Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: At the Sewri Christian Cemetery, past and present link to Mumbai’s larger history

Bachi Karkaria
·3-min read

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Our Very Quiet Neighbours

They don't chuck stale chapatis out of the window, hammer nails at naptime or crib, complain and otherwise quarrel; they are content not contentious. As for the urban bane of space crunch, in death as in life, one party is evicted to make room for the other; or, in an even graver concern, laid atop an older resting place. Amidst the surrounding jostling, honking chaos lies the Sewri Christian Cemetery, final home to 22,000 and counting. The central pathway running down its 44 acres seems to extend almost to eternity, a metaphor perhaps of the passage to heaven.

I pass the cemetery's delicate iron gates every day endorsing that inescapable truth: 'In the midst of life we are in death'. Vice versa is equally true since 'augmented realty' is a increasing necessity. On one boundary has towered L&T's 50-storied Crescent Bay; on the opposite, TJ Road side, the other construction giant, Shapoorji Pallonji, is about to raise its 'Epic'. Both flaunt their 'sea views' to the east and west; for marketing reasons, they are mum on the last harbour into which Mumbai's Christians have sailed.

Sewri_Christian_Cemetery,_Mumbai_640-min
Sewri_Christian_Cemetery,_Mumbai_640-min

Every hearse that enters becomes part of the city's larger history, linking past and present with those who have forfeited their future. The Sewri cemetery is equally a testament to all that Mumbai is. Athawale, Antony, Mariamma, Mukherjee, even the three generations of Parsi Vicaji under a pristine white headstone tell of this city's heady ethnic cocktail. Intriguing inscriptions such as 'Max Denso, Boren 27 October 1838 in Erfurt (Deutschland), Gestorben 6 April 1900 in Bombay' show how the city by the sea has always drawn those from far-off shores.

The poet Dom Moraes, painter Francis Newton Souza and 'Fearless Nadia' Mary Wadia, who rescripted the feminine role in Hindi cinema, are among the several who represent Mumbai's vibrant artistic persona. The striking burnt umber edifice of Sacrario Militare Italiano, holding the remains of the Italian POWs, writes a war-time chapter. Adjacent to it is the longer tribute to the 'Deceased Salesians Who Laboured In the Province of Bombay', Father John 'Don' Bosco's community-serving Brothers and Sisters. Roman Catholics, Anglicans and those belonging to the Church of Scotland which encompasses Other Denominations 'OD', all lie here in demarcated blocks.

The oldest graves proclaim those who shaped seven nondescript islands into 'urbs primus in Indis'. In his very first year as the city's first municipal commissioner (1865-1871), Arthur Crawford acquired this wooded sprawl from the Agri-Horticultural Society to serve as a European burial ground. Sewri-Parel was then the fashionable 'White Town', home to the Governor himself. Crawford remains an everyday presence thanks to the eponymous heritage building (and shopping stretch ); no one refers to it by its now-name, Jyotiba Phule Market.

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