Articles

CARMICHAEL RD.

SUNDAY TIMES OF INDIA, JULY 26, 1998

'THE BEVERLY HILLS
OF MUMBAI': The
genteel and green
pocketborough of
Carmichael Rd., with
'The Cliff' to the right
and Darbhanga
Mansion to the left.

Mumbai's high-fliers call it 'the best mile in this hundred-mile city MUMBAI: In a metropolis bursting with sterile skyscrapers and shantytowns, there are stray pockets that offer an exhilarating glimpse of old-world charm and gracious living. Like the sylvan, snakes-and- Iadders pocketborough of Carmichael Road, arguably the best address in town.

Now officially called M.L. Dahanukar Marg after one of its noted old Indian residents, it is still bejewelled with colonial-style bungalows and apartment houses and is home to some of Mumbai's rich and famous - the Homi Mody family, the Commissariats, the Dahanukars, the Lalbhais, the Walchands and the Morarjees, to name a few. Then there are the consuls, bureaucrats and businesspersons, film stars, musicians and painters - all of whom seem to cherish living there.

"After all, this is Bombay's Beverly Hills," chuckles the high-flying Kali Homi Mody, brother to ex-Steelman Russi and the late architect-parliamentarian Piloo. "It's the best mile in this 100-mile city. I would not give up my bit of it for anything."

Not even for the king's ransom that he is routinely offered for his 9,000-sq-ft "bit" of an apartment in The Cliff, a grand, three-storey, colonial house built by Victor Rosenthal, an emigre Austrian-Jewish jeweller. "Where else can one drink a sundowner sitting in a 1,000-sq-ft terrace-garden that overlooks houses designed by George Wittet and Claude Batley?" ask the 75-year-old Bob Hope-Iookalike. His American wife, Nina Schneider, offers her guest the 'house special' - a nimbu pani made with the juice of California lemons grown in her roof-garden.

"This place spoils you for others," agrees their sister- in-law Siloo, who came to Carmichael Road as Russi Mody's bride in 1944. "At that time, we lived down the lane in 'Spiro Spero', the house that my mother and father-in-law Jerbai and Homi Mody built in '43 and which now houses the Japanese consulate," says Siloo.

"Our wedding reception was the first party that my in- laws hosted in their new house on Cumballa Hill, which was built in the style of a neo-classical Spanish villa. I remember being overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all - the ten-suite, ten-garage house with its splendid stairway and atrium, the garden setting, the view across the town to the sea," she reminisces. The Mody family sold Spiro Spero and moved to the Cliff (which they bought for "about Rs 10 lakhs", incidentally), some months after Sir Homi's death in 1969.

Carmichael Road was an exclusive resort in the good old days with a few stately homes dotting the lush hillslopes. Many of these houses were built it, the '30s and early '40s, "each for about Rs 1 lakh or so", notes Bharat' Dahanukar whose grandfather, M.L. Dahanukar, built their house here in 1938 for Rs 1.4 lakhs. The Boyce family spent Rs 1.5 lakhs on their Villa Hormuzd. With its enclosed garden- courtyard, verandahs adorned with precious Tiptoon ceramic plaques and multi-windowed bedrooms under a pergola, the villa is the loveliest this writer has seen in all Mumbai.

Apart from the built space, artist Mehli Gobhai loves the smells of the trees here. He has grown up in the genteel Darbhanga Mansion, which boasts miles of Minton-tiled floorspace and stunning stained-glass windows. It is an abode fit for an artist - lovely light, inspiring surroundings. "Often, when we went for walks as kids, we'd have peacocks prancing along with us. These creatures could be seen here right up to the early 1960s," the painter rewinds as we amble around the precinct looking and sniffing at some of his favourite foliage. But soon after, the peacocks fled and the slums c]imbed up the hill instead. And then came the first skyscraper. Usha Kiran was born in 1965 and the city lost its flat belly forever.

"Be that as it may, Carmichael Road is still old-world and very architectural," avers one-time resident Sharad Kale, who recently retired as Mumbai Port Trust chairman. This, despite an unfortunate new tendency to gild the lily - like replacing the antique wooden awnings of Darbhanga Mansion with fibre glass shades on the ground floor, erecting a painted railing around North End and installing a post- modern wooden gate that takes away from Batley's Labhai Bungalow, a striking stone house built with basalt excavated from the very hillspot on which it stands.

Mr Kale has been "a very happy Carmichael Road resident", having lived in the 1920s municipal commissioner's bungalow, and at North End, the official residence of the Port Trust chairman, built in 1918. This is the Wittet house that Kali Mody can see from his terrace. Wittet is the architect who designed Ballard Estate, the Prince of Wales Museum and the Gateway of India. "It was an exhilarating experience living in these two heritage houses, in elegant, yet sturdy and comfortable structures," he enthuses. "Their walls oozed history and their artefacts highlighted the splendid craftsmanship of yore."

Mr Kale (like Sadashiv Tinaikar before him) hosted several concerts in the regal, wooden-floored durbar hall in the commissioner's bungalow and tea parties on the excellent lawns of North End. "Most of my neighbours would come and when we weren't listening to music, we'd discuss the. state of the city," he chuckles.While the state of the rest of the city is nothing to write home about, Carmichael Road is in pretty good shape. No hawkers, ho street-side stalls. "We don't need them. We simply send the driver to Breach Candy to pick up fruit or to Bhaji Galli at Grant Road for veggies," quips Parveez Aggarwal who lives in . the swanky Kamal Mahal. The pavements are clear and clean - a double boon granted by the Carmichael Road Residents' Association headed by the ever-resourceful Dilip Patel who takes pains to keep the neighbourhood spic 'n span.

Little wonder then that almost all the residents, young and old, are great walkers. Come evening, and they are out in full force - cute coeds walking in groups, courting couples walking hand-in-hand, Gobhai. walking with his dog, Jamini Ahluwalia speeding along in time to the music on her Walkman,' Bilasha Lalbhai strolling with her young children. Some time ago, there was a Japanese consul called Suzuki who walked diligently every day, and always with an umbrella. "We called him the Chatriwala Consul," laughs Mr Dahanukar. "He was a great guy, far from deadpan, very un-Japanese."

There may be no visible signs of community life on Carmichael Road, unlike in Girgaum or Gamdevi, but it has a strong sense of community, says Mr Kale. The locals are not strangers to each other. Some party together, others meet on walks, many interact at the association's monthly meeting and almost all of them play Holi together. Not a bad scene, really.