A little over a decade ago, a rich Bohra Muslim businessman bought a large, expensive apartment in Pratibha, a posh South Mumbai address on Peddar Road. Singer Lata Mangeshkar also owned a flat in that building. But it was not a done deal. The building society, dominated by Marwari and Gujarati Jain families, decided to interview the businessman before they allowed a formal transfer of shares.

It was a drama of the absurd. The society office bearers started by asking the businessman whether he had police cases against him, and whether he had been to jail. Then they grilled him on his line of business, and when he said that he imported luxury bathroom fittings, they asked him whether “he had indulged in smuggling”. The interview extended to quizzing him if he would bring goats to slaughter on Bakr-Id in the building compound. At the end of this inquisition, the Bohri gentleman was seething with rage, and he walked out of the deal.

The Dawoodi Bohras, a 25-lakh strong Shia Ismaili sect of Muslims, are a prosperous trading community spread over Mumbai, Karachi, East Africa, Egypt and Yemen. The biggest numbers, however, are concentrated in the crowded lanes of South Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar and Crawford market, where they live amidst their business outlets, and centres of prayer and education.

The incident with the businessman illustrates the discrimination faced by Bohras, as well as other Muslims, when attempting to buy homes in mixed or traditional Hindu areas in Mumbai. It is no wonder that for decades, even very rich Bohras continued to cling to their small, one-room tenements in South Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar, which have no attached toilets and are served by crowded streets.

But in recent times, things have begun to change. A younger generation with western education, good earnings and a dream of cosmopolitan living are buying residential properties in new, mixed neighbourhoods, often sustaining a flagging property market in parts of South Mumbai.

Better lifestyle

Just past JJ Hospital on Mumbai’s arterial Mohammad Ali Road, stands a fast-developing real estate project that was once Byculla’s Khatau Mills, which manufactured the famous Khatau Voile sarees. Today, it is an 11-acre joint venture project by the Gautam Adani Group and Marathon Realty, which offers luxury homes. The project first opened three years ago, and about 80% of the initial bookings were from the Dawoodi Bohra community.

“The project was launched with sales up to the 20th floor of the first tower. Almost all the flats have been booked by Bohras,” said Hari Nair, a South Mumbai broker, who took this writer around the construction site. At Rs 18,000 a square foot, each of the initial buyers would have signed deals for Rs 2.5 crores to Rs 4 crores for small apartments, with an upfront payment of around 20%.

The site plan of the Monte South project, which will replace Khatau Mills in Byculla. Credit: montesouthbyculla.com

Fatima Harnesswalla and her husband are Bohras who decided to leave the crowded Bohri Mohalla locality to move into a modern building, called Jupiter, in the old Mumbai district of Mazagaon. “My daughter Amatullah had nowhere to play,” lamented Fatima. “She goes to the Villa Theresa School [on Peddar Road], and Bhendi Bazaar is not even on the bus route.” Fatima said that another problem was that her daughter could not invite friends home as the congested mohalla was an embarrassment. Their new home gives them access to a gymnasium and a common play room within the complex. “Most important, we can own a car as we have a parking slot!” said Fatima.

A few years ago, Hozaffah Shahiwallah too moved out from his small tenement in Bohri Mohalla to a building in Mazagaon called Park View, where he owns a 650-sq-ft bed-sitter. Most of these relocations are not into mixed communities but into primarily Bohra-dominated communities. “About 70% of the 16 flats in our building are [occupied by] Bohris,” said Shahiwallah. “We wanted our kids to grow up in better areas.”

Investment to occupation

Zahir Merchant, a businessman and a close confidante of the Bohra religious head, the Syedana, said: “Property buying has always been an investment opportunity for rich Bohri traders, who because of a religious edict cannot make money from charging interest.”

Merchant said that when Planet Godrej towers in Simplex Mills in Byculla in South Mumbai first began to be marketed in 2005, Bohras booked 80% of the project in the Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,500 sqft range.

“Most of these Bohri investors exited when prices touched Rs 12,000 to Rs 18,000 per sq ft in the 2008-’10 period,” said Merchant. “For them it was just another trade. But now they are moving into these expensive mixed gated communities.”

Today, in Planet Godrej, where a three-bedroom apartment costs Rs 8.5 crores, around 10% of the owners are resident Bohris, and at least 50% of the secondary sales are being snapped up by their relatives and friends.

Freedom from restrictions

What Merchant and Fatima Harnesswalla aren’t saying is that they don’t only want a modern lifestyle but also less regimentation. In their traditional localities, the Bohra priesthood imposes a strict dress and social behaviour code as well as a rigorous schedule of prayer. Social policing is rampant, and any breach of social and religious mores attracts heavy fines and even social boycott.

However, it must be said that the migration to better properties is not a rebellion. For example, even when the younger families move out, older family members retain their old tenements as well as family businesses. And the migration is never too far. It is usually to localities that are close enough to allow those who have moved out to access their mosques and old hang-outs.

Shahiwallah’s parents, for one, continue to live in their old 650 sq ft tenement in Bohri mohalla.

The very rich among the community moved out very early or have never lived in Mumbai’s ghettoised localities. For instance, the famous Adamji Peerbhoy, an engineer who built the challenging Matheran Hill railroad, and his descendants, always had a marquee address on South Mumbai’s posh Altamount Road.

Zahir Merchant’s grandfather, Salehbhai Hassanal Rajkotwala, who ran a flourishing lace business from Chipi Chawl on Abdul Rehman Street in South Mumbai, moved out in the 1980s. Zainuddin Salehbhai, Merchant’s father who branched out to an electroplating business, bought a 2,000 sqft flat from the famous lawyer Nani Palkhiwala, at Grant Road, also in South Mumbai, for Rs 75,000.

Redevelopment promise

The proposed Bhendi Bazar redevelopment project. Credit: sbut.com

Meanwhile, the rush to exit the old mohallas by those seeking a better and less regimented environment, has stirred the Bohri leadership to take remedial measures. Marking out 280 dilapidated buildings spread over 16.5 acres of the most crowded bye-lanes of Bhendi Bazaar, the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust plans to demolish and redevelop these into 17 new 60-storey towers that will rehabilitate over 3,000 families and nearly 1,200 local businesses. The Rs 4,000-crore cluster development project, which has kicked off after years of planning, envisages constructing 17 towers, gardens and common areas. Most of these will host the original tenement owners, but four of them will be put on sale to finance and earn a profit for the project.

The project is obviously more than a commercial venture. Through redeveloping the crumbling inner mohallas of the community, the Bohri leadership hopes to retain not only the loyalty of the faithful, but also aims to keep the flock in the proximity of the old world of community mosques and burial grounds. Those families whose buildings have fallen under the hammer have been accommodated in transit buildings in Parel some five km North till the Bhendi Bazar towers are fit for occupation.

But will those who have migrated to new homes and mixed-community housing complexes move back once the Bhendi Bazaar towers are ready?

Fatima Harnesswalla was aghast at the suggestion. “I will never go back! Definitely not.”