What do Goa, Cochin, Calicut, Mangalore, Karwar and Kumtha have to do with south Mumbai? At Ballard Estate, a walk down six lanes named after these port towns reveals stories of a time Mumbai became the city of dreams.
It’s the early 1900s. Mumbai, among the British Raj’s busiest ports, sees hundreds of ships carrying goods from the south laying anchor. According to one version of the story, the streets were named after its early settlers – traders from these port towns.
“People from the south Indian port cities settled down in the lanes near the port and goods arriving from a city were stored in godowns on particular streets,” said noted conservation architect Vikas Dilawary.
Another version of the tale says the streets were named earlier, much before the city’s docks came up. “Sea trade with south India existed much before the Alexandra, Prince’s and Victoria docks came up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” said historian Deepak Rao.
Small ships setting sail from these southern ports would anchor in the jetties lining the shore near Fort Market. This was when the sea extended up to the market, before Ballard Estate was reclaimed in 1914.
“Ships from Cochin anchored at a one jetty, the ones from Goa at another. The jetties disappeared after the larger docks were built, but the streets that came up in their place retained their names,” Rao said.
Celebrated editor Samuel T Sheppard, in his book, Bombay Place Names and Street Names, An Excursion into the By-Ways of Bombay City, puts the naming of these streets around 1888.
The book mentions four new roads that came up along the shore to the east of Mint Road in 1888. Carwar Street, Kalicut Street, Kochin Street and Mangalore Street, the book says, drew their names from port towns in south India. Sheppard’s account also mentions several streets near Masjid Bunder, a few kilometres from Ballard Estate, that were named after places in Maharashtra and the neighbouring Gujarat.
More than a century ago, however, winds of change began blowing into what is today prime real estate, when the Ballard Estate was built between 1908 and 1914. While the neighbourhood got a Victorian makeover, the lanes stayed simple, and its buildings plain. The customs took over some of these buildings, but others remained home for the area’s oldest residents. A few small businesses continued to flourish and some of Mumbai’s best restaurants threw open their doors.
HT traced the Mumbaiites who lived through these changes to find fables that only add to the city’s rich past.
GM Badami, at 74, is Karwar Street’s oldest resident. His father migrated to Mumbai from Tamil Nadu, when he was just 14. “A British police inspector would keep a watch over smugglers with a pair of binoculars from a tower near the Waterline police station. The tower doesn’t stand any more, neither does the BPT barrack,” Badami recalls.
Badami said barring Karwar and Goa streets, the others were mostly occupied by shipping industry offices.
“Karwar street had the Waterline police station, some police quarters and our shop that sold shipping equipment. Goa street was mostly occupied by police quarters. A Catholic church came up later and the bell for the church was from our shop,” Badami boasted.
The arrival of workers from the south brought to the city cafes and restaurants that served food from their region.
Surendra Shetty, 69, who owns the oldest motor garage in the area—Sam Ruston & Company Garage – remembers how groups of south Indians, mostly Keralites and Tamilians, worked in the docks and lived on Cochin, Calicut and Kumtha streets that boasted of hotels serving regional food.
“The Kerala hotels served Travancore and Malabari food and were especially popular among the non-vegetarians. The Mangalorean hotels serving vegetarian food and Tamilian hotels serving tiffin were frequented by vegetarians,” Shetty said, recalling how ghee and sugar were free in the Udupi hotels and fish fry would be served twice on-demand in the Kerala hotels for the same price.
“For 54 years, I had my lunch at Bharat (now Bharat Excellensea). The old Iranian café, Café Universal, still exists. A Madras café was renamed as Harish and the Shimla-Calcutta hotel is now called Travellers Inn,” he said.
Shetty, a resident of Mangalore Street, said his garage repaired horse carriages in the 1920s. “It was owned by Mr Sam, a Parsi, and an Englishman named Mr Ruston. After Independence, Ruston went back to England and Sam’s family migrated to New Zealand. The garage was abandoned for a few years, before my father reopened it as car garage,” said Shetty, who has a frame containing three horse shoes adorning the garage wall.
The Calicut street once had burly Pathan money-lenders, but of the 20 families that once lived there, only one is left, residents said. Parsis and Goan Catholics from Goa and Mangalore streets have also migrated abroad or to other parts of the city.
Badami recalls a bustling Ballard estate, where thousands of agents in the customs offices would queue up for clearance certificates, while local youth would double up as guides when a passenger cruise landed.
“They would show the European tourists around. But, as the clock struck five, the busy streets would become silent and the entire area, including Ballard Estate, would become a ghost town.”
Goa Street, Karwar Street and Mangalore Street have since been renamed as Sunderlal Behel Street, Vaju Kotak Marg and Adi Marzban Path, but not much else has changed.
More than a century ago, the six streets came up to accommodate workers who landed here to make a living. Today, office-goers stream in to the business district from different parts of the city. And the streets, they are testimony to how Mumbai is indeed a city of dreams – built with the dreams of its people.