The story of Mumbai's most happening suburb is far more complex than just new vs old, or hipsters vs an ageing generation
“People like to ride their bikes through the village because they enjoy looking at old houses and narrow roads. They feel like they are in Goa." I am in 1A, Chuim, the first house in an urban village within the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. Its owner, Rudolph Alves, has switched off the History channel show Pawn Stars—“Pawn, not porn," he emphasizes—to treat me to his famous musings on Chuim, where he grew up and has lived most of his life.
Rudy, as he is known to neighbours, is used to outsiders being intrigued by his village. Many of the houses there, huddled on a gentle incline, are over 100 years old and the streets, other than the main road, are wide enough only for pedestrians. Till a few years ago, film companies would often visit Chuim to capture some of the old-world charm for their canisters. I learnt later that the village’s Advance Locality Management, or ALM, committee (a partnership between citizens and the municipality) collected a nice little fee from producers as well, though they are not keen to disclose the amount for fear of villagers harassing them for “picnic money".
This area was originally a collection of 24 villages, inhabited mainly by Koli fishermen and farmers. It was during Portuguese rule, between the 16th and 17th centuries, that many of its inhabitants converted to Catholicism. After a brief period of Maratha rule, the British took charge.
Indians from other parts began to move into Bombay, as the city was called. But villages retained their original population. The local Catholics began calling themselves East Indians, after the East India Company, to distinguish themselves from Goan and Mangalurean immigrants who had similar surnames.
The architecture was a mix of Portuguese and Koli, and the houses were built close to each other to avoid encroaching on valuable arable land.
These villages were all in the area that is now known as Bandra West; the same area was home to the aristocratic pockets where the Portuguese and, later, the British lived. What is now called Bandra East, on the other side of the railway station, was marshy land. It has been developed in the past 60 years or so, but has never acquired the same status as its western neighbour. When people speak about Bandra as a trendy suburb, they are referring just to Bandra West.
Until recently, Mumbai’s urban folk seemed satisfied with short doses of village appeal, injected through heritage walks and cultural events. In the past two years, however, a new segment of Bandra’s population, which considers itself as intrinsic to the suburb as its old inhabitants, has attempted to immerse itself in the villages rather than simply gawk from afar.
To call these new Bandraites its resident “hipsters" would be a lazy definition for a complex and varied group. It is fair to say, though, that Bandra hosts a number of young people, who have moved into the city and see themselves as part of a zeitgeist that is experimenting with alternative approaches to the arts, food, business and entertainment. Historic villages in an urban jungle scream out different, undiscovered, organic, niche—everything this new group aspires to. In other words, these villages have the “vibe" they crave.
The portion of Bandra that links two of its busiest roads, Hill Road and Mount Carmel Road, is often referred to as Ranwar village. It is actually a collection of hamlets that includes Jaitu-kali, Supali, Colwad and Bombilwadi. This area, already upset by the traffic on Chapel Road, which offers impatient commuters a short cut to south Mumbai, now finds itself awash with graffiti and paintings.
If it was the 1950s or 1960s, when the area between Chapel Road and Mount Carmel Roadhoused a prosperous illicit liquor industry, one might have thought this was the works of local gangs. But it’s a combination of work by French immigrants—a few of whom moved in because they liked the aesthetic of the neighbourhood—and collectives such as the Bollywood Art Project (a number of the paintings are of Hindi film actors).
Ranwar’s Jude Bakery, whose eponymous founder once handed out free bread to the poor, is now painted bright with graffiti as part of St+Art Mumbai, a street art festival. After the original owner died, the bakery was bought by restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, whose Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt. Ltd runs several successful chains, including Smoke House Deli and Social. It will now host “secret" dinners, exhibitions and pop-up restaurants as part of Impresario’s Gypsy Kitchen and Swine Dine events.
The mushrooming of these commercial establishments has been accompanied by the entrance of a new type of resident in the villages. On Waroda Road, Chapel Road and Ranwar’s Veronica Street, French immigrants, electronica musicians, scriptwriters, artists and designers have begun renting spaces which were no longer used by their original owners.
Lekha Washington, an actor and owner of design company Ajji, has rented an old house in Ranwar to use as a design studio, and hopes the village will turn into a hub for artists. “I can see it becoming what Hauz Khas Village in Delhi used to be before it became too commercial." Amlani has similar thoughts. “We need to preserve the old structures in these areas by finding viable commercial uses for them," he says. Both fear that the the old structures could be razed to make way for high-rise apartments.
What they are suggesting is what many would call gentrification—somewhat on the lines of New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, parts of which changed from a rustic collection of houses and buffalo sheds into a haven for small boutiques and art galleries, to a place teeming with cafés, pubs and tattoo parlours, where a battery of cars stretches at least a full kilometre from the entrance.
So far, the conversation around gentrification in Bandra has tended to treat the suburb as one entity. The simplified narrative goes thus: A collection of predominantly Catholic villages began to expand as Parsis and Bohra Muslims, first, and then Sindhis and Punjabis—after Partition—chose the area for its peace and quiet, proximity to the sea and its supposedly liberal vibe. Film stars moved in, the buildings got bigger and roads wider, pubs and restaurants opened, and, eventually, a mass of people in the creative fields—advertising, publishing, music, fashion, etc.— descended on the area.
In an article originally published in April 2014 on the erstwhile website Mumbai Boss, Michael Snyder, an American journalist who now lives in Bandra, posits that the original Catholic community there was always influenced by the West—people spoke English and listened to Western music—and interested in the arts, so the changes in the suburb have been a gradual progression rather than the sort of lifestyle upheaval that the word gentrification suggests. In GQ magazine, Canadian-born writer Dave Besseling portrays a Bandra that is already overrun by its newest, hip inhabitants and describes a tug of war between them and the Catholic society that precedes them.
Both tend to stick to a linear version of the tale, where the villages, the modern Catholics, the first outsiders and the latest occupiers are placed at different points along a timeline. They acknowledge a tension between people at different stages in the timeline, but assume these to be either contributors or merely twists to a forward-moving tale.
In fact, it is presumptuous to even assume a common starting point. Some of the villages housed farmers, others, fishermen; some had more white-collar residents. “It irks me when people now organize walks through Waroda Road, Chapel Road and the surrounding areas and call it a ‘Bandra village walk’," says Naresh Fernandes, journalist and editor of the news website Scroll, who grew up in Bandra. “It blurs the identities of the individual pockets in the area."
When I was older, and allowed into bars, I began to spend Saturday nights at the Bandra Gymkhana, rushing off once it shut to nightspots such as Soul Fry and IBar, where there were so many people I knew that when the music switched off, you would often hear a raucous, liquored-up version of my school anthem.
In my myopia, I was convinced these and other similar activities were what defined the Bandra lifestyle. So, when I read Besseling and Snyder’s descriptions of Bandra as the locale of choice for “young creative types", I was taken aback. I knew, of course, that these people existed in my suburb, but always thought of them as a minority. The idea that they might be the face of modern Bandra was surprising, if not a little disconcerting.
I am, in many ways, what Snyder and Besseling would refer to as a typical open-minded Bandra Catholic, occupying a fairly early position on the Bandra timeline. While I am adamant about staking my claim as an original Bandraite, I am open to those who want to make Bandra a hub of arts and culture. Indeed, I felt I had a unique perspective on the area. So much so that when I met Snyder at Birdsong—which I thought would be a poignant setting for a discussion on gentrification since it is seen as a symbol of it, I arrogantly told him I would be able to tap into the sentiment of the villages towards the new cafés and cultural spaces that were dotting them because of “who I was".
But the more I spoke to people with homes in Bandra’s villages, the more irrelevant I found myself to their narrative. Besseling had described the situation as a “Battle for Bandra", between the new “itinerant creative class on the make" and the “old boys". This is a fight to decide who owns the rights to Bandra’s image, but no one has told the village residents that they are part of it.
In Chuim, I am sitting in the verandah of an octogenarian who was born in the house he now lives in. As we chat about the village, he asks some of his neighbours to join the discussion. They all implore me not to use their names in any article I write, their worry based more on a lack of understanding than a distrust of the media. I find this a recurring theme: a member of Ranwar’s ALM even threatens to take legal action against me if I publish his name.
But what bothers Chuim residents most is night-time security. Apparently, young boys from outside the village have been taking advantage of its lack of streetlights to drink, smoke and “bring girls". There have been thefts: An entire washbasin was recently dislodged from outside a bungalow and carried off in the dark. Residents bemoan the lack of spaces for children to play in.
In Ranwar, the concern about Jude Bakery and Birdsong has little to do with the image they portray. The worry is only that the establishments may litter and add to the number of automobiles that are already using the narrow roads there as thoroughfares. There is an ongoing battle to classify Veronica Street in Ranwar as pedestrian-only and to speed up the process of relaying it.
While I was keen to discuss what an organic café, a venue for pop-up restaurants and a co-working space in old urban villages meant symbolically, the residents seemed more intent on discussing basic infrastructural problems and impediments to everyday life. When I asked about cultural activities in the village, I was told mostly about joint readings of the Stations of the Cross prayers or Christian feasts.
I was surprised by how out of place I felt, how little I could predict their reactions. Although I had never lived in a village, I had grown up listening to stories, from my uncle and other older Bandraites, about uspaoing (a method of collecting stranded fish when the tide went out), country liquor bars, a man named Captain Captain who turned his airgun on people who tried to relieve themselves on the beach, roosters signalling dawn.... I had felt a certain sense of connection.
I once even wrote a short play based on these stories, called The Last Country, which used the dearth of country liquor as an analogy for the loss of some of Bandra’s heritage. It was performed in several villages as part of the biennial cultural event Celebrate Bandra, and was greeted positively by most. Perhaps I should have realized that the only real feedback from a village resident was a wagging finger from an old lady who wanted to know why I was fixated on the tradition of drinking country liquor. The metaphor was lost on her; the damage alcohol had wreaked on her community was a far more important issue.
Then, as now, I had mistakenly thought I belonged to all of Bandra. I had supposed that I was on the same timeline as everyone else, linked to those who came before.
When new entrants speak of places such as the erstwhile pub Zenzi, considered the original haunt of the new creative, trend-conscious population, as if they are Bandra monuments, us long-time residents spew vitriol. But, in a way, we suffer from similar illusions. The strong desire to belong, to call a place ours, leads us to extrapolate our familiarity with one aspect of a place to believe we know its entire story.
The old village folk, the modern Catholics, the crowd that patronizes The Hive and Birdsong—we are all from Bandra. We just belong to different parts of it, not parts necessarily defined by physical boundaries, but by different attitudes and lifestyles.
Ayaz Basrai, co-founder of The Busride Design Studio, a design studio in Ranwar, grew up in the area and is trying, through efforts such as The Bandra Project, to tell the story of Bandra, its villages and its people through design. He is also partnering with his long-time client, Amlani, to transform Jude Bakery. Basrai has suggested in the past that the villages are at the heart of the “Idea of Bandra".
It is impossible, then, to find one idea of Bandra. Community spirit, cosmopolitan and liberal are some of the tags often attached to the suburb.
It is true that Bandra has more than 50 ALMs, many of which regularly fight the municipality on policy and development plans. It is also true that in some neighbourhoods, members of religious communities have found common cause—such as when Catholics, Muslims, Parsis and Hindus joined hands to stop the proposed expansion of Hill Road in 2007.
The presence of these spaces only becomes problematic when you begin to speak of them as a logical conclusion to a one-dimensional Bandra story. The image of a place, even if only a superficial one, can still attract others who buy into it. Already, there are references on blogs to some of Bandra’s graffiti-filled hamlets as bohemian havens. If this idea is propagated, it may not be long before the owners of these first few alternative spaces in Bandra villages turn into people lamenting change, the way the early boutique and gallery owners in Delhi’s Hauz Khas have.
This is where we have to be careful that our romantic ideas of a place we like to think of as our own don’t lead us to believe we can define the whole of its future. While the desire to conserve Bandra’s villages through commercial spaces may be well intended, it is important to ask whose space it is to conserve.
And what do its actual inhabitants want preserved anyway? Merely its aesthetic or the way it functions? Fernandes says the very idea of using cafés and stores as a strategy to conserve urban spaces is a Western one, which “museumizes" neighbourhoods. In India, however, we have a rapidly growing population, so old structures tend to be in constant use in a manner that supports this growth.
Bandra is destined for more change. Every person who lives there has a stake in that change. But while discussing how it will occur, we must remember that while we are all Bandraites, none of us is the Bandraite.