Dining in Mumbai: A City of Small Miracles, Part I

For the next few weeks, EatDrinkFilms will be running a few gems from our earliest issues, which most of you may not have seen before. This article first appeared in May 2014.

The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra writes a wonderful exclusive story for EatDrinkFilms. His observations with accompanying photos by Raj Rishi More offer insight, humor and stories about multi-generational restaurants in Mumbai.

EatDrinkFilms asked Ritesh if there was a subject that he would like to write about. He responded, “Funny you asked about movies and food; I am actually sampling Bombay’s Irani cafes and Parsi restaurants for a new film project. I would love to write something nostalgic perhaps about a family-run restaurant that has never updated its menu or decor, a hold-out from the past. They are a dying breed here but still around and also run by quirky owners and clientele. One of them is featured in The Lunchbox, the place where Ila and Saajan were to meet.”

In a progress report, Ritesh offered, “I visited several old restaurants and cafes in Bombay over the last 3 days; had a simple criteria—anything that was more than 5 decades old and at least 3rd or 4th generation in the family. We got some wonderful pictures and insight into the food and the families that run the places.”

We have also posted the director’s previous short film Café Regular, Cairo for you to enjoy in this week’s issue.


A City of Small Miracles, Part I

by Ritesh Batra

How has everything changed? Those of us who left Bombay and came back are often asked this question rhetorically. Bombay is the city I was born in, as I was growing up it became Mumbai, though we still say Bombay out of spite or forgetfulness.

 But just like that, miraculously, the city had a different name. Bombay had always been a city of miracles, not big sweeping miracles like in the religious epics, but small mundane everyday ones. Like one evening as we played, someone, I don’t remember who, saw a cloud shaped like Sai Baba in the sky. Children left their games, mothers abandoned their cooking, men brushed off the tiredness of the office grind and the crushing commute, and the entire building descended on the compound with cameras and all. The mundane evening took on festive proportions as the building people craned their necks to the sky, pointed with fervor, and then mostly tried to drive away any profound thoughts with ordinary gossip. I imagine this scene played out in compounds across the city, because the next day the Mid-Day carried an article about the Sai Baba-shaped cloud in the sky.

The other time when everyone got together in the compound was during a fire on the sixth floor. The Customs Officer’s kitchen was in flames, his wife trapped inside. “Who keeps so much kerosene at home?” people wondered aloud as they waited. Later when people spoke of the incident, they said it was a miracle that her twin boys had remained unharmed even as the flames took over the flat. Such was the power of a mother’s love, they said. What the Bombay Fire Brigade cannot do, a mother’s love can. She was very pretty everyone would say of the deceased woman, pointing at her twin sons who were growing testaments to her beauty. Then they would point to the sky, she is still watching over them, not a hair on their heads can be harmed. Over time they would invoke her in different ways—idiot father gallivanting with girlfriend, poor woman has to watch over the sons from up there even. No peace for the dead, even after going through a trial by fire.

There was also the legend about the gentleman who lived on the 16th floor. He eloped with his secretary while his wife and kids were visiting the in-laws. Overnight, he sold the flat for 25 lacs with furniture, cutlery, sheets, and his children’s toys included. When the hapless wife came back from her parents, the downstairs neighbors had already made a hole in their ceiling and installed a spiral staircase. Having “the only duplex in the building” had improved their children’s marriage prospects by leaps and bounds. The story goes that the wronged wife fainted at the doorstep, and even though she was revived and consoled on her own former couch, she still cursed her husband and the flat. The curse followed her husband and his mistress to London, he lost his fortune, and they had to return to Bombay for fertility treatments. Such things are very expensive in the west, the adults reasoned when they spoke about the twist in the family tragedy that had turned it into a cautionary tale for all the men in the building. As for the curse on the flat, the Sindhi family that had bought the flat and installed the spiral staircase, were visited by the Income Tax authorities. The flat was thoroughly searched, not even the sofa-set and the cushions were spared. The raids became an annual ritual, and inspired many jokes from the building children—“Have you heard? Mrs. Bhavnani asked the Income Tax guys to pick her groceries on their way to today’s raid!”

I remember the newspapers on the day Bombay changed to Mumbai, some editorials expressed outrage. “5 crores [about a million dollars] spent on changing road signs. Imagine what 5 crores could buy, how many problems could be solved!?” In those days it was a lot of money. But some people were happy—this will bring in better times, they said. Others joked that the name of India should also be changed, to USA, so we could finally see healthy economic indicators. There infact was a USA, within Bombay itself—the Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association—a community based group that manufactured apparel and accessories and labeled them “Made in USA,” some protested that the labels should read “Made by USA,” but such technicalities were usually brushed aside in a city of small miracles. That was Bombay, Mumbai is a different place.

The old Mr. Irani from the 5th floor, still runs Cafe Seaside. When McDonalds first came to India they offered Mr. Irani a rather handsome amount for the seaside location, a great place for ‘The family restaurant’ as the tagline goes here. But Mr. Irani insisted he was not about to shut down his cafe for a passing fad of burgers and fries. The day McDonalds opened at another location nearby, the queue was 2 kilometers long. When Mr. Irani rejected KFC’s offer as well, his son, known as Chota Irani in the building, left for the North East in a huff. The rumor was that he had joined a Maoist uprising, but in reality he just took up a job teaching English in a Maoist infested village. One day during his morning ablutions in the field, he got caught in a cross fire between the Police and the Maoists. A bullet is said to have grazed his behind, that’s when he decided it was time to come home. But when he came back, he found himself in Mumbai, not Bombay. Each day father and son walk solemnly to the Cafe Seaside, where wayward patrons wander in for a grilled sandwich, greasy noodles, or an American Chopsuey, served on dented steel plates with bent forks. They eat in silence in the shadow of Bombay. Outside Mumbai awaits, no miracles here, no tall tales, and no legends. Just the jokes of the building kids—“Have you heard? The Chota Irani has not one but two butt cracks after the crossfire incident!”

Kyani & Co. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

Kyani & Co. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

But as the saying goes, a thin person casts a thin shadow, a fat person casts a fat shadow, and a dead person casts many shadows. Kyani & Co. is a bakery cafe across from the Metro Cinema in Marine Lines. Its fifth generation owner sits at the ‘Cash Only’ counter. An old table fan on one side and a cat on the other. Whirring and purring. At the entrance of Kyani & Co. hangs a rope that patrons can use to haul themselves into the Cafe, the steps have deep craters from five generations of patronage. Legend has it that Behram Contractor, who went by the pseudonym Busybee, started The Afternoon Dispatch & Courier from the corner table. This was his office after he had a tiff with his employers at the Mid-Day and left to start his own tabloid. In Rohinton Mistry’s seminal novel, A Fine Balance, the characters Rustom and Dina met at the nearby Patkar Hall at a music concert and fell in love. Surely they came to Kyani & Co. during their courtship, and sat on the chairs, imported from Italy over a hundred years ago and still going strong. So many patrons, both real and imaginary have trudged up the steps of Kyani & Co. If only the owners had sectioned off the entrances, real people from the left and imaginary people from the right please… it would have been quite something to study the differences in the craters on the steps.  Today the patrons, both real and imaginary eye each other as they nibble on their brun maska or kheema pao, and smile surreptitiously. If they could, they would march to the Richie Rich Trophy company next door for “Rich Trophies and World Class Awards” and buy each other prizes for wrestling away another day in the past from the future. The Bastani Bakery next door was not so lucky, its ventilators gather dust, shelves sit empty, and the Italian chairs are upturned on the tables.

Old Bastani Bakery. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

Old Bastani Bakery. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

Nearby, in Ballard Pier, the Britannia Restaurant boasts a steady clientele of tourists who march in with the Lonely Planets tucked under their arms, and locals who make sure to loosen the belt by a few notches before sitting down. The menu is the same, but the prices are no longer Bombay prices, they are Mumbai prices. The U.S. Ambassador once came to lunch and asked the owner—Boman Rashid Kohinoor, 94—for the recipe of the famous Berry Palau, Boman Rashid asked the formula of Coca-Cola in return. On the walls hang portraits of Queen Elizabeth and life-sized cut-outs of Prince William and Princess Kate. Boman Rashid once wrote to the Queen and requested her to come back and take over India again “without further delay.” He got a reply from Buckingham Palace thanking him for his loyal sentiments, and a picture of the queen. Both now laminated and displayed to customers.

Cafe Britannia and Boman. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

Cafe Britannia and owner Boman. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

Boman hobbles from table to table taking orders and making sure everyone orders “fresh lime soda sweet, to beat the Mumbai heat.” He reminisces about Gandhi sometimes, he had met the Father of the Nation in Bombay once, “I told him not to agree to the division of the country, he didn’t listen, now look what has happened.” After a few visits, and if one has admired the laminated letter from the Queen’s consort with sufficient enthusiasm, and dutifully obeyed the rules of the establishment on the wall—“Please Do Not Argue with Management,” then the conversation turns to Boman’s son—the man behind the cash counter. “My son is a rascal, a rascal.” From his perch behind the counter, the son displays his own laminated artifact—an ID from the Iranian Army, where he did his military service. “My wife is from there [Iran], my father does not like her.”

Bombay Cutting Chai. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

Bombay Cutting Chai. Photo by Raj Rishi More.

The Mumbai heat is relentless. It saps the energy and makes one drowsy. Ironically, nothing works to combat the heat sleep better than a glass of piping hot Mumbai cutting chai, once known as Bombay cutting chai. It is called “cutting” because the pourer is always “cutting off” the pour at a little over the halfway mark. It makes sense, all debates are settled with a dose of optimism here, the glass is a little over half full. Don’t even ask the half-full/half-empty question. It is said that when the British introduced tea to India, they exported all the processed tea back to England, leaving behind tea dust for the Indians. It was strong and bitter, and the Indians started cooking it with milk and spices, and the chai was born. You can brew your tea and have it with biscuits, we will cook our tea dust with milk and spices, no problem, the glass is always just a little over half full here. But one has to always make sure the pourer pours the last splash that will take it over the halfway mark. If you are not careful in Mumbai, even the chaiwallah will take you for a ride.

Ritesh Batra
Bombay, 2014

91loCb69aPL._SL1500_Next week, we learn about Ritesh Batra’s family and join him for a visit to Yazdani Café. Click here  to read Part II of Ritesh’s story. Click on “Join Our Mailing List” to subscribe for updates to future editions of EatDrinkFilms. To see Ritesh Batra’s short film, Café Regular, Cairo , click here.

To read Hayes Street Grill owner and food critic Patty Unterman’s take on his movie The Lunchbox, click here.

Ritech Batra’s film, The Lunchbox, is available from Amazon.

Ritesh Batra was born and raised in Mumbai, and is now based in Mumbai and New York with his wife Claudia and baby girl Aisha.His feature script The Story of Ram was part of the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors labs in 2009. His short films have been exhibited at many international film festivals and fine arts venues. His recent Arab language short Café Regular, Cairo screened at over 40 international film festivals and won 12 awards.

His debut feature The Lunchbox starring Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddique, and Nimrat Kaur, was shot on location in Mumbai in 2012. The Lunchbox premiered at the Semaine De La Critique (International Critics’ Week) at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival to rave reviews, where it won the Grand Rail d’Or Award. His website is http://www.riteshbatra.com/

Raj Rishi More is a Photographer based in Mumbai. He studied photography from Drishti School, Bangalore.  His short film THE LAST DRIVE was awarded the Jury Award in the Bangalore Short Film Festival. He worked as an Assistant Director for Ritesh Batra’s debut feature THE LUNCHBOX and for his short film MASTERCHEF.

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