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A glimpse into the past

What was Marol like in the first half of this century? To find out, Mumbai 59 spoke to Valentine Pimenta, 81, a former joint secretary in the government of Maharashtra and an original resident of Marol.

Valentine Pimenta belongs to a family that has lived in Marol for at least several hundred years. He has seen Marol being transformed from a village of a few hundred souls at the beginning of the century into a bustling township today with a population of about 200,000.

Pimenta was born in 1916. The delivery took place at home. There was nothing surprising in this; the first hospital in the area was not opened until several decades later. In other ways too modernity had yet to strike Marol. There was no electricity. People used stylish oil lamps that could be raised and lowered with chains. The BEST had yet to begin services. People used the two-horse tongas, four of which used to leave the village each day at 8 am. This was different from the one-horse victorias which were in vogue in the city. Pimenta is not sure, but if he recalls rightly, the tonga fare to Andheri was two annas.

In those days Marol was geographically divided into areas called pakhadis. For instance, there was Pali Grand near St John the Evangelist Church. Names like this are not well known today, but other names like Chimatpada and Bhandarwada have survived. People who followed a common occupation tended to cluster in one place. Near the temple in the heart of the village were some Marwari shopkeepers. A little to the north lived a community of dhobis. Farther north lived the telis who extracted oil from the seeds of the karanj tree (Pongamia glabra or Derris indica).

Somewhere near the entrance of present-day Lok Bharati was a community of potters. The area was therefore called Kumbharwar (kumbhar means potter in Marathi). They would fashion pots from clay all week. On Friday night the earthenware was baked and the flames would light up the area. The next day the pots and pans would be sold at the shaniwar bazaar at Kondivita. This bazaar seems to have been around since ancient times, perhaps since the reign of Emperor Ashoka more than two thousand years ago. The bazaar was well-known and people from as far away as Bandra used to come there, especially to buy dry fish.

At home too people used earthen vessels. Every home had a mud tava on which they baked appas (the Portuguese word for bread). Malayalis will be interested in the similarity that the word bears to appam (a rice dish that may be fried or steamed). Pimenta recalls his parents talking to each other in broken Portuguese when they wanted to conceal something from the children. But otherwise Marathi was the language used by everyone in the village.

At the time Pimenta went to school St John was still at a rudimentary stage. He therefore went to the local Marathi primary school which had the added advantage of being almost next to his house. Pimenta's father then worked in the small causes court where Marathi was the recording language, so it made sense to learn the language. There were no benches in school. Students took ghonpats (sack cloth) and sat on them. The school had about 60 students in all. The boys were taught to write Balbodh (a print-like script) but in the fourth standard they were also taught the Modi script (a shorthand, running script which was, incidentally, used to keep records at the court of the Peshwas). The village was a small one where everyone knew everybody else, and Pimenta remembers his father stopping by to chat with the headmaster, Bhagwat, through the window.

The Pimentas were kunbis (agriculturalists). They owned the land which is now occupied by the police camp and the fire brigade. Both plots were later acquired by the government for a pittance. Wheat was not common then; the principal crop in the area was rice. But many kinds of vegetables were also grown. There were hundreds of mango and cashew trees. Pimenta recalls there were so many mangoes he could afford to take a bite of one and throw it away if it was not sufficiently sweet.

By the time Pimenta finished school, his father had moved to the high court. Pimenta remembers him returning after work, piling mangoes into a bullock cart and setting out to sell them at the Byculla wholesale market. Apparently bullock carts did not cause traffic jams then. For, despite the slow pace of the cart, his father would return the next morning and go to work.

The main sport in those days was cricket. A plank of wood served as the stumps. The boys played in front of the Pimentas' house (near the Suruchi nursing home) on what is now the Marol-Maroshi road. There was no motorised traffic then. The occasional bullock cart was easily persuaded to go around the stumps. A huge tamarind tree was the pavilion and the winner was served a cup of tea. After finishing the fourth standard from the Marol Marathi school Pimenta joined St Xavier's School at Dhobi Talao. He would cycle to Andheri and park his bicycle there; the monthly fee for guarding his cycle was a princely Re 1. Then Pimenta would board a steam train, take up a corner seat in an almost empty compartment and travel to Marine Lines, from where he would walk to school. A monthly railway pass cost Re 2. (Talking about prices Pimenta recalls how later he bought a piano for Rs 600, half the amount being contributed by his father-in-law. At the time his monthly salary was Rs 50. Recently he was offered Rs 175,000 for the piano)

In later years two private operators started bus services from Marol. Buses would leave at fixed times from 6.30 to 10 am. Each bus had about 20 seats, and these were reserved. During the day there were no services. In the evening the buses would return from Andheri with the same passengers. The village had a single taxi, which used to be parked approximately near the spot where the Anjali Gas Service's office is today. Dominic Taxiwallah, as the operator was called, was a local institution of sorts.

After school Pimenta graduated in economics. For a time he also attended Davar's College to study banking, before realising that it wasn't his cup of tea. Jobs were hard to come by. When an advertisement appeared in The Times of India, 400 people would apply. The employer would interview four people and hire one. Being at a loose end, Pimenta began to accompany his father to work to learn how an office functioned. One day a lawyer in the office, Balwantrao K. Desai, asked his father who the young man was. On hearing the answer, Desai advised Pimenta to study law. Nor did he stop at that. Recalls Pimenta: "So generous was he that he gave me his books and paid my fees." In those days, says Pimenta, such generosity was not unknown. Desai went on to become a judge at the high court. After graduating in law, Pimenta joined the state secretariat. Subsequently it was renamed Sachivalaya (after sachiv or secretary) indicating the importance of the bureaucrat. Only much later was it renamed Mantralaya, no doubt to reflect the fact that it was the politician who now held total sway. By the time he retired, after two extensions, Pimenta had worked his way up to become a joint secretary.

What is the biggest change between then and now? Pimenta says that the striking feature of those days was the simplicity of Marol. Everybody trusted everybody else. "A Muslim and I would talk like brothers. A Hindu and I would talk like brothers. We never felt we were different. And of course there were no scams then."

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