Family, Memories

24 Shantinath Bhavan

Bhala tha kitna, apna bachpan
Bhala tha kitna
Bhala tha kitna, apna bachpan
Bhala tha kitna

How wonderful was our childhood
How wonderful
How wonderful was our childhood
How wonderful

Hemant Kumar’s sonorous voice was reproduced by the LP playing on my uncle’s radiogram. It was a midsummer’s night in Bombay in 1975 and I listened to the song along with my brother and cousins while my mother and her siblings chatted and reminisced about the old times.  We were visiting Bombay for our summer vacation and we were staying at my grandparents’ house at 24, Shantinath Bhavan in King’s Circle.  Over the next 16 years, I would make those annual trips with much anticipation.

Shantinatha was the 16th Thirthankara or spiritual leader of the Jain faith.  “Bhavan” is the term used to describe a large house or mansion and Shantinath Bhavan was probably so named since it is owned by a Jain Trust.  It was likely built in the 1930s and was one of those buildings built across Bombay to house economic migrants who flocked to Bombay from all over India in search of jobs.  My Ajja (grandfather) was one of those migrants.  By the Seventies, the building had slowly started to show its age. 

Hemant Kumar’s LP which has some rare gems

The building stands at the intersection of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Rd, a major thoroughfare and Shraddhanand Rd, a leafy street harkening back to a time when Bombay was green and less crowded.  The building comprised of two wings, think of two square-edged horseshoe magnets facing each other with a large quadrangle in between.  Each building comprised of 4 floors with several flats on each floor.  Its residents mainly spoke Tamil, Marathi or Gujarathi, languages that my mother picked up when she was a child.  She spoke seven languages fluently by the time she married my dad.  He spoke six, so they were quite a team.

The entry was unassuming, you walked up a broad flight of stairs and came up to a landing that had a window, the doors of which were mere frames, the glass panes had long since broken.  You then continued up the flight of stairs and turned left on the first floor (second floor in the US) and No 24 was the first flat, a corner flat.  The door was always unlocked and you entered the house by rotating the lock.  As soon as the door opened, you found yourself in a very small foyer, a glass-doored wooden cabinet to your right, a refrigerator in the front and an earthen water filter squeezed between the wall and the refrigerator.  And depending on the time of day, you would inhale delectable aromas wafting from the kitchen.  And if you had come in braving the torrid Bombay heat, the earthen pot dispensed cool refreshing water with the slightest hint of clay.

You turned left and entered the dining room with a slightly elevated platform, probably all of 4 feet by 4 feet that served as the kitchen.  The bathroom and sink were adjacent to the kitchen.  If you turned right, you walked into the living area.  At the corner was my grandfather’s bed.  A sofa, a couple of armchairs, the ubiquitous Godrej almirah, a TV, music system and a telephone stand completed the room.  This room probably saw the most change as time went by. The furniture changed the TV was replaced and the radiogram gave way to a tape recorder.  The living room then led into the balcony which had been converted into a room.

The balcony was like a galley, a bed occupied the center of the room allowing enough space for a person to walk by.  On one end were windows that could be closed to keep the rain out, a desk, chair and bookcase fixed above the desk.  At the other end was a cupboard on which rolled up mattresses were kept and in summer, cartons of Alphonso mangoes.  This was the standard plan of all the flats in the complex, but by a quirk of fate, this house had a bedroom.  A lift/elevator shaft had been constructed for the building but a lift was never installed, and since the shaft ran next to the stairs, the lift shaft space was gifted as a bonus room to the houses that were adjacent to the staircase.  This served as a bedroom, with enough space for a single bed, a chair, a cupboard and a small stand to house the various deities.

This was all of about 600 square feet and it housed a family of 8.  Tight by any standards but at any point in time, in the fifties and sixties there would be relatives who stayed put for a few months or a few years until they were able to secure a foothold in the city and move out to their own flats.  A house though is an empty shell and what makes it special are its inhabitants.  To me, this house is really associated with 4 individuals who lived in the house when I would visit Bombay. The others, my oldest uncle Gopimaam, and my aunts Pushpacchi and Pratimapacchi had moved out when they got married.

My grandparents along with my brother in the living room in 1964

My grandfather about whom I have already written is one of the central figures of my childhood. He was the Pater Familias and he had the stern demeanor to go with it.  I was initially intimidated by him as a young boy but grew to love and respect him as I got to know him better.  An indomitable figure, his place of repose was the bed in the corner of the living room.  My grandmother (mamoma) complemented him perfectly.  A gentle lady with a wry sense of humor, I remember her in that tiny kitchen weaving her magic and concocting dishes that still make me salivate as I write.  Just a couple of years ago, when my cousin Anu visited me and we talked of the old times, she recalled with wonder – “The pooris that she made, never deflated even after a few hours”!  I also remember her sitting on the sofa, playing a game of rummy with my grandfather or watching a game of cricket or the popular mythological serial, Ramayana on the TV.

Sathyumaam, my uncle and the second oldest of my mother’s siblings occupied the renovated balcony or  “gallery” as we called it.  We fought amongst ourselves to sleep next to him on the bed and we clambered onto his lap as he sat in the gallery reading a book.  He was ever smiling and would accommodate a bunch of us who perched ourselves on his lap, tummy, armrest or the table.  He would tickle us by rubbing his beard against our cheeks.  As I grew older, he would introduce me to the owner of the library he frequented and I would happily spend the next month checking out books and not worrying about paying for them.

Vijumaam, the third of the siblings occupied the bedroom.  He, much like Sathyumaam, was generous to a fault and my memories of him chiefly revolve around him sitting in his “easy chair” after dinner, his glasses perched at the edge of his nose, solving a crossword puzzle.  “A nine-letter word for a fruit, starting with P” he would say absent-mindedly.  “Peach”, “Pear”, “Pomegranate” I would pipe up trying to help without counting the letters.  “Ah yes”, he would say, “Persimmon, yes it lines up beautifully”.  I would learn a new word that day, one of the many, I learned from him.  He had a lovely voice and he would sing Harry Belafonte or Anup Jalota whilst he washed his clothes in the bathroom.  A stickler, he refused to allow the domestic help to wash his clothes. He had a remarkable sense of humor and an uncanny knack of modifying popular songs to form humorous ditties that I still remember.

Yaad bhi hai woh khel ki baat
Jab ham nikaaltey the baraat
Ladke mujhko dulha banate
Sakhiyan tujhko banate dulhan

I remember those days of play 
When we would form a marriage procession 
The boys would make me the bridegroom
And your companions would make you the bride

The gallery saw numerous adventures.  My maternal cousins who all lived in Bombay, would descend to King’s Circle during summer holidays and there would be a motley group of us playing the fool.  The bed in the gallery would become a ship and we were the Famous Five sailing off to Kirrin Island.  It became the mysterious Killimooin mountains from another of Enid Blyton’s books and the Phantom’s lair.  It was the backdrop to Tintin’s adventures and a fort.  We didn’t need toys, we didn’t need props, our imaginations were enough.  There were squabbles too and teasing but a raised voice from our Ajja would quieten us down.  In summer, the sweet smell of the Alphonso mangoes permeated through the gallery and we would be distracted from our playing, waiting for lunchtime or dinner to devour those mangoes.  When I look back, I was fortunate to form those close bonds with my cousins, bonds that still endure.  

Din ko khel mein aur raaton ko 
Baaton mein kho jaate the
Raja rani ke kisse
Sunte sunte so jaate the

We spent the days in play
And the nights, lost in talk
Listening to stories of kings and queens
We would drift off to sleep

I’ve always been an early sleeper, but my trips to Bombay would see me staying up late.  When I was younger, we would all spread mattresses on the floor of the living room and listen to our grandmother tell us tales of her pilgrimages to temples in North India and the inherent dangers and hardships they endured.  As we grew older, we would settle in the gallery and stay up talking.  Satyumaam had left for the Middle East by 1981 and during some summer vacations, my Ajja would be out of town visiting Mangalore or Bangalore.  We really stayed up late then.  Mamoma indulged us and let us sleep in and keep odd times.

Vijumaam’s taste of music and movies influenced all of us.  Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Merle Haggard, Jim Reeves, Louis Armstrong, John Denver, Stephane Grappelli, Geeta Dutt, Hemant Kumar and Pankaj Mullick.  Movies like “The Great Race”, “Magnificent Seven”, “Million Pound Note”, “The Quiet Man”, “Gunfight at OK Corral” and of course the “Mind your Language” Britcom series.  The bookcase in the gallery contained an eclectic collection of books including books by Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Jeffrey Archer, Oscar Wilde and William Shirer.  It also housed the trophies won by Vijumaam, he was an ace table tennis player during his college days.

Aankh mein neend ka naam nahin tha
Aankh mein neend ka naam nahin tha
Dil se koson door thi dhadkan
Apna bachpan, bhala tha kitna

There was no trace of sleep in our eyes
There was no trace of sleep in our eyes
Far from our hearts beat the sound of our heartbeats
Our childhood, how wonderful it was

And then there were nights when we would share ghost stories, stirring uneasily as the branches of the Jackfruit tree in the neighboring building swayed and creaked in the wind.  I did forget to mention that the toilet was outside the house, six flats sharing three toilets at the end of each hallway.  If we had watched a scary movie or shared some gruesome tales, there was a tacit understanding that we would accompany each other to the toilets late at night.  We would speak loudly to each other as we went about our business.  Not that we were scared, of course not.  It was just fraternal and sororal love!

As time passed, the building showed signs of aging.  Archaic rent control laws meant that the Jain Trust that owned the building received a pittance as rent and they were least interested in the upkeep of the building.  Residents would renovate the interiors, the exterior and common areas went to seed.  The quadrangle became a dumping ground of sorts, some of the residents of the top floor would throw their trash into the quadrangle.  During one of our visits, my brother found a “Charka”, a spinning wheel perhaps in the cupboard in the gallery.  It was housed in a wooden box and when we opened it, cockroaches streamed out.  It was my grandmother’s spinning wheel.  Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi who preached self-reliance and promoted the charkha as a symbol of independence, my grandmother used to spin yarn along with the ladies of the building in the quadrangle during the evenings.  

My mother recollected how the children used to play in the quadrangle while their mothers spun the wheel in pre-independence India.  The quadrangle a clean area to play in was, unfortunately, a dumping ground now.  To my eternal regret, the elders in the house deemed the charkha to be a breeding ground for cockroaches and it was thrown away.  My brother and I protested but we were overruled.  That charkha had spun in tandem to millions of others across India as she fought for her independence and it was thrown away because of cockroaches!  I take after my dad, he is the sentimental one, my mother was the pragmatic one in the family, less sentimental, always practical.

My mother with my brother in the bedroom – 1964

There were interesting neighbors.  Rukmini or “Rani” as she was called was our immediate neighbor and she had unfortunately lost control of her mental faculties.  Conversations with her were interesting and she would get into fights.  Then there was Radhaben, the Gujrathi lady, whose son was married to an American and she would disappear for months to the US to stay with them.  Her keys were left with my grandmother and we would sleep occasionally in her flat.  I found her refrigerator locked, I wondered if she was hiding her valuables in there. In retrospect, I think it was more likely that my cousins had pilfered all her pickles in the past and she was safeguarding them.  The Tamilian family at the end of the hallway whose house smelled of tamarind and coriander. The son worked for the Indian railways and he booked our return tickets from Bombay.  Tickets could only be booked one way in the seventies and early eighties.

I had mentioned that a Jain trust owned the building.  They also ran a residential school in the next building.  If I got there early enough in summer, the classes would still be in session.  The day would start with a rendition of the classic song from the movie “Do Ankhen Barah Haath” (Two eyes, 12 hands),  “Aye Malik tere bande hum, aise ho hamare karam” (O Lord we are your companions, let our acts reflect this fact).  However, as summer set in, the students went home for holidays and the school’s auditorium would be rented out for weddings.  Ostentatious weddings, each evening, the gate would be lit up with lights and adorned with flowers.  At the end of the night, the leftover food would be thrown into the dustbin opposite the building where beggars fought with dogs for the pickings.  Cows ate the banana leaves that served as plates.  It is a fact of life in India that one is exposed to economic and social disparities at a very young age and unfortunately one accepts it and carries on with life as one grows up.

There were regular vendors who would visit the building each day.  Starting from the milkman and the “Paavwaala” who brought delicious bread rolls, hot from the oven.  The peanut vendor made his rounds followed by the “Khari biscuit waala” who sold puffed pastries.  These were dipped in tea and eaten as a snack. The “Istriwaala” who picked up clothes for ironing and delivered them after they were done.  Then there was the hawker who sold stringed musical instruments which I think could be best described as clay violins.  He would coax out lilting melodies, inspiring us to buy the instrument.  It sounded like a strangled cat when we tried to play it.  There was the “phugga waala” or balloon vendor who would have balloons, watches, toy telephones and an assortment of toys that drew children to him like bees to honey.  In summer, the mango vendors would stream by selling Alphonso mangoes. They would call out with the Marathi name for the mango “Aapoose, Aapoose” and with prurient delight, we would yell “Gandi Kaapoose” in our tongue (cotton in the butt).

A short distance away was Maheshwari Udyan with the famous Anand Bhavan and Madras Cafe – South Indian restaurants that still stand today.  In summer, the extended family would gather at my grandfather’s house and play cards. These were marathon sessions, starting in the afternoon and sometimes going through the night. We kids would be dispatched to Anand Bhavan to bring snacks. There was the bus stop from where I would catch “8 Limited” to go to my cousin’s house in Chembur.  For several years, a beggar with matted hair slept on the sidewalk throughout the day.  We just skirted him and continued on our way.  He used to lie close to Ramesh’s store, a small cubby that sold a surprising array of goods including Wrigleys Chewing Gum and Rowntree’s fruit gums.  If you walked past Madras Cafe you would come to a set of “libraries”, makeshift shacks that carried a fantastic collection of books and comics.  The second-hand booksellers also set up shop on the sidewalk.  I’ve bought many classics on those sidewalks and my cousin Bakin still frequents them to add to his already incredible collection of books that he has been collecting since the 1960s.

My last extended stay was in 1993 on my first trip back home from the US.  My grandfather had passed away, Satyumaam was in the Middle East, Vijumaam and his family stayed in the house along with my grandmother.  That was the last time I saw my grandmother, she would pass away the following year.  On my visits back home, I would continue to visit Vijumaam and family.  The house still exuded the warmth of the old but in many ways, an era had passed.  Over time, the house was renovated and modernized and the floor plan changed. 

Sathyumaam and Vijumaam have also passed on now. My cousins and aunt no longer live in that apartment though they still retain it and when I passed it on my last trip, familiar landmarks had disappeared.  It was a small house but it holds a treasure trove of memories for me.  I spent some of the best parts of my childhood in that house. And as much as that house means to me, I realize it meant a lot more to my mother. She grew up in that house and she would often mention that my brother and I never had the kind of fun she did when she was growing up. I would wonder how it could be given that the house was so small and there were so many people. I think, for her, the size of the house did not matter, it was all the people and the interactions with them that counted. I was too young in 1975 to appreciate Hemant Kumar’s ode to childhood but as I look back, I can truly appreciate his words

Bhala tha kitna, apna bachpan
Bhala tha kitna
Bhala tha kitna, apna bachpan
Bhala tha kitna


Even though I visited the house so many times, all I have is one picture that I took in 2015 and I’ve used it as the featured image. There was way too much traffic for me to back up and photograph the whole building.


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