Camp (ing) tales

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 3 March 2018

Interestingly, people living on the either side of the river bed are known for their quirks. Ambika Shaligram meets a few residents of the Cantonment area who share colourful anecdotes about their neighbourhood, which recently observed 200 years of its formation

Do the sepia toned images remind you of an era gone by? But they are also historically significant — one image is of MG Road, Camp and another of  an iconic landmark, Manney’s bookstore, which closed down six years ago. The other establishment in the image is of Royal Hotel which downed its shutters several decades ago. These images are from journalist Vivek Sabnis’ collection and have now been used in Pune Dinadarshika or Pune Nostalgia calendar 2018. 

The images are significant for another reason. In November 2017, we observed the 200 years of formation of Camp or Pune Cantonment. ‘Observed’ because that also marked the end of the Peshwai rule.

Till early 2000, Camp was the ‘it’ place to be. Those who lived on the other side of the river, made a bee line for Camp’s quaint cafes, eateries, bakeries and to strike friendship with ‘cosmo’ crowd.

In 2018, the winds are blowing in another direction. Advocate Arjun Khurpe, former vice-president of Pune Cantonment Board, tells us, “The Christians living in the area have now moved to Kondhwa and Vishrantwadi. The Muslims have their younger family branches shifting to Kondhwa and Vimannagar, whereas amongst the Parsis, the older family members are staying here but the younger ones have moved abroad.”

We met a few families and old timers of Camp to get a pulse of the area. Excerpts from the conversation:

Relics from the British era
A chat with nonagenarian Kasam Biyabani is full of anecdotes that border on disbelief. He recalls buying maska (butter) for one aana at Mandai. And going to Byculla, Bombay from Poona in six aanas. Also his father getting a letter from the Queen of England for a job well done. “My father,” says Biyabani, “fixed the clock in the Lal Deval. It was a difficult task to execute.” The Lal Deval still stands proudly on Dr Ambedkar Road, Camp. And, a little beyond it, in Juna Modikhana, lives Biyabani.

Brimming with enthusiasm (though his memory fails him at times), Biyapani tells us, “I was born in 1919, in this very house. And, so have my brothers, sons, grandsons etc. With growing families, and lack of space, some of them have shifted to other parts of the cities like Vimannagar.”

Biyapani, who worked in the armament factory and then in military hospital, got a chance to forge friendship with two military men of African descent. “The Britishers didn’t treat us well. But they were even harsher with the Africans. When I was working in the hospital, I met two Africans; we became good friends. Whenever they wanted to send some silver stuff for their families back home, I would take them shopping,” he says. 

Biyabani and the two Africans continued exchanging letters for a few years after they left the country. “Later we lost contact. I don’t know how they are doing now,” he adds and then traces his fingers over the frame that holds old, faded photographs of his friends.

His kids, grandkids and great-grand kids flit in and out of the house, stopping to chat with Biyapani, sharing anecdotes about their nana/dada. “Like you read shlokas during Ganapati, my dada reads out excerpts from Quran during Paigambar julus (birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad). Last year, he received the first prize,” his great-grandson tells us. Biyabani flashes a toothless grin and adds, “When I was young, I acted in charity shows to raise money for renovating our community’s Masjid. I played the role of Badshah ki aurat!”

After his retirement, Biyabani did a bit of social work, addressing his community’s issues. “There was a piece of land earmarked for crematorium for some of the communities staying here. But small scale, hardware units encroached on the land. It took my father 33 years of legal battle to evacuate them from the land. Probably, this is a unique case in Pune Cantonment’s history,” adds his youngest son, Abdul Wahid. 

‘There will always be demands to improve infrastructure’
At 91, Haji Shaikh Ibrahim Ismail, is a sprightly old man. Originally from Amravati, he came with his family to Pune when he was in Std IV. “I have a religious bent of mind and would spend my time in the company of old and wise men from our community. From them, I learnt the virtues of honesty, punctuality, which stood me in good stead when I started working in the payment section of the Pune Municipal Corporation. All my seniors and colleagues were appreciative of my work ethics,” says Sheikh Ibrahim.

While he was working and even after his retirement, Ibrahim was at the forefront in suggesting welfare schemes for the residents of Camp. “Sanitation and hygiene was a big issue in the Cantonment area. We have solved it to an extent. But considering the influx of people, we need to do a lot more. There will always be demands to improve infrastructure. We have to keep planning and implementing for the future,” says Ibrahim who served as Honorary Magistrate in the Pune Cantonment Board. 

When asked which issues need urgent redressal in Camp, he says, “Roads. They are narrow and can withstand only so much vehicular traffic.”

The Bawas of Camp 
As we stroll down the Dastur Mehr Road, the red roofed Dorabjee & Sons restaurant catches our eye. Dorabjee & Sons and Hotel Islamiya were popular eating out places for old time residents of Camp. In place of Hotel Islamiya, now stands an outlet of WS Bakers; but Dorabjee & Sons established in 1878 continues to serve traditional Parsi fare to its patrons. 

Darius Dorabjee, the fourth generation owner of the place, is proud of his legacy. Says he, “In 19th century, there was El Moritto’s, an Italian restaurant, at the corner. It was frequented by British officers and their families. There was no place for the natives, as we were called then. My great grandfather had migrated to Pune from Navsari, Gujarat, and started a tea stall here. But many Indians, who worked in the neighbourhood area, kept asking him to serve food. So then he began a take-away joint. Much later, he started this restaurant offering non-vegetarian and vegetarian fare. The menu stands unchanged till this day.”

Quintessentially a Camp chhokra, Darius went to St Vincent’s School and later to Wadia’s. Ask him what are the traits one would associate with a blue-blooded Camp resident, and he says with a laugh, “I do know who is not a Camp resident, but I can’t tell you how to identify one.”

His uncle, Dinyar, who stays opposite the restaurant, adds, “Until a few years ago, you could hear only two tongues spoken on this road — Gujarati and English. Now, you hear bits of Marathi, Hindi and whatnot. Also, the way we speak, peppered with affectionate abuses, you know you are speaking to a Bawa from Camp.”

In fact, Dinyar is a unique case among the Parsis. He was a bawa who went to work in Sadashiv Peth. Recounting the tale, Dinyar says, “I worked in Bank of Baroda. I trained with the bank’s Zaveri Bazar branch in the then Bombay. My colleagues used to laugh at me, ‘Kaisa bawa hai tu? Tujhe Gujarati padhne-likhne nahi aati. After a year, I was transferred to Sadashiv Peth branch in Pune. On my first day there, my father told me, ‘Take a bus to Sadashiv Peth. Else, tu akkha din ghumta rahega Sadashiv Peth kidhar hai kar ke.’ ”

He relates a few more anecdotes about learning Marathi, working on his Gujarati and now spending his retirement in the house that was built approximately 160 years ago. When asked about the love of Parsis for vehicles, Dinyar laughs and says, “I am an exception. Asal mein, Parsis are fond of food and drinks! I have been a hardcore meat eater all these years. Of late, I have started eating baingan and bhindi.”

When it comes to food, Darius tells us, “Here we have all quaint, family owned eateries. Once upon a time, Camp and Koregaon Park were considered ‘upscale’ areas. But now Balewadi High Street has pushed us behind. I had been there recently; it’s a very swanky and happening place.”

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