Photographs by Swayam Mohapatra
Exit Byculla station. Turn into Love Lane. Ask for Matharpacady Road. At the sign for Gunpowder Lane, swing left. You will be standing on Ram Naik Marg.
It looks just like any other city street. Except for this house.
This is as far as my directions will take you. If you want to leave Bombay behind, venture into one of the lanes opposite. Narrow, quiet and inviting.
One May afternoon, I did.
The din of the street was muted by a tattered cloak of silence. The sun was brighter and the air stiller. Our voices, suddenly too loud, were reduced to whispers.
Matharpacady is an old, old place. Most houses here were built by East Indian Christians of three generations ago. And they all have homey names such as Sacred Heart Chummery, Trilby Cottage and Marian Villa.
Many are older than their oldest inhabitant.
Yellow walls, white columns, red roofs and blue shutters – Matharpacady homes are a study in contrast. They typically have two storeys and a staircase outside that joins them. Wood was employed widely and liberally, though no two dwellings look the same. And they have shades over doors, windows, corridors, staircases and balconies – everything.
For a moment I thought it was just us and the houses.
But a Sunday afternoon cricket game is in progress somewhere out of sight. I can hear snatches of Marathi and Konkani muttered during siesta conversations. Behind a curtained window, someone is playing the organ.
Old timers exchange warm pleasantries with a neighbour over the strains of ‘Praising My Saviour All Day Long’ that is playing in the background. Most are busy organising a religious gathering at a courtyard that seems to be the community centre.
Julia, who lives next door to Anthonio Rest, is on her way to the meeting. When we ask her to pose for a photograph, her husband ribs her: “They’re calling it ‘Glamour Models’.”
We ask about the vine-framed house’s origins. All discussions are silenced by the appearance of a great-aunt:
“Louis renovated it, men.”
An aged couple are staring peacefully into the distance and are tickled pink that my friend wants to photograph them.
“What man, why you take my picture?”
When you reach Bismillah House and Kusumbai Chawl, you know your sojourn has come to an end.
Matharpacady has been accorded Grade III heritage status by the government. This means it is illegal to alter any residence without sticking to its original plan and materials.
Despite this, impoverished owners and the land mafia have seen eyesore apartment buildings such as Mazagaon Towers near Dockyard Road station spring up.
We of the madding crowd are scarcely aware of the existence of such islets of serenity. Someday, I’d like to buy, and live in a home there. But that would be intruding upon decades of shared births, friendships, marriages, families and deaths.
Matharpacady is too delicate to handle such change. But slowly, inexorably, Matharpacady is changing. What about those who don’t want to change? What about those who can’t?
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