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Individual Lives and the Life of a Neighbourhood: The Men from Matunga

by Nikhil Rao
Man’s World
Mumbai, March 2001

After I had first met Mannargudi Anantharaman Rajagopalan, when I asked him what his plans were for the next week so that I could schedule a second meeting, he looked at me in a way that suggested that perhaps his initial regard for me had been an error in judgement. “Boy, I don’t even buy raw bananas since I don’t know if I’ll be around to eat them by the time they ripen. And you’re asking me what my ‘plans’ are for the next week?” Mr. Rajagopalan is 93 years old, but seems to have a sense of humour about aging and mortality.

When I first went to meet Krishnamachari Padmanabha Chari, we were interrupted by the arrival of another elderly gentleman, who headed with little preamble towards a pile of papers sitting on Mr. Chari’s coffee table. He was introduced to me as Mr. Parthasarathy. “He is only 80 years old,” Mr. Chari said, unsmilingly. Mr. Chari himself has just turned 90 and clearly holds little respect for the claims to old age of whippersnappers like Mr. Parthasarathy.

Irunjalakuda G. Gopalakrishnan is an active member of the Laughing Club which meets early every morning near his house. But recently his doctor instructed him to stop his early morning walks (which began at about 4:00 am and which he took before proceeding to the Laughing Club) after he suffered a serious fall. Mr. Gopalakrishnan is 91 years old.


All three men are Tamil Brahmins who live, curiously enough, in adjacent buildings on Sir Balachandra Road, in the area known as Dadar Hindu Colony just south of Matunga. The road is pleasantly narrow and tree-lined; the buildings are located across from the Indian Education Society’s school just about a block south of the traffic roundabout, which, according to Mr. Gopalakrishnan, marks the boundary between Matunga and Hindu Colony.

I met them initially with the instrumental objective of learning more about the history of Matunga. But soon I found myself marvelling at the brute fact of their sheer antiquity, at the knowledge that some of these people had retired from active service longer than I had been alive. It was no ordinary experience to sit across the room from Mr. Rajagopalan, for instance, and hear him talk of when he first heard (in 1929!) about the Great Crash of 1929, at which point he was already a young man in his 20s.

They were all part of the great influx of South Indians into the city of Bombay, which began in the 1910’s and continued through the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Ultimately, after a series of moves within the city, many ended up living in and around the area in Central Bombay known as Matunga, which, in turn, acquired the feeling of a “South Indian neighbourhood.” The three men I met arrived in Bombay starting in the late 1920’s. Their lives thus present a rich archive of the history of Matunga in the context of the development of the city of Bombay.

Following the outbreak of a devastating plague epidemic in Bombay at the end of the 19th century, the City Improvement Trust was set up with the dual objective of imposing modern sanitary standards on the old city as well as developing new areas for housing. These areas were first developed for urban inhabitation in the 1910’s by the Bombay City Improvement Trust as part of the “Dadar-Matunga-Wadala-Sewri Estate”.

Indeed, the design of the area reflects the presence of some reasonably enlightened planning effort. The facades are decently set back from the street; the heights of the buildings are regulated to ensure a sustainable population density and also to maintain a balanced relationship to the width of the streets; open spaces abound to relieve the claustrophobia of buildings and streets.

In the early 20th century, the development of industries and services in Bombay city attracted migrants steadily, especially from the hinterland in Bombay Presidency and from the southern districts in Madras Presidency. By developing the Dadar-Matunga area for new housing, the Improvement Trust created an attractive housing option in central Bombay and also provided relief to the increasingly congested southern part of the city.


South Indian migrants were attracted by opportunities in the white collar sector for candidates with English language skills. “When someone asked me my name, I’d always reply ‘My name is Chari’ in a complete sentence,” Mr. Chari said to me, as he leaned back in his corner armchair and stroked his white beard, looking immaculate in a white veshti (Tamil for dhoti) and white shirt. “We were known for the grammatical correctness of our English.”

The demand for educated, clerical labour was so high that possibly apocryphal stories abound. I heard, for instance, of how recruiters from English firms would crowd into Victoria Terminus around the time when trains from Madras Presidency were expected. As soon as passengers started disembarking, the recruiters would start hustling them – “Do you speak English? Can you type? Good, I have a job for you,” and, thrusting a typewriter (available at hand) into the bemused arrival’s hand, would hurry them off to a waiting desk in some office in the Fort or in Flora Fountain.

Yet sometimes, especially during the global Depression of the early 1930s, the jobs were not so easy to find. Mr. Gopalakrishnan’s experience illustrates the epic of upheaval, migration, uncertainty and re-settlement that comprises the urbanization experience in Bombay, and, indeed, in the world generally. He grew up in grinding poverty in the village of Irunjalakuda, in what is now Kerala. He somehow educated himself and obtained his B.A. from St. Thomas College in Trichur (the only one of five siblings to do so). But employment conditions for Brahmins were extremely bad, he says, and faced with the exigency of supporting himself and his family, he undertook, in 1931, the gruelling 40 hour train ride to Bombay. “My first journey on a broad gauge train,” he notes.

He did not get off at Dadar, where his brother was waiting for him, and instead rode the train all the way to Victoria Terminus. He tried to capture for me the overwhelming experience of disembarking from the train into the cavernous expanse of that station. “There were many, many people there and I was all alone,” was all he could manage.

He did eventually find his brother and spent his first month in Bombay trying, unsuccessfully, to find a job. He would spend all day in the public library near V.T. station with the other unemployed men, perusing the newspapers and learning, in intricate detail, how the Depression was responsible for their current state. Graveyard humour mitigated their circumstance – phrases such as “Apply, apply, no reply,” and “Morning appointment, evening disappointment” were bandied about in an exercise in self-mockery.

He ultimately did succeed in securing a job as a stenographer at New India Assurance at a salary of Rs. 50 per month (of which Rs. 4 was deducted for his Provident Fund). Offices in British firms were thus gradually filled with recent migrants from Tirunelvelli district, say, or Thanjavur district or Palakkad district. Mr. Chari, who arrived with the intention of underwriting his college expenses with a job, first took a clerical position with Jessop and Co., a maker of railway carriages. 

Mr. Rajagopalan, trained as an accountant and administrator, first arrived in the late 1920’s and moved, with his family into a chawl near Plaza cinema in Dadar West. As the Matunga area was cleared for settlement, they all moved into the one bedroom apartment in Hindu Colony where they still live. He, however, moved about India for many years on secondment from the Royal Indian Navy before finally settling in Bombay after World War II.

This pattern – of moving from chawls to apartments, appears to have been fairly common. It seems hard to believe now, but until the end of World War II, one could walk around and see “To Let” signs everywhere. “Back then I could decide tonight that I want to move and easily find another place by tomorrow,” Mr. Rajagopalan told me.

Crucial to this internal movement and homogenous agglomeration within the city was the establishment of community institutions. Mr. V. Shankar, Secretary of the South Indian Education Society, presented me with a clear-cut narrative of the development of Matunga into a South Indian neighbourhood: “We South Indians have our priorities straight,” he told me. “We set up temples for religious worship, schools for our children, cultural institutions for our music and dance, and markets for our food.”

Matunga thus acquired it’s South Indian character through a parallel process involving the movement of South Indians into the neighbourhood along with the setting up of institutions. The Asthika Samaj and Bhajan Samaj (temples), the South Indian Education Society, the various cultural institutions that were later amalgamated to form the Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha, and the Matunga vegetable market were all set up, in quick succession, from about the late 1920s onward. By 1951 the neighbourhood had been South Indian long enough to prompt one K.L. Mythili to write a Bombay University Sociology dissertation on “Little Madras in Bombay City.”


Yet if Matunga was a South Indian neighbourhood, the city of Bombay was developing into an extraordinarily heterogeneous metropolis. Within Matunga itself were long-established pockets of Gujaratis and Kutchis while much of Dadar and Shivaji Park had acquired a distinctively Maharashtrian character. Across the main road from the Dadar Hindu Colony was the Parsi Colony. Dharavi, just to the north and west of Matunga, had a diverse mix of migrants from all over the country, especially non-Brahmin Hindus, Muslims and Christians from Madras Presidency.

But it was precisely the existence of other such ethnically concentrated neighbourhoods that brought Matunga’s “South-Indian” identity to the consciousness of its residents. Mr. Chari told me that he and his family would often visit Maharashtrian friends in Girgaum, say, or make a quick trip to the Muslim area of Chor Bazaar to buy something. Upon returning to Matunga, the latter’s “South Indian-ness” would be reinforced.

All three men were at the peak of their working lives during the heyday of Bombay’s cosmopolitan “Golden Period” of the 1950’s and 1960’s. By this time they were at the jobs they would continue until retirement – Mr. Rajagopalan at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mr. Chari at Burma Shell, and Mr. Gopalakrishnan at Corn Products International.

Their descriptions of going to work in the morning and returning home in the evening indicate the distinctive manner in which the spaces of the modern metropolis are coded. In the morning, they would take the train or bus down to South Bombay (except for Mr. Rajagopalan, who, starting in the late 1950’s, would commute to the new B.A.R.C. facility in Trombay). Here they partook in a world of many communities, of western clothing, of English language. They would mingle with different kinds of people, hear many other languages spoken.

But in the evenings they would return to the world of Matunga, casting aside the world of “office” not unlike the memorable lawyer’s assistant Mr. Wemmick in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Ties, coats and hats would be put away. Trousers would be replaced by veshtis. They might visit the Asthika Samaj or the Bhajan Samaj. Both temples were patronized almost exclusively by South Indians. If they went to the market, the vegetable or fruit vendor probably spoke Tamil. If they visited someone, it was probably a Tamilian. “I never felt handicapped not knowing Marathi,” Mr. Chari mused. “Mostly I dealt with people in English and Tamil.”

Intrigued by this dual world that they inhabited, I tried to get them speak a little more about what they meant by cosmopolitanism. Was it the case that the existence of the relatively homogeneous Tamil world of Matunga was the pre-condition for the cosmopolitanism of the working day in South Bombay? I received a range of answers to this query, all of which indicate that the idea of cosmopolitan Bombay entailed a sustained tension between heterogeneity and homogeneity. Any simplistic understanding of cosmopolitan such as that offered by Webster’s Dictionary – “not having any local or national attachments” – is clearly not viable in the context of a complex metropolis. Mr. Chari and Mr. Rajagopalan and Mr. Gopalakrishnan might be perfectly comfortable with mixing and mingling with different people in South Bombay, or with having their neighbourhood abut areas with other communities. But they were also quite happy to have their own neighbourhood experience be a South Indian (indeed, predominantly Tamil) experience.

South Indians have sometimes been accused of a certain insularity. One observation made of the community in Bombay has been their relatively apolitical nature (with several notable exceptions, of course). During the anti-colonial struggle, for instance, South Indians in Bombay appear to have been more concerned with the (perfectly legitimate) enterprise of getting themselves established rather than with engaging in demonstrations or protests. K. Madhavan, a former Municipal Corporator from Matunga was asked about this so often that he developed hilarious stock responses. “I am neither a leftist nor a rightist,” he said most famously – “I am but a typist.” On another occasion he is reported to have declaimed, evoking the classic image of the South Indian as clerk, that he “knows no language of politics. Only the language of the Underwood typewriter.”

I asked Mr. Rajagopalan about this. “Almost all of us worked for British firms,” he said, wrapping his shawl tighter around himself and looking at me through the thick lens of his glasses. “If we had participated more actively in anti-British activities, our jobs would have been endangered.” Mr. Gopalakrishnan told me that of the Rs. 46 per month he received in hand at his first job, about Rs. 15 would be repatriated to his family in Kerala. “If they didn’t get that money, they would starve,” he argued, convincingly. This seemed like a reasonable response to me. But it also suggested that, in the difficult early life of a community in a city like Bombay, family and neighbourhood concerns might supersede wider affiliations like “nation.”


The South Indian community in Bombay has, famously, been successful in several fields of endeavour. This very success, combined with other factors, has lead to important changes in the demography and social structure of the neighbourhood.

The neighbourhood is much more dilute now, with many of the new entrants being members of other communities. Many younger residents have settled overseas, leaving behind a significantly older population. Many have also moved out of Matunga and into suburbs like Chembur, Mulund, Dombivli and Vashi. Partly this is because families are happy to have a spacious flat or even bungalow in these areas to replace the cramped one or two-bedroom space they might have occupied in Matunga. But many are also forced by landlords into leaving. The latter are keen to get rid of older tenants who pay rents that are kept artificially low by the Rent Control Act and convert the existing building into ownership flats.

Moreover, the fact that in many families both husband and wife work means that it is increasingly difficult to care for elderly parents. Old-age homes are proliferating around the city as many families find it necessary to outsource care for the elderly.

None of my three interviewees lives in an old-age home or even have any friends who do, but they have all developed different strategies to cope with aging and retirement. Mr. Chari lives absolutely alone. When I asked him if he ever felt lonely, he rejected this suggestion vehemently. “I always have friends and people coming to visit,” he said, and sure enough, every time I went to see him, there always appeared to be people already there, or people coming in, or people expected later. He usually doesn’t need to cook for himself since some families bring him food a few times a week.

In addition, Mr. Chari keeps himself very busy providing amateur astrological consultations to members of the community. He insists that he is not an expert in this field – “I am merely a one-eyed man among the blind,” he says. But yet he receives a steady stream of horoscopes – about 4 or 5 a day – to examine. In this he is ably assisted by his accomplice Mr. Parthasarathy.

When I asked him if he resented that fact that his son and daughter had moved away (his son and family are in Zambia, and his daughter and family are in the U.S.), Mr. Chari reacted very strongly. “Why should I stand in the way of their advancement?” he said, leaning forward. The current trend of elderly people either being left to fend for themselves or being consigned to old people’s homes will continue, he maintains, “even though this goes against the grain of Indian civilization.”

Next door, the scene at Mr. Rajagopalan’s home is quite different. He lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. They would never dream of letting him live alone or of sending him to an old people’s home, they said. They are worried by the recent spate of attacks on elderly people living alone; now, when they have cause to leave the house, they find it necessary to take the precaution of locking the door from outside. Mr. Rajagopalan, although quite mobile, has been advised not to leave the house.

Mr. Rajagopalan officially retired in 1967. But he chose to spend his spare time differently. He simply continued working, in one capacity or another. Thus for 23 years after his official retirement, he occupied himself with one job or another – first at the Indian Cancer Society in Parel, then at the Indian Education Society across the street, and finally at the National School of Banking, also across the street. Only in 1990, at the age of 83, did he finally decide to retire completely, even though, as he put it, “the offers kept coming.”

Mr. Gopalakrishnan lives, also next door (but on the other side), with his second son. He is a slight and graceful man with a full head of silvery hair. More than the others, he appears saddened by the losses of family and loved ones that must inevitably accompany such great longevity. He spends most of his day in spiritual pursuit. He meditates and reads from Hindu sacred texts, especially the Bhagavada Purana. “I now prefer to lead the inner life rather than the outer life,” he told me. His son takes care of him and his oldest son and daughter-in-law, who live in Sion, come by frequently and bring food.


All three men seem to be dealing quite well, although they sometimes get nostalgic. The old Bombay is evoked often – “None of these crowded trains or anything then,” Mr. Gopalakrishnan said. Mr. Rajagopalan told me that he used to ride the tram all the way from King’s Circle down what is now Ambedkar Road into the heart of Bombay, watch a movie, and then ride back, all for a few annas.

The changes in the neighbourhood is bemoaned sometimes as well, especially since none of these men can travel very far and rely on others visiting their homes. Generally they all seem very philosophical about the changing city.

But the question of mortality looms always. “Every day for me now is a bonus,” Mr. Chari said, cackling loudly. “Besides, I’ll never be alone,” he added, pointing to the portraits of Hindu gods that line his living room. Mr. Gopalakrishnan, devout, thanks God for giving him as much time as he has had. Mr. Rajagopalan tells me that he too dabbles in astrology. He has looked into what the future holds for him. “I know what awaits me and when,” he said, looking me in the eye. “I am ready.”

Somehow, with great grace and courage, all three carry on, in a neighbourhood and city that are both changing rapidly.


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