In an area where structures stretch for a view of Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach, the humble heritage bungalows of an East Indian community often escape the eyeshot of the scuttering public. Ensconced in the shade of skyscrapers, it looks like the Portuguese bones of a Goan village were photo-edited into the heart of Girgaon. Noisy streets are exchanged for lazy lanes and dull frontage opens up to splashes of teal and tangerine; here, in Khotachiwadi, stories are not measured by the size of a building but by how well they preserve the collective memory of the hamlet that has hailed from this hallowed ground since its inception as a fishing settlement in the 18th century.
These lanes once held more than 60 heritage homes, and now house a little under 30 survivors—and each bulldozed bungalow often signals the departure of another longtime resident, locals that are equally important to the anatomy of this architectural artery—nevertheless, in this ever-changing city, the fact that their existence has not yet been eclipsed is a relative success. Here, a visit to the 1899-established chapel doesn’t feel complete without hearing the soulful strumming of Willy Black echo through the passageways, a resident widely recognised for his entertaining guitar lessons, organising of cheerful Christmas festivities, and crafting of ditties about his hometown in a huge city. The same goes for James Ferreira, a famed fashion designer whose family has long called the foundations of Khotachiwadi home. A visit to the neighbourhood promises a peek at his postcard-perfect bungalow, which operates as a bed and breakfast and a bespoke clothing store, sheltering wonderful haute couture that wants to wriggle its way into your wardrobe, on the top floor.Sustaining a sense of old Bombay is not uncommon in this slice of the metro, with nearby train stops opening their doors to the preserved patrimony of the past: get off at Grant Road and grab buttery brun maska and mawa cake at B. Merwan & Co (est. 1914) or Charni Road for Bachelorr’s refreshing ice cream and juice (est. 1935). However, once you gallivant down the gullis of Khotachiwadi, an altered sense of architectural accents, from ornate teak balustrades and eaves to pretty petite porches, embody the aura of the area’s longtime bundle of residents like very few other places in Mumbai. Just as these charming homes have long sheltered this community, recent generations have strived to safeguard their locality, through activism, against a deluge of development that has appeared keen to consume it over the last few decades.
And it’s not just these two characters that match the magnificence of their homey settlement in the heart of Mumbai, it’s all the, typically, friendly faces that gander out of the facades in this nostalgic neck of the city. It’s because of these people that the recent decision to revamp the pavement and street lighting of Khotachiwadi, in accordance with measurements meant to preserve the look of the historic quarter, promises a renewed public interest in this integral part of Mumbai. So when you next enjoy a heritage walk in this warren of alluring alleyways, remember it took a village to rear this rare corner of the city through the centuries.
The full feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.