Retro fit

Most of city life consists of retro-fitting lifestyles into historical spaces. Whether you are trying to manoeuvre a sofa into an unwieldy space, a modern office into a Victorian era building, or threading an underground Metro through a city, the problem is always that your newly imagined lifestyle is in sudden conflict with an already built up space. The featured photo was an example I came across in my walk. Rows of air conditioning units line the windows of a late-Victorian cast iron and brick structure. Large windows which should have been open were closed off. Now some building work is on to provide better ventilation in this pandemic era.

I passed two impressive gates. The one which was in better shape turns out to be older. The cast iron grilles could have been installed any time between the 1880s and 1960s, but the name of the establishment welded into it dates from the end of the last century. The more rusted and picturesque gate was surprisingly recent. It looked like an electrical substation had been retrofitted into an open space between buildings.

Here was part of the pandemic churn. For decades a little eatery in this building provided cheap food to those who worked in poky little offices in the neighbourhood. Rows of banana leaves were laid out on narrow tables. You would take the first free space after it had been cleaned out. Servers would walk in the aisles between tables serving out food rapidly. The unlimited refills sometimes attracted students. Now the eatery has turned into a “heritage hotel” across the upper floors, and the little offices below are being renovated into large airy spaces.

A cul-de-sac has been created by the temporary closing-off of the main road for the digging of the Metro. The space has been filled by street food vendors. It was lunch time. Most customers were office goers, but among them was an uniformed schoolboy. I wonder whether the street food will remain once the road opens up again. Nearby a shoe-repairman has set up a kiosk right next to the space where a watchman keeps guard at the back entrance of a building. In this area he’ll probably do as much business as the street food wallahs. In a neighbouring lane a boy works at his maths and chemistry on part of what looks like a tailor’s table. What would a tailor be doing in this area full of government offices, schools, small eateries, and a couple of movie theaters?

For all the changes at the ground level, the look and feel of the area still has some of the late Victorian quietness that I’ve always seen in this little island in the city. Khan Bahadur Muncherjee Murzban chose to live in one of these lanes. I can see why.

When you stare into a camera the camera stares back at you

Things look different when you point a camera at them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed through the ticketing office of the downtown station of central railways, the one called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus now and called Victoria Terminus when it was opened in 1853. Imagined as an Indian palace in the then-current Gothic Revival style by its architect, Frederick William Stevens, the building took ten years to complete. It doesn’t seem long by today’s relaxed standards, but then it was cause for many agonized letters to editors of newspapers. The featured photo shows the recently restored ceiling of the suburban ticket counter.

The odd heraldic bearing that you can see in the photo here caught my attention. Could it belong to the company which built this station, the Great Indian Peninsular Railways? Apparently not. The lower half of the shield makes up the complete arms of the company (a further inscribed shield into the upper left quadrant of the cross has been chiselled away). The upper half of this strange device, the railway and the steam locomotive, threw me. Could it be the bearing of the terminus building? I’m sure someone out there has the answer.

The station is aligned north-south and the ticketing counters are to the east of the road passing in front of it. Just in case you are lost, you could orient yourself by the compass roses in the floor of the hall. The Family and I had walked into this place on a Sunday to avoid the massive crowds which we would have found otherwise. We’d wanted to explore the restored building, but found that it is open to visitors only during working hours of the week. As a result we explored this part of the structure, both familiar through long use, and unfamiliar because we usually hurry through it without looking.

The stained glass windows, in particular, are not things we have paid attention to. Nor did I know that this was called the Star Chamber, and that the marble used here was shipped from Italy. The building was renovated in 1888, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the coronation of the British queen after whom this station was then named. I couldn’t find a record of who made the stained glass. However, since much of the ornamentation of the structure was done by the faculty and students of the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Arts, it could be that the glass is also due to them. There are some pieces here well worth one’s time.

The doors are not grand, but in keeping with the place, they are ornate. I’m not sure whether the ones that you see here are original or whether they have been replaced. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken photos before the restoration, so I can’t check now. Maybe one should take photos of the doors of historic public buildings every ten years or so. It would be an interesting project.

As we exited to the pavement outside, I took one last shot of the interior. I’ve tried many times to imagine the events of 26 November, 2008, when two armed terrorists entered the station from the north and killed 58 people. Panicked commuters ran away from them, and many would have exited through these doors. They are always open.

Urban Jungle

It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.

When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get