A bird’s eye view of Malabar Hill abutting the Arabian Sea (Photo: Getty Images)
ONCE UPON A time, there was a roundabout on top of the hill in a city that was then known as Bombay. In the middle of the roundabout were three street lights on an iron pole. These lights ran on gas and every day at twilight, a municipal employee would come by and light them up. The lamps did not give much light but that was not a problem since there were not many cars in those days. The man returned at the first light of dawn to extinguish the flames.
He followed this routine till the city replaced its gas lamps with electric ones in the 1960s. The Bombay Gas Company was established in 1862 and it lit up the city’s streets for a little over a hundred years. It had 400 kilometres of gas pipelines.
Four roads led in different directions from that roundabout. One of them went down to the sea and the financial district of the city while the other three led you to posh residences on the hill of the rich and powerful.
Inevitably, this part of Malabar Hill came to be known as Teen Batti. A famous filmmaker, V Shantaram, even titled one of his films Teen Batti Chaar Rasta. It was a good film, made in 1953, and revolved around three couples in a joint family and their maidservant. I saw it as a teenager.
The road on top of the ridge was the hill’s main drag and it led you to the terraced Hanging Gardens that gave you the finest view of the city. If you were there in the evening and looked down the steep cliff, you would understand why the three-kilometres-long Marine Drive got its moniker, the Queen’s Necklace. The curving street lights on the seafront resembled a string of diamonds in a necklace. A short distance further down the road from Hanging Gardens was the Tower of Silence where the Parsis took care of their dead.
I lived on Malabar Hill for several years when I was young, a bachelor fresh out of college. By then, the Teen Batti roundabout had no lights, gas or otherwise, but the name of the locality has stayed Teen Batti till today. My paying guest accommodation was at the end of the shortest of the four roads that led from the roundabout.
The governor of Maharashtra was my nearest neighbour since I lived just outside what could best be described as the servants’ entrance to Raj Bhavan. Our living conditions, however, were as different as cheese from chalk. His place was palatial and stood on 40 acres of forest land surrounded by sea on three sides. It was built in 1665 soon after the British took over the island when it was given as part of the dowry to King Charles II when he married Princess Catherine de Braganza, the daughter of Portugal’s King John IV.
I lived in a hole in the wall, a single room with cold running water. My bathroom had a bucket to be kept full in case the tap ran dry. I had no cooking facilities but my ₹300 a month rent included a pot of tea and a slice of buttered toast provided by the landlady next door for breakfast.
I was starting off as a barrister at the Bombay High Court and to make ends meet, I wrote freelance pieces for The Times of India in my spare time. I was paid ₹50 a piece, and grudgingly ₹100 if it was longer. The governor must have read something I had written and, to my surprise, he invited me to an official dinner he was hosting for a foreign dignitary. My presence was probably required to make up the numbers on the long table. The governor was a distinguished aristocrat from Hyderabad, Nawab Ali Yavar Jung.
I requested and was given a pass to use the governor’s private beach for swimming. The most exclusive beach in the city was a five-minute walk from my door. Security was not a problem in those more relaxed days. I could go to the beach as I pleased. It had a great view of Marine Drive all the way to Nariman Point. On weekends, Khushwant Singh, then the editor of Illustrated Weekly, came for a swim here, often accompanied by his friend Rafiq Zakaria, a state government minister.
I preferred to use the beach on weekday afternoons taking a friend along as my guest. We would have the beach all to ourselves and the shower rooms were great places to seduce women, away from the prying eyes of my landlady at my flat.
Malabar Hill is still the most desired residential area in Mumbai though posher high-rise accommodations have come up in Parel that replaced the decaying cotton mills on which the city once thrived.
You will find Parsis, Punjabis, Sindhis and Marwaris living on the hill but the Gujaratis dominate, especially the Gujarati Jain community. They call the shots. You will not find a single non-vegetarian restaurant here. Some years back, someone foolhardy opened a pizza restaurant near Teen Batti but the pepperonis and chicken did not go down well with the locals. The residents in the flats above started throwing garbage at the customers entering the restaurant and it soon closed down.
Four roads led in different directions from that roundabout. One of them went down to the sea and the financial district of the city while the other three led you to posh residences on the hill of the rich and powerful
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In Alphonso season, people come from all over the city to buy the fruit here. You will not find better mangos than those sold outside the Jain temple. Everyone likes a good mango but the Gujaratis devour them with a passion, not as a dessert as part of the main course. Some have been known to add ghee and garlic to their hafoos keri rus.
Lord Ram seems to have been an intrepid traveller. Legend has it that when he went in search of his kidnapped wife, Sita, he came up this hill. The climb made him thirsty and he asked Lakshman to bring him some water. Not finding any, the resourceful brother shot his arrow to the ground and water gushed out. That is how the water tank on Malabar Hill got its name, Baanganga, a tributary of river Ganga created by an arrow. True or not, the legend is good for business for the temple next to the tank.
Jinnah House on Mount Pleasant Road was the poshest private residence on the hill. It was built in 1936 by the founder of Pakistan. Muhammed Ali Jinnah was a very successful barrister in the Bombay High Court until Partition, when he moved to Karachi. During my time, Jinnah House was the residence of deputy British high commissioner and we trooped there annually to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. We raised our glasses of nimboo paani and Coca-Cola to toast her since those were prohibition days in Maharashtra.
Jinnah’s mansion is in a dilapidated state these days, unoccupied for several decades due to a dispute over its ownership. The Indian government manages it and Pakistan has offered to buy it to convert it into its consulate in Mumbai. The descendants of Jinnah who have remained Indian nationals claim that it rightfully belongs to them. However, the government will not part with it, afraid that it might be turned into a memorial for the man who divided India.