Meher Marfatia: Street that brought home Paris







Brothers Emil and Yvan Carvalho, the successful fourth generation proprietor of American Express Bakery, in the bakery of their Clare Road headquarters, which opened in 1939. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Brothers Emil and Yvan Carvalho, the successful fourth generation proprietor of American Express Bakery, in the bakery of their Clare Road headquarters, which opened in 1939. Pic/Suresh Karkera


They never tired of hearing her. My kids would say “Perin Mamma, tell us a ‘real’ story” and my ace raconteur mother-in-law flowed forth. Some were boarding school tales, others about the Convent of Jesus and Mary on Byculla’s bustling Clare Road. Last week, at 80 and 81, Perin Marfatia and her sister Meher Master posed for a picture outside their alma mater. Green uniforms replaced with walking sticks, the visit rekindled all the excitement of being back. A fresh flood of stories was our dinner table treat.


The scene probably plays out with millions of mums and grandmums who attended the 1912-established convent. The campus sprawls mid-point on a street spilling with character, far from the genteel last-century spell it cast. European carriages or “gharries”, purring Plymouths and stately Studebakers rolled past Cassi
fistula trees – the Indian laburnum or “bhaya” naming Byculla – suffixed with “khala”, a threshing floor. Currently called Mirza Ghalib Marg, it honours the 19th-century poet lodging here at 17A Adelphi Chambers. Urdu writer Sadat Hassan Manto also stayed in that block in the 1940s.


Ex-students Havovi Turel-Doodhwala and Bilkis Varawalla-Reshamvala (Class of ’73) flank Perin Kuka-Marfatia and Meher Kuka-Master (Class of ’52) at the Convent of Jesus and Mary gate. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Ex-students Havovi Turel-Doodhwala and Bilkis Varawalla-Reshamvala (Class of ’73) flank Perin Kuka-Marfatia and Meher Kuka-Master (Class of ’52) at the Convent of Jesus and Mary gate. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar


A prestigious address, Clare Road was pronounced the Paris of Bombay. It used to be an Anglo-Indian hub before their 1960s emigration to the West. Baghdadi Jews, Protestant Christians and Cantonese Chinese were other important settlers, contributing the locality’s hairdressers, milliners and confectioners.


Sharing the frame with Class of 52’s Perin and Meher Kuka are Hutoxi Turel and Bilkis Varawalla from Class of ’73. April afternoon heat doesn’t deter them from showing off the road they roamed daily. Christened after John Fitzgibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare and Governor of Bombay from 1831 to 1835, this street was constructed in 1867. It is flanked north by Byculla Fire Station and the Khada Parsi statue of Cursetjee Manockjee (he offered Indian girls the first English school in 1859 from his home, Villa Byculla) at the Y-flyover junction. Southside it has Light of India and Rolex Restaurant face the Dawoodi Bohra community hall where the Barodawalas set up the Zenith Tins packaging company in a garage in 1938.


Wali Mohamed has watched Clare Road change over the years since 1971 when he started selling publications at Patel Newspaper Stall here. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Wali Mohamed has watched Clare Road change over the years since 1971 when he started selling publications at Patel Newspaper Stall here. Pic/Suresh Karkera


I chat with Vali Mohamed Patel, ensconced in Patel Newspaper Stall opposite the Bata showroom since 1971. “Print readership is down by 70-80 per cent,” he regrets.


Adding, “No Parsis left either. Readymoney Compound was full of them.” Fronting Readymoney building is John Pinto who believes, “Everyone deserves a good send-off.”


His embalming company ensures this. The spot has seen similar proprietors for 145 years – from the city’s earliest funeral director Edward Jones and his grandson Alfred. John is the world’s only undertaker appointed MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (on repatriating 26/11 terror victims to their home countries). Oakwood coffins and cartons cautioning Handle With Care lie with antique armoires. “Body preservation is both art and science,” he says.


Readymoney colony’s common wall hedges 110-year-old Taylor Memorial Methodist Church, its crowning glory a pointed steeple. Hutoxi and Bilkis’ classmate Nila Lazarus lived on these grounds. “As a teenager I went to Lucky Moon, the Irani joint opposite, for Coke and 100 grams of chips.


That was simple ‘high tea’ on our garden lawn,” she says. Because Bilkis grew up in Prince Court across the convent, she became carrier pigeon. Her pinafore pockets bulged with orders placed by friends who couldn’t leave school for lunch. “For 3-5 paise, E. Rodrigues’ paan beedi shop outside sold red jeera goli packets and Fruitex toffees wrapped with stamps we collected to win albums.” Coconut or peanut chikki piece-pounded with a tiny hammer was popular, as was white
buddhi ka baal candyfloss fluttered around sticks.


“Naughtier girls placed three-minute calls to our sweethearts from the Lucky Moon phone,” Hutoxi laughs. The present avatar of that eatery, then belonging to Baha’i brothers Shapoor and Aman, is Sigdi. The word sparks a memory for Bilkis – “We had no gas or ovens for cooking, just coal and kerosene stoves. A kolsa store delivered bagfuls of coal and we bought kerosene from the ration shop.”


The short lane nearby is graced by Neo Classical-designed Christ Church. In 1833, Governor Monstuart Elphinstone announced moving from Fort to ‘country home’ Byculla-Parel. Christ Church saved him from mass at distant St Thomas’ Cathedral. Welcoming women in veils and men in hats, Christ Church was erected the same year as Byculla Club on adjacent Bellasis Road. Bombay’s first residential club, it introduced Byculla Souffle.


Young love brewed between the boys of Christ Church School and girls of Jesus and Mary, and St Agnes convents. For 50 paise a song, Musical Saloon aired requests. Soft ballads to sultry jazz, they melted the iciest object of affection. Nervously dating couples nibbled raisin buns hot from E Hiscock’s ovens. Cake shops like Marosa and Silvana further fuelled romantic rendezvous. Born on Clare Road in 1956, Neville Saldanha swears by the quality of Silvana’s patties and pork pies. “Socio-economic compulsions drove Catholics out to Vashi and Virar,” he says.


Almost 70 years later, Monika Sequeira acknowledges her Bene Israeli craft mentor from St Agnes. Esther Abraham inspired the master weaver we know as Monika Correa. “She taught us lovely leather work and abla embroidery,” Monika says. Her best friend Lie Fun Yan, from next door Nagpada, excelled at sports. Munira Jasdanwalla rode to school in a seven-seater, gold-trimmed coach pulled by a pair of horses. “The black beauty called Jumbo was my favourite,” says Munira, now Chudasama.


Monika remembers some serious feasting at chaat carts and kulfi walas. “The Muslim restaurant beside Bata and Carona sold superb samosas, even the suva bhaji and onion version. And we went to second-hand stationers after losing compass boxes, atlases or Foster’s copy writing book, no chance of new replacements!”


That healthy thrift typified an area accommodating middle class residents of Lobo Mansion, Oxford Chambers, Piccadilly Flats and Khoja Compound. Kids of these colonies squealed loud at games of Seven Tiles and Hoppers and Skippers. Dr Fakhruddin Padaria and his wife Sara raised four children in Habib Park where they were for 40 years. “The road was safe, we sent children out alone,” says Sara. Fascinated by vagrants singing for alms, they dropped anna coins in footpath beggars’ open, upturned umbrellas.


Muslim and Gujarati tailors like Apsar and Apollo measure fewer customers in spiffier online times, but keep cutting and drafting with diligent accuracy. Jayprakash Thanawala of Apollo Tailors tells me his grandfather Narsidas began business in 1942 “patronised by European clients lighting up the road at Christmas with a jhamak that’s gone”. In an age when homemakers were proud seamstresses, Hutoxi’s father Edulji traded in sewing machines from Roghay Building. Curious heads pop through dingy doorways while we hunt for – and find – the E. H. Turel and Co. sign on crumbling walls. Behind, Jafferbhai’s giant biryani kitchen with wood-fired choolahs once fed 10,000 people.


Though flour power has forever ruled here, longest reigning is American Express Bakery. From its pink heritage headquarters, bake smells carry comfortingly amid Clare Road chaos on a breeze. Its tagline, ‘We knead your needs’, is an indelible detail of the streetscape. Supplying bread to American ships of the World War touching Bombay harbour earned the firm its name. Fourth generation owners Emil and Yvan Carvalho recall great-great grandfather Francisco Carvalho pioneer the enterprise in 1908 from a Grant Road outlet. Their parents Lilia and Ross are regular at the Bandra and Byculla counters respectively. Emil says, “It’s dinned into us that every requirement, individual to industrial, must reach doors on time, no matter what flood or riot the city suffers.”


Littler landmarks still going strong include the Tapias’ 65-year-old Fakhri Stores and Yusuf Khokhawala’s Jubilee Stores from 1949, peddling gifts, trinkets and lingerie. Jehangir Mistry, from round the corner Rustom Baug, asks me not to miss a trio of anda walas who’ve perennially hawked eggs piled looking like ping-pong balls. The sidewalk pyaali seller hasn’t stopped scooping potato and liver masala laced with kokum juice, garlic oil, chillies and chutney, from 1955 when his father Badruddin Islam arrived from Azamgarh, UP, to concoct the mouth-watering mix.


These are the aromas bringing Clare Road alive. Its people continue living with clamour, clutter, colour… and the peeling bells of Christ Church to wake up to on Sunday mornings.


Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay.
You can reach her at [email protected]




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