Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Mumbai’s North-South Divide

Published on Jul 02, 2021 06:12 PM IST

The eternal north-south debate periodically rears its head, accompanied with much good humoured name-calling on both sides of the city’s axis.

Cities constantly move shape, and along with it, their neighbourhoods take on new meanings and attributes. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
Cities constantly move shape, and along with it, their neighbourhoods take on new meanings and attributes. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
ByMalavika Sangghvi

As someone who lived the first 17 years of their life in north Mumbai’s Juhu and the rest in south Mumbai (give or take a handful of years spent away in Kolkata and Delhi), I feel I am among those uniquely placed to comment on the eternal north-south debate, that periodically rears its head, accompanied with much good humoured name-calling on both sides of the city’s axis.

You know the drift: South Mumbai, which has recently adopted the acronym SoBo, perhaps in the hope that it alludes to “sophisticated”, has been traditionally viewed as the “heart” of the city, the citadel of its establishment and authority, with its world-famous heritage Victorian and art deco architecture.

Until quite recently, we referred to this part of Mumbai as “town”. As teenaged Bandra school girls, the thrill of birthday celebrations was a day trip to town; we regarded it as the pinnacle of grown-up sophistication.

In those days “town” was an awe-inspiring entity — it was here you could lunch in the air-conditioned plushness of a Nanking; then watch a Hollywood movie in a beautiful, art deco cinema; and later, drop by Colaba to buy your silver trinkets and Kolhapuri chappals. Town people, or “townies”, were regarded by us as altogether another species: Town girls with their short hairstyles and shorter skirts and their tennis rackets and exclusive clubs — we regarded them as more fashionable and confident than us, their poor cousins from the north.

As for town boys, we were taught by our elders to be wary of them and give them a wide berth, as far as possible.

Truly, in those days, town was what most of us aspired to and were equally intimidated by.

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A few years ago, while writing about my mother, the late Usha Khanna who had launched Café Samovar in the early Sixties in the heart of town while being a resident of what was, in those days, the far-flung sleepy hamlet of Juhu, I recall drawing attention to the remarkable daily commute it had called for — boarding a bus from a stand on a sandy lane across the beach, she used to then catch a train from Santacruz station to reach Churchgate, and from there, walk — past the sleek art deco precinct of the Oval Maidan, past the imposing Victorian Gothic fleet of the University of Mumbai, the High Court and Rajabai Clock Tower, until her footsteps brought her to the Indo-Saracenic splendour of the Prince of Wales Museum and its adjoining Jahangir Art Gallery. I like to think that with every step of her journey, my mother gathered the courage and strength that she required for her day ahead. Perhaps, many others among the millions of commuters, who make that daily journey, do so too.

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And what did townies make of us, suburbanites? Given that so many of its established families like the Tatas, Birlas and Ruias had weekend cottages in Juhu, Madh and Manori and that so many film folk resided in Pali Hill, Juhu, Bandra and later JVPD scheme, I imagine south Mumbai most likely regarded north Mumbai as the residence of their more colourful, artistic, counterparts and thought of its palm-fringed cottages and clean, inviting beach as an early Goa.

Certainly, by the Seventies, the famous Juhu Gang — a rag tag bunch of bohemian filmmakers, writers, actors and star kids — was capturing public imagination. Not too long ago, I was delighted when the internationally celebrated architect Bijoy Jain shared with me that he attributed his world view and success to his childhood spent in Juhu and his proximity to the Juhu Gang.

At that time, actor Shashi Kapoor had been one of the more high-profile travellers on this north-south axis. One of the few stars who chose to reside in south Mumbai, he would famously drive down every Sunday to Janki Kutir to have lunch with his father Prithviraj Kapoor and then spend the rest of the day at the Sun-n-Sand, swimming with his family.

Interestingly, the other stars who lived in town in those days, such as Sharmila Tagore, Simi Garewal, and Zeenat Aman, could be counted on the fingers of one hand and had certainty seemed a class apart from their north Mumbai counterparts. The standing joke used to be that SoBo snobs were so insular and precious that they required a visa each time they crossed Haji Ali on their way to the the rest of the city.

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One of the first few people to breach this long-standing north-south divide had been the late Parmeshwar Godrej. Like everything else she did, Adi Godrej’s dynamic and glamorous wife had shaken things up and rearranged the rules. Until then, there had been little truck between Mumbai’s business elite and its film industry, as there had been between south and north Mumbai. Parmeshwar changed all that. For all practical purposes she and Adi divided their time between their smart apartment in the iconic Usha Kiran, one of the tallest buildings of its era (which also housed Dhirubhai Ambani and his family) and their fantastical, Spanish hacienda-like, sea-facing mansion in Juhu.

Here, she proceeded to mix things up further by hosting much sought-after soirees, where the bold and beautiful from both halves of the city would hobnob. Here, Rahul Bajaj would rub shoulders with Amitabh Bachchan and Anand Mahindra with Dimple Kapadia. After this fortuitous fraternising, there had been no holding back. Karan Johar, brought up in Malabar Hill, moved his LV bag and baggage to Khar; AD Singh, a dyed-in-the-linen SoBo-ite, contributed to Bandra becoming the city’s F&B capital with his launch of Olive; and a few years later, the Sea Link more or less put paid to much of the north-south divide.

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Slowly, but surely south Mumbai began to lose its sheen and central position in the scheme of things, as the city metamorphosed and changed shape with the development of new areas such as Lower Parel and BKC. Gradually, with money shifting to new businesses and surnames, SoBo’s Old Rich found themselves becoming Mumbai’s New Poor; fashion and jewellery stores and restaurants and bars began reporting far better sales and footfalls in north Mumbai.

These days, with so much mobility between north and south Mumbai, I regard all allusions to Mumbai’s north-south divide as an endearing but tired anachronism. Cities constantly move shape, and along with it, their neighbourhoods take on new meanings and attributes. Today, the north appears to have stolen a march over its twin — SoBo, as being a more attractive proposition in a host of ways. The changes are personal too. Even though north Mumbai and its suburbs remain an abiding love and my heart still soars each time I turn left at the Aeroplane Garden, now, having spent over 30 years living in SoBo, I have to admit that it has begun to feel like home.

So where do I weigh in on the great north-south debate? All I am willing to say is this: The grass is always greener on the other side…

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