Had an even better time in Bombay than I did last year – spent more time getting to know south Bombay really well, imagining how charming the place must have been like decades ago when my mom and her family lived there (more on the nostalgia angle in this post). After a few last-minute uncertainties, Abhilasha managed to come along too, which was good. We walked a lot – from the Radio Club, where we were staying, to the Colaba Causeway, to Kala Ghoda and around Churchgate. Visited the Haji Ali shrine too. Met old and new friends including Amit, Chandrahas, Sonia, Peter, Rahul, Soumik, Praba and Paromita.
The two panels I was on went off as well as could be expected, given my fear of these things, and the David Sassoon Library garden was a friendly setting. The first panel, on online writing, was enlivened by Time Out editor Naresh Fernandes’s snarky and ungenerous views about blogs, especially the ones that “amount merely to public diaries”. Naturally, this meant lots of tiresome generalisation. Naresh did sweetly admit that he liked a couple of blogs, including mine, but he made the all-too-easy mistake of referring to my blog as simply an extension of my journalism. Whereupon I pointed out that the posts that are extensions of the journalism are usually more indepth and more personally satisfying than the versions that appear in print (a reflection on the many limitations of mainstream media in India – inadequate word-counts for reviews, incompetent sub-editors, etc) and that I’m more proprietorial about them than most of the stuff I’ve written for official publication. Also, that I do write “personal diary posts” as well; wonder what he’ll think of this one, for instance!
Technically speaking, I was the “moderator” of the second panel, about banned books, but my task was made very easy by my fellow panelists. Manjula Padmanabhan, whose dark and subversive writings I’ve long admired (and who included me in this Suki comic strip a couple of years ago), wrote a short script that enabled us to begin things on a strong note. Devangshu Datta, Amit and Chandrahas managed the rest, with erudite views on a number of topics (including the availability of gay porn at the Ahmedabad railway station, which DD was surprisingly knowledgeable about).
Most importantly, food tourism happened. Here’s the list:
- Mahesh Lunch Home and the revolving restaurant Pearl of the Orient, repeated from last year. Discovered sumptuous crab claws at the latter (the name is misleading; the meat of the dish is what I assume to be the crustacean’s forearm or calf region, or maybe the biceps – though given the size of each chunk, it would have had to be the sumo-wrestling champion of crabs).
- At one point we were greedy enough to have a 12 PM brunch at Café Leopold (yes yes, the Shantaram one) on the Colaba Causeway, only an hour or so before meeting someone for lunch. Abhi had Akuri, the Parsi preparation of scrambled eggs, while I settled for something so boring that I’m embarrassed to mention it here.
- Mutton dhansak at one of the Kala Ghoda stalls. This was – ahem – at 7 PM, a couple of hours before a lavish dinner at a maasi’s house: home-made tandoori pomfret and around eight other superb dishes, including a versatile salad made by Dayal uncle, who is a true artist in the kitchen and will make us many fine meals in the future (and who is hopefully reading this post).
- Excellent beef steak-and-fried egg sandwich at Café Churchill. Perfectly done – none of the ingredients was excessive relative to the others – and just the right size. And the thing was priced at just Rs 110! In a Delhi café (say, The Big Chill), something of comparable quality would have been Rs 200 at the very least. (In general, food prices were to die for. I also can’t believe that it’s possible to take a cab a short distance and pay a fare of Rs 13. I’m assuming that all this talk about Mumbai being expensive to live in is entirely because of the rents.)
- The best fish-and-chips I’ve ever had – light, tender, not too strong – at the Cricket Club of India. With an outstanding Orange Nougat for dessert.
- But the pick of the foodie experiences was probably our lunchtime visit to the Irani café Britannia, which has been around since the mid-1920s and is among the few surviving Irani joints in the city. It’s a ramshackle sort of place to look at (the “High Class Restaurant” written in fading letters on an old and rusty signboard seemed ironical when we first saw it) and we were told it runs on the whimsies of its octogenarian owner – opening for only a few hours at lunchtime, staying closed on Sundays, and if two people show up early when they’ve booked a table for four, they might not be allowed to sit down until the others arrive. Despite this, it has a huge and loyal clientele, and the food made it easy to see why. We had two of the staple Irani dishes – Sali boti, which is mutton topped with lots of potato straws and best had with a warm, soft roti, and the berry pulao, both delicious. (Couldn’t figure out the provenance of the little berries sprinkled on the rice, but were told later that they are still specially imported from Iran.) I’m not a big fan of caramel custards, but experts in this field claim that the ones served here are incomparable.
Eighty-five-year-old Boman Kohinoor still takes every order himself, being nervous about entrusting this delicate task to anyone else, even the younger family members who also work here. It was fascinating to see him doing the rounds. When he took our orders, every sentence was preceded by a businesslike “Now!” or “Listen!” When we ordered the fizzy Pallonji raspberry drink instead of the fresh lime water he had suggested, he gave us a faux-suspicious look. “You guys Parsi or what?!” he croaked, “Parsi means raspberry.” After he was finished, he beamed round at us all, called us “good girls” and “good boys” (one of my uncles is over 60) and tottered off to the next table.
One last thing that has to be mentioned, because it was a motif of the trip and because I’m still shaking my head about it: this utterly bizarre rumour spread by shivering Mumbaiites that their city is in the throes of winter. They should have been in Delhi on the night of February 1 when my brother-in-law’s wedding ceremony was held outdoors and guests were dropping like Bedouin in Greenland. People, I accept that your city (the southern tip of it anyway) is the greatest in the world, but your definition of cold weather merits you the appellation “Wuss”. And no, this isn’t Delhi-chauvinism. The moment we stepped out of the plane at the Indira Gandhi airport, I commenced a sneezing fit that still hasn’t fully ended. These things can't be faked. (The idea that Mumbai had a meaningful winter this year will be debunked at greater length in a subsequent post.)
P.S. Turns out even sophisticated cities have unintentionally funny signboards. Like this one: