Today is the birthday of my first travel book ‘Three Men on Motorcycles - The Amigos ride to Ladakh’!
It went live on Amazon exactly 4 years ago, on 17th April 2017.
This book was written 4 years after the actual ride in 2013 - and indeed, was largely written as an exercise to clear my mind and keep my spirits up… as it was written largely in hospital rooms where my mom was fighting her battle with cancer. I used to carry my laptop to the hospital and write when she was sleeping.
This was not my first book - it was actually my fifth.
My first one was a traditionally published professional book- ‘What they didn't teach you about Marketing.’ But my main writing was fiction - short stories (these were collected and published as ‘Bombay Thrillers’ and ‘Dipy Singh, Private detective’) and was followed by a novel - ‘Dipy Singh and The Mystery of the Office Rat.’
But all of these books had not exactly set the world on fire, but were chilling out in the depths of the charts and showed absolutely no signs of swimming their way up to bestsellerdom. I was not too worried about it - I had enjoyed writing them and was happy just for the fact that the books existed. I would have loved for them to be successful, of course - but I was happy just to have books out.
I had started writing small travel blogs during our trip to Spain in 2014 - and the character of ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ jumped straight out of my brain and into my laptop. I just loved writing about SHE and our travel adventures, and even illustrated them with little cartoons and stuff. I started writing travel blogs fairly regularly - and when I started motorcycling, I started blogging about that as well. I used to post them on a blog site and shared them on social media, and got a lot of positive feedback from readers - not just people I knew, but also from strangers.
And all of this - my experience of writing short stories and comedy and thrillers, my love for writing travelogues and my decision to break away from all established tropes of writing and write in my own way and my own style and for my own enjoyment, and of course my urge to poke fun at my nearest and dearest - came together as I starting writing about our ride.
It started just as a journal or a blog, but the stuff just poured out of me like oil - and before I knew it - it was a book! You can’t really go wrong when you have so many amazing ingredients - the Amigos - (Me, Mr Perpetual Motion (Adi) and the tandoori-chicken-eating Ghost Rider (Delzad)), SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED, the Diva-like personality of the Royal Enfield, various supporting cast members like the boys from Bangalore with the ancient grandma bike, the RD350s, the big BMWs - and of course the obligatory RE. The biggest character was obviously the grand land of Ladakh - which was the amazing canvas on which all these stories were written.
I tried to make it as different from other travelogues as possible - while trying to take the best learnings from my favourite writers - Jerome K Jerome, Bill Bryson, R K Narayan, Pu La Deshpande and of course, the immortal Wodehouse.
No filter - but no nastiness and no incessant cribbing, love of travel - but no fake enthusiasm, tell it like it is - but make it fun. Add in lots of context - history, geography, stories and legends, local culture, true events, mishaps and misadventures - to make the trip relatable. And put in lots of photographs so that readers can actually see the people and places and get a real feel of the ride. I posted galleries of photos on my website and gave links to them in every chapter, so that readers could see full resolution pics rather than small grainy pics in the book body.
I loved writing it - it was a blast! I went through various rounds of rewriting and polishing - and Adi made the most kick-ass cover ever! What an awesome creation!
The book went live on Amazon - and to my utter surprise, became a success! It got a lot of very kind reviews and went to the top of the best-seller charts in Travel Writing in Amazon India, and stayed there for quite a while. I was totally stunned. It had readership in other countries as well US, UK, Australia, etc - with no marketing whatsoever. I had no idea about book marketing then ( and I still don't!) and all sales and page-reads were totally organic. I even got contacted by a travel site for an interview! I was gobsmacked.
My mom passed away just a few months after the book was published - and I will always be grateful that she got to see the book do well and hit the #1 spot and get that orange ‘Bestseller’ badge. She was so happy.
I enjoyed writing ‘Three Men on Motorcycles’ so much, that I immediately started writing the next one - ‘Three Men Ride Again - the Amigos ride to Spiti’ and enjoyed that too, and wrote another and another and another... Now there are 11 travel books so far - 5 books in the Amigos series, and 6 books in the ‘One Man’ series. I have a long line of books in the ‘To Be Written’ list and hopefully will get around to writing them soon. (fingers crossed...waiting for muse)
And it all started with this book.
Happy birthday, book!
It’s been a long break between blogs - and it struck me that I haven't written a blog post about my new book yet!
2020 has been quite a fecund year for me - this is my 5th book of the year! A new record! My 11th Travelogue, my 6th motorbiking travelogue and 15th book overall!
This has obviously been due to the fact that the lockdown limited all other activity and luckily enough the muse also blessed me and allowed my writing to flow freely. The year started with ‘One Man Goes Trekking’ - then followed the rest of the ‘Backpacking’ series - ‘One Man Goes on a Bus’ and ‘One Man Gets the Sack’. Then I went several years ahead in time and told the story of our cycling trip ‘One Man Goes Cycling’ which was pretty recent.
So now you had 5 books of the Amigos and 5 books of the Backpacking series.
Now it was time for a bit of a homecoming and writing about Motorcycle travel! But one can think of it as a coming together of the motorcycling and solo backpacking travels - as this book was about my first solo long ride. All my earlier rides had been as part of a group - either a big group like the Royal Enfield official rides or the rides with our local group - the alas now-defunct Konkan Moto Tours - and then obviously the memorable adventures of the Amigos.
But alas, the Amigos were not available for a long ride - Adi was out of India...and married...and Delzad was wrapped up in work. So what to do?
What to do? Ride Alone of course!
Bharathi SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED kicked me in the pants and reminded me of my solo travel days, and I decided to go alone for the ride. Travelling alone is a different experience altogether and is very intense and different from travelling in a group. I had ridden alone earlier - but this would be the first long ride alone - and I looked forward to it!
And Uttarakhand was a place which I had been wanting to explore on bike for quite some time. I had made numerous trips there before of course - but not on bike.
The thing about a solo trip is that you are completely free to do your own thing and let your thoughts and behaviour flow freely. Obviously, you need to have a broad schedule in mind, but you can do your own thing all the time. Thus I was able to do crazy things like go solo trekking to Valley of Flowers and Tungnath and Deoriyatal and meet sadhus and solo bikers and wage a battle against bureaucracy to ride to Mana pass etc - which would probably not have been on the menu if I had been in a group.
Writing this book was a real joy - I had made daily notes of the trip and between those and the photos I took, was able to recreate the trip easily in my mind. I think that a travel book without historical, cultural and emotional context is just a guide book - you might as well just read a ‘Lonely Planet’ - and so I enjoyed plugging in all the titbits I found interesting - History, mythology, culture and my personal experiences and thoughts.
One thing I have been trying in recent books is to mention writers if they have written about the area I was travelling through and bring forth their points of view. Thus in ‘One man goes on a bus’ I quoted Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ - because he seems to be the only guy to have even mentioned the Spiti region ever in a book. In ‘One Man Goes Cycling’ I mentioned Jerome K Jerome and his awesome cycling adventure ‘Three men go on a bummel’ and P G Wodehouse’s hilarious stories of Bertie Wooster and his midnight ride on a rickety cycle.
And since I was writing about Uttarakhand, there is only one writer who springs to mind - Ruskin Bond, the grand old man of Dehradoon. I have been a fan of Ruskin Bond since childhood and thus was very glad to pop in a homage to the master in my book.
Check out this review of the book https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3628616373
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by... and got hopelessly lost!
And found that it was the wrong way!
And so had to come back and take the one more travelled by!
- Robert De-frost"
One more marvellous travelogue by Ketan Joshi. This time he rides and hikes alone to Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand, especially the Garhwal Himalayas have always fascinated me. So when I read the title of the book, there were no second thoughts about ordering it. A book about biking and hiking in Uttarakhand, and penned down by Ketan Joshi, one of my most favourite travel writers, is certainly something to arouse excitement. Ketan's style of writing is hilarious. He makes normal incidents extraordinary, with his choice of words and expressions. His adventures and misadventures are a treat to read. What is the life without misadventures! I equally love reading about when he gets lost, as about his spending emotional moments all alone at wonderful places. Nature evokes all of our suppressed emotions and makes our thoughts clear. Time, spent alone with Nature, is something to treasure for life.
All the places visited by Ketan are all described in detail in a picturesque way. Sometimes I felt I am riding and hiking beside him. His leisurely journey was enough to refresh my wandering soul that was under lockdown for past eight months. I am a big fan of travelogues, but because of not being able to travel anywhere during lockdown, I kept myself away from travelogues. But Ketan's books were an exception. These always bring a smile on the reader's face.
Icing on the cake was Ruskin Bond. How? Ketan, being a huge fan of Ruskin Bond, has quoted a number of lines about Garhwal Himalayas, written by Ruskin Bond. I am an ardent fan of Ruskin Bond. So this was sure a triple treat for me.
1. A travelogue about Uttarakhand
2. A travelogue by Ketan Joshi
3. A number of excerpts from Ruskin Bond's books
I loved this book and will be waiting for more such gems from Ketan's experiences."
Do check out the book - ebook and paperback versions are available - and do let me know your views.
This is a continuation of my earlier blog ‘The medical mecca of Parel’.
I had mentioned that I had read about an ancient Shiva stele or bas relief in Parel and had set out on my cycle to check it out, (I had started this project of exploring Mumbai by cycle every Sunday morning and check out various interesting spots) but had gotten a bit side-tracked in admiring the many great hospitals in Parel which make it such a medical mecca, and the amazing generosity of the various people behind them.
‘Focus, dude - focus!’ I said to myself. ‘Shiva Shiva!’ I had come in search of Shiva and I had shall find that out. Google is an amazing tool for the city explorer - you use Google to search for various interesting things to see, and then use Google Maps to find your way there. I love Google.
G Maps delivered as promised, and brought me to... a really non-descript looking temple in the middle of a most nondescript road!
‘Eh?’ I looked around in puzzlement. Where was I? What was this? Had Google finally stuffed up and brought me to the wrong place? But no - ‘You have arrived’ - the tinny voice said in my ears. So I parked my cycle and went off to see where I had arrived.
I was in search of this -
This was the amazing 11 foot high 7-form Shiva relief - or 8-form, if you count the linga-shape which is the outline of the entire carving. This is estimated to be dating to the late Gupta period - which means that it was made in the 5th or 6th century! Which means that it was 1500 years old!
1500 frikkin’ years old!
It is supposed to be in the same style - and the same age as - the rock-cut cave temples of Gharapuri island, or Elephanta caves as they are better known.
And it was discovered here in the most serendipitous or lucky manner possible! They were building a road from Sewri to Parel, and were digging up the ground in 1931 to lay the base of the road - and they found this relief buried out there! How amazing is that!
Just imagine the shock of the worker who must have swung his pickaxe into the ground and had his spine jarred by the shock of the pick-axe slamming into the solid granite of the relief! It is a mercy that they didn't think that it was just a slab of rock and break it into pieces. The entire huge bas-relief was then carefully dug out of the ground - and that discovery must have seemed like a miracle to all the simple villagers around.
It is even more amazing if you stop and think about it for a bit.
While it is all very well to say that the image is in the ‘Gupta style’ - the area of Bombay was never under Gupta rule - the Gupta empire boundaries were in far-away Gujarat.
But obviously, someone here was sponsoring an awful lot of artwork and carvings - there are an astonishing number of rock-cut caves in Bombay - Elephanta, Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Borivali, Mahakali.
And these are really large structures - you would need a number of people to dig out the caves, and artisans to carve the statues ( and presumably painters who painted the walls and carpenters who carved doors and furnishings and cloth makers and tailors and goldsmiths and farmers to feed everyone etc. I know that no paintings or furnishings or anything else survives - but it is unlikely that the moneybags people who paid so much for such huge caves and idols to be carved would let them remain bare and unadorned. Looters must have stripped the temples when the civilisation which nurtured them collapsed and time would have rotted the rest. But the granite stone carvings would be indestructible)
So who were these people - why did they spend so much effort - and where did they go?
And secondly - the Elephanta caves are really far away from Parel, and on very different islands!
How on earth did this giant relief end up here? There is no cave or ancient temple in Parel at all. How did they manage to get this heavy thing here - did they put it on boats and stuff?
Also - why is there only 1 relief? Temples are adorned with many such reliefs - they cover all the walls after all. So - where are the rest of them?
And why was it buried here? Were they running from attacks of Muslim or Christian or Buddhist - or even Vaishnavite - iconoclasts? Or had they started to build a new temple here in Parel? Or was there a carving factory here which supplied this stuff to temples around? Or was it a school of carving - as the relief is unfinished?
But why? It’s not like Parel was an important place. The big cities in ancient times were Thane, Kalyan and Nala Sopara. The Portuguese settled on the other islands - Bombay, Mahim, Bandra, Vasai etc. There wasn’t even a fort on Parel - the forts of Mumbai were in Mahim, Bandra, Worli, Sewri, Mazgaon, Sion, Dharavi and Colaba. Then there were forts in Vasai, Arnala, Madh, Thane and Ghodbunder, Chaul, Palghar etc.
Parel seemed to have been a quiet and rustic place, far away from the flurries of history.
This relief seems to be quite a mystery! How fascinating!
After this thing was discovered, the locals must have looked at it as a miracle and refused to let it go to a museum. So, rather than anger the locals - the British arranged for an exact copy to be made, and that copy was kept in the Prince of Wales Museum - which is now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum. I had seen this copy myself - I had no idea that it was a copy! - and had admired it there.
The locals carted the original relief to the nearby Baradevi temple and installed it there. (Not sure why it is called ‘Baradevi; - does it literally mean ‘Twelve goddesses’ or is there some other derivation?)
After all this build-up, I was expecting some grand edifice here - suitable for such a magical and serendipitous find. But all I could see was a rather shabby and nondescript temple!
I went inside the temple - and was foxed to see that this famous stele was not there at all! There was only a small statue of a goddess
And the temple was totally deserted - not a soul in sight. I poked around and saw a few interesting things - an old ‘veergal’ or ‘Hero stone’ which told some action-packed story in three panels, some ancient mossy lions guarding an old statue - all of which had been cemented and butchered! There was a room which was supposed to be a ‘dharamshala’ or free resting room for pilgrims - but which now looked as inviting as a prison cell in some ghastly gulag...but no Shiva.
Puzzled, I went out again - and saw it!
They had put Serendipitous Shiva in a cage!
They had made an ugly concrete cabin with even more ugly collapsible shutters and had installed that stele within it. It was not even part of the temple - it was outside, in a separate structure. There was an information board outside which told me that this was ‘Monolithic bas relief depicting Shiva, Parel’ and gave some interesting information about the carving. I saw that this sign was dated 2012, so this ugly structure presumably dates from then. The ASI had put up their usual warning sign telling everyone that this was a protected structure and so on.
I felt quite sad as I looked at it.
He deserves better.
But hey - I suppose it must be better than being buried face-down in mud for a thousand years. Now at least people can see him and admire and worship him.
And hopefully, someday they will do a better job of displaying him and try to solve that most fascinating mystery of how he came to be buried here.
I saluted Serendipitous Shiva and mounted my cycle and went off.
This had been another amazing Sunday morning ride.
Check out my book - 'One Man Goes Cycling'
It was yet another Sunday coming up, and that meant another Sunday morning ride and another exploration of Mumbai by cycle.
I had been intrigued by a blog I had read about an ancient Shiva carving in a temple in Parel - a 5th century Gupta period carving, very like those found in the Elephanta caves. I was very intrigued indeed! Parel always indicated suburban Marathi blandness to me, and I had never associated that middle-of-the-road suburb with anything historical. I had to check this out!
I set out early morning and had a nice peaceful ride on the main road - I only dare to take this road and flyovers on early Sunday mornings… else there is a very real risk of being knocked down by fast-moving traffic. But if the roads are empty, then it is a real pleasure to take the main road and climb up the flyovers to get the muscly rush, and zoom down them to get the speed rush! WOOHOO! What fun! Double endorphins!
When I entered Parel, it suddenly struck me how much of a medical mecca this place is! There are four large hospitals here - and many many small ones, diagnostics centres, medical shop, accommodation of patients and relatives, charitable organisations offering food, accommodation and other support to poor people, people living on the streets…
I had never really paid attention to these places before, but this time since I was alone on my cycle, I could stop and take a few photos and notice the place.
I was quite struck by the magnificence of the Bai Jerbai Wadia hospital - the Indo-Saracenic architecture of the building was quite impressive. And it should be - as it was designed by George Wittet, the same dude who designed the Gateway of India and a lot of Ballard estate! There was a relief or stele of the eponymous Bai Jerbai on the arch - and this is a lady who really deserves to be better known!
Jerbai was born in 1872 and had a nice conservative traditional upbringing, and married into a very rich Parsi family. But she was a wonderful combination of earnest good nature and wanting to make a positive contribution to society + the determination and guts and orneriness to make things happen! This is a most unusual combination and is god’s gift to humans.
Jerbai was married into one of India’s most remarkable families - the Wadias. The Wadia family has three main branches: textiles, shipping, and jewellery. Descendants from each of these branches have made significant contributions to their fields, to their communities, to India, and to the global economy; they have been industrialists, government leaders, medical doctors, and scholars.
The Wadias were shipwrights from Surat, and Lovji Wadia came to Bombay in 1736 at the invitation of the British, and built the city’s first dry docks and became a most prominent family here. They built over a hundred warships for Britain, and had trading networks around the world - and as a matter of interest, the American national anthem ‘The star-spangled banner’ was written by Francis Scott Key aboard a Wadia-built ship - the HMS Minden. (He was probably a prisoner in that ship - but hey...a Wadia built ship)
Jerbai’s husband - Naoroji Wadia - died in 1907 - leaving her a very rich widow… he left her Rs 9 lakhs in his will - a staggering amount in 1907. This must have been quite an unusual thing in the conservative atmosphere of the time to leave so much wealth in the hands of a woman - which also shows how much regard her husband had for her. She decided to dedicate her life to good works and use her money and dynamism for the same. Housing was a big problem at the time, so she created a set of low cost tenement blocks for the use of poor Parsi families. This was such a success that she went on creating more and more of them - the first colony was called Naoroj baug in memory of her husband. Her younger son Rustom died in 1923 and left her a staggering 3 crore rupees in her will - and she used that to build another block of houses, which was called Rustom baug in her son’s memory. She started building another huge block of housing - but she died in 1926 before it could be completed, and it was named Jer Baug in her honour. Her sons also continued her charitable legacy and developed more housing estates which were called Cusrow baug and Ness baug.
Thus you can see how much one single lady’s zeal has contributed to the well-being of the entire Parsi community of Mumbai.
Random unrelated but interesting aside - the Wadia family is related to the founder of Pakistan - through Neville Wadia, who was married to Dina Jinnah from 1938 to 1943, and had two children together, Diana and Nusli Wadia. Dina was the daughter of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Rattanbai Petit. Jinnah was obviously the founder of Pakistan and the father of the ‘Partition’ which cost god knows how many lives and lives on as a festering wound in the soul of the subcontinent.
Such differing people in the same family :)
Apart from this, the Wadia family endowed the famous ‘Wadia college’ in Pune - which is one of the leading liberal arts colleges of India.
She also - obviously - endowed this grand hospital i was looking at, and this was only one among many other charitable endowments she did - which includes a hostel for nurses at JJ hospital, a number of nursing and convalescent homes at Khandala, Mahabaleshwar, Deolali etc, extension of hospital wings and wards etc.
It is estimated that her total charitable contributions to Mumbai was over 8 crores! 8 crores in 1926! A staggering amount of generosity indeed!
And this is not the only amazing example of Parsi charity here - you only have to look across the street to the Tata memorial hospital.
Before there was the hospital - there was the world’s largest diamond! Well… the world’s 6th largest diamond actually - the 245 carat whopper found in the Jagersfonten mine in South Africa. It was supposed to be presented to Queen Victoria on her jubilee, and hence was called the ‘Jubilee diamond’ - but they never got around to gifting it to her for some reason. The super-rich moneybags Dorabjee Tata bought the diamond in 1900 as a gift for his wife Meherbai. The turn of the century was boom time for the Tatas, as they were expanding like mad - they started the Taj Mahal hotel in 1903, TISCO in 1907 and Tata power in 1910 - and a number of other ventures. Dorab and Meher Tata lived like royalty in a big mansion in Esplanade and amassed a huge art collection and whatnot.
But the 1920s brought a lot of pressures with cheap Japanese steel flooding the market and TISCO was on the verge of collapse and needed a huge cash injection of Rs 2 crore - a most stupendous sum at the time! It was the Jubilee diamond which came to their rescue - Sir Dorabji pledged the diamond to the Imperial bank of India (which was renamed later to SBI) and got a loan to tide over the problems.
Lady Meherbai was also a most remarkable lady - she was a member of the ‘Bombay presidency womens council’ and the ‘National council for women’ and was a key member in the act to ban child marriage. She was created a CBE (Commander of the British Empire - a great honour) by King George. And she was also the aunt of two very famous nephews! Homi Bhabha, the father of Indian atomic energy, and Jamshet Bhabha, the founder of the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts)
She loved the Jubilee diamond and wore it a lot - and when she died of Leukamia in 1931, Dorabji Tata left his entire wealth - including the fabulous Jubilee diamond - to the Dorabji Tata Charitable trust - which sold the diamond to fund the building of the Tata Memorial Hospital.
Imagine the large-heartedness of the man who gave away all his wealth for the betterment of the poor cancer patients.
Truly - 'Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta’ - ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.’
Apart from Parsi benevolence, we also have Hindu benevolence in the form of the Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas medical college, lovingly known as the GS medical college. It was built as a mark of protest by Indian doctors not allowed to serve at Bombay’s then only medical school, Grant Medical College. Funded by the heirs of Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas, a wealthy Bombay merchant, the hospital employed only Indian doctors and professors. But then they named the hospital after the king of the oppressors, and called it the King Edward Memorial hospital! Talk about keeping one foot on each plank!
So now the institution is called the ‘King Edward (VII) Memorial Hospital and Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College’, and is a leading medical institution of the country with several firsts to its name - take any medical procedure at random and there is a high chance that it was pioneered here!
We have Christian benevolence in the form of Dr Ernest Borges - Dr. Borges, a Goanese doctor working with Tata hospital, had helped the poor outpatients staying on the pavements for many years till constant exposure to radiation while treating his patients eventually claimed his own life. The road outside is named the ‘Dr Borges road’ in his honour.
And we have state benevolence - in the shape of the Haffkine institute! A hundred odd years ago the building was the Governor’s Palace, Sans Pareil, and its extensive grounds. The edifice started off as a Jesuit chapel (1673), then became the Bombay Governor’s residence (1771 – 1885), then offices of the Bombay Presidency Recorders, and finally the Plague Research Laboratory in 1899, later renamed Haffkine Institute in 1925.
So who exactly was Haffkine and what was his story in Bombay? Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine was a Russian Orthodox Jewish scientist invited to India to develop a vaccine against the bubonic plague then thwarting the city. Haffkine worked persistently, despite all odds, from a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College for three months, and on 10 January, 1897 tested his vaccine on himself. Bombay owes its escape and recovery from the plague to this gentleman.
I did this cycle ride back in 2016 - and it really resonated with me then, because my mom was suffering from cancer at the time, and the disease took her life the next year. That hospital, those patients, those poor guys on the sidewalks, the medical feel of the place .. I could identify with all of them.
And I am writing this blog in 2020, and it is resonating with me again as COVID stalks our lives as Plague did their lives at the turn of the century.
We are waiting for another Dr Haffkine to turn up and do his thing.
(and sometimes when social media seems to tell us nothing but stories of bigotry and hate and inter-religious bile and howling madness… one might find it soothing to come here and see the good work done by good people from many different religions and backgrounds. We should talk more about nice things on social media.
Remember - 'Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta’ - ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.’)
This blog has become pretty long - so I will talk about what I came to Parel to see - the ancient Shiva stele- in the next blog :)
I heard about Khotachi wadi for the first time in a discussion with an old acquaintance - Sujata Pilinja Rao, proprietress of the charming 71-year-old ‘New Vasantashram boarding and lodging home.’
I told her about my new hobby of exploring Mumbai by cycle and discovering all kinds of amazing places - and she recommended that I should check out the old village of Khotachi wadi. ‘It has an amazing old world charm’ she told me. ‘Go and see it while it still lasts.’
I was always on the lookout for new destinations for my Sunday morning cycling - so I duly set out to discover the place. ‘Khotachi wadi’ - literally means a garden or village belonging to a ‘Khot’ - in case a certain ‘Dadoba Waman Khot’. This was a little rustic village at the time - and the land was bought by a bunch of ‘East Indian’ families from this Khot dude.
The nomenclature of ‘East Indian’ - rather foxes us Indians...because most of the ‘East Indians’ are living on the West coast of India, and should be called ...er… West Indians? It took me several years to realise that they were ‘Eastern’ on a global scale! Columbus had set out from Portugal to discover a sea-route to India - and had discovered America instead! To be precise, he discovered a bunch of islands in the Caribbean sea - not even the mainland of America. He - naturally - did not know of the existence of a continent called America, and he thought that he had discovered India!
WOOHOO! I have discovered India… I will call these islands the ‘Indies’!
Columbus was a lost old fool - but he had discovered a new world, after all, so no one had the heart to correct the naming he did - and those islands continued to be called the ‘Indies’ even after it was conclusively proven that it was not, in fact, India… and native Americans continued to be called ‘Red Indians’ … later corrupted to ‘Injuns’ … in spite of the fact that they were not - in fact - Indians.
Even Later, when Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut and ‘discovered’ India - they still wouldn’t change the name of the Caribbean islands - they stubbornly continued to call them the ‘Indies’ - only now they added a descriptor and called them the ‘West Indies’. The locals there were called ‘West Indians’ - and the actual Indians in India were called the ‘East Indians’.
And of course, the Portuguese only counted the Christian population - that too the Catholics only! No protestants, Anglicans, Jesuits, Presbyterians, Adventists etc - were considered worth counting!
Therefore the Roman Catholic population descending from the Portuguese conversion of Indian people are called the ‘East Indians’.
And the calypso dudes living in the Caribbean islands - on the exact opposite side of the world - are called the ‘West Indians’.
Thus one can call the whole world an ‘India sandwich’.
Anyway - so a whole bunch of East Indian families bought land from this Khot and settled there, and the name of the place continued to be called Khotachi wadi.
The villagers might have moved from Goa - or might have been locals! After all, the Portuguese were in Bombay hundreds of years before the British and built forts all over the place - Bombay island, Bandra, Sewri, Madh etc - and a whole string of forts all along the western coast - from Goa to Diu. The Portuguese city of Bassein (Vasai) was huge and prosperous - and rivalled Goa in glory before it was conquered and destroyed by the Maratha forces under Chimajiappa.
You had a whole bunch of Portuguese/ Goan style villages all over the place - many of which are still existing - Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz, Orlem, Vasai, Virar etc. The Portuguese brought with a sense of style and sophistication and good living - which reflected in the lovely design of the cottages, the clean and systematic layout of the villages, the amazing food, the taste for good and happy living - Singing, Dancing, playing the guitar, drinking good hooch, cooking amazing stuff like chorizos, vindaloo, Bebinca etc and having a susegad siesta! These guys really enjoyed life!
After the British takeover and the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of Bombay there was a rapid homogenisation of people - dresses, food, houses, language - all started to lose their individuality and become an amorphous mass.
It became much worse after independence when bribery and corruption, poor municipal management, tanking economy, rampant criminalisation and money-mindedness turned the city into one large mess - and now only a few vestiges of the grand history of the city are left untouched.
Khotachiwadi has managed to keep the soul of the old East Indian village alive - as can be seen in the beautiful old houses, the tasteful decor and the guitar-plunking locals. I loved the graffiti on the walls and the beautiful little nooks and crannies which the locals have kept alive.
Alas - this flame is flickering… the biggest hazard to the history of the city are the rich Gujarati seths and the money-mad builders. The Gujjus buy their way into the neighbourhood and use their money power and closed-mindedness to bully everyone else out. There used to be an iconic old hotel called ‘Anantashram’ which served the most amazing food - but it was forced to shut down because the militantly-vegetarian gujju jains objected to the non-vegetarian cuisine. Arre bhai - the hotel was there first - you came in later. It should be you who should adjust - why come here at all if you have such strong vegetarian values? The whole of South Bombay suffers from this nouveau-riche gujju menace.
The other danger is the rapacious builders, who are always lusting after these valuable properties in the heart of Girgaum. There used to be 65 old bungalows here - now only 26 remain! The old guys had to sell out - whether by temptation or force. The most ironic part is that the builder will destroy the old houses and then charge a premium for their new building for being in the heart of Khotachiwadi
And of course, we have the bribable municipality- The village was declared a protected historical precinct in 1995, but the order was reversed in 2006 – a decision with much opposition from the residents and activists - but you can just hear the builder lobby giggling away.
But at least one can enjoy what is there today - A series of old, Portuguese-style houses strewn across narrow lanes and a chapel welcome you to one of the oldest establishments in Mumbai. You’ll feel like you stepped into a time machine and have been transported back in time or have been transported to Goa. There is little doubt that right from the start you will be in awe of the beautiful colourful houses of Khotachiwadi. Many of these houses have verandas, intricate column designs and arched doorways.
There is a chapel at the beginning of one of the lanes, which, at one point, had a small crib depicting the scenes when Jesus was born. A mural of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus and two stone benches accompany the chapel. The chapel was constructed in 1899, as an offering of thanks, by the villagers who survived the Great Indian Plague epidemic of 1870!
If you come at a more civilised hour you can meet the denizens of the place - a musician called Willy Black, a designer called James Ferreira, the original ‘Ideal wafers’ shop - or just join a conducted tour and spend an hour or two strolling about the place.
I obviously was not there at a civilised hour - and no colourful denizen was on the road...or if they were, they made sure to keep their distance from a sweaty fat cyclist in tight pants!
But I was really happy at being able to experience this place in the early morning freshness and empty roads. What a pleasure to meet you Khotachiwadi...may you live long and prosper.
I mounted my cycle and rode back home. That was another most satisfying Mumbai exploration on cycle.
Today is the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, lovingly addressed in India as 'Mahatma' (the great soul), or 'Bapu' (Daddy). His birthday is celebrated as 'Gandhi Jayanti' and is a national holiday in India - all schools, government offices and even banks are closed today.
But who was Gandhi - and why is his birthday anything to celebrate? The only thing most people know about this day is that it is a 'Dry day' - so if you want a tipple, you have to stock up!
Now more than ever we should be remembering Gandhi and his message of non-violence and peace and tolerance. In an age where institutional violence is being propagated against minorities and women and students and political opponents and anyone who is perceived to be against you.
The Amigos visited Porbunder, the birthplace of MKG during their ride of Gujarat - and I had written this about our visit there. I was fascinated that two very different people were born just hundred kilometers apart and they influenced India is such different ways - Mahatma Gandhi and Dhirubhai Ambani!
Check out this excerpt from 'Three Men Ride West - The Amigos ride to Gujarat and Diu'
After Madhavpura, we came to the birthplace of the ‘Father of the nation’ - Porbunder.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the greatest personalities of the modern era, and is strangely forgotten today. It seems strange to say that he is forgotten - after all, his name is ubiquitous - every city in India has a road named after him, every banknote carries his smiling face, every garden has a statue of him, every one knows his name - but today no one seems to remember what he was and what he exactly did.
One tends to think of him as a ‘naked fakir’ - a poor skinny man dressed in just a simple dhoti and shawl and hanging out with poor people, and thus might be forgiven for thinking that he was a poor man, a man from the lower classes.
Nothing could be further than the truth. He was the hereditary ‘Diwan’ - Prime Minister -of a princely state called Porbunder, and as such, his family was among the wealthiest families in Porbunder. His father - Karamchand Gandhi - was the Prime minister of Porbunder, and then later became Prime minister of the neighbouring Rajkot state, which was bigger and richer. Mohandas studied to be a lawyer so that he could follow in his father’s footsteps and himself become the Diwan of Porbunder. He went all the way to London to study law and he himself became a wannabe ‘Brown sahib’ and became as westernised as possible, dressed in a sharp suit and started a law practice in South Africa.
But Gandhi discovered to his shock that his nice suit, his education, his careful diction, his knowledge of english were all irrelevant as far as the coloniser was concerned, and he discovered this most painfully when he tried to travel in a first-class compartment in South Africa. No niggers were tolerated in the first-class bogey and he was physically thrown out of the train at a station called Pietermaritzburg. He stood there in his nice suit - now all dirty and torn from the fall - , humiliated beyond belief…and no one else seemed to think that what had happened was in any way unusual or unexpected. He had asked for it by being a nigger and trying to travel in first class.
He had discovered the innate viciousness and inequality which is the hallmark of colonialism. The great evil of race-based colonialism is that there is no way that equality can ever exist in its construct - the ‘nigger’, the ‘wog’, the ‘chinky’, the ‘native’, the ‘half-breed’ - are permanently and unequivocally inferior to the white man, just because! And to maintain his superiority, the guy on top will inflict as much barbarism and cruelty as he can.
He pondered a lot on this, and finally decided to resist.
To resist. To protest. To fight. But without getting bad karma.
That was the main genius of Gandhi. India had been beaten into submission with hundreds of years of foreign rule - first the Mughals, then the British - but he ignited a simple spark among them. What is happening is wrong, and should no longer continue. We must resist. Courageously.
But while other revolting revolutionaries started chucking bombs about and popping guns here and there, Gandhi decided that he will not lift his hand to harm anybody. ‘An eye for an eye’ as he famously said ‘will make the whole world blind.’ He decided on a course of ‘A-himsa’ - ‘Non-violence’. Vigorous protest, but without violence.
His nice suit was no use to him, so he cast off all his wannabe cracker clothes and dressed like the poorest and simplest villager in India. Even when he was invited to meet the King of England - the freakin’ King of England, the richest and most powerful man in the world - he declined to wear anything other than his dhoti and shawl. Just think about it - you would wear your best suit just to meet your local Congressman or your CEO. This guy wore a simple homespun dhoti to meet the King of the world!
‘Mr Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the king?’ the press asked him.
‘The king has enough clothes on for both of us.’ Gandhi replied.
The Indian-hating Churchill was spitting mad at this! ‘It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.’
The sheer strength of mind which Gandhi brought to the arena was enough to energise an entire country. He would not demand anything from his followers that he would not do himself. He walked the padayatras, he stood in the frontline to take blows from the police, he fasted for days to get people to change.He was the one who walked alone in the ghastly riot-torn, and fasted in burning and bleeding areas to stop Hindus and Muslims from killing each other. He would not let up an inch on his demand, but would not offer violence.
In a world which was full of violence - Russia, China, Spain, two world wars and uncountable amounts of Anarchists, Marxists, Leninists, Bolsheviks, Communists, Maoists, Fascists and thugs and murderers and killers of all sorts - this non-violent protest was something new. No one knew how to deal with it.
The police would viciously beat up the protestors, and they would quietly accept the beating - but not back down. The police would launch a lathi charge and club down hundreds of unarmed peaceful people - and hundreds more would take their place. The Army would shoot down hundreds of peaceful protestors - and countless more would take their place.
The world watched in horror - this was not putting down a despicable protest…this was sheer murder! The British were gobsmacked - back home in London they talked about being the ‘Land of the free’ and ‘Bastion of democracy’ and here they were being exposed as being the opposite of every positive epithet they gave themselves - they were oppressors and slave-drivers and dictators.
Gandhi shamed the British into seeing their true self.
He showed a new path to revolutionary movements all over the world. To embrace non-violence rather than violence. Nelson Mandela adopted Gandhian thinking in his struggle, and that enabled South Africa to escape the fate of other African countries which got freedom by the power of the gun, but later spiralled into dictatorships and civil war. The Dalai Lama adopted Gandhian principles in his protest against the Chinese conquest and military dictatorship of Tibet. Martin Luther King Jr adopted Gandhian learnings in his civil rights campaign for blacks in the US. Aung San Suu Kyi adopted Gandhian protests in Myanmar.
MKG was a pretty unique fellow. As Einstein - a Jewish guy who had seen vicious evil oppression under the Nazis - said about him - ‘Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.’
Gandhi being modern India’s wonder-boy, I was sure that his birthplace would be treated with veneration. It should be up there with Mecca, Jerusalem and Lumbini in India’s consciousness! After all - if the whole bloody state of Gujarat was declared a ‘Dry’ state just due to the fact that MKG was born there, so the actual place where he was born must be a huge deal. Or so I thought.
When we entered Porbunder, I was surprised to see no huge signs saying ‘Welcome to the birthplace of the Mahatma’, or ‘This way to the birthplace of Gandhi’. The place looked like any other small town, and no one seems particularly impressed by the fact that this was the fountainhead of Gandhism. (Gandhi-ism? Gandhian-ism?). We had to depend on Google Maps to guide us. But I got more and more antsy as Maps took us into narrow gullies in the old city, and finally came to a chaotic square and said ‘You have arrived!’ (I always shouted ‘I AM CUMMING! I AM CUMMING! When Google said in her sexy voice ‘you have arrived!’
I looked around in confusion. There was no sign of any Gandhigiri anywhere. No statue, no banner, no flashing lights, no direction signs… how strange! I had thought that this would be some major pilgrimage point or something. This complete lack of interest baffled me.
I looked around again…it was an ancient market square in an old part of the town, with crumbly old buildings and ancient shops tarted up with modern new vinyl signs, and chaotic power cables hanging threateningly from electric poles. There was the obligatory statue of Gandhi there, but it looked like any of the anonymous statues found all over India, and not anything special.
I parked the bike and went to the traffic cop, who was chilling at the corner and chewing some paan. He paled a bit at the sight of three fat terminator type men coming towards him and looked ready to make a run for it - and he was very relieved when we asked him where the Gandhi birthplace was.
He pointed towards a most unprepossessing road - which was not even paved! We would have to pass under a most dilapidated arch, which looked like it was just waiting to fall on our heads! Seriously - the wooden railing on top of the arch looked murderous! The road after the arch looked pretty sad too…full of broken stones and stuff. It looked more like a road to the garbage dump than to a national monument.
I looked at it doubtfully and turned back to the cop. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked
‘Yes yes…just 100 meters down…or maybe even less…’
We entered the gully and there it was! A sign that said ‘Kirti Mandir - Pujya Mahatma Gandhi birthplace.’
We had arrived!
The entry gates were simple and understated - red ochre walls and a nicely carved cream door, with a sign of the ‘charkha’ on them. (A charkha is a little home machine for making yarn out of cotton - it was Gandhi’s symbol of opposition to the gigantic cloth mills of the UK). We entered the gates into a medium-sized bungalow. The courtyard was tiled and the walls were plainly painted. There was a small painting and photo gallery at one side, a library and reading room on one side and an entrance to the actual house of MKG’s ancestors. A plaque at the entrance told us that it had been bought by his great-grandfather in 1777 and in due course of time expanded to three floors and had 22 rooms and so forth.
The house was old and ancient (Duh!) and once you entered the first floor there was a big swastika near a wall, and a sign saying that the dude was born right here! Here! On this very spot! Putlibai delivered here! (TMI, if you ask me.)
And that was about it.
There was nothing else in that whole structure. Not a stick of furniture, no photos, no historical information, no audio, no video - nothing. It was just a starkly empty old house.
I mean - sure, the place is a monument to an ascetic…but this was going too far.
We came down and out of curiosity, I went to the library. Much as I expected, every shelf was locked. The books were a decoration, rather than something to be read. The paintings and photos seemed to have been put up 30 years ago and never touched since then.
The whole place rang, stank and vibrated of neglect.
It was very clear that neither the State government nor the Central government gave a fuck about the place. In fact, no one did. The citizens of Porbunder definitely didn’t think much of it - as could be seen by the lacklustre surroundings and lack of signage of any sort. The Gujarat government recently built the worlds largest statue - ‘the Statue of Unity’ - but it was of another Congress politician - Vallabhbhai Patel - and not of Gandhi. Patel himself was a great devotee of Gandhi and I am sure he would not have been happy that his memorial dwarfs Gandhi’s.
I was very sad as I looked around - our great independence struggle has been forgotten by the country, and is only taught by uninterested teachers to uninterested students - who forget it immediately. Great freedom fighters like Gandhi and Nehru are being vilified in social media by modern politicos and dirty trolls wanting cheap publicity for their right-wing or left-wing parties - or worse…completely forgotten! Gandhi is relegated to being the face of bank-notes (a really ironic place for an ascetic to end up in) and as a neglected statue in parks around the country, for pigeons to shit on. Actually, Gandhi’s image is so ubiquitous in India, that it has become invisible.
I found it amazing that even though we have an Ex-Chief minister of Gujarat state who has become the Prime Minister of India, this historic place is still so neglected.
Hey - Even if you don’t give a shit about his philosophy, the place might become a major tourism draw and make money if you jazz up the place.
‘This is it?’ Bawa said, looking around. ‘They made the whole state a dry state for this?’
We took a photo of the three of us posing like Gandhi’s three wise monkeys - See no Evil, Say no Evil, Hear no Evil - and got out of there.
Check out my blog on my visit to Mani Bhavan - Gandhiji's base when he stayed in Mumbai, which has now been converted to a museum.
When one thinks of a museum in Mumbai, one tends to think only of the Chatrapati Shivaji vastu sangrahalaya - or the Prince of Wales museum, as it was formerly known. It is a very nice museum - lovely convenient location, extensive collection, lovely building and all that.
But there is one museum in Mumbai which is far older - The Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum at Byculla! It was first conceived as ‘The Central Museum of Natural History, Economy, Geology, Industry and Arts’ and was the first museum in Bombay - way back in 1855!
George Buist - the editor of the Bombay Times (ancestor of ‘The Times of India’) - and 'The foremost man of letters in India' - took a keen interest in setting up this place. Buist was a very interesting fellow - the son of a rich and rather cantankerous Scottish minister (the priest kind - not the political one) - he was a man of wide learning and wide interests. He was one of the open-minded clergy of the era - trained to be in the ecclesial field, but more interested in science and botany (then called Natural Philosophy) than in preaching. He started as a newspaperman in Scotland and London and then accepted a post in 1839 to come to India and edit the Bombay Times. Imagine! Moving to India in 1839 to edit a bi-weekly newspaper! He remained the editor for 20 years till 1859 - when he resigned due to differences with the shareholders.
But Buist was more than just a newspaper editor - he was a scientific man. He was a keen geologist and meteorologist - and became the unpaid inspector of the observatories of Bombay. During his time in England in 1845 he obtained special grants from the government for improving agricultural machines and rural economy in India, and for establishing 12 observatories, from Cape Comorin to the Red Sea, for meteorological and tidal research. He also formed the geological collection for the museum of Elphinstone College, Bombay.
But 1857 as we all know - was a watershed year in India, being the year of the Great Sepoy Mutiny, or the First War of Independence, as we call it now. North India burnt and the Company sarkar tottered - but Mumbai and West India were largely peaceful. Buist was ousted from his post as editor because the Indian shareholders of the Bombay Times thought that he was too pro-British and not taking them to task over their brutal reprisal and revenge on Indians - and the East India company was nationalised and the Crown took over the country and India formally came under the British Raj.
This affected the museum as well - it was closed to the public and the collection was shifted to the Town Hall. But luckily for it, the eminent and learned Sir George Birdwood - the noted Indiophile and nature lover - was appointed curator of the collection and he drummed up support to create a new home for the collection.
A committee was formed of the who’s who of eminent Indian businessmen and philanthropists was formed - Dr. Bhau Daji Lad, Sir Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy, David Sassoon and Jaganath Shunkerseth. They raised money for a new building for the museum and land was allotted in the precincts of the Victoria Zoo and Botanical gardens in Byculla - and the elegant building was built and inaugurated in 1872 as the Victoria and Albert museum.
But in just a few years, this museum was deemed to be too small and a grand new museum was opened in central Fort area in 1905 - The Prince of Wales Museum - and this overshadowed the old museum entirely...so much so that people forgot that the older museum even existed!
After Independence, people wanted to expunge all memories of the British and there was a wholesale renaming of all British names. The Prince of Wales museum became the ‘Chattrapathi Shivaji museum’ after the great Maratha ruler, and the Zoo and botanical garden were named after his mom ‘Jijamata udyan’.
The Victoria and Albert museum was named after the first Indian founder of the museum - Dr Bhau Daji Lad.
Dr Bhau Daji Lad was a very remarkable personality - he was a doctor .. a physician, a sanskrit scholar and antiquary. He was born in Goa, but moved to Bombay ...because he was good at chess! An englishman noted his brilliance at chess, and told his dad that he should give the kid a good education. Well… the best education institutions were in Bombay - so the kid was sent to Bombay and was admitted in the Elphinstone institution. He did very well at school, and went on to take his medical degree at Grant Medical college - he was part of the very first graduating batch of GMC in 1850.
(think of the context here - it would have been extremely unusual for a ‘native’ to be allowed to learn medicine in 1850! Remember, the whole mutiny happened because the British were racist and disgusting. He must have been really outstanding)
He started practising as a doctor and was very successful. He mixed the learnings from traditional Indian medicine and modern western medicine and was a pioneer in using ancient methods for modern treatments.
As a guy who came up from nothing just due to education - he was a great votary of getting people educated, and was a founding member of the University of Bombay. He was the first president of native origin, of the Students' Literary and Scientific Society. He was the champion of the cause of female education. A girls' school was founded in his name, for which an endowment was provided by his friends and admirers.
He was twice chosen Sheriff of Mumbai, once in 1869 and again in 1871!
(Again! Think of the context! A ‘native’ - not bue-blooded, not a rich plutocrat - being given such a respected post)
He was an ardent historian as well - he amassed a large collection of rare ancient Indian coins and antiquities, which he studied - deciphering inscriptions and ascertaining the dates and history of ancient Sanskrit authors and stuff - and as we have already learnt - was the founding member of the first museum of Bombay.
One can assume that the other luminaries - Sassoon, Jeejeebhoy and Shankarsett - provided the money, while Dr Lad and Dr Birdwood provided the intellectual underpinning.
Unfortunately, it was totally neglected after independence, and apart from changing the name - the museum was totally ignored and became quite a mess. Indian politicians and municipal leaders were more interested in lining their pockets and looting the country blind rather than maintaining the venerable little museum.
But luckily for all of us, a bunch of public-spirited individuals came together to save the institution and convinced the government to adopt a public-private model to save the place!
In 2003, the non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) joined forces with the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai to undertake a painstaking refurbishment of the building, aided by historian and donor Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. The results were spectacular. In 2008, the building reopened with its High Victorian architecture fully restored, and the collection (which pays special attention to the history of the city of Mumbai), back on display amid high vaulted mosaic ceilings, intricate Minton tiled floors, etched glass and gold details, and freshly painted Corinthian columns.
The part I really loved was the painstaking dioramas which show the various scenes of day to day life in Bombay - and a very detailed gallery of the various communities which made up Bombay - and India, for that matter. These colourful portrayals of people were created by a clay modeller who was specially brought from Lucknow to work at the museum and was assisted by students of the JJ School of arts.
The figurines were created as a way of scientifically documenting the identities of the people of India and their way of life during the early 20th century - and the then curator Ernest R Fern (1918 - 1926) noted that these clay figures were an immediate success and were very popular with the visitors. These have been painstaking restored and look awesome!
Especially today - when all of india is becoming an amorphous mass of similarity and losing all the charming detail and uniqueness it used to have - I felt that this is very important for us modern day Indians to realise what our people used to look like and dress like. I really loved them!
Now it is a most charming little space - and they are planning to expand and do more things in the future. It has lovely little art gallery, a little theatre, a cafeteria and a charming garden - which is the home of the original ‘Kala Ghoda’ - an equestrian statue of King George in black stone and the original ancient elephant statues of Gharapuri island which gave ‘Elephanta caves’ its name.
Both the major museums of Mumbai - CSVS and DBDL - have benefited through public-private partnerships, and I sincerely hope that things get better and better.
Check out the website - https://www.bdlmuseum.org
And check out the story of the rebirth of the museum https://www.apollo-magazine.com/mumbais-oldest-museum-looks-to-the-future/
PS - I really wish they would sell copies of those figurines, or even a cool poster.
May 1st is celebrated for many reasons… it is internationally famous as ‘International Labour day’ to commemorate various movements all over the world for worker’s rights. It is also ‘May Day’ - officially the ‘first day of summer’ for western countries since antiquity. It used to be celebrated as ‘Floralia’ by the ancient Greeks where they used to celebrate the goddess of love - Aphrodite and the god of wine - Dionysus - and I assume the festival involved a lot of drinking and lovemaking. Nowadays they have Mayday parades and dancing around Maypoles and May queens.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson even wrote a poem about it - ‘The May queen’ -
‘You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear;
To-morrow ’ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;
Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest merriest day,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.’
In India, we are already well into the hot summer by May, and our version of Floralia - Holi - is already over. We no longer celebrate wine or lovemaking - both are rather frowned upon officially! You need a license for one, and closed doors for the other.
But in Maharashtra we do have another reason to celebrate the 1st of May - It is celebrated as ‘Maharashtra day’ - the day that the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were carved out from the erstwhile Bombay state.
When the British came and conquered the entire land of India, they drew a new map over the bewildering patchwork of kingdoms and principalities of old and divided India into ‘Presidencies’ ruled over by a ‘Governor’ - all of whom reported to the boss of India - the ‘Governor-General’
The Western part of India was called the ‘Bombay presidency’ and encompassed parts of what is now Maharashtra, Gujarat, Sind (now in Pakistan) and even the Arabian lands of Aden and Socotra.
It was a fairly peaceful area - The Maratha empire was conquered and the area was largely quiet even during the 1857 Mutiny/ War of Independence.
The moneybags, merchants and others were already making huge money from the illegal Opium smuggling into China before the Mutiny - which had been officially arranged and organised by the East India Company - and after the Mutiny, the American civil war (1861 - 1865) gave rise to the Indian cotton boom as American cotton was no longer available, and huge fortunes were made by all the entities involved in the cotton trade - private merchants and government alike.
A lot of money was pumped into building docks and facilities, building trains and laying track, building factories - and fancy buildings and huge impressive edifices. All kinds of people streamed into Bombay looking for work and education and the city grew rich and powerful.
Bombay gained hugely in prominence due to the roaring trade and industry and became the ‘Urbs Prima Indis’ - the ‘Prime city of India’. Later the state of Sindh was hived off to become another state - and later, part of another country!
After Independence, the ‘Bombay Presidency’ was converted to ‘Bombay state’ - and the various kingdoms in the area - Baroda, Kolhapur, Dangs and numerous small states of Gujarat and Maharashtra - were merged into it. (Check out the book ‘The integration of Indian states’ by V P Menon for the fascinating story of how the old princely states were absorbed into the Union of India)
Later in 1956, there was a bit of reorganising due to the States reorganisation act, where the old states were redistributed on linguistic lines. Pandit Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were not happy with the idea, and predicted that this will threaten the unity of the country and may even result in the Balkanisation of India (and were proven right too, to an extent) but the idea kept going - and one committed Telugu dude called Potti Sriramulu actually fasted to death for the cause of the creation of a separate state for the Telugu speaking people - Andhra Pradesh.
This sparked off a lot of unrest in the country and in 1956, the SRC (States Re-organisation Committee) recommended the creation of linguistic states of Andhra Pradesh (for Telugu speakers), Kerala (for Malayalam speakers) and Karnataka (for Kannada speakers) but recommended a bi-lingual state (speakers of Marathi and Gujarati) for Maharashtra-Gujarat, with Bombay as its capital but keep the state of Vidarbha (also Marathi speakers) outside Maharashtra.
This was greeted with a lot of protest in Bombay state - and this escalated to frenzied rioting! On 21 November 1955, demonstrators were fired upon by the police at Flora Fountain in the capital city of Bombay. Flora Fountain was subsequently renamed Hutatma Chowk or "Martyr's Crossroad" in their memory. It is estimated that in a total of 106 people were shot by security forces during the period of agitation and at different places.
So ironic. Independent India shooting its own citizens.
Morarji Desai, who was the then chief minister of Bombay State was later removed and replaced by Yashwantrao Chavan as a result of criticism related to the 21 November incident. The then Union Finance Minister - C D Deshmukh - resigned his post rather than continue with the Central government, as they did not support the cause of a separate state for Marathi speaking people.
Finally, after a long and bloody campaign, the Kannada speaking districts of Belgaum, Dharwar, Bijapur and North Canara were shifted out into the neighbouring ‘Mysore state’ and the Marathi speaking districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha - formerly parts of Hyderabad state and Central provinces - were taken into Bombay state, as were the Gujarati speaking states of Saurashtra and Kutch. Thus the new Bombay state was known as the ‘Maha Dwibhashi rajya’ or ‘Great state with two languages’.
But even the hiving off of the Kannada speakers was not enough for people - they wanted a ‘Marathi only’ state - and launched a campaign called the ‘Samyukta Maharashtra movement’ for the same. The Samiti demanded the creation of a new state from Marathi-speaking areas of the State of Bombay, a Marathi state, with the city of Bombay as its capital. The Gujjus can get lost!
Finally, the Samiti achieved its goal and ‘Bombay state’ was split into the linguistic states of Gujarat and Maharashtra on 1st May 1960.
Now even the name ‘Bombay’ has been removed from India and the city of ‘Bombay’ has been renamed as ‘Mumbai’ - so one can say that ‘Bombay state’ is gone forever.
While looking at this history of the ‘Maharashtra for Marathi-speaking people’ movement, it is interesting to study the story behind it.
At no time in the history of India, all the regions which now constitute the State of Maharashtra were politically one. They were ruled for centuries by different dynasties till Shivaji succeeded in carving out an independent kingdom for the Marathas in 1674. Even at that time, Shivaji’s father Shahaji was based in what is now Karnataka, and his half-brother Ekoji and family continued to stay there after Shahaji’s death. The Maratha empire extended well into South India - and when Aurangzeb attacked - Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram went to what is now Tamil Nadu, and holed up in the fortress of Gingee for years. Later, in the heyday of the Maratha empire. the Peshwas wielded considerable influence in the politics of North India. Marathi leaders ruled far-flung states such as in Gujarat (Gaekwads of Baroda), MP (Holkars of Indore, Bhosles of Berar, Scindias of Gwalior), UP (the famous ‘Rani of Jhansi’ Laxmibai was a Marathi lady) and many others - so why shouldn’t all these places also be part of ‘Marathi Maharashtra’? A fascinating thought.
But of course, there are ‘n’ number of stresses and strains and political factors and self-interests that go into this kind of decision. Check out this article for more information and opinions on this.
Since those days we have had many more separations of states - The first linguistically separated state - Andhra Pradesh - itself got further separated on tribalistic grounds into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh! Wonder what Potti Sriramulu would have thought about that!
Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar got split into two (resulting in the new states of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand) on administrative grounds, in spite of having the same language… so one can easily see that politicians will always find some-or-the-other chauvinism to further separatist agendas. There are long-simmering demands for carving out states of Bundelkhand from MP, Gorkha land from West Bengal etc. There will always be some historical case for carving more and more - where will all this lead to?
Anyway - all this is beyond the scope of this little article - which was supposed to be just about me going to attend the Maharashtra day parade for the first time - on cycle!
So - it’s a birthday party for Maharashtra state! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, M!
The day starts with a parade at Shivaji Park, Dadar. The Governor of the state along with the state reserve police, home guards, Mumbai Police, BMC Force, traffic police, among others take part in the parade. (The guv doesn’t march btw - he makes a speech and salutes the marchers)
Liquor sales to Indians are prohibited on Maharashtra Diwas across the state. (Why? I never understood this Indian passion to have ‘Dry days’ for every occasion. What is the point? Wouldn’t you like to have a party to celebrate a great day? Pop Champagne? Have a beer and barbecue? Be happy? If the idea is to deter a habitual drinker from getting drunk on that day - then won’t it be self-defeating...as the habitue would stock up on the eve of a dry day? It’s a most strange concept.)
Anyway - coming back to the parade.. Delhi has the Republic Day parade, and we have the Maharashtra day parade - which I was going to see for the very first time! I cycled my way over to Shivaji park and locked the bike to a convenient post and went off to find the entrance to the viewing area.
The Maharashtra government does not really promote the parade as an event to attract viewers - more’s the pity - and there were minimal facilities for viewers, and there were pretty few viewers as well - a contrast to the teeming crowds for the R-Day parade in Delhi. We were pretty far from the bigwigs and could hardly make them out. The governor made a speech - but I couldn’t hear that clearly. And there wasn’t a clear field of view for us to see the parade while seated - the wall of bamboos impeded vision - as you can see from the photos.
But the parade itself was quite nice. It was obviously not up to military standards, but the cops tried their best. They had a fancy band, a number of groups in various uniforms, sexes and battle gear. Apart from the cops, there were marching groups from various other groups like Home Guards, National Cadet Corps, National Social Service scheme - and even the Fire Brigade!
The grand finale was the drive-around by various vehicles - the cops showed off their motorcycles, their patrol cars and paddy wagons and even their fancy armoured cars with big guns which looked like they would be better on the border than in a city!
But for sheer coolness, nothing could beat the fancy red fire-wagons and the long ladders of the Fire Brigade!
I was very happy as I stepped out of the park - I had seen the M-Day parade! WOOHOO! Hopefully they will make it more spectator and citizen-friendly in the future.
I got on my bike and cycled home. Another Sunday well spent.
PS - For me, the most important thing about May 1st was that it was my mom's birthday :) Trumped May day, Maharashtra day and any other day! Happy birthday mom! Miss you.
Nipposan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist temple
Mumbai is full of small wonders, and the only thing that stops us - well...stopped me...from stopping to check them out is that we are busily going from one place to another and have no time to stop and explore them.
One such thing for me was the enigmatic temple with a very Japanese name - I had seen it a zillion times while travelling on that road, but had never stopped to actually check it out. But now I said that I will make a point of it - and cycled there to check it out.
The Nipposan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist temple turned out to be a little wonderland! An oasis of peace in busy Mumbai.
The Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Temple started out as a Japanese Buddhist monastery and dates back to 1931 when it was built by a Japanese monk, Nichidatsu Fujii, who was visiting India trying to follow the prophecy of the 13th century Japanese monk Maha Bodhisattva Nicherin. Nicherin believed that the ultimate salvation of humanity, who was contaminated by all that was evil, lay in India.
That bit of history really intrigued me… a Bodhisatava who believed that India will be the source of salvation - back in the 13th century!
The story of the monk who came to India 600 years after the said prophecy is equally fascinating!
Nichidatsu Fuji was the founder of the Nipposan Myohoji order of Buddhism, which is deeply engaged in promoting world peace. Born August 6, 1885 in Aso, Kyushu Island, Japan, he became a Buddhist monk at age 19 in opposition to the tendencies of the time, which strongly encouraged a military career.
As a pacifist, he was deeply impressed by the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi.
‘I was astounded to see pictures of Gandhiji on the Salt March or spinning yarn. I felt I was witnessing something incredible unfold: at this time of modern scientific civilizations, a genuine revolutionary movement that does not rely on science or machines, which is, in fact, completely contrary to them, had been launched. Can such a movement overcome the solidly fortified institution of the modern state and create a different world, a world of nonviolence? Even if it does not succeed, I thought it to be a fine plan, with extraordinary insight. Spinning yarn or salt making are things even a disciple of the Buddha like myself can be part of and make a contribution. I decided to immediately leave for India to pray for the success of Gandhiji's revolutionary movement.’
He arrived in Calcutta in January 1931 and walked throughout the town chanting the daimoku and beating a drum, a practice known as gyakku shōdai.
In 1933 he met Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram in Wardha.
‘My first opportunity to meet Gandhiji came on October 4, 1933 at the ashram in Warda. Our meeting lasted only 15 minutes, and there was hardly any time to speak on matters of substance. We met the following day and the day after that, but unfortunately I could neither speak English nor Hindi. I therefore submitted an English translation of my views to Gandhiji. This is how it came to pass that I found residence in the Wardha ashram.’
Gandhiji was so impressed by the concept of the gyakku shodai that he added it to their prayer routine.
He went back to Japan during WWII and despite the dangers to himself he declared himself in favour of pacifism and went round Japan actively promoting it. This was actively dangerous, as the government was completely hawkish and anyone resisting the war could be immediately imprisoned!
He later recollected: “The Pacific war raged ever more brutally. I could no longer...keep silent about the war, in which people were killing one another. Thus I travelled through the whole of Japan and preached resistance against the war and [advocated] the prayer for peace. It was a time in which any person who only spoke about resistance to the war, would go to prison because of that alone”
After the war, he became a very active campaigner for world peace - another dangerous activity during the intolerant atmosphere of the Cold War.
“The reason I came to espouse nonviolent resistance and the antiwar, antiarms position was not because I met with Mr. Gandhi. Rather, it was because the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children, burning and poisoning [the population], a tragedy without precedent in human history, leading Japan to sue for unconditional surrender. In this we see the mad, stupid, barbaric nature of modern warfare.”
At the end of World War II. Fujii returned to India and built a World Peace Pagoda in Rajgir, in 1965. He also built a Japanese style temple in Rajgir which is still inhabited today.
The Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii [1885-1985] was awarded the Nehru Award for International Understanding from India in 1979.
Read this amazing statement by him here.
In 1956, the same monastery was renovated into the present-day temple by the Birla family, whose trust maintains the temple to date.
That is amazing too. This was Jugal Kishore Birla, the brother of GD Birla - Mahatma Gandhi’s close friend and devotee. The Birlas do a lot of quiet philanthropy - something that seems to differentiate the old guard from the new tycoons.
I have never heard of the Ambanis doing any philanthropy! Even when they open schools and hospitals, they seem to be extremely overpriced premium stuff with a profit motive. (To be fair - if are doing quiet philanthropy, then obviously I wouldnt have heard of it! I do hope they are! )
The temple follows the order of Nicherin Buddhism and the main prayer of this school is ‘Na Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’, a chant for peace. The resident monk, Bhikshu Morita, has been in India for over 30 years and has become something of a local legend after he fearlessly walked through streets during the bloody communal riots in 1992, beating his drum and loudly chanting ‘Na Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’ as a call for peace. The chant, he says, is the key to total salvation. It’s not what you should understand but what you should adopt.’
Wow- That is another amazing story!
Check out another story on this here
And another one here
"We must go out among the people." Fujii taught. "In the Sutra there is a line that states, 'So this man, practising in the world, shall disperse the gloom of living.' Religion, which does not 'go' will not be able to provide the relief which must be brought about." The prayers of the Daimoku are to disperse this gloom. "Religion becomes isolated from the happenings of the world because it tends to be occupied in seeking solutions to one's own spiritual matters. If we fail to prevent a holocaust, one's desire for security is nothing but a dream. All must be awakened."
Unfortunately for me, Bhikshu Morita was not around when I dropped in - or if he was, he was smart enough to keep his distance from a sweaty fat cyclist in tight clothes.
I was so happy to have dropped in on this peaceful Japanese temple - Aum Mani Padme Hum! May their tribe increase.
Every place is full of stories and wonders - we just need to seek them out!
(This is an old ride - pre Corona :) )
Another Sunday, another day of exploring Mumbai by cycle. I was totally into this project - combining physical exercise with the zen of cycling and exploring the city.
Inspite of having lived in Mumbai all my life, and having seen it a zillion times - I had never actually been to Haji Ali dargah - one of the icons of Mumbai. So today was the day - I left early morning to tick that off my list.
I set out from Chembur and made my way first to Worli sea face - it was a really fun experience to ride the empty Mumbai roads and go up and down a number of flyovers to reach Worli and it is always fun to cycle on the sea face. The place is so full of positive vibes in the early morning - filled with walkers, joggers, cyclists and exercises of every description. The BMC (or whoever) has done a great job of putting up a number of interesting things out there - statues of R K Laxman’s ‘Common man’, benches...
...and exercise stations! These exercise stations are the brainchild of - and are sponsored by - actor Dino Morea, and were first introduced in 2013. Dino put these up for the good of common citizens and to help them in their fitness goals. Good on you mate!
From Worli I made my way to Haji Ali and locked my bike in front of the famous ‘Haji Ali juice centre’ and walked to the dargah. Finally! I was at Haji Ali! Alhamdulillah!
The dargah has a very intriguing story… It is the mausoleum of a pious merchant from Uzbekistan! Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari was a Sufi saint and a wealthy merchant from Bukhara - in Uzbekistan.Bukhari gave up all his worldly possessions, made a pilgrimage to Mecca, travelled around the world in the early to mid 15th century, and eventually settled in present-day Mumbai.
Wikipedia tells some random story about a woman spilling oil and he making it gush out of the earth for her and so on - but the most interesting outcome to me was that a wealthy merchant turned mendicant would travel from Bukhara to settle in Mumbai...in the 15th century!
He being a Sufi, apparently asked his followers not to bury him and make a fetish out of him - but to just chuck his body into the sea. But apparently his body - or his shroud - ended up on a rock off the coast...and of course his followers did just what he probably did not want them to do - and made a fetish out of it.
They built a memorial on that rocky promontory - and in due course of time, pious merit-seeking people built a fancy dargah and mosque out there.
It is about 500m from the coast, and they have built a little walkway to the place. It doesn't have railings and stuff and is covered by water during high tide - so you can visit only during low tide.
The walkway is normally chockful of beggars and pilgrims - but this being early morning was deserted and pleasant.
The structure itself is built in the Indo-Saracenic style - marble domes and stuff. The tomb itself is covered by the usual green shawl, and is supported by an exquisite silver frame, supported by marble pillars - something that the ascetic Sufi saint might be bemused about!
It was very pleasant there in the early morning and one could get awesome views of the Mahalaxmi and Tardeo areas.
After I exited Haji Ali - my eye caught another structure - a blue dome on the other side of the bay. I had wondered for years as to what it was - so I made my way there to investigate.
It turned out to be another mausoleum! It was erected in the memory of a lady saint - Saint Ma Hajiani, who may have been the sister of Pir Haji Ali.
The tomb was built in 1908 by- Haji Ismail Hasham, ‘a wealthy ship-owner and pioneer of Indian shipping.’ He founded the 'Bombay Steam Navigation company' in the 19th century and was one of the pioneering Indians of modern shipping.
(That sounds so exciting! I would love to read more about him and his life as a pioneer of Indian shipping)
He himself died soon after - in 1912 - and was buried in that tomb he had built himself! Most Egyptian and pharaonic, I must say.
His epitaph says ‘In memory of Amir-bahr Haji (I think it means rich sea-man who did the Hajj) Ismail Hasham Bahadur, A great captain and navigator of the Indian seas who died on 20th September 1912, and was buried in this tomb erected by himself. May he rest in peace.’
Well - good for him. May he rest in peace!
This dargah is also made in the Indo-Saracenic style, which was all the rage at the time - and sits on a rocky outcrop 80 feet above the sea. It is in good condition because it is maintained by the family trust - which also owns institutions like the Ismail Yusuf College in Jogeshwari and the Marine college at Worli (Which has since moved to Nhava).
Well - that was fascinating! I had no idea! What a discovery!
(The place has apparently been through a major restoration since I visited it - check out the details here - https://www.livehistoryindia.com/snapshort-histories/2019/05/07/reclaiming-the-lost-glory-of-ma-hajiani )
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!