The skyline of cities often defines the mega cities of the world. It gives character immediate recognition and reassures the largeness and the might of the city. However,Gavin Remedios explores how neighbourhoodscreate meaning for dwellers and narrates the story of two Mumbai neighbourhoods have created a distinct identity not through branding or glitzy commercials but following basic tenets that bind people together – faith and food!
While the birds’ eye view of the city builds its might and reassures the promise of possibilities for mega cities, neighbourhoods play an interesting role in creating vibrancy and differentiation. Mumbai as a city is distinguished by its vibrant locales and neighbourhoods and indeed its strengths lies in the fact that neighbourhoods create unique affinities to draw different cultures to the city and help migrants find a home away from home!
Although each neighborhood has its own personality and distinct appeal, each of them also demonstrates Mumbai’s changing face. The city continuously attracts dreamers, seekers, entrepreneurs and professionals from India and often from the rest of the world. The newcomers blend with the natives and at the same time continues to hold on to some of their own colors and cultures – which in turn shape the neighborhood further. So what really makes shapes a neighborhood and how does it in turn impact a city?
Take for example the neighbourhoods of Bandra and Matunga situated just five kilometers apart, they are yet vastly different in terms of their ethos, evolution and the people they attract and yet form an integral part of the composite identity and life in Mumbai. While in Bandrareligion and multiculturalism forms the codes around which it has evolved, in Matunga, food preferences have played the primary role in shaping it.
Bandra has a long history and incorporates influences as diverse as its rulers the Portuguese (1530-1739), the Marathas (1739-1774) and the British (1775-1947). It grew organically – starting with forts and churches and in between even had its own municipality. Matunga on the other hand is of more recent vintage. Matunga, was created as part of a plan formulated by the city improvement trust. A first of its kind planned suburban scheme was created in order to relieve congestion in the center of the town, following the plague epidemics of the 1890’s. Around 440 acres of land was procured and leased to the Government for selling. These were in turn distributed amongst the first set of housing cooperatives that were formed in Mumbai. And thus Matunga was born.
Today, Bandra oozes a cosmopolitan culture which sits comfortably with its multi-cultural past. It is where affluent newcomers and foreign expatriates like to call their first home. Every evening, the city gathers here in this western suburb at its nightclubs, watering holes, trendy restaurants, promenades and public beaches. Matunga on the other hand finds close comfort in its conservative ethos. The city’s early birds head to Matunga for a pure, simple and yet tasty breakfast of idlis and uttapams along with its signature ‘gun-powder’ at its Udipi restaurants for a quiet and healthy, vegetarian lunch.
In Bandra we see how the church has influenced life and living for the locals. With well-defined parishes, regular choirs, church activities and large participation of fairs and feasts, strong bonds of communities are witnessed even today thanks to the Solstice society. But it is not only the church, but also every religion and community that live next to each other. Take for example Bazaar road- only 2 km long and it houses a Jain temple, Ram Mandir, Hanuman temple, Khoja mosque, Christian chapel and a Sikh Gurduwara. The role of religion in gathering communities together extends even into civic administration with the suburb having some of the most active residential groups who nurture the suburbs’ wellbeing and maintenance.
As the city grew Bandra no longer remained as a suburb or a neighbourhood, it gave to Mumbai a new culture and many western customs and practices. It contributes to the modernity of Mumbai and a sense of openness, ease that the neighbours of Bandra enjoy and the excitement and newness that Mumbai celebrates. It brings with it a spirit that contributes to Mumbai the mega city.
Matunga on the other hand has over time evolved around food. As an old story in Matunga goes, – “When Class IV dropout A. Rama Nayak arrived from Akkar village wearing half-pants and speaking only his native tongue, Kannada, he found his way here to what is present day Matunga. Choosing a vantage spot near King’s Circle railway station, he began to cook and serve authentic Udupi food on plantain leaves. This was Mumbai’s humble initiation into the idli-dosai menu.
The Udipi restaurants that are so common today in Matunga, started with the influx of Kannadigas who came down and settled in Matunga. Amongst the other early settlers were the Tamilian Brahmins, a purely vegetarian community. They set the standards of purity and cleanliness, which made the place an attractive option for other purely vegetarian communities. Today, Hindu Tamil Brahmins, Hindu Gujaratis and Jains form a major part of Matunga’s residential population. It is only in the fringes where Matunga borders with the Parsi areas of Wadala and Sikh areas of GTB Nagar in the east or Muslim-dominated Mahim to its north that one finds non-vegetarian communities.
Bandra is a place where tradition coexists with modernity, the conservative with the liberal, the chaos with the calm and freedom and faith precede the inflexibility of religious and linguistic barriers. This culture attracts every newcomer to the city not just from India but increasingly the young expatriates, who want to live, work and get a sense of working in the financial capital of an emerging nation.
Matungaon the other hand is far more selective. As residents, it attracts only those who cherish its vegetarian purity. But as a foodie’s paradise – thanks to its unique Tamil and Udipi restaurants it attracts people from every part of Mumbai looking for a hearty meal.
The idea that food can create invisible borders which invite certain people while keeping other people out and yet invite everyone to take a bite out of the place is something only Matunga can boast of doing. As the food hotspot of Mumbai, it’s from where the rich and famous have parcels sent to their home and dine on tables that they are sharing with the “commoners
So while cities are created on masterplans and well-architected buildings the story of these neighbourhoods also tell us that districts, locales and neighbourhoods give city making a new meaning. It tells us how religion and food can define the culture of a place and how places can create new identities not through branding or glitzy commercials but following basic tenets that bind people together – faith and food.