Two months after I moved to Mumbai, I knew that I wanted to live in Bandra — at least once, at least for a while,” says Vaibhav Chellani, 25, a public relations executive from Rajasthan who moved to Mumbai two years ago.
Chellani and his two flatmates moved from Goregaon to St Paul Road, Bandra, two months ago, swapping a one-bedroom flat that cost Rs 18,000 for one slightly larger, that costs them Rs 41,000 a month in rent. “It is a very big price, but it feels worth it,” he says. “There is a brand value attached to living here. My collar is up when I say that I live in Bandra.”
Other than the brand value, Chellani enjoys the cafés and restaurants, the energy of the promenades, still buzzing at 1 am, the “beautiful people” on the streets and in their fancy cars. He likes the fact that he doesn’t know his neighbours and they don’t know him.
In fact, he enjoys just those elements that have begun to frighten and intimidate Pushpa Tandon, 85. This retired communications executive with Indian Airlines moved to Bandra in 1945, when the homes were still gracious bungalows surrounded by gardens and the streets were so quiet that her toddlers could go to the corner store by themselves.
“Change is inevitable, but there should have been some limits,” she says, seated in her elegant, seventh-floor flat atop the building that replaced her bungalow three decades ago. “I go to Candies [a popular restaurant frequented by youngsters] and I am glad there are more shops, but it upsets me that the closeness between people has been lost, that we do not know our neighbours any more.”
Bandra’s unique combination of central location, cosmopolitanism, seaside promenades, nightlife, eateries and shopping districts has made it the address to aspire to in Mumbai. After builders were granted the right to transfer development rights across the city in 1991, they cashed in on the growing aspirational quality of this suburb and began to build higher, drawing a crowd of buyers looking at these flats as investments. “For them, it’s not about Bandra at all,” says historian and lifelong Bandra resident David Cardoz.
Between builders and new residents all looking to make as much as possible from the prime real-estate that they have acquired, narrow lanes that catered until recently to no more than 60 families living in bungalows and low-rise buildings are now choked with giant luxury cars.
Over the past five decades, accordingly, population density in H ward has risen from 7,458 people per sq km in 1951 to 37,944 in 1991 and 43,621 in 2001, according to the 2009 Mumbai human development report.
“Apart from the very few high-salaried people, I don’t know how many are buying property here with legitimate money,” Darryl D’Monte, journalist,” author, president of Bandra West Residents’ Association and founder of the Celebrate Bandra festival. That changes the face of the suburb, D’Monte said. “It is bound to change what Bandra is, introducing road rage, aggression, arrogance and a greater lack of civic sense.”
Exorbitant real-estate rates mean that there are more youngsters moving in on rent, leaving fewer home owners to care for the suburb.
“Young people do come forward to volunteer,” says Anuradha Tandon, documentary filmmaker and member of the organising committee of the Celebrate Bandra festival. “Perhaps a greater initiative should be taken by the people who are already part of these citizens’ movements to draw more youngsters in.”
Gateway to the seven islands
Until the Mahim Causeway was built in 1845, all trade was conducted along the coast of Bombay, with the Bandra headland forming the gateway to the sheltered harbour of the Mahim bay and the seven islands south of the Mithi River.
The coast of Bandra, accordingly, served as an important trading port and, because of its sheltered coves, a hub of fishing activity. With its many rice fields, this area was also home to large granaries.
It was because of the significance of the Bandra headland that the Portuguese fort, remains of which can still be seen at Land’s End, was built here.
In fact, this large chunk of land — extending to Bassein or modern-day Vasai — was so significant that even when the Portuguese gave away the seven islands of Bombay in dowry to the British, they retained this tract.
Choked roads, taller buildings
* Traffic and choked roads, courtesy taller buildings, more residents and the Bandra-Worli sealink, is a key challenge facing Bandra in the near future
* With real estate prices soaring, the nature of the typical Bandra resident is also changing, causing a clash of cultures
* What has so far been a suburb with a unique, cosmopolitan, middle- and upper-middle-class identity could become a flashy, noisy haven for a brash new breed of rich Mumbaiites, drawn here by the cafes, nightspots and snob value of the changing Bandra.
‘The streets here once had soul’
A child’s life in Bandra in the 1970s and ’80s was an accretion of small joys — flying kites, playing hockey in the street, launching a bicycle full tilt down Pali Hill and rolling all the way to Turner Road.
As few middle-class families in Bandra could actually afford to buy bikes for their kids, this involved hiring stodgy Heroes or BSAs for an hour – or less – from one of the neighbourhood’s many legendary cyclewallahs.
Though these sheds at Pali Naka have long disappeared, Bandra now has a Bike Studio that sells dream machines with all sorts of accessories for upward of Rs 25,000. What’s also vanished, though, are safe roads.
Bandra’s new-found reputation as a hip neighbourhood has attracted thousands, many expats and NRIs among them. It’s almost a cliché for them to compare Bandra to New York’s Park Slope area. But unlike the residents of the bike-friendly Brooklyn neighbourhood, Bandra’s recent fans lack the civic sense that makes Park Slope such a joy to live in.
Old Bandra’s charm was the product of visionary town planning in the 1930s and ’40s. Since 1991, though, commercial complexes have been sanctioned in residential areas and building violations have gone unchecked.
Unless Bandra recovers its human scale, it’s doomed to become a collection of expensive buildings where nothing is real except the real estate.
(Naresh Fernandes is a journalist and author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot)