Jewish Bombay (1): Baghdadi Jews and the Sassoon Family

A little down the road from my field site there is a cemetery with an entrance plaque that reads: “Set apart for ever by Elias David Sassoon Esq in January 1878 as a Jewish burial ground in memory of his beloved son Joseph, who died at Shanghai in China”.

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Plaque outside Jewish Cemetary on Delisle Road (N M Joshi Marg)

So who was Elias David Sassoon, and what was his son doing in Shanghai? Both questions cut deep into the heart of Bombay history in a surprising way.

The Sassoons were a family of Middle Eastern Jewish bankers, often called the “Rothschilds of the East”, who initially rose to prominence in Baghdad. Following a change in political climate, patriarch David Sassoon fled to Bombay in the 1830s and rapidly established a business empire, based partly on the textile trade. He lived in a handsome residence in Byculla, now reincarnated as the Masina Hospital (named after Parsi philanthropist Jerbai Masina), and the family have left a visible legacy across Bombay’s built environment.

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Masina Hospital, formerly the private residence of David Sassoon

This includes two beautiful synagogues: the Magen David synagogue in Byculla, built by David Sassoon himself, and the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue in Kala Ghoda built by his grandson Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon. They are a testament to the growing “Baghdadi” Jewish community in 19th Century Mumbai, drawn from Middle Eastern centres of Jewry such as Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo. Both are still operational today, although the Baghdadi community has dwindled to microscopic levels following emigration to Israel and the West.

Better known is the David Sassoon Library, initially a Mechanics’ Institute which was funded by David Sassoon and completed in 1870. Still functioning as a popular library, its garden provides a magical setting for panel discussions during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in February. Further south, off Cuffe Parade, are the Sassoon Docks, established by David’s son Albert Sassoon. Although now a fish market, it was initially Bombay’s first “wet” dock, which facilitated the loading of cotton, thus playing a vital part in the cotton trade which dominated Bombay’s economy from the late 19th century until the mill strikes of 1982-3. Indeed, the Sassoons were heavily involved in Bombay’s cotton industry, opening several mills under the auspices of “E D Sassoon and Company” (named after Elias David who we met at the entrance to the cemetery) which were later nationalised under Indira Gandhi as the India United Mills 1-6. One of these has been razed to make way for an Ambedkar Memorial while another is slated for a textile museum.

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Inside Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue

Like many of Bombay’s heavyweight cotton merchants, the Sassoon family had originally plied another trade, which brings us back the Shanghai question. It is an uncomfortable fact that many of Bombay’s philanthropists, such as Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a venerable Parsi who established the Sir J J School of Art and Sir J J Hospital, made much of their money through trading opium in China. Sir David Sassoon was no exception, and in the 1840s branches of David Sassoon and Co were established in Hong Kong and Shanghai primarily to expand the family narcosphere. The human cost of this trade, and the far-reaching effects of the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars, are important topics that I’m simply not able to do justice to here, except to reiterate that Bombay’s grand tradition of public philanthropy was not without a serious dark side. Likewise, I will leave it to the interested reader to do further research on the close relationship between the Sassoon family and the city of Shanghai.

It would be doing the Baghdadi community a disservice to focus only on the Sassoons, although I will note in passing that the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon was a great-grandson of David Sassoon; that the hair stylist Vidal Sassoon was not; and that another iconic Mumbai landmark, the Gateway of India, was in part financed by Sassoon Jacob Hai David, the son-in-law of Elias David Sassoon.

A rather surprising arena in which Baghdadi Jewish talent flourished was that of film, and some of the earliest Indian film heroines came from Baghdadi families at a time when acting was mostly taboo for women in other communities. These include many from the silent era who could not transition to the age of sound due to lack of spoken Hindi, as Baghdadi families tended to speak Judeo-Arabic, or later English, at home. However, renowned Jewish Hindi film actresses include Sulochana (the stage name for Ruby Myers) and Baghdad-born Nadira (Florence Ezekiel) – both of whom can be seen playing Anglo-Indian women in the 1975 Bollywood hit Julie. Meanwhile Pramila, born Esther Victoria Abraham to a Baghdadi family in Kolkata, became the first Miss India.

Other famous Baghdadi Jews (not all of whose families came through Bombay) include David Marshall, first Chief Minister of Singapore; J F R Jacob, who led the Indian Army in the 1971 Bangladesh War; and, through his mother’s side, sculptor Anish Kapoor. Another talented figure in Bombay’s creative landscape, the poet Nissim Ezekiel, was also Jewish, but belonged to the city’s other sizeable Jewish community, the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel…

At this point I’m going to leave the story, but I very much hope to pick it up in a Part 2 at a later date!

Zoroastrian relics: Bombay’s Irani Cafés

You will notice that in this piece I use “Bombay” rather than “Mumbai”. Somehow it seems more appropriate to the subject matter.

The Zoroastrian community is one of the things that makes Bombay special. The fact that the dominant religion of the ancient Persian empire should now survive in a handful of tiny communities, mostly in India, is bizarre in itself. But that the biggest of these communities, in Bombay, has acquired a legendary status for its levels of education, wealth and philanthropic contribution to the public good is truly remarkable.

Those wanting an introduction to the Parsi community should look elsewhere (this documentary, for example [start at 2:20] or Tanya Lurhmann’s ethnography The Good Parsi). As a barebones summary, Parsi is the name given to the descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Islamic persecution in Persia between the 8th and 10th centuries. They initially settled in Gujarat but many later shifted to Bombay, partly at the behest of the British East India Company which regarded them as skilled and reliable allies. Parsis who thrived in Bombay included noted industrialists and philanthropists such as the Tata family and political heavyweights like Dadabhai Naoroji who co-founded the Indian National Congress and also became Britain’s first Asian MP.

But what does any of this have to do with cafés? Well, my first sentence, where I talk about the Zoroastrian “community”, is a little misleading. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a second wave of Zoroastrians left Iran, notably Yazd and Kerman province, for India (whether this was a response to persecution or famine is a debate I won’t enter into). While this community, referred to as Irani, boasts its fair share of actors, journalists and even a famous mystic (Meher Baba), the most visible contribution it has made to Indian life, especially in Bombay, is the Irani café.

Cashing in on an apparent reluctance of Hindus to open businesses on corners (at least this is what I’ve been told, although I suspect this is a slightly simplistic reading of the vastu shastra, or ancient Hindu science of architecture) enterprising Iranis began to set up little corner cafes in the early 20th century. These joints became a staple of street life in cities like Pune, Hyderabad, Karachi and, above all, South Bombay.

I first became aware of Iranis in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, where he describes them as places with “the simplest of menus” that “serve time and shade”. Since reading that in 2005, I have made a point of seeking Iranis whenever I am in Bombay and making tentative forays into their “simple” menus. In fact I rarely get beyond the delicious bun maska, a soft bun generously slathered with butter and sliced, which I prefer to the harder “brun” variant. The best example I’ve so far found is at the Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery, an unassuming place dating from the 1950s in the Fort area. I must admit, however, that I haven’t really developed a taste for Irani chai, which is even sweeter than its Indian counterpart and has, for me, an overpowering cardamom flavour.

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Bentwood chairs and chequered tablecoths at Kyani & Co (credit: localpress.co.in)

Another Irani staple is that highly flavoursome family of rice dishes, pulao (see my post on rice for an etymological diversion). I recently sampled a delicious, saffron-laced kheema pulao, made with minced mutton, at one of the oldest surviving Iranis, Kyani & Co (since 1904), in Kalbadevi. With glass-topped chequered tablecloths, bentwood chairs, mirrored columns and ancient ceiling fans, Kyani & Co fulfils most Irani stereotypes. More of these include large jars of biscuits, trays of eggs, old adverts for multigrain biscuits, a beautiful tiled floor, and some discrete Zoroastrian iconography on the walls.

About 30 minutes walk up the same road, passing a magnificent agiary (Parsi fire temple), is the smaller, shabbier Café de la Paix (named after its Paris counterpart). This one has the feel of a tiny refuge for its elderly Parsi and Irani clientele. One of these, a magnificent eccentric, talked to me for nearly an hour in delightfully eloquent English in which he referred to trains “disgorging” passengers, quoted Larkin’s “This be the Verse” and treated me to all manner of largely unrepeatable quips, such as “The two problems with this country are elections and erections”. He zigzagged between Richard Burton and Richard Dawkins, Tennyson and Trump, and told me that he grew up speaking Gujarati but also Dari, the distinctive form of Farsi spoken by the Zoroastrians of Yazd.

Arguably two of the most well-known Iranis have strayed furthest from their roots. No discussion of the topic would be complete without a reference to the world-famous Britannia, popular with Bollywood stars and British Royals. I have no doubt that the food deserves every bit of the praise lavished on it, but I’m afraid my only visit lasted about two minutes until I discovered they served neither chai nor bun maska (which was all I was looking for at the time). Equally famous Leopold Cafe, on Colaba Causeway, has long since become a bar, hugely popular with tourists and office workers but with very few obvious Irani resonances. I can recommend the chicken wings, but there are cheaper and more interesting places to drink in the vicinity.

Not all Irani restaurants, I understand, are run by Zoroastrians. I’ve been reliably informed that some are run by Iranian Muslims, which is also the case for the famous Irani cafes of Hyderabad. I’ve even heard tantalising rumours of some Baha’i-run cafes, both in Mumbai and Karachi, but haven’t yet had a chance to investigate this intriguing possibility further (more, perhaps, to follow).

Bastani and coThe much lamented Bastani & Co

Sadly, the Irani restaurants are a dying breed. Many have already closed down, like Bastani and Co, pictured above, whose infamous list of prohibitions, such as “No talking to cashier”, “No sitting long”, “No match sticks” and “No leg on chair” inspired a verse from Bombay poet Nissim Ezekiel. Others have been turned into bars, or have lost out to competition from chains such as Café Coffee Day and Barista, or simply suffered from the next generation’s lack of interest. An unlikely reincarnation exists in the UK chain Dishoom, that has managed to create an intoxicatingly glamorous approximation of an Irani restaurant at each of its outlets. Academic and blogger Simin Patel (see Bombaywalla), who acts as a historical consultant for Dishoom, is also working with Hashim Badani on a book about Irani Cafes which promises to be a worthy tribute to a glorious and zany tradition. For now, if you’re in Bombay and you haven’t been to an Irani, please get a move on!

Delisle Road BDD Chawls

This is the first in an occasional series on Bombay/Mumbai, where I am spending 2017 conducting fieldwork as part of a PhD in linguistic anthropology. I am specifically interested in language, identity and urban change in the former cotton mill districts of the city. However, I reserve the right to write whatever and whenever I damn well please!

I first heard of the BDD chawls from an architect friend. If you’re interested in Mumbai’s changing neighbourhoods, he said, you should visit the BDD chawls. His description of the long drawn out wrangling over their proposed re-development reminded me a little of Battersea Power Station and, intrigued, I headed over to middle-class Worli neighbourhood to find them.

The chawl is a Mumbai housing archetype. The canonical chawl is a densely-packed block of tiny tenements or kholis (literally: room) accessed from external corridors. The Bombay Development Division (BDD) chawls, constructed in the 1920s to house mill workers, policemen and, for a few years at least, prisoners, deviate from this pattern with a wide internal corridor, open at both ends. The buildings immediately impress you with their heavy-set construction, a fact celebrated by their residents.

It was only after visiting the BDD chawls in Worli that I realised that there were three other BDD chawl sites in Mumbai. One of these, in Delisle Road (now N M Joshi Marg), is in Lower Parel, the heart of Mumbai’s former cotton mill district. As it happens, I had already visited this site on a previous visit last June, unaware of its history, and spent a happy hour trying to converse in Marathi with (among others) a journalist, a social worker and a kabaddi player.

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“Among others, a journalist, a social worker and a kabaddi player”

Since returning to Mumbai I have been visiting the Delisle Road chawls on a regular basis. The 32 chawls are situated within a small grid of streets off Delisle Rd, directly next to Mumbai’s second biggest mosque, the Bawla Masjid and close to the former Mafatlal Mills site, now the glassy blue Marathon Futurex office complex. Within the grid of streets itself, there are various temples, shops and a police station in addition to the chawl buildings and a newer, six-storey residential compound called Shivaji Nagar.

So much about the area appeals to the aspiring linguistic anthropologist in me. The streets resound with Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra. In fact I am constantly overwhelmed by the extent to which I hear Marathi across the whole of this part of the city. This is at odds with the somewhat sneering comments made by friends of mine from the “metropolitan elite” – many who speak no Marathi at all – that Mumbai’s public life functions entirely in Hindi and English and (according to one Delhiite who, on moving here 13 years ago, toyed with a Marathi grammar book before mislaying it and abandoning the language acquisition project entirely) that “even Maharashtrians don’t like speaking Marathi outside the home.”

Despite the predominantly Maharashtrian demographic, these chawls are no monoculture. Various people have told me that the families living in Shivaji Nagar are mostly Gujarati and Marwari, and writer G K Ainapure (in Neera Adarkar’s superb edited volume The Chawls of Mumbai) reminisces about the Christian couples he used to gawp at making out on the building’s balconies. Given the proximity to the Bawla Masjid, one might expect a large Muslim community, but I have only encountered a handful of individuals. This includes a barber’s assistant from Uttar Pradesh who speaks only Hindi. I have watched his boss switch from Marathi, the language in which he banters with his customers, to Hindi, when he wants to instruct the assistant or include him in gossip in which case the entire group switches over.

Most of the Maharashtrians here are Hindu, and Electoral Ward 198 (within which the Delisle Road chawls fall) is regarded in the press as a sure-fire win for the Shiv Sena candidate in the recent municipal elections. Having emerged in the 1960s on a “Mumbai for the Maharashtrians” manifesto, the Shiv Sena has since embraced the broader Hindu nationalist agenda and their flag is an uncompromising splash of saffron. The “Shiv” in their name refers not to the Hindu deity, but to the 17th century Maratha warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji. In homage to Shivaji’s birthday a few days back, a friend showed me a clip on YouTube from a series celebrating the Chhatrapati’s life. I couldn’t help wondering why the specific episode he chose was that in which Shivaji (who spoke in Marathi in the clip) killed the Muslim overlord Afzal Khan (who only spoke in Hindi). My friend told me it was a “very historical moment for Maharashtra”, and that Shivaji was his “ideal person”, but I also couldn’t help remembering how emphatically he had told me the day before that there were no Muslims living in his chawl…

Most of my time, however, has been spent with another community, the Dalit [“untouchable”] Buddhist followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, anti-caste ideologue and chief architect of India’s constitution. A chance re-encounter with my friends from the June visit, led to me being invited to join their Republic Day celebrations on January 26th. Any hope of being a wallflower on this occasion was quickly banished when I was invited to help hoist the Indian flag, to fumblingly garland a photograph of Ambedkar and to say “don shabda” (two words) in Marathi to the assembled company. Being an attention seeking show-off I was (fairly) happy to oblige, telling myself that from a methodological viewpoint this was a great way to make inroads into my research site.

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“Fumblingly garlanding a photograph of Dr Ambedkar”

Since then I have spent many happy hours sitting and chatting in the seating area outside the two Dalit-dominated chawls. I have met with incredible generosity and warmth and have been invited into various homes and have even attended a condolence ceremony for a new friend’s grandmother. Conscious of wanting to give as well as take (the problematic relationship of the researcher and the researched Continue reading

London Neighbourhoods 7: Walworth

A friend and I were discussing Marseille and Casablanca, cities that often get a bad rep but ones that we both love. We then got onto the grimmer bits of London. “Basically” she said, linking the two themes “If you don’t enjoy hanging out on Walworth Road, you’re not going to like places like Marseille.”

Maybe the parallel is a bit of stretch – sitting on a traffic-jammed 171 bus in the South London drizzle is a far cry from even the bleakest of pine-clad Mediterranean harbours – but the sentiment is understandable. If Brick Lane and Brixton present the accessible face of urban grit like, say, Naples or Marrakech, then perhaps less-iconized spots like Walworth and the Old Kent Road are the spiritual cousins of equally unloved Casa and Marseille.

I am quite a doyen of the Number 171, as it featured heavily in a former commute, ploughing the length of Walworth Road and its southern extension, Camberwell Road. Today, bent on renewing my pedestrian acquaintance with the place, I start in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. For some, this place is probably hell. It’s no Westfield – the only chains you’ll find here are Tesco, Iceland, Greggs and their ilk – and neither is it anything like the trendy pop-up-opolis that Brixton Market has become. Here, the big draws are bargain stores, Polish and Colombian restaurants, and the inevitable selection of money transfer options. There are also some faintly obscene Shiatsu massage chairs – at £1 for 5 minutes who can argue?

But this beast is in its dying throes, and a much ballyhooed regeneration project promises to deliver “a new pedestrianised town centre, market square, 5,000 new and replacement homes, up to 450,000 square feet of retail space, an integrated public transport hub, five green spaces” in the next decade or so. Indeed one the first sights to greet you as you enter Walworth Road is the Elephant Park plot, where some of these new homes are under construction.

Moving further on, the Latin American vibe of Elephant Castle immediately gives way to a more dominant West African and Caribbean demographic that nevertheless allows rooms for kebab joints and Chinese medicine shops. All the indicators of globally connected financial insecurity are here: betting shops, payday loans, money transfers, and the trademark turquoise branding of pay-as-you-go SIM operators Lebara and Lycamobile, whose Afghan-staffed kiosks promise cheap calls to Romanian, Nigeria, Pakistan… The prize here is the wonderful East Street market which I’ve eulogized elsewhere.

Schwar and Co Jewellers (Est. 1858) and Kaim Todner solicitors hint at a Jewish past and, according to this article there was a Jewish community here, centred around the New Borough Synagogue. This synagogue is long defunct, but other architectural gems remain. The handsome red brick Town Hall and adjacent Cuming Museum are currently closed for refurbishment, but further down St Peter’s Church is a neo-classical John Soane masterpiece. In that typical London trick, it is surrounded by a lovely Georgian Square, just metres from the down-at-heel high street.

Near here is a Nigerian café called University of Suya (tagline “Food of Distinction”). I have a peppery beef suya – often described as a “Nigerian shish kebab” – with jollof rice, and chat to the owner, Ken. He is surly at first, but thaws after I praise the food and ask him about Nigerian London. He is a Yoruba-speaking Lagossian, and believes that Yoruba is a most commonly spoken Nigerian language in London – “South Nigerian people they are many”. Across the road are a Cote d’Ivorian and a Sierra Leonean restaurant, and further down you can find Ghanaian and Eritrean food.

Meanwhile, there isn’t a Café Rouge in sight. Even the pubs are limited. A friend and I once dodged the hostile stares at The Tankard to sample the £2.99 pints and enjoy a refreshing lack of biodynamic wine and hand-cut chips. Today, a glum old couple stare out of the Red Lion further down the road, while towards the Camberwell end most of the pubs have given way to Evangelical Churches and Islamic Cultural Centres. The contrast to what is happening in places like Brixton is remarkable. That said, I spot a “Soya Milk Available” sign in one of the greasy spoons on nearby Westmoreland Road (read into that what you will) and is a new (ish) Lebanese Street Food café, Bayroot, that elicits a tongue-in-cheek comparison to Dulwich from one blogger.

Heading back up towards Elephant and Castle, I spot a sign outside a newsagents advertising the Sri Anjaneyar Astrological Centre run by a Pandith Jayaram Shastry, who promises “100% Removal of Black Magic” and “Gives Life Long Protection”. Curious, I ask the guy the at the shop counter whether they have an in-house astrologist. “Not us. He just rents out a cupboard at the back… You’ll have to ask him, I don’t know anything about it.” And indeed, at the back of the shop is a poky little cell, choked up with incense, walls covered in posters of Hindu deities. A frail-looking young man emerges from a kitchenette and questions me with a look. I ask if he is Pandith Jayram.

“Yes, yes. You first time here? Where you see leaflet?”

“Just outside. How does it work? Do you do consultations?”

“Hand reading, face reading, past, present, future… Five pounds”

I mutter something about having no cash and, taking the leaflet he thrusts at me, make a beeline for the street, thinking it best to leave my past where it is and wait for my future without assistance. At least I know where to go if I want to be reunited with an ex, or get my husband back from another woman. For now, I hop onto the 171, and muse on the road I’ve just walked up and down. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a tourist sight, but if a visitor asked me where she could find the “real” London I might just point them in this direction.

London Neighbourhoods 6: New Cross and Deptford

A few years back I read an article proclaiming New Cross, in (not too) South-(not too) East London, as the “New Shoreditch” (this one? I can’t remember…). Nowadays I would probably roll my eyes and mutter caustically about lazy journalists’ clichés because, frankly, everywhere is the New Shoreditch if it isn’t already the New Dalston or the New Peckham and fast on its way to being the Old Harlesden or the Old Old East Ham or wherever is next slated for hipsterfication. But back then it sounded rather exciting, and a friend and I decided to go on an adventure one evening and laugh in the face of beards and fixies and microbrews or whatever awaited us there.

Of the places we went to I have little memory, although I recall the Rosemary Branch where we sat at the bar with an assortment of derelicts who flirted with the Thai barmaid and insisted we play the battered old piano. We also visited the Royal Albert, which I have since been back to and can recommend more firmly for its cosy décor, nice beer and spicy, chewy sticks of pepperoni that suddenly seem to be all the rage in these sorts of places. Despite the nearby presence of self-consciously “creative” Goldsmiths College, replete with Will Alsop’s famous squiggle on its visual arts building, neither of us felt even the faintest resonance of Shoreditch.

If anyone thinks this is a rather pub-heavy introduction, I would politely point out that the whole bloody neighbourhood is named after a pub, supposedly. The same goes for Elephant and Castle, Angel and Royal Oak. But, I admit, if we’d visited in the daytime we might have focused on slightly different things. Such as the splendid 1905 façade of Deptford Town Hall (now occupied by Goldsmiths) that, with nautical motifs and naval figures including Nelson and Sir Francis Drake, commemorates the area’s history as the site of the Royal Dockyard and a nexus of exploration and trade. One trade, in particular, stands out: according to this article by Goldsmiths anthropologist Paul Hendrich, the jolly-looking ship at the top of the ensemble is actually a slave ship. Hendrich grappled with the fascinating question of whether and how Goldsmiths should take responsibility for the events immortalised on its building. His writing comes across as thoughtful and sincere. Tragically, he was killed in a road accident in 2008.

Another, less bittersweet architectural gem, is the row of 18th century houses on Tanners Hill in Deptford (where exactly New Cross becomes Deptford, I wouldn’t like to say). One of which belongs to W H Wellbeloved, Butcher and Home Made Pies. Across the road is a tiny record shop and café, imaginatively called Vinyl. I popped in there this morning and got a puzzled greeting from a slightly spaced-out man with straggly hair and a proper sarf London accent and I asked him if he did iced coffee.

“Erm, yeah I can do that. How do you want me to make it? Everybody seems to have a different idea about iced coffee… Yeah the toilet’s downstairs. I haven’t cleaned it yet though. Sorry, I’m two hours behind this morning cos we had a gig in here last night… Yeah, we have ‘em most weekends. It’s kind of usually quirky stuff. Not a rehearsal but not exactly a gig either.”

I was charmed by the whole thing. Meanwhile, the real heart of Deptford is round the corner on the narrow, pedestrianised high street that hosts a thrice weekly market which I fell in love with about a year ago. On Saturdays it’s a glorious tat-fest – I certainly wouldn’t come here for the retail opportunities – and a feast for anyone remotely interested in watching their fellow humans. There’s a shop called El Cheap Ou where, amid the tinned food and discount coffee I once listened to three old men badmouthing Prince Andrew:

“He goes around the world selling arms…”

“…and shagging underage girls.”

“It’s not right, he spends thousands of pounds…”

“…And now he’s Vice Admiral of the Fleet. Vice Admiral of the Fleet!”

There is a strong white cockney demographic here, many running bric-a-brac and clothes stalls, but there are also butchers and fishmongers staffed by the standard London melange: Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians, Jamaicans, West Africans. One fishmonger has a wall devoted to packets of smoked shrimp and dried catfish and, at the far end, about fifty hooks on which hang bags and bags of dried stockfish. With their jaws open they make a villainous sight, second only to the fetid-looking smoked catfish (also sold here) in a list of “Terrifying fish I never want to eat”.

Even on Deptford High Street there are wisps of the “New Williamsburg”, with cafes like the Waiting List, where Vacant Young Things serve you lattes in jam jars and a poster reading “Hate your job? Start a Co-op” pins down the zeitgeist neatly. Things become a little seedier as you reach the north end of the street, with tired old pie and mash shops, a couple of nail bars and a truly frightening-looking pub called the White Swan. There is also a cluster of Vietnamese restaurants, all of which actually seem to be frequented by Vietnamese diners which is a good sign.

Beyond the high street you enter a world of run-down housing estates, sad little parks and even sadder boarded-up pubs. Nobody would call this area the New Anywhere, although interestingly, one of the four towers of the Pepys Estate became the subject of a BBC Documentary after it was sold to Berkeley Homes and converted into high-end flats. Of course, the tower that was sold was the one right next to the river, and sure enough, there is a thin lip of riparian luxury that forms the northern edge of Deptford, a lovely but slightly sterile pie-crust over the rich stew of life below.

Urban Upliftment: Big Changes Ahead for Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar

This piece was written in April for the Huffington Post India. As they have not (yet?) published it I am posting it here instead (strictly in keeping with HP’s guidelines). Since I wrote the below, the SBUP has been selected by the Government of India as one of the county’s best “Smart City” projects.

I am naturally drawn to cities. Especially ones with crowded, chaotic quarters where labyrinthine alleys squeeze between crumbling old buildings. Bhendi Bazaar, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, fits the bill perfectly. Its streets teem with life. While men in prayer caps hurry past stalls piled with mangoes, washing billows overhead from antique balconies. Add an edgy reputation and a characteristically Indian sense of theatre and the place becomes irresistible.

When I first came across plans to redevelop the area I was horrified. The newspaper article I read gave the impression that everything would be razed to the ground and replaced with a mall. “This is outrageous” I fumed. “They’re going to rip the heart and soul out of the place and turn it into a mini-Dubai!”

A little awareness of the area’s history might have given me pause for thought. An integral part of the East India Company’s construction plan for the city, Bhendi Bazaar drew in migrants from all over India during the 19th century. Gradually the neighbourhood filled up with families, predominantly from the Memon and Bohra Muslim communities, crammed into rooms built for single migrant workers. Even today, common toilets are the norm.

A unique culture has grown out of these congested streets. Mutton Street (or “Chor Bazaar”) is famous for its antique shops while, elsewhere, cheap eateries, textiles, perfumes and religious items can be found. There is even Bhendi Bazaar gharana (musical tradition). Meanwhile, the Raudat Tahera, a mausoleum for the 51st and 52nd Bohra spiritual leaders, became India’s first structure in the Fatimid style, an architectural oeuvre more commonly encountered in Cairo.

Of course, a casual visitor like me can revel in all this, happily unaware that 80% of Bhendi Bazaar’s buildings have been declared unfit by MHADA, the state housing authority. What appear to my eyes as charming old buildings are actually death traps for those living in them. And those endearingly chaotic streets? Claustrophobic health hazards that parents are too frightened to let their children play in.

So disheartened was the late Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, previous spiritual leader of the Bohra community, by these living conditions that he dreamed up one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in Asia today: the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project (SBUP). The name is carefully chosen. “Upliftment” suggests a much broader scope than simple redevelopment. What it aims to deliver is no less than comprehensive physical, social and spiritual renewal.

Despite all this, my natural scepticism is running high when I meet Murtaza Sadriwala, Corporate Communications Manager of the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT). He has kindly agreed to talk me through the project and we meet in Mufaddal Shopping Arcade that will temporarily house Bhendi Bazaar’s displaced businesses. He delivers a polished and informative pitch and it is hard not be swept up his enthusiasm.

The scale of the project is grandiose. 20,000 people will be shifted from 3,200 homes and 1,250 businesses, and temporarily rehoused while demolition and rebuilding takes place. All residents, whether tenants or owners, will be given ownership of the new apartments. These will all exceed minimum space standards and will be provided with two bathrooms.

Even the temporary accommodation which, unusually, is within walking distance rather than in some far-flung suburb, is similarly high-spec. Meanwhile, shopkeepers’ requests for street-facing premises have been factored into the master plan, and a mall layout will be avoided. Indeed, the plans, comprising graceful towers and arcades set among wide roads and plentiful green spaces, are nothing short of transformative.

As Murtaza’s spiel gathers momentum I find myself waiting for a catch that never seems to come. What about community tensions, I wonder? Surely the project is just a giant bonus for the Bohra community while everybody else looks on with envy? This concern has often been aired by sections of the media, but the SBUT line is clear: the project is intended to benefit all tenants, regardless of religious or community background.

What about the environment, then? Can a development of this scale be delivered sustainably? A close look at the site’s layout reveals a focus on maximising natural light, managing the flow of traffic and providing safe, shaded walkways. This holistic approach is complemented at the building level with a mix of solar panels, rainwater harvesting technology and energy efficient air-to-water heat pumps. A pre-construction “Gold” rating from the Indian Green Buildings Council endorses the development’s predicted performance as outstanding, if not quite in the “Platinum” league achieved by the nearby ITC Grand Central hotel.

I finally pluck up the courage to ask about funding. I am told that the trust is currently drawing on loans and charitable donations from the wider Bohra community. Additional revenue will come sales, as twenty per cent of the land has been allocated to residential towers that will be sold at market rates. Murtaza dismisses my suggestion that any tension will arise between long-standing community members who get their new homes for free and those presumably wealthy outsiders paying for a slice of Mumbai’s juiciest real estate. I want to believe him, so decide to wait and see what happens.

A few days after the meeting I take a nostalgic walk round Bhendi Bazaar, conscious that it might be the last time I see it in its current state. A chunk has already been demolished and the sublime Raudat Tahera mausoleum is currently hidden under a protective white sheet. A few stallholders tell me they would be leaving the area as there would be no place for them following upliftment. Otherwise, shopkeepers I speak to seem upbeat about the impending changes despite some media scaremongering.

My only lingering concern is a thoroughly selfish one. Having visited Bhendi Bazaar many times over the years, I cannot quite shake off that initial horror of change. Will it really be possible to retain the essence of a place when it is going to be so utterly transformed? I suspect the answer is “not entirely”, and fear the wider implications this will have if the SBUP model catches on. Realistically, though, a city’s soul is probably better served by ensuring its material well-being than by letting it rot in unsanitary neglect. If I remain unapologetic in mourning the old, at least my eyes are now wide open to the need for the new.

London Neighbourhoods 5: Limehouse and Shadwell

If someone asked me to sum up Limehouse I might struggle to give them an answer. It’s the furthest frontier of East End, more popular with bankers than hipsters, although its ranks have swelled over the years with Irish, Jewish, Chinese and Bangladeshi arrivals. Thanks to David Lloyd George, it has even given its name to a verb – “To Limehouse” – meaning to make an incendiary political speech. But what is it actually like?

My induction to the area came at the hands of an ex who lived on Cable Street. His live-in landlord was a Scottish builder with a penchant for lobster, black furnishings and young South Asian men. Throw in a married Welshman who used the flat on weekdays to indulge a kilt fetish and the place began to feel like a bad joke. Small wonder my ex upped sticks to live with a Brazilian drag queen in Bow, but I digress…

Cable Street itself is mostly quiet, the preserve of old Bangladeshi couples and workmen during the day. Its claim to fame is the 1936 “Battle of Cable Street” in which an assortment of Jewish residents, communists and Irish dockworkers joined forces to prevent a march by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Although claimed as a popular victory against the far right, in the short term the battle provoked a rise in anti-Semitism and support for fascism. It also led to the Public Order Act (1936), which banned the wearing of political uniforms in public places.

At the east end of Cable Street is a derelict warehouse that apparently hosts drag nights and an S&M dungeon as well as artists’ studios. As it happens, Limehouse is something of an East London gay hotspot, with a popular sauna and a famous old boozer called the White Swan. My only foray into this scene was a visit to another gay pub in the maze of streets off Commercial Road. We walked in out of the cold, only to be confronted by the even colder stares of a roomful of middle-aged women, evidently celebrating someone’s birthday. It was the wrong pub. The right one, when we found it, was dingy and reeked of last chances.

Another unexpected feature of the area is a persistent legend that it was the site of London’s first Chinatown. The early twentieth century novels of Sax Rohmer abound with Chinese-run opium dens set in Limehouse. Similar dens can be found in Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories. Hollywood caught on, with stereotype-ridden films like Broken Blossoms, also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl. Meanwhile, one of singer George Formby’s early record successes features the lines “Oh Mr Wu, what shall I do? I’m feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues”.

The reality, according to local historians, is rather disappointing. In all likelihood the Chinese population never rose above a few hundred, and while there were a handful of Chinese cafes and laundries, it was hardly the vice-ridden subculture of the popular imagination. The community seems to have dwindled with the decline of the London Docks and there are few signs now that it ever existed. On a recent visit I spotted the “Chun Yee Society – Chinese School on Sundays” on Birchfield Street, which subsequent research indicates was established in 1906. Other than that, some evocative street names (Nankin Street, Amoy Place etc.) and a few takeaways – clearly modern – are the only whiff of China in Limehouse today.

Traces of an older Limehouse can be found in St Anne’s church, set slightly back from the thundering traffic of Commercial Road. It is one of six London churches designed by genius Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early eighteenth century, his imprint unmistakeable in the church’s geometric simplicity and white chunkiness. On the other side is Newell Street, quaintly cobbled with a cluster of Georgian houses. For a few seconds you could imagine yourself somewhere else entirely.

As a whole, Limehouse feels torn between old and new. There are some magnificently grimy Victorian relics on Commercial Road, including a Town Hall on whose noticeboard a local philosopher has scrawled “Time Kills”. Across the road, The Mission, a behemoth dating from 1932, originally offered religious succour to sailors and has since played host to a social revolutionary movement and a notorious homeless shelter before the inevitable conversion to luxury flats.

Down near the river, Narrow Street is famous for The Grapes, a pub that Dickens describes in Our Mutual Friend. Elsewhere, the suffocating grip of gentrification can be seen in the ubiquitous gated riverside apartments. A few metres away and you’re on the Thames Path, dodging lunchtime joggers and eavesdropping on Canary Wharf executives scheduling tele-cons with Singapore. Nearby Limehouse Basin feels like Monte Carlo with its yachts and expensive property. Am I the only one who aches with longing when confronted with pictures of a smoky old dock of decades gone by, wondering whether I’ve come to London too late?

In the end, Watney Market, in neighbouring Shadwell convinces me that I haven’t. A century ago it was one of the busiest markets in East London, supporting a hundred shops including one of the first groceries owned by a Mr J. Sainsbury. Granted, things went downhill in the decades that followed, but it now seems to be enjoying a new lease of life in the hands of the local Bangladeshi community. There are stalls selling saris, and stores where you can stock up on jackfruit seeds and a sign outside Alauddin Sweets exhorting passers by to Keep Calm and Say Mashallah (“God has willed it”). On balance, I think I will.