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Meher Marfatia: The other Gandhis - NewsOn the Mahatma's birthday, we follow three less known but highly individualistic Gandhis ...
Mid-Day - 2 days ago
Meher Marfatia: The other Gandhis
On the Mahatma's birthday, we follow three less known but highly individualistic Gandhis who've left their public stamp on the city
A view of Delhi Art Gallery which stands at the corner of VB Gandhi Marg and Rope Walk Lane. In 1948, Dr Vithal Balkrishna Gandhi became a municipal corporator and was involved in the takeover of BEST from the British. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Breathing ineffable romance beneath the ricketiest roofs, Princess Street continues to rule with a slew of iconic signage: Chemould Frames, Parsi Dairy Farm and Bombay's best-known homoeopathy dispensaries, beside a glut of specialist shops hawking chemicals, surgical instruments, lab glassware, diesel and electric generators. To decongest this (even then) crowded area after the 1803 bubonic plague, the City Improvement Trust demolished a row of buildings, which widened this road. The Gothic-style Indian Art Studio was a visual marker: no future construction could go further than it at the intersection of Princess Street and Kalbadevi.
Noticing the new name for this long strip, linking the Queen's Necklace with Crawford Market, was revelatory — Shamaldas Gandhi Marg. The son of Anandlal Amritlal and grand-nephew of the Mahatma, Shamaldas Gandhi (1913-1998, with both his birth and death in South Africa) uniquely supported the fight for freedom. When the princely states chose between accession to India or Pakistan, the nawab of Junagadh opted for Pakistan, but the majority opposed his decision. Shamaldas won Junagadh with a people's agitation led by a force called Arzi Hukumat (Temporary Government) on November 9, 1947.
(right) Princess Street was renamed after Shamaldas Gandhi who made an unusual contribution to free India and to the administration of Junagadh
In an interview to journalist Sheela Bhatt, LK Advani described how home minister Sardar Patel was sent a telegram by Shamaldas and SN Bhutto, diwan of Junagadh and father of ZA Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan. When news reached from Bhutto, diwan of the nawab, that the Indian army had been invited into Junagadh, Patel's face lit up. Addressing members of the Congress-led Junagadh Corporation, among other citizens, the Sardar dwelt on the day when the Nawab panicked and crossed the border.
An impressive statesman, Shamaldas formed a semi government of sorts in Junagadh, with a council headed by himself as chief minister, and Dayashankar Dave and Pushpaben Mehta as cabinet ministers. Junagadh remained a centrally administered province till 1949 when it merged with Saurashtra as part of the Indian Union. After the Mahagujarat Andolan and Samyukta Maharashtra movement, on May 1, 1960, Dr Jivraj Mehta assumed office as the first chief minister of Gujarat state.
After Modi Sorabji Vatcha Gandhi thought of setting up an agiary close to the pleasant stretch of Chowpatty, he passed away in 1857, but his sons went ahead to realise his dream and the agiary was consecrated on February 8, 1858
About 20 minutes from St Xavier's College, towards Kala Ghoda, winds a path commemorating another illustrious Gandhi. This lane behind Rhythm House is VB Gandhi Road, in the heart of a tony part of town awash in fashion design hubs, art galleries and swish cafes. The narrow alley, honouring Dr Vithal Balkrishna Gandhi (1896-1969), holds a heritage piece de resistance of the Jews, who contributed so generously to Bombay — the 1884 Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, built in the classical revival tradition by the philanthropic Sassoon family.
Born to a vegetable vendor from the Vaishya Vani trading community of the Konkan, Vithal Gandhi bravely beat poverty to emerge an admired social reformer, political figure and self-made businessman. He came to be called the "American Gandhi" because he returned to serve the masses following education abroad. Schooling in Ratnagiri, he finished matriculation in Bombay and attended Wilson College, to which he would walk from his Girgaum home, unable to afford the cheapest tram fare. He funded his fees by tutoring fellow students of a generation that was exhorted, "Rise up young India, you are inferior to none", by communist sympathiser Amrit Dange and intellectuals like Ashok Mehta who went on to chair the Praja Socialist Party.
Pitched into the nationalist struggle, Chowpatty beach became a hub of revolutionary meetings and exchange of radical views. Vithal played an editorial role at Young India, the journal founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, who saw spark and promise in him. On Lalaji's advice, he sailed off in 1920 on the steamship Adriatic for a Master's degree in economics at Columbia University.
Back in the country, Vithal stayed close to some of its greatest patriots even as he embarked on a venture dealing in medical products and radio accessories. It became established as one of the country's earliest corporations: American Products Company Ltd. He was gifted a watch inscribed by his US creditors, appreciative of his ethical repaying of every single penny in spite of the Great Depression. An entrepreneur with his vision alone could finally steer his pharmaceutical company, USV, to pioneering heights in diabetes treatment and ranked among the top 20 in the industry.
As a municipal corporator Vithal was actively involved in the 1948 takeover of BEST from the British and execution of the State Transport networks. Voted mayor of Bombay and then Member of Parliament, he proved pivotal to implementing several laws and practices we take for granted today. A charming contribution he made to the life of the common man was the idea that our taxis be painted black topped with yellow — the ubiquitous kaali peeli selected for yellow being an easily spotted colour and black for low maintenance. His suggestion caught Nehru's fancy immediately. And the rest is travel history.
More than a century before VB Gandhi and his comrades congregated at Chowpatty with such fervour, Modi Sorabji Vatcha Gandhi (1778-1857) was inspired by balmy breezes wafting over exactly those salubrious sands. Surveying the pleasant scene one evening, he announced to friends gathered that he intended to build a place of worship close to these pleasant acres.
I sit in a cool inner hall of the Vatcha Gandhi Agiary on Hughes Road with its panthak (head priest), Ervad Aspandiar Rustomji Dadachanji. The fragrance of sandalwood wafts in sweet waves reaching the garden walls outside while he kindly reads to me from a notepad with jottings he has written in Gujarati about the benefactor of this fire temple.
The legacy of Bombay's fire temples parallels the catapulting of the city as India's financial centre. Those were the days in which successful sethias and merchants gave unstintingly back to a city that had earned them their fortune. Ship chandler and gun carriage factory manufacturer Sorabji was no exception. Though he lost little time in initiating the construction, Sorabji passed away in the year of the first war of Independence. His three sons decided to go ahead with realising his dream, and the agiary was completed and consecrated on February 8, 1858.
Community historian Marzban Giara shares that Sorabji was the great-great-grandson of Modi Hirji Vatcha Gandhi from Surat, who bequeathed the Zoroastrians of Bombay their first open-to-the-sky dakhma, or Tower of Silence, to dispose the dead. This was in 1672 at the Doongerwadi, whose green grounds slope trellises across the street from where Hirji's descendant was to later build the Vatcha Gandhi Agiary. Five more dakhmas were added till 1800, in those jungles of roaming hyenas and jackals... where peacocks still dance at dawn to the sonorous chant of fourth-day uthamna prayers.
A year after introducing the dakhma, Hirji had actually also constructed the city's earliest agiary at Fort. It was reduced to rubble by the terrible fire of February 1803 which destroyed over one-third of Bombay's structures. By default, another agiary built behind Flora Fountain in June 1709 — Banaji Limji Agiary — is now the oldest surviving. Dubbed Kote ni Agiary, or "fire temple of the Fort", it is often called Bakri Agiary, as goats always gently graze in the courtyard here.
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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