Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The 9:14 Local

June 26, 2010. I was resuming work after a year. I had not noticed her on the first day, nor on the second, or the third and for quite some time in the 9:14 Vashi local to Mumbai CST. I noticed her a week later. She sat opposite me by the window and snoozed while keeping her copy of Midnight's Children on her lap. The journey to Mumbai CST is nearly 35 minutes long and it always feels nice when a familiar face travels along. 

The First Class compartment was jam-packed and I had not landed a seat as usual. I stood sandwiched between a man and a young girl. Travelling since 1999 had made me a veteran and a self-proclaimed expert in commuting. I was quite used to being crushed by other passengers, just as every Mumbaikar who has ever travelled by a local train is. The train now halted at Tilaknagar where three ladies and a young boy in tattered clothes got in. The boy had a lot of confidence despite most of the commuters passing cringed looks. He moved around the compartment from one person to another with a begging bowl with flair. On humanitarian grounds, I handed him a Rs. 5 coin and then ignored him. He accepted it and walked ahead.

A loud cry from a woman standing near the door shattered the silence in the compartment. "Oh My God, my bracelet! Where has it gone?" She came across as a rich lady who was more of a trophy wife to her husband. After recovering from the initial shock, most of the commuters fanned out in helping her look for it. She continued wailing and moaning that humanity and good faith do not exist anymore. She cursed her fate and the world for her loss. Just then, her eyes fell on the beggar kid. Looking at him piercingly, she walked towards him and accused him of stealing her bracelet.

"You must have stolen it while begging with your filthy hands! I have been travelling for the past 15 years, so don't think I wouldn't know your tricks," said the lady. Catching him by his collar, "Did you not? Oh, don't give me that innocent expression on your face.. I know your kinds! Come on, give it back to me," yelled the lady. The kid by now had started crying and tried mumbling at the same time, "No madam, I did not.. I was only begging."

Unmoved, she continued shouting at him and tried garnering support from other commuters. A few ladies in the compartment joined her in the exercise of coercing him to blurt out the truth. Some pretended to look for the bracelet. The train halted at the next station and he somehow managed to wriggle himself out of the lady's tight grip. She was dumbfounded. However, the choicest of colourful words followed soon, audible, even above the announcements repeatedly played on the station platform. Her co-passengers busied themselves in consoling her and persuading her to lodge a complaint with the police. "Yes, where will he run away? I am going to lodge a complaint. They'll catch him and get my gold bracelet back to me," she resolved.

My station Wadala had arrived. It was time for me to get off. After having crossed the foot over bridge to board an Andheri bound train, I opened my fist to stare down at the newly polished and shiny gold bracelet. "This should help me fetch the remaining amount needed for my mother's operation," I thought to myself. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Cochin Harbour Terminus

The Line Stops Here: Cochin Harbour Terminus
A chilling silence welcomes you as one negotiates through a deserted parking lot. Stepping in to an old structure such as the Cochin Harbour Terminus conjures up visions of a bygone era when the world had a greater sense of gratitude for time and place. The only sound one gets to hear most often in this building are the echoes of one's footsteps. Memories of another day, when this structure once represented the lifeline and spirit of Cochin flood one's mind. True, structurally the Cochin Harbour Terminus is not an architectural wonder but one cannot help notice the sense of loss, remorse and guilt that engulfs someone each time one passes by this dilapidated building, which today is just a shadow of its former glory.
The facade and entrance of Cochin Harbour Terminus 

The exact date about the inception of the station is not known due to non-availability of records. However, memories estimate it to be around 1940s when the Cochin Harbour Terminus was a station under the Olavakode (present day Palakkad division) of the erstwhile Southern India Railways (present day Southern Railways). Yet in more ways than one, the terminus narrates the tale of a time when railway stations were perceived as ideal spots to begin and come home to, after long journeys, travels, jaunts and expeditions.

Since inception, this railway station flourished rapidly thus becoming the nucleus of Cochin despite being on a man-made Wellington Island, a few kilometres away from the main city of Ernakulam. Its strategic location of being placed next to a harbour and the erstwhile Cochin airport (present day Indian Airforce base) made it a strong revenue-pulling base with tea, coffee, coir, cotton and other export consignments to be despatched to distant locations came by in wagons attached to trains that terminated at the station. 

In its days, Cochin had a unique distinction of being the only place in India that had a harbour, railway station and an airport within walking distance located in a one kilometre radius. The popularity of this station was so high that a separate coal berth had to be built next to the wharf to cater to the constant demand of the terminus for fuel. This coal berth has now been divided though the line is still used to carry diesel oil for ships. The booming of ships, the puffing of steam engines and the drone of the flights blended perfectly to make Wellington Island a nerve centre in the truest sense with pulsating activity. The presence of the harbour, the airport, the naval base enhanced its status.


The present condition of Cochin Harbour Terminus
Though neat and well-swept, the station today wears a deserted look with lack of commuters and a British clock that no longer displaying the time. The railway lines, trip sheds and coach repair sheds have fallen prey to overgrown weeds due to want of traffic. Local residents and commuters voice a collective fear that the station is consumed with poisonous snakes, scorpions lurk in the bushes. Despite this, in more ways than one, the old world charm of Cochin Harbour Terminus remains an integral part of Wellington Island as it continues to paint a picture of a not-so-distant past. 



The world has seen many strange and unexpected happenings in the past in the name of economic growth. However, the four letter word "hope" is around which the world lives and hope lies eternal in the human heart. Here is hoping that the original glory of the Cochin Harbour Terminus is restored and we may see a resurgence of passenger traffic with a train chugging out of the station and see a rise in container traffic. Till then, one can only imagine the sight of having a train, flight and ship running together at the same time. 
Honey, I blew up the tracks!


The last train that made it to the station in 2004


Abandoned signalling systems at the Cochin Harbour Terminus 




Wednesday, 17 July 2013

St. Andrews Church

Walk and you shall find,

Listen and you shall now..

Armed with these two commandments for successful travel, I went out to Bandra seeking to explore more about the St. Andrew's Church. The walk in itself was pretty much a success (or so I would like to believe) considering it left me with rich legends, anecdotes and visual memories of the Bandra that venture beyond history books. Bandra is a fine place to explore that opens up wonderful opportunities to discerning eyes and keen ears. 

St. Andrews Church in Bandra
There is a solemn beauty in the silence of death and St. Andrew's Church in Bandra reveals this. St. Andrew's Church is one of the oldest surviving churches in the suburb built in 1575 by Jesuit priests and remained the only church in Bandra till 1620. Structurally, the altar of the church extends almost to the roof which carries statues of Sacred Heart, Our Lady and St. Andrew. In addition, there are smaller statues of St. John the Baptist, St. Sebastian. 

The cross with 39 emblems of The Passion of Christ
There are rows of tombstones that have been tiled to the ground from corner to corner. The gravestones point out to the names engraved on them which are suggestive of the pervasive practice of intermarriage between the local Kolis and the Portuguese settlers. While I was extra careful not to step on the graves, a short walk led me to a 17 feet cross that was brought here from the St. Anne seminary (where the present day Bandra bus depot now stands) before it was blown up by the English to prevent it from falling in the hands of the Marathas.  The 17th century cross is one of the oldest and largest stone crosses in Mumbai and has been carved from a single stone. The cross has 39 emblems of The Passion of Christ. 

The statue of St. Andrews at the Church entrance
There is also a small round aperture in the centre of the front facade of the Church just above the statue of St. Andrews, which allows the rising sun to shine into the church. As per local records, the St. Andrew's Church withstood a terrible cyclone in 1618 and survived the Maratha invasion of 1739.  

St. Andrew's Church has been featured in The climax of Baaton Baaton Mein was shot here. As the inexorable cycle of life and death continues to play itself out within the church compound, we get back to our daily lives with a renewed commitment to narrate stories of urban legends. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

A Walk in Bandra

Bandra remains one of the lesser explored but more interesting parts of Mumbai, tempting its visitors with a unique mix of history, architecture, traditional "gaothans", the glitz of the Hindi film industry and also boasting some of the best shopping spots in the city. 

The suburb of Bandra is a fine village comprising around 20 hamlets that were originally known in Marathi as "pakhadis". Bandra consisted of Sherly, Malla, Rajan, Kantwady, Waroda, Ranwar, Boran, Pali and Chuium. The earliest records of Bandra are from the mid 1500's, when the Portuguese gave the Jesuit priests the islands of Bandra, Sion, Wadala and Parel. 

The Portuguese built several churches in Bandra, many of which are still in use today. Bandra remained a village with plantations of rice and vegetables, until it was connected to Mahim by a causeway in 1845. Many bungalows were built here between the years of 1860s and 1870s.  

A traditional house in Ranwar
Today, we explore Ranwar, a century old East Indian village right in the middle of Bandra. Ranwar is one of the original 24 pakhadis (hamlets) that made up Bandra since the earliest documented history in the early 1700s. Surprisingly, Ranwar has managed to retain much of its village character even as the present day "development" has hemmed it on all sides. As journalist and urban planner Jane Jacobs says in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them" and "new ideas must use old buildings".

Ranwar is a listed heritage precinct that comes under the Bandra Village and is protected under the Heritage regulations of Mumbai. The typical character of the houses in Ranwar display strong a Portuguese influence with architectural elements such as porches, tiled pitched roofs and ornamentation such as balustrades, wooden fretwork panels etc. Among other things, Ranwar also has a tennis court and the Ranwar club is known for its Christmas and New Year Eve dances. 

A house near Veronica Street
A walk in Ranwar led me to Veronica Street. According to Christianity, Veronica was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her which later came to be known as the Veil of Veronica. Apparently, when the play about the Passion of Christ was enacted in Ranwar, the lady who happened to play Veronica always hailed from the street hence the road was also named as Veronica Street.  

The next time you are in Bandra, save some time from your busy shopping spree and visit Ranwar, a century old East Indian village in the middle of Bandra. Take a left from Tata Agyari or the next left from Hindu hotel on Hill Road, you reach Waroda Road. If you continue walking, getting a sense of the beautiful Mangalorean tiled houses, you will reach the backyard of Mount Mary's church. A walking tour will leave you amazed to see this side of Bandra that is beyond pubs, coffee shops, parties or even shopping.  

Triple Optics: "There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street"