Saturday, May 23, 2009

Buried Treasure of Bomb Bay

Around 1940 two men Madhukar Vaidya and Pandurang Achrekar worked at the Bombay Docks. Every month they brought back with them their nominal wages and loads of stories to their families. Port stories of smuggling, tax evasions, fire and many more, of this geography that got touched by vessels and ships that came from far off magical places. These stories were passed on from them to their children and finally inherited by the grandchildren. One such story that I had vague memory happened to resurface in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay lost & found. A story which grandfathers working at the docks unfailingly describe to their grandchildren as the day it rained gold bricks, the day of SS Fort Stikine (14th April 1944). Mehta describes:
“The disaster of the Fort Stikine is with us still. Bars of gold from the ship were being found as late as the 1970s, during dredging operations at the docks. But there was a mountain of more base debris from the explosion, and the British municipal authorities chose to create a landfill out of it. They started filling in the Back Bay, where the mangroves used to be, in what is now Nariman Point..."
Thus the raining gold bricks from Fort Stikine laid the foundations for the development of highest commercial real estate rental space in the world (1995 @ $175 per square foot or $1880/sq. m.). This was also a point in time when the War actually touched Bombay, as it was the smuggled ammunition/explosives cargo that caught fire and was responsible for such a big explosion. My grandfathers described this incident to me as experiences at ground level, which I tend to imagine with sepia tints, of the sound, the smoke, the debris and most of all the gold & silver. For me this is one of the very few stories where personal, urban and global histories collide into a single narrative of conspiracy, buried treasure and everything else that makes cities & its people
...And to this day somewhere in the water lies a buried treasure waiting to be discovered by the brave soul who can swim through human faeces, industrial waste, Ganapati clay, animal carcasses, plastic bags, feathers, dead beggar and other day to day things that we choose to avoid direct confrontations with.

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