Stories on a map

Shivaji Park, the place as we know it today, was the result of the city’s efforts to clean itself up after the plague killed thousands
In these strange times, it is perhaps a little surreal to be reading about a place that emerged out of a plague-ravaged city in 1896-97. Truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction and it turns out Shivaji Park, a place that is indelibly associated with the spirit of Bombay and Mumbai, owes its origins to the bubonic plague of the late 
19th century. 

Shanta Gokhale, resident-raconteur, lovingly chronicles the place in a book that is a rarity in Indian publishing, a biography of a location. She knows the place like the back of her palm and in a slow and unhurried fashion, wraps its nooks and crannies into neat bundles of memories. 

Shivaji Park, the place as we know it today, was the result of the city’s efforts to clean itself up after the plague killed thousands and its rat-infested streets threatened to wipe out an entire generation. A Bombay City Improvement Trust was set up in its aftermath and that led to a plan for the city that envisaged open roads and wide east-west corridors that would let the sea breeze in. For that the residents of Mahim, the island that houses Shivaji Park, were asked to give up their land to the government. But much like today, real estate was a prickly issue. And the land-owning residents of the Shivaji Park-Mahim refused to comply; their land they demanded must be used for their benefit, not for the city at large. And thus was born the Shivaji Park Scheme-Mahim, the city’s first planned precinct. 

Shivaji Park:Dadar 28: History, places, people
Author: Shanta Gokhale
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 169
Price: Rs 499
The book is a revelation, opening up the streets and alleys and the iconic “park” of the area to a new light. It builds the character of the place, its traditional heterogeneous nature slipping easily through the personalised narrative without burdening the prose. Ms Gokhale writes with an easy and light hand, bringing the perspective of a long-time resident to the short chapters arranged chronologically to drive order into the rather anarchic evolution of the place.

Its dark and rather morbid origins long forgotten, Shivaji Park has come to mean many things to many people over the years. A cultural hotspot, birthplace of cricket and cricketing legends, a heritage precinct and in the mundane everyday lives of the city commuters, an easily recognisable bus stop. It is also among the most highly valued pieces of real estate in the city.

Ms Gokhale uses her keen journalistic eye to tease out the many shades of Shivaji Park and place it on the cultural and historical map of Bombay. As witness to the rise and decline of the mills in its vicinity, as the place that Jacob Sassoon, Jewish philanthropist whose family has built several of Mumbai’s heritage structures, called home and of course, as the neighbourhood in which Balasaheb Thackeray grew up  and where a legion of cricketers honed their skills.

While the book gains from the author’s painstaking attention to facts, it suffers for her inability to lose some of the details. The keenness of her prose sometimes drains her words of colour. 

For instance, her brief account of the way the mills in the area influenced life in Shivaji Park are thorough. She recounts the events without missing a point or a beat, but somehow fails to light up the words with the romance of the era and the people she is writing about. 

Shivaji Park, its many chroniclers including Ms Gokhale say, continually sheds its skin to start life anew, without missing a step. But, then, that would apply to almost any area in Mumbai today, be it the distant suburbs of Borivali and Andheri or the central districts of Byculla and Parel. What does mark Shivaji Park out however, is the large cultural and political imprint it has had on the country. 

Famed classical vocalists such as Kesarbai Kerkar, Pandit Jasraj and Sharadchandra Arolkar found their métier here. As did many novelists and poets. Bollywood, too, traces its ancestry to the place. Actors Premnath and Bina Rai lived here, so did famed music director C Ramachandra, music composer Vasant Desai and several others. Its cricketing legacy is well known—from Ramakant Desai, Ajit Wadekar and Bapu Nadkarni, many have lived here and many more have practised their craft on its grounds. 

The area has also had a strong tradition of political activism with many launching their careers from its bylanes and parks — from Veer Savarkar to Bal Thackeray. But today there is only one who walks its streets, Raj Thackeray, and given his waning fortunes, there may soon come a time when there are none. That will be a first.

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