Nestled on a street corner to the left, as you head from the grand Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus to the Reserve Bank of India headquarters deep in south Mumbai, is Café Bharat, rechristened Bharat Excellensea. Its extensive seafood menu sported a trademark giveaway: pomfret, surmai and rawas gassi.
Those who came to the gassi as an exotic discovery pronounced it to somewhat rhyme with messy. But a few who frequented the café said it right: gushy. And depending on how a patron said it, the waiters would beam and break into Kannada, Konkani or sometimes Tulu. The owner-manager at the cash counter would smile and waive the change.
For many single men in Bombay, the food in this café came close to that from their kitchens but gassi was something else altogether. Who in this city would even comprehend it unless he or she was from north Karnataka?
In Ballard Estate, the area where the café is located, there is so much that is reminiscent of Karnataka that a Kannadiga might have wondered in which city he or she had wandered into. Connecting the main Shahid Bhagat Singh Road with R Kamani Marg in Ballard Estate are six lanes running parallel to each other, each about 300 to 350 metres, each with its share of distinctive characteristics, and each reminiscent of “home” for many early migrants to Bombay when the Karnataka region was part of the Bombay Presidency.
First from the southern side is Cochin Street; at its junction with Shahid Bhagat Singh Road sits the café serving gassi. Next to it is Calicut Street. This is followed by Mangalore Street, Kumta Street, Karwar Street and, the last of them, Goa Street. That’s quite a bit of north Kanara in Bombay, or Mumbai. Old time occupants such as S Shetty recall how Karwar Street had the Watergate police station and Kumta Street had hotels that served typical north Kanara fare. “Even the tone of speech was Karwar-Kumta type,” says the 71-year-old.
Over the last few decades, when Mumbai’s municipal corporation went on a name-changing spree, Mangalore Street was rechristened Adi Murzban Path and Karwar Street became Vaju Kotak Marg. But they are locally still called by their old names
Urban legends about these street names abound; the establishments on each street have their own stories to tell; according to folklore, the lanes predate the creation of Ballard Estate, Bombay’s first planned commercial business district in the early 20th century. Conservationists reckon that early migrants settled here in clusters and gave the names of their native villages or towns to the lanes; the names also helped store and identify goods arriving from these places.
Local historians say the lanes were named after the places from where small ships arrived at the jetties on Bombay’s eastern shore, when the sea came into the city. The jetties later made way for the Ballard Pier docks. The naming of these lanes dates back to 1888, according to Samuel T Sheppard’s book Bombay Place Names and Street Names. He notes down four, though with different spellings: Kalicut Street, Kochin Street, Mangalore Street, Carwar Street.
Crime and commerce on the street
In the second decade of 1900s, the Bombay Port Trust began to excavate the shore to build large docks to expand shipping and trade. The excavated earth, it decided, would be thrown into a low-lying marsh nearby. This reclaimed land was named after the BPT’s first chairman Colonel Archibald Ballard. And George Wittet, the consulting architect to the Government of Bombay, who was drawing up the Gateway of India, was drafted to turn it into the city’s commercial hub. Commerce was then dominated by shipping and allied trades.
Two of the largest shipping companies – British India Steam Navigation Ltd and its Indian rival Scindia Steam Navigation Ltd – were eventually headquartered here as were other multinational offices. The imposing Mackinnon Mackenzie building, which housed the British India Steam Navigation’s office, later had the office of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry. You could say that the history of Bombay as a commercial powerhouse goes right back to Ballard Estate – and the lanes that supported the commerce.
By 1915-1920, Ballard Estate was a buzzing place. The six lanes hummed with activity by day and held resting migrants by night. Ballard Estate sported wide, leafy roads and low Gothic style buildings complete with ornate balconies. The lanes did not carry this carefully constructed British legacy. The structures here were low rise, modest in character and middle class in function.
Today, there are dime a dozen offices of shipping and related business companies – a hangover from the area’s shipping hub days – banks such as South Indian Bank, the Maharashtra Maritime Board office and Yellow Fever vaccination centre, and a number of cafes, inns and lodges which sailors and migrants flock to. Old and new stationery and hardware shops dot the lanes, the oldest being the 117-year-old Badami & Sons selling shipping equipment.
Café Universal with its excellent filter coffee and Britannia restaurant famous for its Parsi fare, especially the berry pulao, are popular landmarks; just as the lanes preceded Ballard Estate,these establishments predate the setting up of corporate headquarters like Reliance Centre by several decades. Karwar Street had briefly become a lane of crime and criminals in the 1970s and 80s when illicit liquor and petty extortion rackets were allegedly run from here. The ownership of some shops and establishments have been turned over to Gujaratis and Marwaris in recent times, but it is still fairly common to hear Kannada and Malayalam – even a sprinkling of Konkani – in these lanes. “You could have called it Little Karnataka till recently,” says Sunder Shetty of café Bharat Excellensea.
Ballard Estate becomes a ghost town after 8pm when the last office-goers have headed home and the shops have shut down. Then the men turn the lanes into their own retreats – sprawled out in the open, huddled in groups, catching the latest gossip or a movie on their mobiles in languages reminiscent of home. And women? They are almost absent in these parts.
Over the last few decades, when Mumbai’s municipal corporation went on a name-changing spree, Mangalore Street was rechristened Adi Murzban Path and Karwar Street became Vaju Kotak Marg. But they are locally still called by their old names. Many establishments continue to write the old names alongside the new ones in official addresses. Amid this, Kumta Street holds steadfast though it appears as “Kumtha” in Google searches.
(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based senior journalist and columnist, writes extensively on politics, cities and gender for leading publications)