Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Listening to the heartbeat of a close-at-hand 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.
Sewri, Sewri, Bang, Bang
‘Never a night without a fight’ — this was the despair of the bar manager of Calcutta’s iconic Grand Hotel around the1950s. A sub-continent’s breadth and a cultural planet away, I felt the same way when I came to live in the least fashionable part of Bombay’s Malabar Hill in 1971. Drunken brawls would invariably spill over from the nearby slum and land at our gate. So we went to bed each night to that nerves-searing gaalaa-gaali.
Fast forward to another century, another life, and yet another cultural planet. This time not high Malabar Hill but Lowest Parel. I had bought my Sewri flat when the tower was still a hole in the ground, but the complex’s fragrant boughs to read a book of verse beneath and pool beside me were ‘Paradise enow’. When I did ride 23 floors up to the ready flat, my heart sank to Basement. Not poetic Khayyam, it was prosaic khattam, end of my dreams of the panoramic life. Below me stretched a circarama of slum. Would it be back to ‘never a night without a louder fight’? Surprise! The nights have been alive to the sound of festive music. Never mind the fact that pre-lockdown it was year-round, amplified surround sound, one festival segueing into another in our diverse neighbourhood.
But rewind just a couple of decades, and you’ll still hear the fisticuffs. Trade union leader Harinath Tiwari recounts with high drama and higher decibels the last days of China Mill from whose ashes rose Dosti Flamingos. It was a truly a fin de siècle closure coming at the turn of this century. By then Bombay’s fabled textile industry was threadbare thanks to the historic ’82 strike and, as much the willingness of the Cotton Kings. They had realised that, instead of the ‘jhhanjhhat’ of licenses, production and ‘union baazi’ they could simply spin gold from their vast tracts of real estate. Facilitating the kill was the politician-developer nexus which had replaced the underworld as the shot-callers of the city.
China Mill had staggered along till 2000. Tiwari’s admittedly one-sided account describes the ‘machinations of the third-generation malik — so unlike his dildaar grandfather — to get rid of it. He was aided by a saalaa tapori-goonda of Dagdi Chawl, ‘Daddy’ Arun Gawli’s nephew, who frightened one group to agree to voluntary retirement.’ But Tiwari’s loyal workers offered to buy the mill and run it as a cooperative. A clash was inevitable between the Brexit style ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’. With manifest glee, the former trade unionist recalls his ‘strategy’. It involved ‘tightly packed plastic balls of chilli powder prepared by my Gujarati bania friend, Ramjibhai, and the sturdy sticks of the weaving department’. When the victims made a police case, their attackers displayed self-inflicted injuries and pretended they had acted in self-defence. But they were outnumbered and ultimately out-foxed. A lockout was declared in 2003. Tiwari’s band continued to shout their slogans where the channawalla still sits at the China Mill-now-Dosti Flamingos gates, trying to prevent machinery from being spirited out. In vain; the battle was irrevocably lost.
Now rewind a couple of centuries, and you’ll hear the actual sounds of battle. A colonel’s shout away is Golanji Hill, getting its name from the ‘golis’ being fired from this practising range of the colonial army. Remember, the Haffkine Institute next door was the Governor’s mansion from 1771, with William Hornby its first resident, till 1883, when Lady Olive Fergusson died here of cholera; industrialisation had begun spreading its toxic tentacles. The firing range remained long after the Governor moved to the present bayside Malabar Point. What used to be the ADC’s quarters is a charming little Parsi Colony. A rheumy-eyed resident remembers sitting on the still-existing row of stone seats to thrill to the daily parade of battalions marching up to the hill.
We, the deodorised beneficiaries of similar gentrifications might appreciate our neighbourhood better if we step beyond our self-absorption — and listen to the heartbeat of such close-at-hand history.
— Featured illustration: Bombay Mill workers' strike of 1982 © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost
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