Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Where tower and tenement is cliché of old and new, shops tell a more nuanced story

Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis

Bachi Karkaria February 20, 2021 11:34:12 IST
Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Where tower and tenement is cliché of old and new, shops tell a more nuanced story

Photo © Akshay Mahajan, from the series 'To Die is to be Turned to Gold'

Read more columns in this series here.

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A Tale of Two Traders

A reminder: TJ Road is but a metaphor of metromorphosis, the changes a city must go through to qualify for  membership to Club Urb. The industries that once gave it life and fame become obsolete and die. Detroit lost its automobile mojo, and had to find new character for the ‘rust belt’. Like the boastful miller’s daughter in the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ fairy tale, Dublin’s ‘linen lords’ could spin flax into gold after their age-old business collapsed. They could sell the prime land even if Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ deferred development for decades. Not so in Mumbai, where real estate became a goldmine for ‘ruined’ mill maliks.

Sewri, the zip code of this column’s eponymous road, is on the periphery of the old mill hub of Lalbaug-Parel, and is fast catching up with its redrawn skyline. Tower and tenement is the cliché of old and new, but shops tell a more nuanced story. Take the first and the latest on TJ Road.

The frayed Madhuban Saree Emporium belongs to Arvind Nanji Visaria; Babu Sahu’s Vinayak Enterprises belongs to the plate-glass parvenu. Arvindbhai is Kutchhi Jain, son of one of the original grain traders who lined the left flank, this having been Sewri’s ‘anaj-bazar’. Babu arrived from his native Cuttack 25 years ago, trained as a mechanic, and clawed his way up the ladder to safari-suited success.

Arvind’s father, Nanji Ravji had set up his two grain shops way back in 1928, when ‘there were still khet in the area and we bought our shaak-bhaji straight from the farm’, says his son who set up its Saree avatar. Along with his brothers’ adjacent cloth and readymades shops, Madhuban Emporium may have emerged only in 1994, but that’s a technicality; the family can claim to be the oldest formal commercial cluster on this stretch. Babu Sahu, renting his just four months ago, is the most recent. But not for long; shops keep changing hands and identity, sleek replacing shabby.

Bachi Karkarias Tales from TJ Road Where tower and tenement is clich of old and new shops tell a more nuanced story

Babu Sahu at Vinayak Enterprises. Photo courtesy Bachi Karkaria

Madhuban Emporium’s open frontage is festooned with working class polyester and cheap cotton sarees as well as coarse woollen shawls. You have to push a glass door to enter Vinayak Enterprise, its interior lined with the trappings of wannabe TJ: aircons, refrigerators, sound systems, upper-end cellphones...

Arvindbhai’s diminishing custom is from the tenements; Babu is eyeing the towers and older residents who can now afford his aspirational wares. He has shifted his store from Madhavwadi in nearby Parel Village. At 600 sq ft, he now has double the space, and hopes business will follow suit, enough to justify the Rs 70,000 rent compared to the earlier 30K. The Oriya arriviste has 10 mechanics for his ‘fixed A/C service contracts’, as well as three smart women behind the sleek counter. Arvindbhai, 75, and his son, Hiten, must handle the demanding matrons on their own since their business cannot support a paid hand. “Even a fellow who knows nothing would cost at least Rs 10,000 monthly.”

Sewri’s new upward mobility has been the downfall of the likes of Madhuban Saree Emporium. The elderly trader yearns for the poor, old days when Sewri’s population was mostly labour from the area’s five mills, China, Swan, Jubilee, Mohan and Khoja. “Workers regularly bought anaaj, kapda, steel vasan, hardware.  For special occasions they patronised the gold and silver jewellers, who also doubled as money-lenders and pawn brokers. Yes, dhandho was jabardast for us all,” recalls Arvindbhai with the shadow of a swagger.

He tells me of the also-75-year-old Shri Adeshwar Dada Jain Mandir which still exists on the third floor of Mulraj Bhavan, round the corner on arterial Acharya Dhonde Marg. It was set up by Thokersey Jivraj, Sewri’s ‘nagarseth’ or landlord from whom TJ Road gets its name. A ‘ghar derasar’ or family temple, the original 40 Kutchhi traders each contributed the then grand sum of Rs 2 per month for its upkeep, which included Rs 30 for the pujari. The practice continues, inflation adjusted.

Bachi Karkarias Tales from TJ Road Where tower and tenement is clich of old and new shops tell a more nuanced story

Arvindbhai (left) and Navinchandrabhai At Madhuban Saree Emporium; with Arvind’s son Hiten. Photos courtesy Bachi Kakaria

These ‘veparis’ lived on their premises, ‘aagal dukan, paachhal makaan’.  Nanji Ravji’s grain shops supported his five sons. Now each has been forced to set up his own businesses, all in the cloth trade. The eldest Navinchandra, 85, ambles in, also in the community’s trademark white pyjama and shirt. His is the readymades shop, Dimple, alongside. Both brothers proudly, and perhaps a tad wistfully, say that their grandsons are educated, and ‘will not sit on a gala’. Navinchandra’s Harshal is already in his first year at GS Medical College.

Only a clutch of shops on TJ Road are still run by the original grain-trader families. The others have rented theirs out, thriving on the spiralling sums they can command in this gentrifying locality. Scoffs Arvindbhai, “The new shops have to do this show-sha or they won’t get their kind of ‘gharak’ (customer). But soon they find that the income doesn’t match what they have to pay the landlord, so they diversify into goods with greater demand or sell out.” It’s true. In the last month itself the popular Surbhi Provisions and Solanki Steel have turned into pandemic-prompted medical stores.

But then, we do have as many as three proper beauty parlours in just the short, 158-metre stretch between the two gates of Dosti Flamingos. So, perhaps the swankification of commerce on TJ Road isn’t always merely cosmetic.

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