Riches to rehab: Mumbai palace welcomes new tenants

Riches to rehab: Mumbai palace welcomes new tenants

The 19th century palatial residence of one of Mumbai's wealthiest denizens has been reincarnated as the city's most excellent private drug rehab center
Masina Hospital Mumbai
Masina Hospital was Sassoon's mansion residence called Sans Souci, "No Worries".

When a daily tabloid carried the story of a U.S.-based Indian millionaire checking in to Mumbai's Masina Hospital for a de-toxification program in December 2009, interest in the low profile, community-based hospital set amidst verdant gardens in Byculla, went wild.

Started in the memory of Jerbai Masina by her family in 1902, this was the first private hospital in the city, and is now run by the Masina Hospital Trust. The psychiatry department of the hospital is credited as the only private hospital in Mumbai with a tertiary care psychiatry ward, which is where patients receive long term care. Within the Department of Psychiatry is a Rehabilitation Centre for drug addicts, alcoholics, poly-substance abusers and dually diagnosed patients with private and deluxe rooms for special cases in the residential in-patient wards. Staffed by doctors, counselors, psychologists and social workers, they also run a 24/7 crisis prevention helpline. This unique operation is headed by Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla, and is creditable because he practices for less privileged patients and in a city whose public, despite living in the capital of Bollywood, is not yet at ease with the idea of rehab. 

What's even more interesting, and what few people know, is that the gardens where patients now take their walks is the same place David Sassoon, one of the city's wealthiest men ever, called home. 

A Baghdadi Jew, the Sassoon family made Mumbai its home in the early 19th century and Masina Hospital was David Sassoon's mansion residence called Sans Souci, or "No Worries", with a grand double stairway in carved oak that still exists within the main entrance to the hospital. 

Gillian Tindall in her book "City of Gold: Biography of Bombay" writes that the staircase "imported from England is still intact. It is one of the last surviving houses in that now densely populated district." Tindall calls David Sassoon,"in mercantile terms, an empire builder." A contemporary of Sassoon recounts, "silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat -- whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Co." In business terms he was almighty. 

Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla and Mumbai's private palatial hospital

I took the 'S' bridge from Saat Rasta and crossed the railway line to Masina Hospital to meet Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla on a May morning. Some years my senior at medical school we got talking quickly. Now attached to GT Hospital and Head of Department of Psychiatry at Masina Hospital, Dr Matcheswalla pioneered the drug rehabilitation program at Masina. Realizing that patients with problems of addiction or psychiatric problems also often have severe medical problems requiring a hospital-based environment, he started the rehabilitation ward where group therapy sessions are run in one of the outlying buildings on the hospital grounds. 

Mumbai's best and most beautiful rehab center has inpatient facilities of up to 20. But talking about the increasing drug problems in the city to Dr Matcheswala you get the sense times are changing. He sees the resurgence of marijuana addicts, an increase in the addiction to prescription drugs and the spread of cocaine use not just among the affluent but among "ordinary people in Bhendi Bazaar." 

These are the only private "lock and key" wards outside of the public hospitals, used to control potentially violent patients as they undergo the process of de-toxification. The period of time that they can be admitted for, under India's Mental Health Act, is 90 days. Most often after this they are referred to external rehabilitation centers, or if their dual medical problems are still severe then they are re-admitted. 

One of the aides on the team, counselor Jatish Shah, is an ex patient. Having been through the treatment successfully himself he can empathize with the mental anguish of the rehab process. 

Walking around the hospital today bits of beauty still hang from the past. The central square atrium ascends upwards to a glassed-in ceiling where light streams in to a now cubicled warren of hospital services below, admission counters, emergency rooms, out patient departments, a chemist and casualty ward. Off on the side is a wide sweeping wooden staircase with elaborate wrought iron railings that lead up to the top of the atrium. The dimensions of these surviving remnants hint at the past grandeur of a palatial private residence. 

Giving back, back in the day, till today

David Sassoon made his fortune in trade with China (ironically opium, and yarn) and in the cotton mills of Bombay in the 19th century. Like wealthy Parsis of the time, the Sassoon family bestowed its benevolence on the city that gave them their wealth, in the form of public buildings.

The David Sassoon Library, named after him, houses one of the oldest libraries and reading rooms in use in Mumbai. This Venetian Gothic-styled structure, completed in 1870, forms part of the facade that makes up the Kala Ghoda district in Bombay. Its terrace above the porch has sleepy patrons in loungers but the rear gardens come alive with events held during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.

The Sassoon docks at Colaba were built by David's son. They are the largest docks in the city and home to one of the biggest fish markets (the reason for that pervading smell that hits you at the southern-most end of Colaba Causeway). It's where you will find foodies and chefs of tiny South Mumbai restaurants at dawn picking out the freshest fish of the early morning catch. A synagogue in the Fort and one in Byculla were also built by the famous Sassoon family. 

So while the mills are reincarnated as commercial shopping malls for Mumbai's retail addicts, a mansion built partly on profits from opium trading today offers refuge to substance abusers in the city that made Sassoon his fortune. 

Masina Hospital, M.M.C. Building, Sant Savta Marg, Byculla (E); tel. +91 (0) 22 23714889/23714890

Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla, Masina Hospital Clinic: +91 (0) 22 23747767/23753002 / 64537171/64507070;;


Having studied medicine at Bombay's oldest medical college, Deepika focuses on passions she could not study.
Read more about Deepika Sorabjee