“I am the Resurrection and the Life” affirms the inscription on the life-size marble statue of Christ at the entrance to St Peter’s Church in Bandra. I’ve just stepped out after the funeral of a Spanish priest distinguished for being the last Latin tutor in the city. Fr Peter Ribes shared sonorous nuances of this classic language in a pair of boys’ schools, St Stanislaus (the suburbs’ first English medium school) and St Mary’s from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Counting over twenty exquisite stained-glass windows that cast a glow in golden slants of the soon to set summer sun, the beautiful mass done, I walk on to Hill Road.
The street I grew up on, named after one of Bandra’s two hills, Mount Mary hill and Pali hill, extends from the railway station till Mehboob Studio. The leafy lanes sprouting right from its west-east axis are quite clearly sainted – St Martin, St Cyril, St Paul, St Alexious, St John – while to the left run Jain Mandir Road, Boran Road, Bazar Road and Waroda Road.
Exactly across St Peter’s Church and Stanislaus School stands my alma mater, St Joseph’s. The red brick convent run by Daughters of the Cross nuns boasts a sparkling roster: painter Papri Bose, actor Dimple Kapadia, the Bredmeyers (models Anna, Ulrika, Indira), journo-celeb sisters Malavika Sanghvi and Devika Bhojwani, lawyer turned activist Dilbur Parakh and Frene Ginwala, former Speaker of the National Assembly of Parliament in South Africa.
The presence of the first Indian woman at the Olympics owes a great deal to a dance. Mary D’Souza, India’s first woman Olympian and Double International, was a student and hockey teacher at St Joseph’s. Selected to represent the country at Helsinki in 1952, she had neither a coach nor funds, and the government was only paying airfare. Luckily, Mary was a Bandra girl.
Her neighbours and friends promptly organised a dance and managed to raise enough money. “St Joseph’s didn’t have a field, so at night I’d jump over the wall and train on the St Andrew’s School ground next door,” Mary would say. “Back then, girls weren’t allowed to train with boys.”
En route school, Cheap Jack and Pinky Pat were treasure troves. We grabbed their stationery split seconds before the bell rang opposite these Bohra shops, flying across the road barely in time to tail assembly lines. Our history teacher greeted Parsi students with interesting localese. First, that the walls enclosing St Andrew’s Church compound were built thanks to a donation from Maneckjee Sorabjee Ashburner in 1862. We were even marched there to see this recorded on a slab at the main gate. Next, that Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy constructed a flight of steps from the foot of Mount Mary to the north side of this Basilica, known as “Degrados de Bomanjee” (Steps of Bomanjee).
You can take the girl out of Bandra, never Bandra out of the girl. This Queen of Suburbs bonds uncommonly. Bandra girls, even generations apart, exult on finding each other years later. On a walk through Ranwar village to track vintage East Indian homes left standing in the alleys of my childhood, I bump into Teresa Marquis outside the oratory chapel. She taught me music at St Joseph’s Convent. It’s 40 seasons since, yet my mind leaps straight to a New Seekers’ song we warbled with her – “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony...”
Perfect harmony: words which echo the lilt of life from the time of early East Indian settlers in Bandra, that scenic Salsette Island tip inhabited by Koli fishermen and farmers.
Bandra being with the British East India Company (the rest of Bombay went to the Portuguese), the English converted its ethnic Marathi families to Christianity. Paddy cultivators became thriving proprietors of fields fully fertile, strategically situated. Commerce bustled between the mainland and British Bombay by ferry from Bandra port, guarded with a fort still perched at Land’s End.
If Catholic girls knelt in our school chapel, I didn’t have far to go. Like an oasis, the Nusserwanji Ratanji Tata Agiary has welcomed the community for over 130 years. The Zarathushtra image on its stained-glass panel, depicting the prophet between Edwardian motifs, once graced Tata Palace. As kids my brother and I raced to buy fragrant sandalwood sticks from the quaint Dickensian shop curiously embedded in the fire temple’s outer wall.
A childhood haunt yet faces the agiary. Happy Books, easily our second home where we stuck noses in pages for as long as we liked. Its mother ship in Colaba was rocked by a spicy controversy in the 1960s.
Held for stocking copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that bold bookseller had a choice: a fine of Rs 20 or a week in prison.
Somewhere between my school and bookshop, dusty banks still see the same customers file in. And the counters of our favourite chemist continue to quite democratically dispense allopathic and homeopathic remedies. Amit Chaudhuri’s poem, “Bandra Medical Stores”, describes how “branches purled and knitted shadows” around the Nair family’s tree-shaded pharmacy.
From other original gems, New Talkies is replaced by a giant Marks and Spencer outlet in the Le Reve-Globus mall hugging a prime corner of the road. Made members of the cinema hall’s Sunday Picture Club in the 1970s, we imbibed movie madness that has lasted lifelong.
Food as much on our minds then as well as today, we’ve savoured it all, from MacRonell’s confectioners to Lucky biryani. Not forgetting the meatiest kababs in Casbah and the best cart paani puri at Elco Arcade, elevated to a posh multi-level restaurant avatar now. Blue Circle, the small shop beside New Talkies, packaged buttery fresh wafers that melted in the mouth. With a hat tip to its cultivator-farmer ancestors, beloved Bandra feasts forever.
Other attractions abounded. We hated missing the every evening sight of a uniformed lamp-lighter slowing his bicycle to a stop at every post he lit with a tall rod. The house I grew up in had three small balconies and so fascinated were we by the ritual that we’d make a dash from room to room to reach them all in turn. Because each provided us a lookout for further away lamp posts.
Hill Road used to be chock-a-block with cold storages, from Shalimar to Lusitanian. Flocks of goats were herded en masse to the abattoir then located near the railway station. And down the length of our stretch of asphalt trundled a small van with “Music grows where Maurice goes” brightly painted on its walls – few functions were a hit without the hiring of Maurice Concessio’s band.
A little off the main street, where the best bakers kneaded their bread benignly, Ice Factory Lane was witness to many a yowl and growl. In a 22-room mansion, an unusual (to say the least) Parsi family retained a regular zoo. It included a noisy macaw hissing colourful Gujarati cuss words circling above a cigarette-smoking carnival dog its mistress claimed was the life of every party.
There was also a baby elephant borrowed from the family’s Dahisar farmhouse and a pet leopard which prowled out and about on Hill Road. When that big cat nonchalantly roamed, to render neighbouring residents scared witless and complaining bitterly , the imperious lady of the house dramatically shouted, “If you must, worry about the small dog. He’s much meaner than the big cat!”
Celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala, of Cafe Spice Namaste in London, much misses Bandra Florist on Hill Road. “The scent of its flowers emanated right up the road those days instead of the bad smells hitting us now. And I’ve lost track of the many times, out of sheer exhaustion,
I fell asleep at the 221 Bus stop at the station. To be either woken up by the doodh wala and come home to a worried mother or land at Borivli, falling off to sleep on the train and getting stuck at the station with no train to come back!”
The street name changing to Ramdas Nayak Marg has really meant nothing. Hill Road was and always will stay simply that. “Know where you come from, then you will know yourself,” Fr Ribes had often said. In Latin this sounds profound, pitch-perfect: “Noverim te, noverim me – May I know you, may I know myself.”
Excerpted with permission from Once Upon A City: Making The Little Stories Of Mumbai Matter, Meher Marfatia, 49/50 Books.