The burden of history
Old worries Mumbai’s heritage panel announced financial incentives last week for occupants of houses it considers are worth preserving for their historical or architectural significance. But residents of some of these structures face several practical challenges, say Prachi Pinglay and Kunal Purohit.mumbai Updated: May 15, 2011 02:04 IST
Peace Haven is a pretty, powder blue villa built in 1930, with decorative white wainscoting around the windows and a vegetable garden, flowering plants and shady trees outside.
It’s one of just a few survivors on Perry Road, Bandra, where, over the past decade, old bungalows have silently made way for soaring, luxury apartment buildings.
But owner Beatrice Clifford, 69, a semi-retired businesswoman, isn’t enjoying her silver years in her childhood home. Instead, she’s fighting a lone battle against white ants, leakages, damp walls and belligerent builders.
“My father, Valentine, built this house as a wedding gift for my mother,” she says. “Now, my two brothers are settled in the UK and I am left to keep the place going alone, and fight off an endless stream of builders who think they can bully me because I am a single woman.”
Between a former tenant who refused to move out, leading to a long-drawn-out court case, and an ad film crew that recently banged dents in the walls with their equipment, Betty has also decided to stop leasing out her property even for the day, leaving her with no avenues to raise money for its upkeep.
The bungalow still looks impeccable. Beatrice says this is because she is pouring a chunk of her earnings and dividends from lifelong investments into maintaining it.
“I keep finding new leakages and damp patches on the walls, and I have to get the tile roof redone almost every year,” she says. “Instead of giving us FSI, which is a one-time benefit, the BMC should give us tax breaks and help us with repairs and maintenance. Instead, they have actually raised the property tax by several times over the years.”
When Melvyn Oliver, 58, hears that the city’s heritage committee plans to give financial incentives to owners of homes that are on its conservation list, he bursts out laughing.
Sitting in such a home, with five imposing teak wood doors and rock-solid beams, Oliver does not hide his cynicism about the government’s efforts at heritage conservation.
As he walks around this area, designated as a heritage precinct, Oliver points to recently built structures, with cars parked outside.
“When I was a kid, we’d visit some of these places. This structure used to be a school,” he says, pointing to a freshly painted building. “And that, over there, was our club.”
Whatever the status of the houses, they have clearly been redeveloped, he says.
“Heritage regulations exist only on paper,” he continues. “Grease some palms and you can have the same regulations twisted in your favour. How else would have these come up otherwise?”
Oliver himself is looking to sell this 800-square-feet house. No one lives there: he lives nearby with his wife, and his 84-year-old mother lives with one of his brothers.
She now wants to sell it for financial reasons. His family are tenants, and will get two-thirds of the sale amount.
But in principle, he says he would not mind taking the effort or spending money to maintain the house. Yet he feels he would need logistical support from the government.
“I would not know how to go about it,” he said. “If the government and the heritage committee are so keen on us preserving our houses, then the least they can do is to ensure that we have quick access to the right kind of artisans and contractors, who can help us.”
Saint John Valladeras, 97, gets emotional when he talks about his house and family life in Matharpacady. Keep-Sake, a picturesque Portuguese-style villa built in 1901, has been home to the Valladerases for over a century.
It’s one of many like it in the quaint, quiet lanes of Matharpacady, a Grade III heritage precinct with its own community church and club. But only a few of these homes, originally built by East Indians and Goans, are maintained as diligently as Keep-Sake.
“It’s not just preserving the house that is important,” says Valladeras, a life-long tenant who pays a nominal rent, like many others in Matharpacady, on the understanding that maintenance will be his responsibility. “We must fight to preserve the community too, preserve our culture and way of life.”
Saint John’s son Julius Ceasar, who is in the merchant navy, says his father has always practiced what he preaches, rallying residents to preserve and improve local infrastructure and dutifully fixing every leak and loose railing in the 110-year-old home.
“This house has stone walls, Burma teak wooden beams and limeplaster on the walls —none of which are used as building materials any more. So it is very hard, and very expensive, to maintain the house,” says 50-something Julius Ceasar. “But we have learnt from my father that if you are really committed to a cause, you will find a way to fulfil your responsibilities.”
Eight people currently live in the house, including Julius Ceasar’s wife, three sons and aunt.
“I feel these houses can be preserved better if a family lives in them. It is much harder for a single person to manage all that needs to be done,” says Julius Ceasar. “You need a lot of logistical support. We depend on each other and plan together so we can complete our repairs and restoration regularly.”
Although located near the bustling Dadar station, Raj Grih wears a desolate look on a weekday afternoon. A cobbler points to the barely visible marble plaque with ‘Raj Grih’ inscribed in Devnagri and says, “It may look ordinary, but a great man lived here.”
Babasaheb Ambedkar lived in this building from 1935, when it was built, till the early 1950s. His grandson Prakash Ambedkar lives on the first floor and tenants occupy four other flats in the building. The whole building is on the heritage committee’s list of proposed heritage structures.
The ground floor is owned by People’s Education Society, trust that runs several educational institutions in the state, such as Siddharth College in south Mumbai, It is open to public in the weekday evenings and the whole day on April 14, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, and December 6, his death anniversary, when they can see few original manuscripts, rare photographs of Ambedkar, as well as tables, chairs and cupboard that he used.
“We will need expertise to maintain this structure and the valuables on ground floor,” says Prakash Ambedkar, 57, former member of Rajya Sabha, lawyer and activist. “There should be a committee whom we can approach if the building needs repairs or restoration.”
Rather than hand out floor space index as an incentive, the government should actually maintain heritage buildings.
“The government should take over these historic structures and rehabilitate their occupants elsewhere,” he says.
Seven years ago, Roslyn and Francis Xaviers did not have a roof over their heads for more than two weeks. There weren’t living on the streets; they were repairing their roof because many tiles had worn out and water was leaking in. It was during this repair work that they discovered their home had a history: one tile had the date of manufacture, 1862.
“We were thrilled to find out that a house that we loved could be a heritage structure,” said Francis, 58.
But the fact is that the house is not on the heritage list. So the Xaviers have the opposite problem of many occupants of heritage homes: they are willing to spend to keep their house’s character intact but are not even on the list.
For instance, they spent Rs 75,000 to restore the bungalow’s external Burma teak wood staircase. “We hired artists from Ratnagiri district who worked on our roof for about 20 days and helped us restore it,” says Francis. “I wouldn’t have allowed an ordinary civil contractor touch the house.”
The neighbourhood is now seeing the entry of developers buying over old bungalows from their original owners. “I have already got offers running into crores, but I want none of it,” says Francis. “Where else in Mumbai will I have butterflies flitting in and out of my home?”