Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Colaba Man In Hot Blood

29 April, 2017
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People: Commander Nanavati (27 April 1959)

An excerpt from Bachi Karkaria’s new book hot on the trail of India’s most dashing naval commander-

“Nanavati comes out of Setalvad Lane, but doesn’t know the location of the nearest police station. He’s always been a Colaba man on the southernmost flank of South Bombay. Instead of turning left to go the way he came, he turns right, and goes up Malabar Hill. Near the rather obviously named ‘Teen Batti’ traffic signal he sees the ornate gates of Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s mansion. He asks the sentry, and is told about Gamdevi Police Station. Deciding not to go round in circles trying to find it, he heads for familiar territory: the home of the navy’s ‘head cop’, the Provost Marshal.
Commander Michael Benjamin Samuel, like the socialites of Setalvad Lane, has just stirred out of his afternoon siesta, but he’s shaken wide awake by what he hears from one of the navy’s highest-rated officers: ‘I think I have shot a man.’
‘Why?’
‘Because he seduced my wife.’
Commander Samuel picks up the receiver of his phone, and says sombrely into it, ‘John? This is Provo Samuel. I’m sending Commander Nanavati to you. He has had a quarrel with a person, and he has shot at him.’

At Crime Branch, the Central Investigative Department’s two-storey building in the compound of the Bombay Police Commissionerate at Crawford Market, another phone on Deputy Commissioner John Lobo’s desk jangles. ‘Sir, this is DI Gautam from Gamdevi PS. There has been a shooting in our jurisdiction. A Mr P. Ahuja has been fatally injured. We are proceeding to the spot and will revert.’
The deputy inspector has followed procedure in such serious cases, alerting both the deputy commissioner of the division and the deputy commissioner, Crime Branch, CID. This ensures a pooling of resources to nab the culprit ASAP.
But the ‘culprit’ has already presented himself.
A strong voice outside demands, ‘Lobo sah’b ka kamra kahaan hai?’ (Where is Lobo sahib’s room?)
The orderly checks with the boss, and ushers in the impressive naval officer dressed in slacks and a shirt.
‘I am Commander Nanavati,’ he says in the same authoritative tone. He appears to be impatient to get a weight off his chest.
‘Yes,’ replies the deputy commissioner. ‘Your Provost Marshal called. What is the problem?’
‘I have shot a man.’
Lobo puts his sinewy arms on the table. Every inch of his small-built frame indicates a man who knows his job, and will do it. He looks the naval officer in the eye and says, ‘He is dead. I have just received a message from Gamdevi Police Station.’
A muscle tightens perceptibly on Commander Nanavati’s chiselled jawline.
The DC offers him a cup of tea, not a gesture normally shown, but this is not a run-of-the-mill accused.
When he declines the tea, and asks for ‘just a glass of water’, Lobo pours out one from his own flask. Several eyebrow-raising courtesies will be extended to this man over the next five years.
Having shown him this consideration, Deputy Commissioner Lobo gets down to business. He says, ‘Commander, I will have to do my unpleasant duty. You have killed a civilian in his flat and the law will have to take its course. I’m calling in my officers, Superintendent Korde and Inspector Mokashe, to question you.’
They stride in, their uniform as smart as their salute.
They go with Nanavati to retrieve the weapon and unspent bullets from the glove box of his car parked outside the commissionerate. Lobo tells Nanavati, ‘We will now begin our formal investigation. Let me assure you that it will be conducted with complete fairness and impartiality. To start with, we are placing you under arrest, and will keep you temporarily in our custody.’
Again, because he is no ordinary undertrial, Nanavati is not marched into a police lockup, but is kept in one of the office rooms of the Crime Branch. The lofty officer wryly consoles himself that dusty files are preferable to scruffy felons. But Navy Headquarters and his own Parsi connections will ensure that he is soon spared even this company.

And what of the two others of that love triangle? A stunned Sylvia has been picked up from Metro and bundled off to her in-laws’ house.
The lifeless Prem has been lifted off the floor and put on his bed by the servants, too shocked to remember not to disturb the scene of the crime. Mokashe’s team arrives. Their observations and investigations will be triumphantly presented by the prosecution and vehemently countered by the defence. But let’s not jump the gun here, or with the findings of the coroner’s court. Let’s wait to hear these hotly disputed details when we come to the trial which ignited a legal, political and social forest fire.”

Race to buy the unputdownable In Hot Blood (Juggernaut Books).

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Two hotels, two Pestonjees & a fire

2 December, 2016
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British-Hotel-Lane

Signage: British Hotel Lane

Fort.

Some establishments live on in locations long after they have closed down. Messrs. Pestonjee Sorabjee & Co. shut the British Hotel in late 1862, unceremoniously auctioning its dining and breakfast sets, linen and Thurston’s slate billiard tables.

Other hotels that subsequently appeared in the lane had to accommodate the older hoteliering presence. The address of the English Hotel run by Pestonjee Bapoojee curiously read- English Hotel, British Hotel Lane, Apollo Street.

A massive fire in the lane has brought its name back in the spotlight.

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Matunga or Matheran?

12 November, 2016
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Motifs: Ganesh Baug

Plan 214, Matunga.

The locality of Matunga and the hill station of Matheran seem to have more than a bunch of cheeky monkeys in common.

As historian Nikhil Rao has shown, the migrants from South India who quickly populated the newly developed suburb of Matunga in the 1930s imagined Matunga as something of an island through which they could manage the ‘terrifying heterogeneity’ of the wider city. They set up a variety of recreational establishments in the locality such as meeting halls, gymkhanas and messes. As the first batch of residents, they felt Matunga offered an ‘uncontaminated’ environment, in which they could maintain their caste while simultaneously exploring their new status as ‘middle class’.

By the 1860s Bombay’s native elites were busy building and buying bungalows and setting up hotels in Matheran; promoting the hill station as the closest retreat to beat the Bombay heat. Honeymooners were also being wooed into visiting the ‘romantic sanitarium’. In April 1862, Dr Bhawoo Dajee spent a few days in Matheran with his friend Mungoldas Nathobhoy, at the ‘beautiful bungalow’ Nathobhoy had recently bought from Commodore Wellesley.

The inhabitants of both Matunga and Matheran imagined their permanent and seasonal homes as sanctuaries from the bustle of Bombay city life.

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Prints for my prophet, pictures for my yogi

4 October, 2016
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BW (6 of 29)

Furnishings: Meher Cold Drink House (1939)
Mackawee Mansion, junction of Gunbow Street and Parsi Bazaar Street, Fort (presently Rustom Sidhwa Marg).

In the religious economy of Bombay, picture production got off to a shaky start in the 1850s with prophets appearing one-eyed and blurry in the papers.

Rudimentary lithographic printing equipment was no doubt to blame but other factors, like the strong hold missionaries had on the print economy, their distaste of local idol worship, and the valuing of the educative potential of the printed word, all played a part in devaluing the pictorial.

In the 1870s presses specialising in picture production had begun and did a brisk trade in selling mythological images, particularly of Hindu gods and goddesses. These images were inspired by various mythological dramas that played to packed audiences in Bombay. Dramas portrayed gods with a penchant for the miraculous- sparkling swords, disappearing acts, severed heads. Audiences stood up from their seats in reverence to these holy offerings.

Coloured lithographic prints of gods and goddesses were eagerly purchased by city goers. As for picture production’s shaky start, images outnumbered books by the thousands in volume and circulation.

Photo by Baba Badani of Byculla.

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Suicides & the Sensational Rajabai Tower Case

1 September, 2016
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Clocks: Rajabai Clock Tower (1878)

Mayo Road (presently Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil Marg), Fort.

The sensational Rajabai Tower Case of 1891, in which two girls aged 16 and 20, were found dead at the foot of the Rajabai Clock Tower, firmly established that with advent of the high-rise, the nature of suicides had changed in Bombay.

Formerly Bombay’s distressed inhabitants ended their lives in other ways. Consuming arsenic or opium and drowning in wells were the most common means; knives were also used, to slit throats and wrists. Coroners’ inquests from the mid 19th century suggest that several of the deceased were terminally ill.

The 280-foot Rajabai Clock Tower changed the landscape, with more and more inhabitants choosing to end their lives from the Tower’s top gallery. The problem became so acute that the authorities had to eventually close the Tower to the public.

Photo by Rahul Patel, who stood safely on the ground.

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