'Oh this is just like home...'
... Bombay's Little Madras

V Gangadhar. Photographs by Jewella C Miranda.

The season's ripest jackfruit for sale E-Mail this story to a friend Listen to this long-standing myth about Matunga, the mini-Madras of Bombay. Eighteen-year old Venkatachalam Subramaniam Iyer from Irinjalakuda in Kerala, armed with his SSC and shorthand and typewriting certificates, arrived in Dadar station, seeking a future in the city.

He was nervous but had been well briefed. A Tamil porter guided him to Matunga. Iyer got himself a cot in Jayalakshmi Boarding and Lodging and finished a breakfast of Kanjeevaram idlis and filter coffee. After a refreshing bath, he prayed at the Asthika Samaj temple and appeared at an interview where the man who conducted the proceedings was Ramasubban Iyer from Tirunallai in Palakkad district.

Iyer sailed through the interview, received his appointment letter and learnt that Ramasubhan Iyer also lived in Matunga. Reaching the guest house at night, Venkatachalam confided to the man who occupied the adjoining cot, Parur Parameswaran, "Oh, this is just like home. I feel I had never left Irinialakuda!"

That is Matunga for you.

My friend and former colleague, Tushar Bhatt, always referred Matunga at 'Matungam' because South Indians viewed it as Kanjeevaram, Mayavaram or Thiruvananthapuram. Scratch a Matunga resident and 10 to one, he will be from either Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Of course, this Bombay suburb has a large chunk of Gujarati population but the South Indian impact is indelible.

I do not live in Matunga, but am a frequent visitor to the place. Like all other places in the city, it is getting more and more crowded. Observes 76-year old, Narayanaswamy Iyer, who came to Matunga when he was 26, "The South Indian population is not rising. That is because quite a few South Indians had sold their rooms and flats and purchased bigger flats in the distant suburbs. Their families had increased in size and could no longer be accommodated in the small. … rooms here."

That may be so. But during my rounds of Matunga, I still find the South Indians in the majority. Dhoti-clad gentleman. Women wearing the traditional nine-yard saris and decked in diamond earrings and nose rings. And bare-chested vadhyars (priests), many of whom still sport kudumis (tufts). Despite the salwar-kameez invasion, many teenage girls continue to wear the pavadai and dhavani (half sari) outfits. I pass many shops from the interiors of which comes the melody of taped Carnatic music or nadaswaram tunes. Yes, Matunga, is still very much a mini Madras.

Matunga at 7 am. Women are busy doing kolam (rangoli) at the little spaces in front of their flats. The melody of subrapadam sung by the incomparable M S Subbulakshmi can be heard all over the place. Men and women, though hard-pressed for time, still continue to visit the dozens of temples in the area. The Ganapati temple, the Saibaba temple, the Arthika Samaiam (for Guruvayoorapan), the Bhajana Samajam (for Subramaniam), the Sankara Matham (for Shiva), are packed on all days. When I visited Matunga, last, Ram Navami was approaching and several temples had announced plans for special pujas and music programmes. You cannot ignored god in Matunga. He is omnipresent.

Flowers for sale at Sri KrishnaThe lingering smell in Matunga is of flowers. You see them everywhere. Different kinds of jasmine, roses, mullai, thazhambu, kanakambaram and other varieties. Whenever I pass the local post office, I halt and take several deep breathes to inhale the fragrance from the flower shops. They are manned by Tamilians who invite you over with robust shouts. A feast for your olfactory nerves!

But wait, there is more than enough for the gastric juices too. According to food critics, Matunga has some of the finest vegetarian eating houses in the city. I have eaten in most of these which are owned by the Shettys from Udupi and Mangalore. For me, the genuine South Indian restaurants are those which serve food made by Palakkadi cooks. Concerns, Mani Bhavan and Amba Bhavan, I am told employ genuine Palakkadi cooks who turn out a variety of traditional South Indian dishes like adai, elai adai and adirasam. The coffee in the Matunga restaurants is the best in Bombay.

On closer scrutiny, I learn that the best cooks in Matunga did not work in restaurants, but are 'freelancing' and catering to South Indian weddings. Opportunities are unlimited. Most Matunga residents prefer the traditional 18-course traditional addhi and these cooks were ready for the challenge.

Plantains and yams on saleThe vegetable market in this suburb is a South Indian gourmet's dream. Besides the usual seasonal vegetables, also sold is every kind of stuff available in the South -- even banana flowers, slices of the trunk of the banana tree, different types of root vegetables, the big size bananas and so on. Small size raw mangoes which went into the making of kaduku mangai pickles are available only during the first weeks of April and fresh stocks are lapped by eager customers.

The South Indian condiment stores located between the Sai Baba temple and the post office supply every kind of spices, sambar and rasam powders, pappadams, dried sarsaparilla seeds, fried lotus seeds and so on. Several shops advertise butter and ghee from Coimbatore. "Was there anything special about that?" I ask. "Try," I am told. "Your Aarey or Amul ghee and butter are nothing."

Want to try any intellectual pursuits? Walk into the Giri Trading Agency which has existed for more than 50 years. The smell of incense and sandalwood is overwhelming. The store stocks every kind of religious book in South Indian languages and English as well as audio cassettes of Carnatic music and bhajans by top ranking singers. Giri is always crowded and a unique symbol of South Indian culture.

Giri deals with South Indian culture in abstract. As for practical forms of the art, join the Raja Rajeshwari dancing classes at Matunga which had taught stalwarts like Vani and Meera Ganapathy. There are dozens of Carnatic music and bharata natyam classes conducted by professionals or seasoned amateurs. If you wanted to organise performances, the Shanmukhananda Sabha (now being rebuilt after a disastrous fire) and several other halls are readily available.

The colleges and schools in the region offer outstanding service. Ruia, Ruparel, Poddar, the South Indian Education Society ran colleges which produced excellent results every year. As for schools, who hadn't heard of Don Bosco and its famed president, the late Father Aurelis Maschio who is as well known as Mother Teresa in these parts.

Walk along the streets of Matunga.... Outside the Bhajana Samajam, there are crowds of South Indian cooks and priests ready to offer their services. The newspaper and magazine stalls bulge with stocks of Tamil and Malayalam dailies and colourful magazines like Kalii, Kumudam or Kalaimagal. Permumal, a veteran magazine vendor says, "People here are crazy about reading. Many families buy two or three magazines per week. Or borrow more from circulating libraries."

Raja Rajeshwari dancing classesThe amply-stocked sari shops are full of the latest patterns from Kanjeevaram. "We have as much variety as the shops in Madras," one of the shop owners told me.

The same sentiment was expressed at P P Krishnan Kutty, leading jewellers in the suburb. "Our designs satisfy every one, local people, and traditional South Indians as well as the young and the old," a salesman told me.

A walk along Matunga is exhilarating for the mind and the body. And for the stomach... after sampling ven pongal, wheat halva and filter coffee. The head nods in appreciation to the tunes of D K Pattamal. There is something special with the fragrance from the agarbattis. Despite increasing urbanisation, Matunga had retained its old world charm. Or the old Madras charm.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda. Design: Dominic Xavier

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