In a few weeks, the Mint editorial office will shift from an intimate neighbourhood to one of the imposing office blocks that have come up in the old mill district of Mumbai. Dadar in some ways epitomizes a Mumbai that is far removed from the two extremes that now get written about so often: Page 3 glamour on the one hand and the violent underworld on the other. Dadar is a reminder of a stabilizing centre. It is resolutely middle class, but the very ordinariness out here hides rich traditions.
Mumbai is a relatively young city, and Dadar came into its own only after the 1920s. There is a delightful scene in Harishchandrachi Factory, the Marathi film on the life of the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke. A hundred years ago, the film unit is planning to move to distant Dadar, far away from the traditional middle-class borough of Girgaum. The neighbours are perplexed about such a move.
The best way to understand any lively neighbourhood is to walk through it—and Dadar is no exception. Walking through Dadar is always a treat if you know what to look for. Very close to the Mint office is the home of the great B.R. Ambedkar. The economist Meghnad Desai once told me of how he was on his way to college one day, and he saw a serpentine queue that weaved its way for more than a kilometre. He was told that Ambedkar had died that day. His people had come to pay their final respects to the man who taught them to live with dignity.
Almost bang opposite the Ambedkar residence is the 85-year-old Dadar Union Sporting Club. It once functioned from a small hut but has recently got itself a new pavilion. This is the club of Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar. Across the train tracks is the home of its great cricketing rival: Shivaji Park Gymkhana has been represented by players of the calibre of Vijay Manjrekar, Subhash Gupte, Ajit Wadekar and Sandeep Patil. The larger Shivaji Park maidan has produced many more cricketing greats. Sachin Tendulkar played his first matches here. I doubt any other 27-acre plot in the world has produced so many Test cricketers.
The maidan is not just about cricket. It has seen famous political rallies. Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed the state of Maharashtra from here. The first Shiv Sena rally was also at Shivaji Park. There have also been massive trade union protests during the great Mumbai textile strike of the 1980s. The leafy lanes that lead to the maidan have been home to political leaders such as V.D. Savarkar, the Gandhian Senapati Bapat and Bal Thackeray (the senior Thackeray later moved out but his nephew Raj still stays in the house).
Back in the direction of the Ambedkar residence, the crowded lanes near the train station are host to a school whose hall was the home of Marathi parallel theatre in the city. It is in Chhabildas Lallubhai Boys High School that Amol Palekar, Satyadev Dubey, Shriram Lagoo, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, Arvind Deshpande and Sulabha Deshpande performed plays by Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, Mohan Rakesh and Girish Karnad. It is said Prithviraj Kapoor also occasionally used the school for rehearsals. They helped regenerate Marathi theatre in the early 1970s. Not too far away are two other theatres that stage commercial Marathi plays.
Around the same area is the Dadar Matunga Cultural Club, which still hosts some of the best Hindustani classical music in the city. One can go on, from the famous educational institutions, the writers living in the area and the cultural clubs—all the way to the first vada-pav stall in Mumbai and the eclectic mix of family-owned restaurants serving anything from Brahmanical Maharashtrian fare to fish preparations.
Dadar fascinates me because it is a perfect example of the Mumbai I grew up in. It is predominantly Marathi, but some of the chawls are rich with bilingualism, with most residents fluent in both Marathi and Gujarati. But Dadar is also home to other communities, some living in its heart and others at its fringes. The Dadar Parsi Colony is breathtakingly elegant. The Tamil-dominated Matunga is at its northern extremity; its own cultural traditions match those of Dadar. Nearby, Mahim has large Christian and Muslim populations. The great working-class districts, now going through a painful process of decline and renewal, are just to the south.
India has several smaller cities that are special. Cities such as Lucknow, Pune, Mysore, Dharwad, Allahabad, Vadodara and several others have a rich political, cultural and intellectual history. Hidden in the larger cities are areas such as Dadar that have their own rich traditions. Not all of this special flavour will survive as cities change. That is inevitable. There is no use being nostalgic about what is lost.
But it is also true that something special is lost. The move from a small office on a busy Dadar street to a steel-and-glass tower will come with a painful sense of that loss.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.
Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns