Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: At the Sewri Christian Cemetery, past and present link to Mumbai’s larger history
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis
Read more columns in this series here.
Our Very Quiet Neighbours
They don’t chuck stale chapatis out of the window, hammer nails at naptime or crib, complain and otherwise quarrel; they are content not contentious. As for the urban bane of space crunch, in death as in life, one party is evicted to make room for the other; or, in an even graver concern, laid atop an older resting place. Amidst the surrounding jostling, honking chaos lies the Sewri Christian Cemetery, final home to 22,000 and counting. The central pathway running down its 44 acres seems to extend almost to eternity, a metaphor perhaps of the passage to heaven.
I pass the cemetery’s delicate iron gates every day endorsing that inescapable truth: ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. Vice versa is equally true since ‘augmented realty’ is a increasing necessity. On one boundary has towered L&T’s 50-storied Crescent Bay; on the opposite, TJ Road side, the other construction giant, Shapoorji Pallonji, is about to raise its ‘Epic’. Both flaunt their ‘sea views’ to the east and west; for marketing reasons, they are mum on the last harbour into which Mumbai’s Christians have sailed.
Every hearse that enters becomes part of the city’s larger history, linking past and present with those who have forfeited their future. The Sewri cemetery is equally a testament to all that Mumbai is. Athawale, Antony, Mariamma, Mukherjee, even the three generations of Parsi Vicaji under a pristine white headstone tell of this city’s heady ethnic cocktail. Intriguing inscriptions such as ‘Max Denso, Boren 27 October 1838 in Erfurt (Deutschland), Gestorben 6 April 1900 in Bombay’ show how the city by the sea has always drawn those from far-off shores.
The poet Dom Moraes, painter Francis Newton Souza and ‘Fearless Nadia’ Mary Wadia, who rescripted the feminine role in Hindi cinema, are among the several who represent Mumbai’s vibrant artistic persona. The striking burnt umber edifice of Sacrario Militare Italiano, holding the remains of the Italian POWs, writes a war-time chapter. Adjacent to it is the longer tribute to the ‘Deceased Salesians Who Laboured In the Province of Bombay’, Father John ‘Don’ Bosco’s community-serving Brothers and Sisters. Roman Catholics, Anglicans and those belonging to the Church of Scotland which encompasses Other Denominations ‘OD’, all lie here in demarcated blocks.
The oldest graves proclaim those who shaped seven nondescript islands into ‘urbs primus in Indis’. In his very first year as the city’s first municipal commissioner (1865-1871), Arthur Crawford acquired this wooded sprawl from the Agri-Horticultural Society to serve as a European burial ground. Sewri-Parel was then the fashionable ‘White Town’, home to the Governor himself. Crawford remains an everyday presence thanks to the eponymous heritage building (and shopping stretch ); no one refers to it by its now-name, Jyotiba Phule Market.
Under a large cross chiselled into a minimalist pale marble slab lies the architect of the city’s most ornamented landmark, Victoria Terminus, now re-named Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. FW Stevens (1847-1900) created not just the massive station but also the Municipal Corporation’s HQ across the road in what has came to be called ‘Bombay Gothic’. Fiona Fernandes, who conducted an engaging Midday Heritage Walk, told her hushed audience that his descendants regularly visit from the UK.
Alas, clearly not those of George Wittet (1876-1926), whose grave is not merely neglected, but non-existent. Just a patch of overgrown weeds keeps the last sleep of the architect of much of Bombay. He designed both the Gateway of India and the Prince of Wales Museum (now also renamed after Chhatrapati Shivaji), an architectural jewel which showcases the Indo-Saracenic style he and his mentor evolved and popularized. Also, the KEM and Wadia Maternity hospitals, Cowasjee Jehangir Hall which was later redesigned into the National Gallery of Modern Art, even the Tata corporate HQ, Bombay House.
Another imprimatur of the city’s multifaceted colonial importance is the 1874 grave of James Taylor, ‘Secretary to the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and to the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society’. The intrepid Fiona even dug out a letter from Charlotte Bronte to a friend confiding how she could not find even a glimmer of a ‘natural gentleman’ in him, and if ‘Mr Taylor is the only suitor I have, then single I must remain’.
As a diversion, consider the intriguing (and inglorious) end of Edward Mansfield, 26. His tombstone raised by his brother officers, engineers and friends and engineers says he died in 1891 from the ‘bursting of his Balloon’.
Crescent Bay’s newly moved in residents gush most about ‘our sunny balconies. They’d be unpleasantly surprised to know that the neighbours they’d rather not talk about are one-up on them. Specifically ‘Marimma Thomas of Orlem Malad. Promoted to Glory on 12.12.2016 (who is) now watching from the balconies of Heaven with their father.’
As they plod or whiz past, Sewri’s socially disparate residents are unlikely to spare a thought to the human milestones of Bombay’s journey that dot these incongruously quiet acres. Perhaps the epitaph to the city’s restless, ever-changing identity is etched on Dom Moraes’ grave: ‘Is there ever an end to this?’
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