Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Enter at your own risk-where once Indians and dogs were not allowed, now both thrive in abundance.MHADA’s warning fails to take the buzz out of a crumbling Esplanade Mansion, where it’s business as usual

Mumbai Mirror Logo
Bapu Deedwania and Mitali Parekh

 About Esplanade mansion 

♦ It was formerly known as Watson's Hotel, named after its original owner, John Watson.

♦ The cast iron framework of the building was fabricated in England and shipped to Mumbai.

Bombay- Rampart Row fromWatsons hotel

♦ It was constructed on site between 1860 and 1863.

♦ It was here, according to that famous story, that Jamsetji Tata was denied entry; though historians refute this claim

Bombay: Verandah of Watson's Hotel, 1870s

Bombay: Verandah of Watson's Hotel, 1870s
♦ After Watson's demise, the hotel began losing business, and it finally closed in the 1960s.

♦ It is listed as a Grade II-A heritage structure.

♦ On June 13, 2010, the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) gave its approval for the restoration of the 130-year-old structure. The restoration will be carried out by MHADA


Barely a couple of weeks ago, the MHADA repair and construction board issued a notice to one of the oldest surviving cast iron structures in the city, the iconic Esplanade Mansion. It was the latest in a string of notices meant to alert the residents of the iconic building which looks brittle enough to crumble in a strong wind.

The balcony fell off so long ago, that you don't even notice it. At the doorway of Esplanade Mansion, is pinned the MHADA notice that says the structure was found unfit for habitation in the pre-monsoon survey conducted in 2009.
Tailor Abbas Shaikh at the landing of the 1st floor where he’s been sewing for 45-years. Broken ceilings, piles of garbage, and temporary bamboo supports fail to deter the occupants of the iconic Esplanade Mansion
Enter at your own risk-
M K Jeswani, Executive Engineer, MHADA repair and reconstruction board, said "The building is absolutely dilapidated and tragedy can strike anytime. We have been warning the occupants for a while now." Obviously, no one has paid heed.
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Inside, it's bustling like a beehive. Esplanade Mansion is adjacent to the Sessions Court, a stone's throw away from the Bombay High Court. Boards of law firms crowd the walls like black coats outside a court. The tangles of exposed wiring hang like nooses. The inner courtyard is a garbage dump - the foundation is discarded construction material, but over bags of rotting wet garbage, a civilisation flourishes.

You'd have to be reminded that this was once the luxurious Watson Hotel - the epitome of colonial opulence and playground for Europeans who alighted at Mumbai's docks. It was here, according to that famous story, that Jamsetji Tata was denied entry;

 though historians refute this claim. 
Whether the story is true is not the point here (although it doesn’t stand up to much probing  - why would Tata have tried to enter the hotel when he, the consummate Bombayite, would have known it was whites-only?)

 The story is important because of what it indicates about Bombayites, merging as it does with the mythology of Bombay’s growth as a city. I like the shape of the story, and the historical shifts it pertains to (although they are half-truths): the movement of Indians from sycophantic enablers of British domination to a people aware of their own power; the substitution of racial chauvinism for tolerance and integration; the channeling of the latent resentments of colonialism into the creativity of nationalism.

Mark Twain

 lived here in 1896 and the same year, the hotel hosted the first screening of the Lumière brothers' cinematograph invention in India.

Hundred Years of Cinema in IndiaWhen the Lumiere Brothers' first films were shown at Bombay's Watson's Hotel in 1895

Louis (left) and Auguste Lumière

  Arrival of a Train,

             WORKERS LEAVING FACTORY                                                

Rishi Gupta, of R K Trading Corporation, has been running his business here for 25 years. His office faces the garbage heap. "But you can't get the stink here," he insists. "The structural engineer's report said that building is fit for inhabitation for the next 50 years, so we're not scared. We read about it in the papers only. It's the owner who should do something about it, not us. Why don't you talk to him?"

On the main floors, every corner is a business hub - chai-wallas, tailors and photocopy entrepreneurs carry on working unmindful of the fact that the all the three floors seem to be supported by an army of bamboo stilts. In one wing, the second and third floors have been abandoned.

From the broken windows, you can see bamboo standing in attention. Under them, from the first floor, you can walk into the gallery that fell off.

An average gala measures 20 x 15 feet. It is ruthlessly divided in length, and in height by way of mezzanines, to accommodate three or more independent businesses. Advocate Subhash Bajaj's office is one of three 'firms' packed into such a space. In it sits his friend and former partner Ashwin Modi. The latter left the firm in 2005 to branch out on his own.

MHADA’s ‘dangerous building’ warning is lost on most here and they are convinced that the 150-year-old building will stand for another 50 years

"We're all fatalists," he says. "What is going to happen, is going to happen. We accept our fate as it comes." Modi details the complexities of the building: "Abroad, every building has a noted life-span, and when it nears its end, it is razed and rebuilt. In this building, repairing and renovation works are unmindful of the fact that the entire structure is made of wrought iron and wood. By adding cement, concrete and marble, they are increasing the load. They are not extending the life of the building."

But nobody is in a hurry to evacuate. "For a lawyer, this is prime location. That's why they even crowd into lofts. Where else will be get 25 feet high ceilings or rooms next to the courts?"

Tailor Abbas Shaikh has being sewing on the landing of the first floor for 45 years. He places his faith in old-time engineering.

"The balcony was built 14 years ago, and it was the only thing that collapsed. Things in the olden days, like me, were built out of strong, healthy material. A mother always takes care of her children; and a craftsman knows how long his tools will last. This building will last another 50 years. Of course, God knows it can be otherwise. The Taj Mahal hotel was built 40 years after this building. Mein usski guarantee nahi de sakta, par isske deta hu."

Explaining the urgency for repair and restoration of Esplanade Mansion, Jeswani cited the Heritage Committee that underscores the challenges in restoring the building.

"The columns that support the structure are made of a special material and the committee recommended that the same lightweight material should be used. That material is extremely difficult to find and is expensive. The estimated expense for repairs is Rs 15 crore, and we have a fund of Rs 1 crore only," he said. Jeswani said a meeting with Australian experts was scheduled but it did not happen.

Rishi Gupta, of R K Trading Corporation, has been running his business here for 25 years. His office faces the garbage heap. "But you can't get the stink here," he insists.

As of now there are 135 non-residential, 11 residential occupants and six have vacated. "Four-five premises are those which are forever locked," he said.

Speaking to Mirror, owner Sadiq Ali says, “An independent structural engineer has given a clean chit to the main structure. However, we agree that the building does need section-wise repairs. We are trying to convince MHADA for the same because it’s not  possible to have the building vacated completely.”

There is twisted irony in the fact that where once Indians and dogs were not allowed

, now both thrive in abundance.