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Marine Drive Mystique

Beirut has its Corniche, Havana its Malecon, Cannes its Croisette; but none of these celebrated bayside boulevards is as heart-stirring as Mumbai’s majestic Marine Drive.

It’s been over a decade that this promenade has been standing strong against the waves of the Arabian Sea, but Mumbaikars still come here to relax, to celebrate, to think, to bond, to do nothing, to feel the freedom from the stressed daily life, the cramped housing, the endless tiring commute in the super crowded local trains, everything. The 3.5 km long boulevard extending all the way from Nariman point to the famed chowpatty and then disappearing into Walkeshwar and onwards to the posh Malabar Hill, is a landmark unlike any other and an absolute must visit place in Mumbai.

The apartments that overlook the drive house the wealthy; the promenade is more egalitarian, a wide stretch of pavement where locals and tourists, rich and poor, young and old, portly businessmen and indigent students all mingle. Young couples turn their backs on the world, cuddling and kissing, unmindful of the throngs behind them, throngs who generally leave them alone. In claustrophobic Mumbai, where privacy of any kind is at a premium, Marine Drive affords anonymity. Here, at least, Bombay lets lovers be; in any other Indian city they would be routinely disturbed and harassed.

Right here, is the sea-facing property that evokes instant recognition among the movie buffs from those early days – Chateau Marine. Here on the fifth floor, resided the famous Bombay High Court lawyer – Bakhtavar ‘Bomi’ Lentin and his wife, Dhun Lentin; and right across the landing lived his childhood friend, Fatima. The Chateau Marine was built by Bomi’s grandfather. With passing time, Fatima would take up the name, Nargis and become one of the golden legends of Indian cinema. Fatima’s household was presided by her formidable mother – Jaddan Bai, who was a singer herself, and later became famous for the salons where actors, writers and even producers, who desired to work with Nargis would assemble and pay court. Here, Jaddan Bai would discuss each and very minute details of the films that Nargis would star in and keep a tight hold on her money. Further down is another building, Krishna Mahal, where the doe-eyed singing star – Suraiya lived.

During the 1940s and 50s, gaggles of fans used to stand outside these two buildings, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars. The Marine Drive homes of both these actresses played a key role in their own lives and stories about them have become part of Bollywood lore. The first meeting between Nargis and her long term co-star and lover Raj Kapoor took place when she opened the door of her flat to let him in. Her hands were full of flour because she had come straight from the kitchen where she was making chappatis. Kapoor used the scene for a sequence in his film Bobby. The real-life drama at Krishna Mahal was even more intense. Suraiya’s handsome beau Dev Anand used to come to meet her under the watchful eye of her “grandmother” (she was in fact her mother). When their affair finally broke up, the emotional young actress crossed to the promenade and threw his ring into the sea.

Like many a development in Bombay/Mumbai, Marine Drive owes its existence to land reclamation and profiteering. From its early origins as a British trading outpost to its messy, chaotic present, the city has undergone several stages of reclamation: first to join together the seven islands that constituted it and then to keep expanding out into the water. Successive rulers dreamt up their own ambitious projects; investors and speculators were quick to move in. The familiar nexus of politicians, administrators, moneybags and fixers conspired behind closed doors, justifying their plans in the name of urban development.

One such push came at the turn of the 19th century when, after a devastating outbreak of plague, the British administrators decided to decongest the city and to reclaim land at its southern end. The Bombay City Improvement Trust began with the reclamation that became Cuffe Parade. It was successful enough to inspire a more ambitious plan on the Backbay. It was not an entirely new idea – something on those lines had been thought of in the 1860s but was abandoned in the economic crash that followed the American Civil War.

The new scheme envisaged reclamation all along the western side of the southern tip of the city, a beautiful promenade that would not only have apartment blocks and office buildings but also public squares in the manner of Oxbridge quads. The homes were to be for the rich, but the proposal was marketed as if it would somehow decongest the crowded “native” areas. However, British administrators balked at cost estimates made in the first two decades of the century, and the Indian-dominated municipal corporation opposed an increase in the housing stock that might lower rents. Nevertheless, after private money moved in, the project began to take shape.

The Backbay reclamation scheme began in 1919. Stone and mud were quarried in the north in Kandivali,  brought by train to the site and dumped into the sea. But the whole project was badly planned, the dredging of the sea inadequate. Soon there was no hope of finishing the project within five years, contrary to what investors had been told.

By the early 1920s it was clear that the development plan was a disaster. The scandal led to an official inquiry. Leading the public outcry was the nationalist lawyer Khurshed Framji Nariman. He wrote strident articles in the local press, whose headlines lambasted the reclamation plan as “Lloyd’s folly” and “Buchanan’s blunder” after the governor and engineer he blamed for the bungling. (Decades later, the new business district in south Bombay was named after him, an ironic twist given that there was a stench attached to this project too.) The government recommended that only four of the eight planned blocks should be reclaimed. The result can be seen when one stands at the jetty-like strip that juts out into the sea at Nariman Point and gazes at Cuffe Parade across the gap. Had it been filled in, Marine Drive would have been much longer. As it was, 16.6 acres emerged from the sea opposite the imposing Gothic headquarters of the Western Railway and Churchgate station, which had until then been on the waterfront.

Throughout the 1930s, modernist buildings – cinemas, offices and apartment blocks – began to rise: Eros cinema with its ziggurat, Liberty cinema with its piano keys running down the wall, New India Assurance building at Fort with its Indian motifs and friezes. All these buildings, which are such a strong part of the city’s identity, were conceived and built during that period.

The style we now know as Art Deco had already taken the world by storm – the seafronts of Miami, Alexandria and Havana all had a particular affinity to the style – Bombay would be no different. And Bombay Art Deco was more than just a design fad. For a newly emerging Indian elite (as well as royalty from all over India who rushed to buy properties on Marine Drive), it represented a breakaway from the grand Gothic and Indo-Saracenic imperial buildings that dotted the southern tip of the city. Indian merchants, financiers and professionals  were implicitly rejecting the architectural ethos of the Raj and seeking a style that expressed their aspirations. Art Deco’s reinforced concrete and stucco fronts, its curving balconies, its absence of ornate Corinthian columns, and the idea of being connected with the latest international design trend all appealed to them. An Ideal Home exhibition held in Bombay in 1937, showcasing the latest furniture and decor styles, was a triumph; the new look, with its curved steel sofas and chairs, was perfect for these stylish apartments and the modern families who would live in them.

Many of Marine Drive’s buildings were financed, designed and built by Indians such as G. B. Mhatre, who is credited with some of the most stylish Art Deco architecture in the city, and who designed Soona Mahal among other buildings. The glamorous, cosmopolitan dreams of the builders are visible in the names: Oceana, Shalimar, Riviera, St James Court, Chateau Marine. (Interestingly, all of the buildings that came later, sweeping towards Chowpatty, have Indian names like  Jyoti Sadan, Bharatiya Bhavan, Hemprabha and Meghdoot.)

Some of the names tell stories. The trio of identical buildings named Kewal Mahal, Kapur Mahal and Zaver Mahal were named by a wealthy Gujarati cinema tycoon after himself and two of his children. Al Sabah Court, on the other hand, was owned by the Kuwaiti royal family and was the home of a young prince during the 1950s.

As well as apartment buildings, there were new hotels and boarding houses. Sea Green South Hotel was commissioned by the army and the security services during the Second World War. The Natraj Hotel (now the Intercontinental) was originally the site of the Bombay Club. A place of leisure and residence for its British members, it was all Burma teak panelling and leather armchairs. There were also many boarding houses for bachelors, offering breakfast and dinner, with names like Chambre Deluxe, Continental Guest House and Norman Guest House (which is still in business). Marine Drive was the place to be.

Newspapers of the early 1940s are full of ads seeking “high-class tenants” for “ultra-modern” flats. Some made it clear that “Europeans only” were preferred. However, the impressive and glamorous new apartments were expensive – the rent was around 250 rupees a month, way beyond the means of most citizens.

Present-day Bombay residents might be astonished to learn that Marine Drive’s new buildings were not at first in great demand: The buildings would have boards announcing ‘To Let’ prominently displayed. Tenants were hard to come by and were very fussy. The builder of Chateau Marine, for instance, grew fed up with the constant demands of tenants who often used to rent only for a few months – mainly during the monsoons, to see the rains – and then insist on the rooms being painted to their taste. He thought it was a losing proposition and sold the building to the then Maharaja of Baroda whose family still owns it. The Lentins became tenants in the building they had constructed.

But the apartments were too attractive to remain ignored for long. As talk of Partition grew, wealthy Hindu families from the Pakistani side began moving to Bombay. There would be rich Sindhi women, dressed in fine shiny saris and wearing their diamonds prominently, walk down the promenade. They loved Marine Drive because it reminded them of Karachi. A settled old order was giving way to a new one.

The buildings began filling up. While the British and the Europeans, many of them emigrés from a war-torn Europe, started to return home, the newly arrived Indians rushed to move in. Soon it became difficult to find a good flat at Marine Drive. The buildings were not only convenient, beautiful, well located, spacious and modern, but nearby Churchgate Street had become the epicentre of Bombay’s nightlife – restaurants, bars, jazz clubs – and the commercial district was within walking distance. Bombay was enjoying its own gilded jazz age, with bands from all over the world swinging at the watering holes run by their European owners; a Marine Drive resident could just walk to any of them to soak in those music-filled evenings.

The new tenants also came to enjoy another advantage. The Bombay Rent Control Act was passed in 1947 and for decades after the rents were frozen at those levels. Even today some of the original tenants live in commodious apartments of up to 3,000 sqft but pay sometimes as little as Rs.300 a month. Landlords have accordingly lost the incentive to refurbish, renovate or even paint their buildings. Many apartments are locked in litigation as the landlords try to get their tenants evicted. Some owners worked out deals with their tenants and sold the flats—inevitably, those buildings look better maintained. But all too often the buildings, hit by decades of salty sea breezes and shoddy upkeep, are in extremely poor shape. Residents complain of poor plumbing, rickety stairs and lifts, and balconies that could fall off any day. The general visual impression is one of frayed gentility. Not surprisingly, the older tenants see no reason to give up their apartments. This has meant that newer owners and tenants do not move in; they find the buildings old and decaying and the legal problems intimidating. Real estate prices for Marine Drive – assuming that anyone is ready to sell out – are much lower than those of other posh areas.

Courtesy and Inspiration: Making of Marine Drive

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