Thursday, July 03, 2014

An article on Chembur for Timeout, Mumbai...

...From many moons ago, be warned! This article appeared in a Timeout column (June 2011) on why you love a particular suburb. Mine was called 'I love Chembur'. The format needed a short description of the suburb + some stuff it's famous for. Hence the 'gems' :)
Disclaimer: I also wrote an I-Love-Yaari-Road piece for Timeout. What can I do? I'm a sucker for this city!

Chembur has changed so much in three years - and not in nice ways either. Fewer trees, more heritage-category bungalows that have been demolished, more high-rises in their place, and a chintzy, real-estate-market-driven 'Chembur Festival'. It's getting increasingly anodyne, and spiralling home-buying costs mean that more of the terribly-rich come in. And once that happens, there goes the neighbourhood! It feels silly posting this now, so many years later, but the piece has its moments - I think...


I love Chembur

If you don’t know Chembur, then praising it is a bit like trying to sell you a date with a cousin who has halitosis and BO, purely on the basis of their wonderful personality. But if you’ve lived here – or even visited – you’re bound to love Chembur for its inner beauty, and no questions-on-personal-hygiene asked. There are things Chembur does so well: it has a few tree-lined roads, a few remaining old bungalows, and and a sliver of a sense of neighbourhood.

But again, if you’ve never visited here, you’re likely to get all caught up in Chembur's minor infractions yes, there is an atomic reactor near the Turbhe Hills close to us. Oh, and if you must know, there are fertilizer-producing-smoke-spewing factories and refineries around here. And of course the noxious dumping ground further north in Deonar perturbs you? All very bad for health, I’m sure, but like others who live here, I prefer the blissful path of urban denial. Because seriously, if an atom is split behind a verdant hill and I don’t combust, it’s not anything to go nuclear about, is it? 

Unlike the atomic reactor, the Deonar Dumping Ground definitely makes its presence felt – especially if you’re downwind. In fact, garbage is why the city first laid railway lines to the village of Chembur in 1906, bringing its refuse into Deonar, and with it, the start of construction. Goan Catholics came here between the late ’20s and the ’30s, followed by the Sindhis in the late ’40s and South Indians in the ’60s. Hemmed in by the new middle-class settlements, Chembur’s original villages retreated shyly, and only a few still survive as pockets or gaothans. Slowly, neighbourhoods with distinct identities grew – the Marathi, the South Indian, the Sindhi and the Goan – each with a unique ethos. I'm all for urban cross-polination, but it’s wonderful to walk through the localities and get a sense of what it must have felt like to live among people who eat, drink and pray like each other.

But you mustn’t think of Chembur as a bucolic place. We’ve been groped by glamour in our day. Raj Kapoor built the RK Studios here in 1950, and between the ’60s to the ’80s, stars like Ashok Kumar, Nalini Jaiwant, Shivji-ke-filmi-avtar, Trilok Kapoor, the redoubtable Kishore Sahu, and lovable Dhumal lived here. Shilpa Shetty was my junior in school (I personally have no recollection of this, but hey, that was many cosmetic 'interventions' ago!) and so, they tell me, was Vidya Balan. I'm not going to talk about Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor and Shankar Mahadevan going to the boys' school across the maidan, because that would just be name-dropping!

Neighbourhood gems:
Food at the Station: The market at Chembur Station has a powerful pull. Probably because it’s actually a foodcourt disguised as a shopping haven. Satguru Pavbhaji makes the stuff piping hot and you wash it down with sweet, sweet mosambi juice. Exactly the balm you need after you’ve dodged cars, hawkers, and people’s elbows to buy veggies. A particularly tasty Mumbaiyya version of bhel puri, made in disgusting environs, can be had at Gupta Bhel. Across the road, after the sun sets, the mutta dosai guy works some egg magic on the dosa theme. At Hotel Saroj, the Sweet Nazis will order you to queue up for their yummy faraal, and no talking in the line back there. 

Sindhi camp: Morarji Desai, it is said, first looked at the military-requisitioned land next to the golf course and decreed that it should be used to house Sindhi refugees. This was told to me by a resentful Golf Club official who added that but for Mr Desai's intervention, they'd have had a 24-hole course. I mean, the sheer effrontery of putting human need and suffering before golf! Really! The refugee camp meant that the Club was reduced to a 'measly' 18-hole stretch, when it could, sob, have been much larger.
Apart from being a hub of commercial activity, the Sindhi Camp has a ‘food mile’ - a long culinary expression of a nostalgic community. There's chaats at Jhama and Sindh Paani Puri House, the kheema and paya at King’s or Sobhraj, rabri-kulfi in little stalls and much more. The man at the counter in the iconic Jhama is stern, but ask nicely, and he might tell you that Raj Kapoor often took gulab jamuns from their store to Russia.

Mallu joints: Built in the ’60s for the employees of Burmah Shell, the buildings of ‘Shell Colony’ didn’t meet the company’s high standards. So the flats were sold in the open market to working-class families – mostly Malayalee. With time, some phenomenal Mallu eating joints grew around the area – like ‘Jose’ under the railway bridge, which served marvelous shark-fin curry and hot jeera water (it’s shut now). Pradeep near Sawan Bazaar, which makes a phenomenal beef fry, and Sunny’s (opposite ‘Hot Baby’ Rasila Bar) where fish is conjured into a mean ‘meen curry’. Mallus who miss authentic Kerala spices - and  the salty tang of the Thrissur dialect of Malayalam - head to the 'Kerala Shop' in the middle of the sabji mandi, under the flyover. They are purveyors of lovely fish-curry-tamarind, banana chips, tapioca fritters, dried fish, large, yellow plantains and hot parippu vadas. The serving of the sassy Thrissur lip is on the house!

Deity watch: In Chembur you could pray up a multi-faith storm. Apart from the many dargahs and the Turbhe mosque (one of the city’s oldest), Chembur has the stately Catholic OLPS Church, and many Syrian Christian churches. The most interesting among its temples is the 400-year-old Bhoolingeshwara Temple near the Fine Arts Hall (and now the Monorail Station). It is chief among Chembur’s six or seven gaondevs or village temples which once stood at the ‘borders’ of the smaller villages here. Chembraayi, the gaondevi of Chembur, a shapeless stone form, wears a benign smile and presides over mortals from a really small, ceramic-tiled room in Charai village, right inside Sindhi Camp.

Green memories: Chembur, I read somewhere, was named for the large Chimboree crabs that lived in its marshes. Just like Kurla was named for the Kurli crabs. The marshes have sadly been stamped out.  Isaac Kehimkar, the butterflies-and-flowers man who trained with Dr Salim Ali, and actually grew up in Deonar remembers a place that had streams with clean water in them! He caught snakes and crabs in the marshes. 
Deonar and Chembur are horrifyingly different now, but there’s still a small tree cover. It's being systematically destroyed, though the few trees still draw some birds. According to The Times of India, a green patch with 1200 trees is going to lose 600 of them soon. Just another case of the state giving land away to a private builder. But more of that later.
There are still parts of Deonar and Chembur, where you can sit in your balcony and watch golden orioles, crow pheasants, magpie robbins, red-vented bulbuls and owls. Industrial development around Mahul has meant that not too many residential buildings came up there, leaving the mangroves for aquatic birds. Take a fishing boat from the Mahul Jetty to the few existing marshes, and get up close and personal with Mumbai’s annual pink visitors, the flamingos.