Since I left Bombay in 1971, after spending 29 years of my early life, I have visited the city several times on official trips to attend some function or the other. But the recent trip that Prabha and I made to the maximum city was truly a trip down memory lane. Made very comfortable by my three host couples Raju & Gita; Gopal & Hema and Raja & Rama with whom we stayed during the nine days we spent in Bombay- nay `Mumbai`.
Apart from the two fun filled get-togethers with my school friends and old colleagues from Clarion Advertising where I started my advertising career, the most memorable day was the morning Prabha and I spent walking around Matunga, the Little Madras where I had spent 26 years out of the 29 years I was in Bombay.
We started the walk with a visit to the Asthika Samaj and Bhajana Samaj – the two oldest and popular temples of the area. Asthika Samaj has obviously got more idols installed over the years – compared to Bhajana Samaj which still displays a huge framed picture of … in the main sanctum sanctorum.
As we were coming out of Asthika Samaj, I saw the familiar board of ‘Zenith Art Studio’ a popular photo studio of the area. I decided to visit the studio and give a surprise to Harish, the cheerful Marwari owner of the studio with whom I was very close because of my interest in photography.We walked up the stairs following the sign board which led to a corner room on the first floor where a man was standing outside the door. I told him that I was looking for my old friend, whom I had not seen for 45 years.He opened the door of the small 6 ft. x 10 ft room and pointed out at a figure lying on a bed and said, ‘This is Harish’.
I was shocked beyond words. Because the person I remembered was a young man in his late thirties, sporting a smart black moustache, always wearing a white kurta & pyjama and bubbling with enthusiasm. The body lying on the cot was that of a very old man, with a bushy white moustache, grey hair on his head and very much in pain. When he saw me he could not recognize me immediately because even I had changed over the four decades shedding most of the curly hair on my pate but adding on a lot of weight in the middle. But when I spelt out my name and recalled the connection, I saw some recognition in his eyes. He held both my hands and started sobbing. I became emotional too! But I controlled myself and told him that I had specially come to visit him and pay my respects. Again he started sobbing. Since he could not speak, I found it difficult to continue my conversation. After wishing him well I came out of the room and asked the attendant outside the room, what had happened to Harish? He refused to reveal much, except to say that the studio had changed hands and someone else was running the business. Since his fall from the bed Harish had become confined to bed. He did not know much about the family. I came down the stairs with mixed feelings. Happy that at least I could see Harish alive but sad that he had fallen into bad times and was suffering in his old age! I don’t know whether the tears that he shed were tears of joy in seeing an old friend or tears of embarrassment.
* * * * * * * * * *
After the visit to Harish, as we were walking along the road, I pointed out to Prabha the various landmark shops (Laxmi Jewellery, Laxmi Silks, Brijwasi, etc.) which were still there as I had seen them for over 40 years. I pointed out at the building complex where the famous Matunga Don ‘Varadabai’ used to live and run his underworld empire. A person, whom I had seen as an ordinary rice smuggler, who became a powerful don controlling large parts of Central Bombay. He was also the subject of the famous Mani Rathnam movie ‘Nayagan’ featuring Kamal Hassan in the lead role.
Two major changes I noticed in Matunga – the no. of cars parked on either sides of all roads and bylanes making the movement of vehicles and pedestrians difficult. The other thing is the composition of the crowd walking around. The real “Madrasis’- the `mamas` and `mamis` seem to have all moved to better accomodations in suburbs like Mulund, Chembur, Ghatkopar, Dombivli, Thane and of course Navi Mumbai.
I showed Prabha the building where my old school was located, opposite the twin Napoo Gardens. While the school building is there minus the school, Napoo Garden has undergone some changes – concrete compound walls replacing the earlier steel railings. One ground has been retained as a play ground while the other one has been converted into a beautiful landscaped garden. I remember the time when the popular film star, Chief Minister of TN – MGR came to address a public meeting at the Napoo Garden.
We then visited Sharadha Bhavan, the Udipi restaurant opposite to Matunga station which has not changed at all but the quality of the dishes served by them has definitely come down. The restaurant still sells its famous Sharada Bhava Mixture a savoury item very popular among South Indians. Cheddha Stores which used to be a small grocery stores has transformed into a multiple (shop) grocery and general stores, where you shop in air conditioned comfort for all types of Gujarathi Snacks including my favourite Teplas, Kakras, Kandvis and Dhoklas.
On the way to my old college, we stepped into the Gulshan Irani Restaurant. While the interior looked the same, outside the restaurant they have an open air fast food joint dishing out all the junk foods popular with the younger generation.
* * * * * * * * * *
The visit to the Podar College ( where I did my B.Com) was a bit of disappointment. There was a wedding happening in the famous College Auditorium (where my own wedding reception had been held 39 years ago) and the building itself was very crowded with thousands of students, who had come to participate in an inter collegiate event.
The college Swadeshi Stores on the mezzanine floor ( where I used to literally live for two years) has been replaced by the NSS office and I could not find a single familiar face. I realised that 45 years is a long gap for me to expect known faces. Later I heard most of the popular professors of my time – Prof. Tole, Prof. Phutane, Prof. Bapat etc. are no more. I came out of the college a little sad because there was hardly anything in the college to help me connect with the old time, except the building.
The Matunga Gymkhana Grounds bang opposite the college, now has a short compound wall running right across the length of the ground with hundreds of boys and girls sitting and chatting. During my time, in the absence of the compound wall, the boys of Podar college used to sit on the footpath on either sides of the road, ogling the girls from Ruia college passing by.
The cricket pitch, right in the centre of the ground, where my friend Jayaraman and I used to spend long hours in the evenings lying on our backs, staring at the stars and dreaming about our future, is still there!
After a quick bite at the ever popular Mani’s Cafe opposite Ruia College and a courtesy call on my old class mate K.K.Mani, we landed at the old chawl building where I had spent 26 years. The building looks more dilapidated with the front side having a no. of shops serving the student community coming out of the adjacent Matunga Station in thousands to attend the two colleges and several schools in the neighbourhood.
The main purpose of the visit to the chawl was to spend some time with an old couple, living in one of the rooms, whom I had known from my childhood.
The floor which has nine rooms looked totally deserted – in my younger days the floor would be always busy and noisy with scores of children running around and playing . Now only some of the rooms have tenants living as the tenants of the other rooms have moved up in life and shifted to better apartments without giving up their claims on the rooms in the chawl.
While the exterior of the chawl was depressing, the meeting with the old couple was even more depressing. The old man in his early eighties and the lady in her seventies were a picture of desolation. Both were ill, finding it tough to manage their own affairs and barely able to help each other. The son’s family was in the Middle East and the daughter, though living in Bombay, could not be of much help due to her own busy life. Prabha and I decided to listen to the old couple venting their frustrations. Though any no. of relatives lived in the neighbourhood, it seems nobody visited them to enquire how they were fairing.
It was a very lonely life, with nothing to look forward to except waiting for the call from the maker of the world. It was indeed a sad story, very common among the thousands of NRI parents, living in metropolitan cities of the country.
The couple was extremely happy that we spent so much time with them. Prabha and I were equally happy that we could bring some cheer to their otherwise boring life.
The nostalgic trip to Matunga after nearly 40 years made me feel more sad than happy. Sad to realise that not only people age, but even places age, not necessarily gracefully.