Can the way a park is conceptualised or a residential block is shaped create happier citizens? One of the first planned settlements and the only ungated Parsi baug in Mumbai, the Dadar Parsi Colony proves it can. Megha Shah finds that its layout is a study in the effects of meticulous urban design on the habits and dynamics of a community

In the 1890s, the bubonic plague or the Black Death took many lives in Mumbai. It also gave the city one of its most anomalous residential precincts: the Dadar Parsi Colony.

To decongest the main city (now known as South Mumbai) and to create hygienic living spaces, the British government was forced to launch initiatives that expanded the city’s limits to Dadar and Sion, tilting it toward a fresh civic ideal. Although an overarching framework for urban development never found fruition, Mumbai’s first planned urban settlements in Dadar, Matunga and Wadala were conceived, and at their centre, the Dadar Parsi Colony (or DPC, as the residents call it fondly) flourished into a collectivistic dream thanks to the efforts of the visionary meliorist Mancherji Edulji Joshi. He persuaded the authorities to set aside a 100 or so plots for the middle-class Parsis and drew a blueprint of a better place, detailed right down to the type of tree to be planted here.

I stand before a marble bust of him — his moustache forming a perfect triangle with his mouth — at one of the many entrances to DPC on a Friday morning. Behind me, there are environs of noise and disorder. Discernible swirls of pollution choke man and animal at the busy Dadar TT circle; but ahead lies the promise of a satisfying self-organised urbanity. My earliest tryst with a Parsi baug was while dropping two of my carpool mates to their homes in Khareghat Colony on Hughes Road after school. The permanently closed gates would only be opened if one of them popped their heads out of the window and were recognised by the watchman (even though this was a daily ritual). It was the most beautifully arranged patch of urban planning that I encountered in the day — if only for a few seconds. Today, I plan to take my time.

I walk towards the famed Five Gardens, and a pleasing aura of pious intent rises from its placid tree-lined streets that branch out in angular directions. Dog walkers tug a dozen gambolling pooches, young men ride around on scooters calling out to each other with an affectionate string of cuss words, and teenagers armed with HPY (Holiday Programme for Youth) badges — the newest candidates for utopian optimism — courteously approach passers-by to inform them of a blood drive for residents. A row of Parsi-topi-wearing young boys, barely a couple of feet tall — the next generation of Zoroastrian priests — hurry towards the local madressa, the same one that rock icon and lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, attended while he was a resident. The buildings with saucer-shaped balconies — some art deco, others neoclassical, all unique — carry signs like ‘No Parking’ or ‘No Courier’.

Residents insist there’s a noticeable temperature drop as you cross the invisible boundaries separating the colony from the rest of the city. “This was, after all, a jungle,” says Zareen Engineer, the granddaughter of Joshi, an endlessly polite and poised 73-year-old with coiffed hair and a pleasant smile. “Monkeys owned this area.” We are sitting in her sprawling flat in a building that can be visually divided into two halves; the first few floors were built in an older architectural style with vintage banisters and stairways, the top half that was added later is more modern “and ugly” in design. Zareen’s apartment is located in the original structure and reflects the stylish sensibilities of the time: mosaic tiles, clean lines and angels engraved into the walls and ceilings. The living room, with a towering cabinet of knick-knacks that tells the story of three generations’, leads into a whitewashed balcony overlooking the gardens.

“Mancherji was a civil engineer who worked for the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) for 30 years. He noticed that people from other states were migrating to Bombay (now Mumbai) and that Fort — where all the Parsis used to live — was turning into a business district with builders aggressively lobbying for high-rises.” She sets down a tray with a bright orange sharbat on it for me and continues, “He saw the need to provide affordable housing for middle-class Parsis and because he was reputed to be honest and hardworking, he drew the attention of the people and the authorities and won the community this land. But he was not an influential man, he was middle class, he wasn’t able to wall this community.” And so DPC remains the only unwalled baug (meaning ‘garden’ in Persian) among the few dozen gated communities that exist in Mumbai, like Colaba’s Cusrow Baug, famous for its many Bollywood shoots, and Jogeshwari’s Malcolm Baug, known for its lawn-kissed cottages. “His rules were that no building could be more than two storeys high and that there should be 15 feet of open space around every building. And even before a single one was constructed, he lined the streets with trees, each street with only one kind. So, Jame Jamshed Road has Ashoka trees and Firdausi Road has mahogany, and spring or autumn comes at the same time to each road, carpeting the floor with flowers or leaves of the same colour.” Nature too must follow order here.

“Once he built the colony, there were ‘For Sale’ signboards on the buildings for years, but nobody wanted to come to Dadar, because it was perceived as being too far. I remember most of my mummy’s friends lived in Fort, and they used to go for dinner there. When my parents would invite them for dinner over here on a Sunday, the reaction was: ‘Oh my god, all the way there, who’s going to come?!’” But come they did — 10,000 Parsis at last count — making DPC the largest Zoroastrian enclave in the world.

I hit the bylanes again, visiting some of the places that Kaevan Umrigar — a resident who conducts guided walks for outsiders through Khaki Tours — told me about over the phone. I walk past Ready Money building, named after the proprietors, the Readymoney family, who developed deep pockets selling opium and were ready sources of money for the British whenever they needed it (it’s not uncommon to find Parsi surnames based on livelihoods or circumstances; another family, the Petits, according to legend, got their moniker because of a short gentleman working as a French translator, who was often called petit — or ‘small’ in French). The large compound of that charitable building complex was once a tennis court but is now used as a parking lot for rows and rows of the residents’ cars — often the most prized possessions of a Parsi.

I walk past the community hall which, due to a lack of funds, is being let out to the Maharashtrian community residing nearby for events. Ironically, pictures of the donors, some of the staunchest Zoroastrians in history, continue to frame the walls watching over the Maharashtrian wedding ceremonies that regularly take place within them. Next, I enter the local library that boasts 10,000 books in English and Gujarati, but a curmudgeon finds some joy in shooing me off the premises on account of my not being Parsi. As the photographer accompanying me clicks away, a septuagenarian woman in a nightgown totters to the window of a building nearby and bellows, “Why don’t you take pictures of those bloody walkers with dogs who don’t carry the scoops instead.” Before disappearing into her living room, she mutters, “Poop, poop everywhere.” But there’s no poop to be found. There’s hardly any litter or dust or potholes even.

“We have very strong relations with the municipal corporation, and we’re even on WhatsApp with them,” says Kayomi Engineer, Zareen’s daughter-in-law and founder of the Instagram page @dadarparsicolony, which documents spots of beauty within the area. “Because they know, ‘Hum kachra nahi uthayega toh ek Parsi phone karega, phir doosra Parsi phone karegaTe phone karat rahanar’ (‘If we don’t pick up the trash, one Parsi will call, then another, and they will keep calling’). So, bawas often run to the F North ward of the BMC because some road has a crack or some tree has fallen.  It gets the work done. When we have sweepers come here every morning, someone will shout, ‘Oh boss, woh patta uthao, woh kachra uthao’ (‘…pick up that leaf, pick up that trash’). For us it’s been like, ‘Oh god, Freni is shouting again about the kachra’. But now, I have come to be Freni’s age, and I understand why she has been shouting all this time. So, over the last few years, WhatsApp has been able to bridge that gap between generations and it has given us a way to reach out to the municipality,” she says pragmatically.

“The local municipal corporator for the area is a Don Bosco boy who grew up in DPC, so he knows what it is like to sit at Rustom Tirandaz Garden and what it means when a Parsi calls up and says, ‘These boys from Wadala are sitting and chugging bottles, shoo them away’. On the days I need to get my work done at the A ward municipal corporation office, I put on my Shivaji T-shirt and walk in and say, ‘Namaskar sahib, sarva chan (all well)?’ and then he’ll say, ‘Arré, kashi aahe (how are you), namaskar Engineer madam.’”

She’s wearing an elegant, sleeveless dress with her hair pinned up neatly and is full of vigour about things like art, architecture and the meaning of life. “I was brought up in an environment where things like art and culture mattered more than just running after money.” She has several anecdotes to share, and as we walk from one tidy street to the next, she tells me about the time that ‘Willy’ — William Dalrymple — dropped by her house for breakfast because he’d never tasted akuri or the time she travelled to Israel and an airport personnel asked to shake her hand because he’d never met a Parsi before.

She points out a house that has Masonic symbols engraved into its design, an indication of the cult the residents used to be a part of. She tells me about the Panchgani Garden (there are a total of 14 gardens in DPC, this one makes you feel like you’re in Panchgani, apparently), a large tree-filled space taken over by senior citizens for their walks and which holds beneath the grass the water supply for the entire colony in an underground tank; and about the DPYA (Dadar Parsee Youths Assembly) school, which earlier used to be a resting place for the deceased, allowing people to pay their respects. The building, since it wasn’t used too often, was converted into a school (by the trust it is named after) — the sort of social tinkering informed by logic and need that much of the city outside lacks. Kayomi, who has worked on restoration projects in Kala Ghoda, is an aficionado of buildings and design. “Sometimes, when I meet architects or builders, I very presumptuously say, ‘Can you please put an Islamic panel or a kalamkari motif?’ Because that building is going to be there for generations, for everybody to see. So why not make it a little pretty?”

She waves at a couple riding on a scooter with their child, a common sight in DPC, which stretches from Matunga to Wadala and has different postal codes from one end to the next. “I have met a couple of octogenarians who grew up in a particular building here, then another one came up so they lived in that one for a bit, and then went and lived down the road in another, by working out a lease with a landlord. What a lovely way to grow up! Within one district, you could be your own tourist.”

“The Hindu Colony, which was planned in parallel to the DPC, doesn’t look the same,” says Kayomi. “Parsis at that time were slightly more…if I may say it without sounding impolite…well-cultured; they could hire the better architects. The bawajis held the paisa, so they could hire the right architects and contractors who built these glorious buildings. Lesser architects began replicating these in the Hindu Colony, but the Gujaratis, with their large families, needed more apartments. Today, when I walk to the Hindu Colony, I feel like I’m in a war-torn country. My very sweet friend from the A ward office says to me often, ‘Mumbaiche atirikt shilpkar tumhich Parsi log aahat’ (‘You Parsis are the foremost architects of Mumbai’).”

This reminds me of the famous tale, part of Parsi folklore, which Zareen had recounted earlier. The Zoroastrians of Persia (modern-day Iran) fled to avoid forceful conversion by the Islamic invaders and landed in Gujarat by sea. Because of the language barrier, King Jadi Rana brought out a glass full to the brim with milk to explain that there were too many people in his land already. The Zoroastrian priests then promptly added a spoonful of sugar into the milk to show how easily they would blend in among them and also sweeten the land, helping it prosper with their presence. “I think we’ve made good on that promise,” Zareen had smiled, looking around.

The pursuit of perfectionism becomes evident after spending just a few hours in the colony. Typically earnest, typically urbane, it’s a sentiment that you perceive more powerfully than any visual, and there is a clearly-defined community life that smacks strongly of ‘we’, due in part to the sad reality that Zoroastrians are fighting the extinction of their faith, a monotheistic religion that most scholars say is at least 3,000 years old. A 2004 survey, by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, estimated a maximum of a 1,90,000 Zoroastrians in the world, of which about 70,000 resided in India — where they are called Parsis — with Mumbai acting as the global epicentre. The number is much smaller now — 57,000 according to a 2011 India census. So, survival has become a community obsession and has led to their congregating among themselves, continuing to discourage intermarriage and withdrawing into their adopted zones. The only area that doesn’t seem physically and psychologically divorced from the rest of the city at DPC is the Five Gardens, where ‘non-Parsis’ abound. How a place can open up to a new phase of social confluence without ever changing its beliefs over a century is the real story of the Dadar Parsi Colony. Making and remaking itself not from the top-down but from the ‘people up’. While many from the community have flourished economically, this is also a place where the less fortunate can find affordable housing with luxurious amenities and space since it’s owned by trusts and co-operatives — and Mumbai’s desperate population eyes it greedily. “Mumbai is becoming this megapolis of culture. It’s giving rise to so many urban issues, which is why I use the Instagram account to remind the people of DPC that you have to learn to take care of this, because there is nothing of the sort anywhere else.”

“I haven’t grown up here, so I view things differently,” says Perzen Patel, known popularly in the blogosphere as Bawi Bride, who married into DPC and often conducts cooking classes in her home to teach Parsi staples like kheema (minced meat) kebabs and her grandma’s Parsi fish curry. “In a typical day, all sorts of vendors from the pav wala (bread seller) to fish, mutton and bhangaar wala (scrap collector) come to the doorstep to sell their wares. There’s also the old Parsi uncle who lands up every now and then to sell bhakras (hard cakes) and other Parsi snacks.” Interestingly, doodh wala bhaiyas (milkmen) and the Parsi-Times-distributing bhaiyas all hail from Uttar Pradesh but speak fluent Gujarati.

It’s a place where everyone knows everyone. A child playing in a garden can run up the stairs to a nearby building and ask to use the bathroom, and neither party would flinch. “The best part for me is being so close to other Parsis,” says Patel. “I don’t have to teach my kids how to be Parsi — they learn it through osmosis.” At the heart of community socialisation is the Dadar Parsee Colony Gymkhana, where people of all ages unfailingly land up every evening. “For many, coming to the Gymkhana is as much part of their daily routine as brushing their teeth is, and, as an outsider, it’s just amazing watching how deep these relationships go.” The more time I spend with the people here, I recognise that this is a place with porous membranes. It’s possible to spend hours wandering in and out of doors, in and out of social spaces, and in and out of doctrines of thought.

Something entirely evident at the newest hang-out in DPC, Café 792; partners Jahan Nargolwala (whose father owns Colaba staple Leopold Cafe and Bar and Cafe Universal in Fort) and Zubin Zaveri have converted an old home into a tony alfresco cafe. They don’t have a licence to cook food, so they supply home-made food made by 14 different locals. The home-cooks are sent orders weeks in advance, and the daily menu consistently changes. On some days, there’s fish cutlet and sali chicken, on others there’s dhansak and diced steak with pepper sauce. Their bestseller, though, is the chocolate eclair. At evening time, the (three) tables are churning with conversation. People pull up chairs around each other and order tall glasses of iced tea. Some are on their way back home from work and want to pack a rus chawal to take home for dinner, others just saunter in to use the toilet. “I know what it’s like to be walking around on a hot day and really needing to pee,” says Nargolwala good-naturedly. “My husband jokes that this is a charitable institution, because we don’t let our friends pay and we are friends with half of the colony!” she laughs. “Most of the people in the colony are born and raised here. Most of my friends have gotten married to their childhood friends. My school friends can’t understand how we can meet every day; how we can go with the same people for dinner, holiday with the same people; our kids are also together all the time, it’s just like a big fat family.”

And even though there’s plenty of chatter and activity, the space represents quietude of a different kind. Time seems better spent at DPC, like there’re more minutes in every hour. I slow down, I feel calm, I have a cell phone…somewhere. The 21st century is somewhere else, and can stay there for now. I remember what Kayomi had told me earlier. “Geographically, if you look at a map, DPC is in the centre of the city. So if you think of it philosophically, it’s a nice inspiration. A good reminder. That in the centre of all this madness that is Mumbai, at a poetic level, there is Utopia.”

Published on Verve