Monday, 15 July 2013

Nana Chowk - then and now...

Growing up in Bombay was a blast. 

And we never even dreamed that saying that would make you queasy so many years later.   Today we trully are living in a 'bomb'-bay - a time when you get an SMS from the police telling you 'don't believe the rumours' -- and you start asking 'what rumours? what's going on?'

But lets go back in time - to the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s when we had the privilege of growing up in the John Wilson Education Society Compound at Nana Chowk.  The whole compound had one number - it was 19 on the August Kranti Marg.  And our house was called 'Elim' - an ancient bungalow from yore which stuck out into the road and which we swore 'shuddered' when heavy traffic passed by outside.

First time visitors from abroad often hardly slept on their first few nights - and it wasn't the jet-lag - but rather the constant noise of traffic.

But for us it was a heaven - because we had a home that we stayed in from 1975 till 1987 (after having moved something like 11 times in my first 6 years of life).  And the compound itself was an oasis of greenery in the concrete jungle that Bombay was even then!

What is it like today?  How different do things look today to what Stefan, Premila and I grew up to?

Last year we were blessed with a precious trove of digitised slides - almost 800 of them - from Stirling and Karen Swan who were in India around 1980-81.  Since they had an office in the Elim building, a number of their slides captured that era.

Earlier this month I went down to Nana Chowk for a meeting at the 'Ursula' building.  I took some shots of what it looks like today. 

And so here we have - Nana Chowk, then and now!

The street sign that we could see from right outsitde the lower floor of Elim.  In the second shot this is the street sign's current avatar  with the windows to our old dining room and living room seen behind it

The best way to get to Nana Chowk is by train.

After some early morning judo with about 200 other men who were crammed into my section of the local on the central line from Thane to Dadar - and then another 130 odd fellow grapplers on the Western Line from Dadar to Grant road I emerged to see something fairly familiar.  The droopy block facade of the Grant Road railway station - pretty much like it had been in our childhood.

But if you turn your head to the left then everything changes.

Instead of a narrow road leading to the main Nana Chowk intersection - there is now the same narrow road and in the middle of it like some kind of Japanese uber-robot is a huge sky-walk.... 

.... which if you follow the shiny silver legs (at least the pods are currently shiny because it is still being constructed and is weathering its first Mumbai monsoon) and you end up in the heart of the intersection.

What was once a large open space where cars, busses and various trucks and other two wheeled vehicles carreered about flanked by the characteristically curving art-deco parsee buildings (Ness Baug being the most prominent one) which looked like this in about 1980....

 ... now has the same constant roar of traffic, but underneath the surreal circle of the sky walk (which I understand will go all the way out to chowpatti beach) and a huge central collumn that has to be about 12 stories high - and which holds up the circle with steel cables.   

Rather different from where what it was like when we grew up.

'Our house' is now hidden behind the steps going down - and presumably the folks walking down will be able to look into the second floor of  'Elim' - as well as the first floor where we lived.  That was certainly not something that we had to deal with in our growing up years!

You can still see the small "Fire House" of the local Fire Brigade unit that was to the left of 'Elim.'  The small original shed has been preserved as a heritage structure, while behind it a huge 6 story new fire building has come up.

As we come to the gate of the compound we see a familiar sight.  Its 9.30 AM and there is a wave of parents dropping of their children to the pre-school and primary school sections of the St. Columba girls school which is also on the compound.

The crowds outside and the lush greenery inside were all too familiar.

But what was not was on the other side.   Looking out of the gate, instead of the 4 storied tenement appartment called 'Hari Niwas' - there is now the colossus of a building called 'Shreepati Arcade'!

Shreepati Arcade is 45 floors high - and was for some time the tallest residential building in India.  All the flats are sold and rented out to vegetarians only!  Needless to say, its a rather different look to the down-at-heel building that used to occupy its space.

And so we finally venture into the heart of the compound - and to our own home of 12 odd years - 'Elim'

The greenery is the same - though the trees we climbed and built a tree-house in are now fallen down - and new trees have grown up in their stead.  It reminded me just the faintest bit of Narnia when the children return to Cair Paravel and find an apple orchard has sprung up.

But the grand old lady of a house is still there.  More or less - at least from the outside - what she used to be when we lived in 'Elim'.

Take a look at the 'then' and 'now'....

The two things that have changed...

The first is that everything seems to have shrunk.  Distances that were epic (especially when we were called home for supper on the long summer evenings) now are just a hop, and a skip.  Not even a jump.   And someone has definitely shrunk our beloved Elim.  It used to be the largest house in the world... now it seems so small...

Secondly, there are guards everywhere.  Two gents came out and asked me not to take pictures.  The steady stream of kids and parents on the main road under the leafy canopy was peppered with security people - seemingly every 10 meters or so.

We used to have one elderly man who was so weak and frail a cat would have probably got the better of him - and a mustachioed Nepali who would tell us about his village in the mountains.

Looking back I just am so grateful for having grown up in this green oasis in the middle of dirty grey Bombay.

The dirt would come in every monsoon when the low-lying drains would flood and the high tides - much to our delight since the whole area became a large brown swimming pool - and much to the horror of our dear mother as she was forced to see us splashing away in the muck!

Looking back at our parents - I think they definitely were on the side of letting us 'tough it out.'  I don't think that us antiseptic types would allows Asha and Enoch to muck about in a monsoonal floods like we did 35 odd years ago!

Then and now!


  1. Thanks for the update Andi. Sometimes it seems like just last week. Sometimes it's a lifetime ago.

  2. Wow, Andi. This is so evocative it hurts! What a blessing.