Meher Marfatia: Whose lane is it anyway?

1When a blue and white sign says Pasta Lane, you’re forgiven for dreaming of la bella Italia’s delectable staple dish. Google too predictably throws up: ‘World War II Italian prisoners of war, after release, settled here, setting up bakeries making pasta, savouries and cakes.’
In actual fact, this quartet of lanes off Colaba Causeway has zip to do with anything remotely Italian. Pasta Lanes 1, 2, 3 and 4 are a decidedly desi throwback to a Bhatia family lauded for philanthropy in their native Kutch and business centre Bombay. ‘The name of Sheth Goculdas Liladhur Pasta stands high on the list of those who upheld the fair fame of the City of Bombay’ reads the opening line on the stalwart profiled in Representative Men of the Bombay Presidency. I turn pages of this rare volume with Goculdas Pasta’s great grandson at a midtown café. It’s strange hearing the benign 65-year-old break into Gujarati when I’ve pictured Pasta as someone entirely European.

Goculdas’ ancestor Sheth Mohanjee arrived in the city around 1855 to trade as a cotton merchant — ‘He won the title of “pasta”, or “prince”, on account of his generosity, and this cognomen is borne by his descendants.’ Honouring the trust the British invested in them, Goculdas and his son Madhavdas inherited that charitable bent to sponsor civic services, temples, dharamshalas, wells, tanks and plantations.

Another pair of lanes behind Chitra Cinema in Dadar is named after the Pastas. But I decide to start exploring these eponymous four.

Colourful, crowded, complex, it’s hard imagining the gullies as once dramatically different. Colaba Island had just 50 inhabitants, isolated by swelling tides till the 1838 Causeway connection. A New Account of East India and Persia, by J. Fryer, notes Colaba being ‘of no profit but to keep the Company’s antelopes and other beasts of delight’.
A far cry from the rush and crush of the Causeway today. Though centrally situated, lane residents revel in their seclusion from main street mayhem. “Barring the Ganpati feast when these lanes go mad competing for the biggest pandal,” groans a friend.

Capped at six storeys, most buildings came up between 1930 and 1950. Exceptions from the 1920s include Brady’s No. 10 of Lane 1, Shree Krishna of Lane 2, Porbunder Castle of Lane 3 and Kismet of Lane 4. Low roofs bring their own rewards — “We wake to an orchestra in our bird paradise!” an old-timer exults. “Crows caw from four in the morning, joined by koels at six, parakeets next. And sparrows still chirrup here.” Gazing up at Ashoka boughs that cast cool shadows at my feet, I even spot a circling kite.

Lane 1 hangs right after Sorab Bharucha Marg (occasionally known as 0 Pasta Lane, where nine elegant Brady’s Blocks cluster). It is heralded by corner-hugging Chandu Halwai, the mithai chain around longer than most, informs Ganesh Kamath, who manages this branch. Beside is Kailash Parbat, begun by the Mulchandani brothers who fled Karachi with basic pots and pans to mix ragda sold from a humble handcart, before serving Bombay their success story.

A familiar adjacent fixture completes this tangy ethnic food triangle: Ashok Mirchandani’s appetising planks-on-wheels array of kitchen-fresh papads, pickles and wadis. Typical treats are basar ka achaar – tiny whole onions marinated in mustard seeds and oil eaten with sai bhaji, kheecha —dried rice crisps, and bhee ka kachri — deep fried lotus stem. His father Daulatram set this up in 1970 and Ashok rides the miles daily from Ulhasnagar to follow in his footsteps.

Dr Prakash Shetty of Lane 1 explains each gully has a residents’ association. President of the first, he says, “We got rid of garages, fought eateries encroaching with kitchens which were a fire hazard, yet our lanes aren’t clean as earlier.” His home stretch boasts a burst of a tender green garden facing Baba Issardas Darbar prayer hall.
Lane 2 pulls you into a kitschy quilt of parlours, godowns, tenements and stray housing societies. Blossom in the dust, a Sai Baba temple has risen on a plot which was a stinky dump. Diagonally across, I approach a one-time “house of ill repute” as food critic Antoine Lewis delicately describes. Growing up a lane beyond, he finds the essential character of the place intact. “The lanes enjoy great cosmopolitanism but changing community profiles. The Jains, for instance, have always lived with Bohris, Sindhis, Parsis, Catholics, Jews and Punjabis. Starting from kirana and hardware shops, they’ve diversified into jewellery and mobile phone outlets.”

Lanes 3 and 4, linked by Cawasji Jehangir Road, prove interesting. Neither residence-rowed like Lane 1 nor commercial like Lane 2, their locals clearly know insider history. Everyone from passing delivery men to long-time tenants sidle up with snippets… “That locked yellow kothi door stores wood, but used to be Comfort Library with thousands of titles for us 1970s kids.” “The gas company was Irani restaurant Roshan.” “This was Pranlal Bhogilal’s vintage car warehouse.”

Maratha Stores continues going strong since 1945. Close to a century old, Porbunder Castle looks deceptively modern after sliding windows replaced its beautiful balconies that sadly, simply fell off with age. Happy Cycle Shop in Lane 3 is Colaba’s sole such after two in the bazaar shut. Dsouza’s garage now hawks chai and Chinese. The swank Star supermarket has clients but people prefer phoning their bania for deliveries. Cafe Shanghai fronted Pasta Lane 4 before being rented by Canara and UCO Bank. Imbiss in Pipewala Building went through serial avatars — Hina dance bar, Hawaiian Shack and Bootleggers.

Laburnum-lined but bereft of well remembered wider pavements, Cawasji Jehangir Road ends in Namdar Manzil. Its flats exclusively for defence forces, the property formerly belonged to Benazir Bhutto’s family. Referring to his as Lane 3 ½ (a parallel strip not to be confused with C J Road), Zahir Fatehi declares he loves the Art Deco architecture around Lalchand Mansion where he greets “80 per cent of original neighbours”. No compound walls enclose these buildings, so parking is a contentious issue.

Tales of two Lane 4 trees are told. The family of 1946-established Akbar Motors speaks of a “bunder se bhara badam ka jhaad”.

Thieving-for-gold monkeys caused havoc in Sunrise building opposite this almond tree. Sunrise, incidentally, was home to Rohinton Mistry’s tuition teacher Moti Dalal, popularly called Baby Auntie by Campion School boys and Fort Convent girls, and dubbed The Duchess by the novelist.

A second story comes from Esther Silliman and her Sindh-born husband Hira Malaney, occupants of Kismet’s fourth floor from 1962 to 1998. Hawks nested in the peepul tree brushing their mosaic-tiled terrace which treated them to unobstructed views all the way to Governor’s House. A barber shaving customers in its shade spied a root that resembled an elephant’s foot. Cashing in on the discovery, he created a Ganesh idol over the natural growth. The self-styled tantrik’s ruse got easy prey “worshippers” to leave money offerings.

The Malaneys’ was among the first flats furnished by Chippendale in Bombay. “Kismet was a haven I miss,” Esther says, sitting in the sprawling NCPA Apartments home they moved to. “We had warm times in that small house with a round-pebbled outdoor stone rockery.” She recalls pushing her babies’ pram on Cuffe Parade’s pedestrian promenade before the fishing colony sprang up.

“We still order sodas for parties from Joseph & Co. in our old lane,” Hira says, forwarding me to Moses Joseph. At 58, the proprietor of this 43-year-old provisions hub is proud he introduced the shop as a teenager, studying for SSC exams at its counter.

“I was young but wanted to be enterprising,” he says — quietly asserting the spirit of a city as it was, as it is.

Published on MidDay

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