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!

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

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.