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Midnight’s child

mumbai Updated: Dec 13, 2009 01:31 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah

Talking to architect Atul Chemburkar (70) is like watching a film on the History Channel. Chemburkar, whose forefathers came to Chembur from Rajasthan to counter the army of Siddi Johar, the Abyssinian ruler in Maharashtra, in 1640, has his history pat. Especially that part of it which unfolded in front of his eyes — when Chembur, a quiet, green haven, began to change with the arrival of refugees who fled the fires of Partition.

“Mumbai was the second largest city to accommodate Sindhi immigrants. And most of them settled in Chembur,” recalls Chemburkar. There was a very practical reason for this: the British had their military camp with hospital facilities in Chembur. When they left India in 1947, the barracks occupied by the British army fell vacant. These were immediately used by independent India to accommodate those who fled Pakistan. The Chembur camp came to be called the Sindhi camp.

The change took many forms. The predominantly Marathi-speaking locals were suddenly exposed to “the Hindi-speaking migrants whose womenfolk wore sleeveless blouses and who ate different kinds of food,” remarks Chemburkar.

On a plot of land that belonged to the Chemburkars stood a cinema hall called Vijay. “Before 1947, there were two shows at 6 pm and 9 pm. Some time around 1949, the theatre began running three shows, since there were many more patrons for the talkies,” remembers Chemburkar.

In 1953, the cinema hall shifted to a plot of land across the road and is now called the New Vijay cinema.

The original Vijay, then a local landmark, made way for a new landmark — the Akbarallys departmental store, which now occupies the two-storeyed structure that once was a cinema hall. In the early ’80s when the mall culture had yet to invade Mumbai, Akbarallys was a shopping experience people talked about. The footfalls reduced with the dominance of malls and the store closed for renovation on October 31.

“At a time when municipal rules ensured that shops were only on the ground floor and did not exceed the depth of 40 feet, Akbarallys had a two-storeyed building with ample space,” recalls Chemburkar. Today Chembur boasts of the K-Star Mall and Shopper’s Stop and factory outlets of many well-known brands.

It is also seeing many high-rise residential towers coming up at a furious pace. But there are still some surviving bungalows here that remind one of the time when Chembur was a green paradise. The Bombay Presidency Golf Club is a sprawling green complex, while the Diamond Garden and Anna Bhau Sathe Maidan are some of the many popular open spaces the suburb boasts of.

A short distance from Akbarally’s is Sundar Bagh, home to a sanitarium built on the land that once belonged to Ashok Sunderlal, a prominent mill owner. The sanitarium came up at a time when the air here was so clean that it was considered beneficial for recuperating patients.

Deepti Bathija, a fashion designer who lives near Atur Park, points out that despite the widespread construction, Chembur still has many tree-lined roads and avenues that add to its charm.

And the cosmopolitan character of the place – a healthy mix in which Maharashtrians, South Indians

and Sindhis predominate — make Chembur an interesting melting pot of cultures.

Reema Wadhwani (47), a housewife who has lived in Jeevan Bahar Society in Chembur for over 30 years, talks of the plus points she sees in her suburb: “With so many South Indians here there are many religious places to go to. If you go to Chembur colony — dominated by the Sindhis — you can eat very good vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. And if you’re interested in fitness, there are many yoga classes held at the various gardens here,” she says.

Greenery and good food, entertainment and spiritual solace — the new Sion-Trombay stretch has something for every Chemburkar. And we don’t mean just the family.

A weekly column that looks at how a pioneering or iconic structure has changed the face of a locality