled grey milestone which read “III Miles from St Thomas’ Church”. It was intriguing, to say the least. In the years to come, that milestone would lead me to St. Thomas’ Cathedral in Fort, the zero point of Bombay as it were, and then to more milestones of the British era, buildings, tanks and wells, and eventually into The Asiatic Library that was – and remains – a goldmine for historians and chroniclers.
Later, while pounding the pavements in the cause of journalism, there were more milestones in Parel, Chinchpokli and Sion to linger around. Decades later, working in a Lalbaug-based newspaper allowed time to explore a veritable treasure trove: The dargah of the 14th century saint Syed Hazrat Lal Shah Sahib at Tawaripada which gave the area its name, his brother Chand Shah’s dargah believed to be the oldest in Bombay, tamasha theatres, old wells and khanavals or eating places for migrant mill workers.
Then there was Ganesh galli, Chiwda galli and Masala galli, and the Bombay Gas Co. lane of 1866 which spoke of the first attempt at gas lamps in Bombay and found a mention in Dilip Chitre’s poem “The View from Chinchpokli”. And there were the textile mills that defined the area – and Bombay. Tucked in between was the chawl that Dr BR Ambedkar had lived in, and the street-flyover which once hosted a gargantuan march by factory and mill workers.
In nearby Parel, once an upscale area for Britishers, were remnants of its significance as the rail works hub, the Haffkine Institute, the old east-west bridge with markings from 1915, the precinct where Dadasaheb Phalke shot films, film studios which laid the foundation for Hindi cinema, and more heritage of the time that the city came to be.
Parel-Lalbaug in central Bombay, was a heritage precinct much like south Bombay, it contained the story of the city and of undivided India, but it somehow did not generate the same excitement about conservation as the latter did in the mid-90s when Bombay became India’s first city to have a heritage policy. Was it because it did not sport grand Victorian or Art Deco structures? Or because it housed a section of Mumbaikars not on the radar of conventional conservationists or because it was already being transformed? In the last decade, much of the heritage was wiped away by “redevelopment”, a euphemism for de-contextualised glass towers.
That a milestone with the inscription “V Miles” was chanced upon by a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation team while demolishing unauthorised structures in Parel last month was straight out of a book on serendipity. Surely, it reads “V Miles From St. Thomas’ Church” but the rest of the inscription on it, as on other milestones, has disappeared into the rising pavement. Milestones are Grade 1 heritage structures. The heritage committee had, at one time, listed at least 15. Intrepid history-lovers documented some in the 1980s and 90s, historians like Simin Patel continue to do so today.
The “discovery” of this milestone has led the BMC to map the remaining heritage in Parel-Lalbuag and plan a guided tour. It is a start, though too late. Some of the heritage is lost. But Bombay’s history tome remains grossly incomplete without the section on Parel-Lalbaug-Dadar. Urban histories linger in small and seemingly insignificant markers such as milestones as much as in grand structures. A milestone can launch an enduring love affair with the city, as it did for me.