New Delhi: It was one of seven islands that once upon a time grew mangoes for the Mughals. With the coming of the British, the archipelago in which Mazagon and the six other islands lay was painstakingly reclaimed to make up the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) and was the "Jewel in the Crown" till the focus shifted to the Malabar Hill downtown south.
It is where one of the country's first major shipyards, now known as Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), was established late in the 1770s and which today continues as a major builder of warships and submarines. The swish set might have moved away a long, long time ago but the precinct is now undergoing a revival with ubiquitous residential towers.
Taking in this breathtaking sweep is "My Own Mazagon" (Indus Source Books) that its author, Captain Ramesh Babu, who has just retired after a 40-year-career as an engineer -- 25 years in the Indian Navy and 15 years in MDL -- describes as his parting gift to his "karmabhoomi", the city of Mumbai where he lived for 30 of those years.
"As a history buff, I have conducted many heritage walks in the city, mainly within the historic Naval Dockyard and around South Bombay, during my stay there. I have also edited a coffee table book on the history of Mazagon Dock in 2010 and authored a book for the Navy in 2017, as the Bombay-built HMS Trincomalee celebrated her 200th anniversary," Babu, who now lives in a Kerala village, pursuing his interests in social service, heritage conservation, horticulture and writing, told IANS in an interview.
"Given this background, a book on a historic precinct of Bombay made an ideal parting gift. That is what inspired me to write the book. And I chose Mazagon, as this historic island has been largely ignored by chroniclers of Bombay. It is also the place that I have walked around the most, discovering, for almost 15 years," added Babu, whose career in MDL started in the Submarine Design Department, looking after the Scorpene (P75) project, prior to which he was Chief Engineer on the INS Mumbai guided missile destroyer apart from serving on various other warships.
He found flashes on the history of Mazagon when he was editing the coffee table book and that got him interested in the bigger story.
"I picked up more books on Bombay, but only found passing mention of Mazagon in them. But these books had references from many 18th, 19th and early 20th century books and documents, mainly authored by Europeans. I used the internet to access them, as they are scanned and preserved in libraries and archives in different parts of the world, all the way from Bombay to Scotland," Babu explained.
"Thus, I was able to get plenty of information from secondary sources like scanned old books, newspapers and gazettes. That was enough to write most of the chapters," he explained.
"It was a challenge to make the chapter on Mazagon walks, where the author and reader walk the streets and lanes of Mazagon with maps to visit heritage structures and explore their history. That was made possible through several walks with well informed locals like Rafique Baghdadi and Stanislaus Baptista," he said.
Several well-known historians, architects, town planners, priests, teachers, shop-owners and residents also gave him valuable inputs, while the accurate maps in the chapter were prepared by urban designer Chinnu S Kumar and her students Rizma Feros, Varada TK and Sarat Raj.
It's a fascinating journey that the book unfolds for connoisseurs of social change.
Once inhabited by agricultural communities like the Kolis, Bhandaris and Agris, Mazagaon remained so under the Portuguese, fetching them the highest revenue among all the islands of Bombay. Falling into British hands through a disputed dowry deed, Mazagon retained its identity as an island for many more years with its own fort, dock, churches and even a gunpowder factory.
Then, like the other islands of the archipelago, Mazagon too got merged into a single entity called Bombay. But that did not diminish the importance of this place, which soon became a sought-after suburb of British Bombay, patronised by the rich and famous. They connected up Mazagon to the rest of the Urbs Prima in Indis (The First City In India) with tramways and railways, and extensively reclaimed the waterfront to expand the dock and harbour to berth and build sail-ships and steamers that conveyed colonial commerce.
It is from Mazagon that steamers sailed with cotton and opium; and Eliza, the lover of a romantic novelist eloped with a seafarer. It is here that a Hanging Garden was built, and an East Indian gaothan (for resettlement of villagers) came up. It is here that Christian missionaries set up churches, schools and orphanages, and an unlikely nawab built a mosque and a tank.
It is here that justice was dispensed for crimes committed in many parts of Bombay. It is here that dockworkers built the only standing Chinese temple in Bombay, and darghas came up for saints who never came here to preach their faith. It is also here that are laid to rest the Aga Khan I, Ruttie Jinnah (the wife of Muhammad Ali Jinnah) and Hindi cinema's Tragedy Queen Meena Kumari.
"Mazagon's decline as a sought-after suburb of British Bombay started as Malabar Hill and other more attractive destinations came up. Soon it turned into a place with many small industrial units and many abandoned mansions. That trend continued, with only the dock, some schools, places of worship and government offices continuing here from the British days," Babu said.
"Recently, Mazagon has become an attractive place for the neo-rich middle class from all over the district, who, with some help from the BMC and the builder's lobby, are pulling down heritage structures to build residential towers, and re-naming roads and locations for political reasons," he added.
Many early residents like the East Indians, Parsis and Ismaili Muslims are moving away and the Chinese, Jews, Anglo-Indians, Luso-Indians and Pathans have almost vanished, "leaving their history and residences behind, to be rubbed off and built over by the neo-rich, who don't seem to have much concern for the history, heritage and even the ecology and environment of Mazagon," Babu lamented.
"This mindset should change, and the new residents should study history, preserve the heritage and environment and learn to co-exist with them. This book is an effort to encourage them," he asserted.
With the bulk of Indian Navy establishments, barring perhaps the HQ of the Western Naval Command eventually moving down south to Karwar, where Asia's largest naval base is being built, how does he see the future of MDL?
"There will be no impact on MDL, as the shipyard will continue to build ships, sustaining the earliest organised industry of Bombay. I can foresee MDL expanding and setting up shipbuilding facilities at Nhava, across the bay, as the Navy will demand larger ships in future. These ships and also the submarines built here will be based at naval bases all around the peninsula, like the Shivalik class frigates presently being based at Vishakhapatnam and Scorpenes planned to be based at Karwar.
"I have moved down south to settle in my village and spend time with my ailing mother, who has been my inspiration, right through my life. I will also use the time in the village to grow some fruits and flowers, guide and help village kids, and continue writing. Some projects, including a book on battleships built in Bombay for the Royal Navy, and an anthology of village stories, are playing in my mind," Babu concluded.