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The Mumbai neighbourhood nobody visits

Tucked away in the by-lanes of Kurla’s commercial mainstay is a neighbourhood soaked in history and diversity

The Holy Cross Church at Kurla. Photographs: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The Holy Cross Church at Kurla. Photographs: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint (Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

The aftermath of leaving anything or anyone leaves a permanent imprint on the body. Only the act of successively returning can afford one access to this private territory of subconscious longing.

When I first “left" Garden Rose Colony, a six-building enclosure just off Lal Bahadur Shastri Marg in Kurla, Mumbai, I felt sure I would return soon enough to reclaim it as my home. Two years later, in 2008, I had earned my postgraduate degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. But Bombay had already made the reluctant transition to Mumbai, and all the many literary charms that had besotted me as a student at St Xavier’s College were eroding gradually. The Poetry Circle that was once a hub for the city’s most prominent poets was fading into oblivion, until it had become a footnote in the city’s grand artistic heritage. I worked for a city-based magazine, yet my relationship with Mumbai was on the rocks. Within a year, I retreated to Goa, the land of my ancestors, to recuperate from the stress of city living, and when my money ran out, found myself accepting a job in publishing back in Delhi, a city that I used to refer to as if it were the subject of an arranged marriage; a compromise. My affinities were soon reversed. Bombay became the past love, while the Capital assumed all the symbolism of new-found passion. I plunged headlong into its intellectual and cultural attractions. I established friendships. I committed to a lifelong affair with writing. I would come to describe Bombay as the city of my girlhood and adolescence and Delhi as the city of my adulthood, my becoming.

The Holy Cross Church at Kurla dates back to 1588, though it has seen many remodellings.
The Holy Cross Church at Kurla dates back to 1588, though it has seen many remodellings.

It was two years ago, as I was composing a letter to a friend, that I began to fathom the full extent of the involuntary gestures my body would make whenever it found itself re-entering Garden Rose Colony. Just before I would walk into my building, I would unwittingly make the sign of the cross because my subconscious self had registered that it had passed the grotto. I once stumbled outside the block that houses our apartment because the half step up that my legs were accustomed to climbing had been flattened out. Even though she had died, I continue to look to my right, expecting to see Aunty Millie, who lived in the house downstairs, who had crossed the 100-year mark, and who always prayed for me. I find it so odd that the Golden Retriever her grandchildren brought home after she died often sits in exactly the same spot she used to, by the edge of the balcony, with its face so close to the grilles, as if recording in her place the comings and goings that had unfolded before her as she counted the decades; a comforting witness to all our lives.

Vacant looks are what I encounter when I answer the inevitable question that surfaces in most conversations—“Where in Bombay do you live?" Most conjure up images of the somewhat seedy Kurla station, or ask if it’s near the Bandra-Kurla Complex.

Unlike Bandra, there’s little excuse for outsiders to visit our neighbourhood. The only big attraction we can boast is the swanky Phoenix Marketcity mall right across the road from our colony, which, even if you were to visit, to catch someone like Shaggy in concert, you would never conceive that tucked away in the several by-lanes across this commercial mainstay is a neighbourhood soaked in history, with residents from diverse communities, the most sizeable being the East Indians, who have been living there for at least 400 years, alongside their relatively more fresh-off-the-boat Mangalurean and Goan counterparts, and a reasonably large Muslim populace that accounts for the timely interventions of the azaan, and the bevy of excellent Mughlai restaurants, the most famous being Naaz Hotel, where hundreds of Catholic “mass bunkers" have gathered every Sunday for at least three decades for a succulent serving of keema pav (available daily but only from 9.45-11am).

In late September, during one of my many homecomings, it struck me that growing up, I knew the occupants of every apartment in the six buildings comprising the colony, including the sole bungalow, “The Harvest", home of the inimitable sailor, Uncle Loy. When I was a child, my friends and I would go house to house collecting old newspapers to fund-raise for the Diwali and Christmas parties we would host, and to make the crib and the star. We knew who would yell at us if we made too much noise while playing medicine-poison or dabba-gul (Uncle Nazareth, who sadly died a few weeks ago), and which house to go to if we were thirsty during badminton sets (Uncle Benny’s). We were always in and out of each other’s houses and we took all of our intimacies for granted, never thinking to inscribe any of it as part of our shared identities.

The Culbavour village in Kurla. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The Culbavour village in Kurla. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

When the sights and smells of Kurla began to recur frequently in my weekly columns, an academic friend alerted me to the fact that the grand narrative of Bombay’s history often marginalized such suburban subplots. It seemed incredible that the tiny details that have punctuated so many of our lives don’t even exist as footnotes. There could, for instance, be an entire memoir on Sunday rituals in the Catholic precincts of Kurla, like my colony and the adjoining Culbavour, and the East Indian village nestled near what used to be the Premier Padmini factory (now the Kohinoor complex); where you step out of your home to buy beer for the sit-down family lunch and are engulfed by a fusion of cooking scents—East Indian bottle masala, chicken curry, pork vindaloo, and when you know your neighbourhood so well you can trace each smell to its source.

And not to forget the music, especially geniuses like Uncle Joaquim, a violinist and perfectionist who conducted the Sunday 7am choir and the choirs for countless midnight masses for years, even mentoring people like Maureen Pereira and Marise Saldanha, solidifying the Holy Cross Church tradition of singing the gospel on Good Friday. One of my most precious childhood memories is of Uncle Joaquim conducting a violin-accompanied recital of the Latin Litany in October, when I was 10 years old, teaching us all how to chant the responsorial “Ora Pro Nobis". Within the varied tapestry of our suburban lives roamed one astonishing nomadic figure, the mythical Cotton Mary whose limited repertoire of songs has fallen on eager ears across generations and is the stuff of legend—I went to see my darling, last Saturday… Her last appearance was years ago, and her story, too, threatens to slip into collective amnesia if we allow ourselves to succumb to the inevitability of forgetting.

The church cemetery.
The church cemetery.

This Christmas, instead of lunch at home, my family was invited to Gerard and Daphne’s house in Culbavour, en route to the church, a 110-year-old bungalow, among the oldest and most historic in the neighbourhood (Gerard’s mother, Aunty Cleffy, ran the kindergarten school we all went to, and, when she wasn’t teaching, could often be heard playing the piano, her audience being churchgoers). My sister will soon be formally related to this family through marriage, and so, our family was among one of many other units that were present, all of us indelibly related through some connection or the other, making me wonder if I had been living in a village all along, given the nebulous nature of the ties that bind all of us who live there.

I listened eagerly as everyone at the table shared their memories of growing up there and the solidity of their attachments to Kurla. The silhouette of the Phoenix Marketcity mall standing like an omen of aspirational “development", I listened with the zealous fervour of a chronicler able to envision the looming end of an era and came to realize that that is precisely what my role must be as someone who has inherited a literary predisposition. For, without quite knowing or expecting it, my neighbourhood has become my muse.

Local Geography is an intimate take on city neighbourhoods.

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