Monday, 4 June, 2012

The Legend of Shaheed Bhagat Singh (Colony)


This is a guest post from a friend going through similar epiphanies as a rookie journalist in Bombay. Coincidentally he even stayed where I did initially - J.B Nagar. Located in the cultural anomaly that is the  Sikh colony in the heart of Chakala in Andheri East, J.B Nagar is populated by old refugee families since the partition. This was a different slice of Bombay life more reminiscent of my days in Delhi. The pace of life is much like that of a 'Kalkaji' or 'C.R.Park' with leafy lanes, Gurudwaras and Tony Da Dhabas. Most families owned two storey houses with extra  rooms piled on in typical Lajpat Nagar fashion and the quintessential 'barsatis' converted into PGs for students, working girls and small towns boys on a budget.

Jaideep comes up with a more relevant article though, elaborating on the past and the future of this Sikh settlement in the ever changing Mumbai.

The Legend of Shaheed Bhagat Singh (Colony) - by Jaideep Vaidya

The Shaheed Bhagat Singh Colony, located in the Chakala, Andheri (East), completed 50 years since its inception this year. Founded in 1962, the colony is home to around 1500 members of the Sikh community, along with one of the “most spacious and ambient” Gurudwaras in Mumbai. But if soaring land prices have their way, especially since the inauguration of the Mumbai Metro project—the first phase of which will run by the colony—the iconic colony might well disappear from the map of Andheri (East) in a few years time.

“We have received tenders already from a few builders,” says Daljeet Singh Sodhi (64), General Secretary of the colony’s Gurudwara and member of the colony’s trust. “The offers run up to the tune of Rs 1800 crores, but we are looking for more,” he informs, adding that the members of the colony would be all too ready to shift elsewhere if they received a satisfactory offer. “We could move to the nearby J.B. Nagar, or even Juhu,” says 69-year-old Jaspal Singh Bhasin, a resident of the colony, rather matter-of-factly.

The entrance to the South WIng of the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Colony, Andheri (E).

Sodhi’s and Bhasin’s nonchalant attitude towards the matter is rather surprising given the history of the colony and its residents.

“Most of the Sikhs that live here are descendants of those who migrated to Bombay (now Mumbai) from Pakistan post partition,” says Gurinder Singh Kohli (57), another resident of the colony. He adds, “They (the migrated Sikhs) used to stay in Matunga and Koliwada earlier, after which they shifted to Andheri (East) around 1960.”

The Sikh community has marked its presence in this part of the suburb, especially Chakala, with numerous shops dealing in automobile spare parts and accessories—you will find them in various shapes and sizes run by pot-bellied, loud-mouthed and jovial Sardarjis wearing colourful shirts and turbans.

Kohli goes on to confirm this, “It was the profession of their ancestors and one which they were most comfortable in,” he says, reasoning the popular choice of profession. “Finally, all the automobile guys decided to come and live together in one area,” he adds.

A man who played a monumental part in the relocation of the automobile Sardarjis to Andheri (East) is a certain Dalip Singh Bali. While his family was also in the automobile business, Bali was a builder by profession. “Bali is the man who constructed the Sher-E-Punjab, Guru Nagar and Shaheed Bhagat Singh colonies in Andheri (East),” says Kohli. He adds that Bali currently resides in the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Colony with his family and is aged 85.

“After sanctioning a 9-acre plot from the Maharashtra government in Chakala, Bali began construction of the colony in 1962,” informs Amarjeet Singh a.k.a. Tony, of the famous Tony Punjab Caterers, adding that the construction was completed in a couple of years. Today, the colony has two wings—North and South—spread over 37,784 square metres. “There are 96 plots housing almost 300 families, mostly Sikhs,” says Tony, adding that almost 90 percent of the original residents are still living here today. The residents also lease out rooms and guest houses to students on a Paying Guest (PG) basis. “Nearly 20 percent of the families host students,” says Sodhi.

As the residents of the colony settled into life in Andheri (East) through the sixties, they set up a school in its premises where their kids could go to in 1970. The Shri Kalgidhar School conducts classes from Junior KG to Class 10 and is affiliated to the Maharashtra Secondary School Certificate (SSC) board. Today, the English-medium school caters to 2000 students annually, most of which are from economically backward families. “The colony’s trust gives scholarships, which are donated by the members, to the needy,” says Bhasin, who also informs with pride that the school has maintained a 100 percent record for all grades ever since its inception.

The Satnam Waheguru Gurudwara located in the colony

The crowning jewel of the colony for the residents is the Gurudwara—a towering structure in the midst of the one-two-storey bungalows and houses. Sanctioned by the trust in 1995, the Gurudwara was constructed in flat 14 months. “This is one of the most spacious and ambient Gurudwaras in Mumbai,” says Sodhi. “Members of the colony donated money as well as materials such wood, cement, etc. for its construction.”

Sodhi adds that the Gurudwara is often leased out for weddings and funerals free of cost. “Other than this, we have doctors—homeopathic and allopathic—who provide free medical care on the spot. We organize free lunches and dinners on festivals such as Guru Nanak Jayanti, Baisakhi, Lohri, etc. Last year, on Guru Nanak Jayanti, we catered to a crowd of 15,000.”  Sodhi also informs that the Gurudwara’ trust is registered with the Charity Commissioner and its members are elected every three years. “Everything is fair and legal,” he quips.

Celebrating its golden jubilee this year, the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Colony has been a “close-knit family” according to its members. Says Bhasin, “We are like a big family; we may fight among ourselves, but that’s just how we are.” Validating the Sardarjis’ love for brash, expletive-ridden jargon, he laughs and says, pointing to Tony, “If I don’t abuse him, then it means I don’t love him!” Adds Kohli rather nostalgically, “But it’s a close-knit family and very smooth running for all these years.”

Whether Andheri (East) will indeed bid goodbye to this close-knit family of Sardarjis is a question that would be answered in the near future. Residents of Chakala are almost dreading the prospect. "It will be really weird if a 1000-odd Sardarjis shift away from the area!" says Prasad Kamath (36), who has lived alongside them in J.B. Nagar all his life.

I, for one, can only hope that Tony’s restaurant—located a stone’s throw away from the colony—and its delicious kebabs doesn’t disappear along with it.

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