NEAR THE BEGINNING of my reporting career, my editor at the Indian Express in Bombay proposed that the paper create a heritage and conservation beat, and that I cover it. “Look at how things are changing around us,” he said, referring to Girangaon, the fast-altering mill district in Central Bombay where our newsroom had recently moved after shifting from the longstanding office in downtown Nariman Point. I welcomed his offer, seeing it as an opportune replacement for the PhD in History I never pursued, and an ideal re-entry into the city I grew up in, and later left for undergraduate studies.
Researching a story on the minuscule Chinese community in Bombay for an early assignment, I called up the historian Sharada Dwivedi, having seen a copy of the magisterial book she had co-authored, Bombay:The Cities Within, in our office library. She asked me what I had studied and where, and then launched into a conversation, as if she were an old source. Soon, the hoarse voice on the other end of the phone was delivering rich details, mostly from memory, while pointing me to primary and secondary sources on Bombay’s Chinese I had known little about. Sharada ended the conversation by counselling me to read a short story by the writer Kiran Nagarkar about a Chinese dentist on Grant Road, which she would send. I hung up, feeling like I had struck gold.
Over the next four years, Sharada lived up to her promise of making Bombay’s conservation beat an exceedingly rich field, unfailingly serving up great amounts of information and leads to pursue. Her knowledge of the city, and its transformation through the decades, was unmatched. Trained in library science, Sharada began researching the history of South Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel in the 1980s. She dug up so much material in the process that she and friend and architect, Rahul Mehrotra, began a newspaper column on the city’s history. Out of this evolved the idea to do a full-fledged book, Bombay:The Cities Within, published in 1995. The book quickly became—and remains—the definitive guide to the city’s transformation from a set of nondescript islands in precolonial India to a pulsating metropolis at the close of the century, part opportunity, part frustration for its more than 12 million inhabitants. This work launched a prolific period of books co-authored by Sharada. These included a walking guide to Bombay’s original historic city centre, the Fort Area (Fort Walks: Around Bombay’s Fort Area; 1999), histories of the Banganga tank in the Walkeshwar temple complex at Malabar Hill (Banganga, Sacred Tank; 1996), the Chhatrapati Shivaji Rail Terminus or VT—Victoria Terminus—(Anchoring a City Line: The History of the Western Suburban Railway and its Headquarters in Bombay; 2000), and the city’s Art Deco buildings (Bombay Deco; 2008). Her most recent work was The Taj at Apollo Bunder, on the century-old seafront Taj Mahal Hotel which was restored last year, after being damaged by the November 2008 terrorist attack.