I live on a gold mine, or so people say. Consider-ing how hard it is to find space in this city, I was pleasantly surprised when I moved to Chira Bazaar nine years ago.
Sandwiched between Marine Lines on the west and Kalbadevi to its east, Chira Bazaar — known as the gold souk of Mumbai — holds together some of the quaintest residential structures, cloth markets and one of the oldest churches (dating 1794) of Mumbai. But living on prized land comes with its own risks.
Take for instance, the men who greeted me at my doorstep one day. They handed me a sheet that read; “Owing to the poor infrastructure and high density of dilapidated buildings in Chira Bazaar, we have proposed that your area goes in for cluster redevelopment. In your interest, and the interest of the locality, we ask you to support our dream venture.”
A master plan of the redeveloped township, with a graphical representation, was attached with the note for my approval. As I scanned for my house in this over-ambitious proposal, one of the men satisfactorily pointed to a structure — a vague reminder of Ambanis’ Antilla on Altamount Road — saying “This is yours madam, isn’t it beautiful?”
Unable to appreciate it — the downside of not being an Ambani — I played along, “Is this all you have to offer?” With rehearsed clarity, he said, “No madam, select any design from here, we promise to make it your dream home.” He left me no choice, but to slam the door on him. That was two years ago.
In April this year, yet another mail was dropped into my letter-box, seeking our support for yet another Chira Bazaar makeover; this time though with an approved document from the BMC, a local politician and lawyer. Was it a threat, or was it really happening? It worries me, and probably every south Mumbai resident who has lived here long enough to see what the authorities are making of the old SoBo town and its aesthetics. I wouldn’t deny that ours is a fine structure, one with its teakwood beams intact even 100 years on. It has rooms, the size of mini-playgrounds — unnerving for anyone’s comfort in space-crunched Mumbai.
What I see outside my home though, is not a pretty picture; a 15-storey mirror building has already unsettled the dynamics of our narrow lane, while the window from my bedroom, where until four years ago you could see the horizon of the Arabian Sea, now opens to another under-construction building.
To save us from such a fate, we’ve been struggling for heritage status — the approval of which is still pending.
But the stars don’t seem to align for those who’ve been assigned such status either. A case in point being Khotachiwadi — declared a grade III heritage village in 1995 — and just a stone’s throw away from Chira Bazaar in Girgaum. The gaothan dotted with 150-year-old mansions, patches of greens and winding alleys is now overshadowed by a concrete jungle.
Visit the unassuming fashion designer James Ferreira, and he states the facts bluntly: “Despite the heritage status, three bungalows have been sold to builders, with a seven-storey already having made inroads into the area illegally.”
When I visited him in April this year, he rued, “One more down in March”. How many more to feed the land sharks and corrupt authorities? We really don’t know.
We keep dreaming Shanghai, and sometimes New York, yet what we land up in during the monsoons, is Venice of an impoverished kind. I am still waiting to hear from a politician or builder who promises to restore the existing buildings that defined Mumbai for centuries together.
Thanks to a few, the country’s only surviving opera house — the Royal Opera House in Mumbai — that was shut for over a decade, is finally being resurrected. But whatever happened to the Irani restaurants, villages and old residential mansions that are conveniently being ignored by the city’s conservation committee?
As I re-read the redevelopment letter again, a thought begins to haunt me. I am reminded of where I live and threatened by a menacing sound — that of bulldozers approaching.