Premrajan Nambiar (57) lives in Vashi. But, he makes it a point to visit the Asthika Samaj Temple on Bhandarkar Road in Matunga (Central Railway) every morning before going for work. The temple has idols of Lord Rama, Guruvayurappan and Ayyappa apart from the Navgrahas. Earlier, hundreds of South Indian devotees used to throng the temple. Now, the number of devotees has reduced. When the late Krishnan Nair used to organise Ayyappa puja at Nappoo Hall in Matunga, thousands of South Indian devotees attended it. The procession through the streets of Matunga on Makarsankranti with caprisoned elephants at the helm was the highlight of the celebration. But now, the puja attracts only a fraction of the earlier numbers. The reason is not far to seek; the South Indians have moved in a big way out of Matunga to places like Chembur, Ghatkopar, Mulund, Thane and Dombivli.
Winds of change
Matunga is no more the Mylapore of Mumbai; the place is now dominated by Gujaratis and Kutchis who have moved in from South Mumbai. Most of the flats in the redeveloped buildings in Indian Gymkhana area, Telang Road and Chandavarkar Road are occupied by Gujaratis and Kutchis. N Ramamurthy, who is one of the few South Indians still holding out in Matunga, said “I have been living here for the past six decades. The population profile has changed so much that I cannot recognise my own neighbourhood. But one good thing is that South Indians who now live in faraway places still make it a point to attend the Sarvajanik Ganpati pujas where they used to live a few decades ago.”
Yet another clear indication of the changing population profile of Matunga is the dwindling number of institutions and shops that used to cater exclusively to South Indians. For example, the Matunga Concerns, a restaurant which used to sell delectable South Indian meals on plantain leaves has downed shutters. Venkateshwara Stores and Bhagavathi Stores on Bhandarkar Road, which used to sell savouries like murukku, thattais, seedais and supari are not there anymore. Now, Annapoorneswari stores on the same road is the only such shop. Near the railway station, Ravi Rao and his brothers continue the family tradition of selling aromatic sambar and rasam powders, mulagapodi dry chutney and agarbattis from Karnataka. Giri Stores opposite the post-office continues to sell religious books and artefacts, but the customers are mostly from outside Matunga.
The temples of Bhajana Samaj, Kannika Parameshwari and Shankara Mattham too are witnessing dwindling number of devotees. Said Ganesh Shastri of Bhajana Samaj: “The number of South Indians coming for religious discourses has come down drastically.”
Since the early 1900s thousands of South Indians training in typing and shorthand came in droves to Mumbai and made Matunga their home. They quickly got jobs in British and Indian firms of Ballard Estate and other areas in South Mumbai. But, with their children getting married, they decided to move to bigger homes in the suburbs.
Shivaramakrishnan of Indian Gymkhana has seven sons and all of them are now living in the suburbs since they could not afford to buy homes in Matunga. Indeed, the property boom is in full play here with the minimum rates of flats being as high as Rs35,000 per sqft. “Earlier you could count the number of people wearing pants as compared to those wearing veshti on any given day on Matunga roads. Now it is the other way round as nearly 80% have moved out,” says V Shankar, president of Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeet Sabha and the South Indian Education Society which runs schools and colleges in the area.
Shankar would know better because the fall in the numbers has reflected both in his cultural programmes and linguistic minority schools. “Any programme until 1990s would have to run on Saturday and Sunday. But now, we struggle to fill up one-fourth of the hall,” he said.
Growing family, unaffordable housing in Matunga, urge to stay closer to children who moved out, and lately, getting a good deal of money for ‘posterity’ purposes has ensured that middle-class South Indians are now replaced by more affluent Kutchis, Gujaratis and Jains.
GS Laxminarayan, 78, lives in Chembur in a house that is ten times bigger than the one in Matunga. “We were five brothers and a sister living in an over-200-sq-ft house. Buying a bigger home in Matunga was costly so we moved out in 1969,” he says.
While he moved out, non-South Indians moved in. “In my building, of the 12 families 11 were South Indians till the late 1980s. Post-redevelopment, we have only three South Indian families in 24 flats,” said KA Vishwanathan, a second generation Tamilian in Matunga. Vishwanathan’s building is among the first in the area that changed Matunga’s skyline.
Ground-plus-two storey structures have turned to seven, 10 and now up to 18 storeys. And the change is not restricted to the skyline. A flower market that thrived on steady business now has sporadic business opportunities restricted to weddings and festivals. “Earlier, we had people going to temples at 5am and buy garlands every day. Now we have a fluctuating business,” said P Subbiah, president of the Matunga Flower Market Association. Ditto is the case with some vegetable shops and provision stores that sold raw bananas, drumsticks among other delicacies. In the past 25 years, four provision stores have shut shop, says M Rajan of Annapoorneswari Stores.
Eateries mint money
The only beneficiaries of the migration of South Indians out of Matunga, most ironically, are owners of South Indian restaurants. This is because Gujaratis and Kutchis believe in eating out big time. No wonder, Mani’s Cafe, Srikrishna Udipi, Sharda Bhavan, Arya Bhavan, Ram Ashraya Hotel, Cafe Mysore, Madras Cafe, Anand Bhavan and even the roadside Ayyappa Idli are doing brisk business. “Our business has only grown over the years,” said Amarjit Shetty, owner of Ram Ashraya.
In case of religious scriptures, more English translation has been done lately. TS Kashivishvanathan, partner of Giri Stores on Bhandarkar Road, said, “People do buy Tamil and Malayali books but we have tried to cater to the English-speaking crowd by publishing more books.”
However, there is something that some store owners like Alok Trivedi, who deal with coffee, miss about South Indians and their life. “South Indians would ask about roasting and the grading of coffees and if they were from Coorg, Mangalore or Chikmagalur. Now people just ask for filter coffee,” said Trivedi, owner of Quality Tea and Coffee House. The aroma of freshly-ground coffee emanating from shops like Quality and Mysore Concerns is perhaps a testimony to the fact that South Indians once ruled Matunga many years ago.