Thursday, 27 August 2015

Britannia and Company


         The cat, comfortably curled up on his cushion on the counter, snoozed through the din - the clickety clack of cutlery meeting the plate; of happy and satiated stomachs echoing  in the gentle laughs and boisterous talks; more hungry souls waiting patiently under the shade pulled out to cover just that much of the pavement in front of Britannia and Co. An old fashioned board leaned against the counter, behind which a senior Parsi gentleman sat looking out into the January afternoon. While waiting for our turn to be called in, Merwan Kohinoor  made small talk like we were old customers. His nephew Afshin, at the opposite counter with the sleeping cat, finally called us in.  We stepped into the dark cavernous space filled with people, furniture, and an old world charm. Stashed with packing  material and packaged food, cupboards stood at the corners, crates of bottled coloured Duke drinks peeped out of shelves. Zarathustra, fading with time, looked out of a frame.

 Could we take pictures of this place please?
Sure! Go right ahead! Take pictures of my cat, of the place, the food, my father but not of me. Your pictures will be ruined, he said with hearty laugh while supervising his staff to pack food. Just joking, Afshin went on to add. Actually, I am a communist and we are not supposed to be photographed.

 I didn't know which to believe.

    Tucked into the Ballard Estate, that old business district of south Bombay built on land reclaimed by the Bombay Port Trust, Britannia and Co, stuck out in that colonial facade. We had jostled our way through the congested roads and traffic snarls from Goregaon East, with its eruption of concrete structures to accommodate the teeming milieu. The Ballard Estate, a reminder of the British era like many others in the country, housed the famed Britannia and Co, the last of a handful of restaurants serving authentic Parsi food. And we had endured that tiring commute from the suburb, not just to savour their delicacies but more for the experience of this place.

    Two white boards shaped curiously like coat of arms than signboards, flanked the entry. A smiling Prince William and Duchess of  Cambridge leaned out of the mezzanine balustrade, looking out at the diners tucking into their sali boti, cutlets and the other dishes arriving at the tables. A calendar with large numbers fluttered in the circulated air from the ceiling fans. A row of coloured floral tiles adorned the scruffy walls with paint peeling and an old fashioned clock kept time in a place that seemed to have entered a time warp. As we waited for our food to arrive, which was really quick, nonagenarian Boman Kohinoor Irani, the owner along  with his brother, went around the place talking to the diners. He finally shuffled his way to our table, peering through his thick glasses with a warm smile.
"Hello! How are you? Are you comfortable?"
"Yes, we are thank you! You have a lovely place here!"
As if on a cue, he motioned us to wait and went back to his place below the stairs. A plate of patrani machli  arrives at the next table making us wish we had ordered that too. Boman Kohinoor is back again with a waiter following close behind carrying our food. But he was more keen on showing us the laminated sheets of newspaper cuttings, certificates, a photo of the Queen of England among others. A practice which I gathered, he regaled all his customers with. And then with a flourish and a beam radiating across his wrinkled face he produced the sheet of acknowledgement from the Queen of England's office. We made all the appropriate sounds at the object of pride. The waiter placed our dishes on the red checkered table cloth making us lean expectantly from our bentwood chairs to take in the aroma.
With a "Enjoy your meal!", off he went to a couple of foreign tourists with the testaments of this establishment started in 1923 by his father.


    The mutton berry pulao, needless to say, did not let us down. The red pieces of the berry sat prettily on the heap of fragrant rice poorly concealing the succulent mutton under it. A spicy fare with a tart surprise. The waiter gave me a knowing smile when I pulled out the camera before the whole thing was devoured. For him, I was perhaps another one of those many over excited customers. Some of the other specialty that we couldn't possibly manage, we packed for dinner. The dhansak being one of them.  It was important for us to take in as much as we could considering that places like this were shutting shop. It was not just about the food but also about the ambiance enriched with an air of a past coupled with warm hospitality shown by the owners as well as the waiters. It wasn't difficult to notice that there were no concerted efforts to beautify the place, create an ambience or force hospitality like the new crops that would go out of their way to assemble a place like this. The difference lay in being innate like the bonhomie in the air inside. Everyone, from the owners, the waiters and the customers seemed to be at ease.


   Spooning their delicious caramel custard, the eyes went around and the mind wandered a bit. The place looked like it was falling apart with its days numbered just like the fast dwindling Parsi community itself. Maybe in a world where new entrants are pushing their way in, these little spaces are trying to hold on to their glorious past of the British era. A time when they were patronized by the Europeans for their enterprising nature and the continental food they served. The menu now catered to the spice seeking Indian taste buds. The Parsis have maintained their promise of sweetening the existing society from the time they first set foot on the Gujarat shores. A community that has given a lot  and never created strife. Adapting and growing in changed scenarios is there forte and yet they remain distinct. They have  occasionally been brought into the Bollywood movie frame with all their idiosyncrasies to bring forth an indulgent smile or a laugh but their  contributions are immense in every field.

   Within India, this Zoroastrian community is made up of two sets of immigrants and largely identified by the period in which they sought refuge in India. The Parsis, from the Pars region, had settled almost a thousand years ago with their promise of sweetening. By the time the Iranis came seeking shelter from drought and persecution in their Yazd region of Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Parsis had settled well and prospered in their adopted land. It was they who helped the Iranis to migrate and offered work in their homes and establishments. The oft repeated story of the growth of Irani cafes that numbered almost 350 at one time, is of how one evening when the Iranis had gathered to reminiscence about the land they had left behind, one of them served tea and charged them for it. These cafes soon became popular for providing good food at reasonable rates to all strata of society. It wasn't long before they became the favourite haunts of artists and writers.

  The loyal customers continue to throng the place before it becomes a casualty to changing times. Curious tourists like us stream in to experience a space that is unique in its identity and a glimpse into a subculture of Bombay.



Saturday, 8 August 2015


               It was quiet.Very quiet down there. The only sound that could be heard was, the whooshing  of the breath drawn in and the gurgle of it going out. If it is a debut tryst with the deep waters, the silence can be quite disconcerting.  For us, it was such a relief that we  still  managed to breathe with all the thoughts of ' will--i-be-the-first-one-to-die- in-first-scuba-dive-experience'. All this while  holding on to the rope from the boat for dear life.


       The quest for the enchanting underwater life  had been fed by our delightful snorkeling experience in the Andamans, a few years back. If the surface skimming could reveal such rich under water flora and fauna, we were intrigued by what scuba diving would unleash! The colourful clown fish, starfish, corals of exquisite shades  had us eager eyed in a euphoric state of being. A determination arose silently to push the envelope further  with scuba diving. But it had to wait for a few years till we found an opportune trip to take us to the sea side once more.


   It was after we literally took the plunge, it sank in that scuba diving was an altogether  different ball game or water game, if you please. The terrified  look on Hrithik Roshan's face before the dive was underplayed in the movie ZNMD. Or it might be that having Katrina Kaif as an instructor diverted the petrified mind. The time we left our resort for the waiting launch off the Bang Rak beach, the entire Koh Samui seemed to stretch out languorously after a good night's sleep. The only shutters that were up, were the all night departmental shops and the divers shops. We had stopped enroute to try out our diving gears for the right size. There are many operators here and we relied once again on Mike to connect us to the right one since his advice on travel to Koh Samui from Bangkok  had stood us in good stead. On board the Easy Divers launch, we found ourselves in a motley group of different nationalities seeking the same thrill of going down. They had tested many waters whereas we were first timers.


   Pulling away from the shore with anticipation spreading out like the sea, leaving the pretty white boats bobbing up and down, the towering Big Buddha receded gradually as we sped into the open waters. The Scuba diving site for the day was the Ang Thong  Marine Park which was almost three hours away from the shore. Since there are quite a few dive sites around Koh Samui, there are different days of the week allotted to each of them. Each of these dive sites are popular for their own reasons. It was Ang Thong Marine Park for us, it being a Thursday.  On our way, Toddy, the instructor who would be our guiding star, explained the techniques the hand signals to be used under water, the gauge to be monitored. We lapped it all up like obedient students feeling very sure that thumbs up signal ( to surface if uncomfortable) was going to be least used.
" You will hold on to each child and we will stay together, is that okay?" we nodded eagerly to his instruction.

   Feeling none less than Carl Sagan splashing in and out of water in his iconic Cosmos, the first diver I ever saw ( yes, yes I am that antique),  we jumped into the Gulf of Siam, off the archipelago Marine Park, with the weight belts around the waist, the oxygen tanks strapped behind, the mask on our face, the life jacket inflated. All the dreams of seamless dive, fluid and graceful piscean movement went up with that first splash. It took us a while to realize that the oxygen tanks were strapped a little off the center that had us floating in a lop sided manner. Fear had it's grip on us. And quite strongly. With arms and legs flaying in all directions in the most awkward  manner, we finally managed to hold on to the rope decently. Gathering our senses and wits that had run askew, it was time to rehearse the signals and to monitor the oxygen gauge and to try the equalizer. All this under water. While our two ducklings had morphed into fish, the mother duck was sending all kinds of prayers to stay alive.

   Going down, the equalizer helped the body to adjust to the pressure difference. It's a simple technique of blowing against the ears with the nose pinched, the same that we practice on flights and high altitudes. Toddy and Paul kept asking us if we were alright and it didn't take us long to figure out how important that thumbs up signal was. We surfaced many times trying to adjust sustaining under water. Toddy looked at Paul, during one such surfacing,
" I think, you and I will have to hold  the children"
I was never more relieved to hand over my children into hands safer than ours.
After many trials  and errors and gulping the sea water, we did manage to descend gingerly, stopping every now and then to equalize which did us a lot good. Trusting the oxygen mask,the tube,the cylinders and the mouth piece and the team, we learnt to let go.

  I think that was very important. To trust and to let go. To not be burdened with anxieties and anticipations. It was important to flow with the moment and relax. Our  flippers stroked the water taking us forward. Paul's gentle push guided us to the coral reef and suddenly we found  friends swimming along with us. Many tawny striped little ones emerged from around a rock and hurried of as if on an errand. Almost brushing past sea urchins settled on rocks nibbling at the moss, we soaked in the tranquil sights by the eyeful. The diffused sunlight spread a soft veil all around lending the surroundings a surreal feel. The visibility was not what we had experienced in the Andamans, but swimming along the reef and rocks with marine life going about their regular life was exciting.

  Time had it's own pace and before we knew, it was time to surface. All those minutes spent in learning to let go seemed such a waste when we could have utilized them to explore the world down there. It was time to turn back and head for the shore. A day spent exploring not  just a part of the sea but also the self.


  So would I do this again? Absolutely! Knowing well that I will yet again find it difficult to let go initially. That I managed to overcome my fear of deep water when even the deep end of a swimming pool left me in jitters is something to reckon with. Attempting such feats can send up rewarding moments such as coming across dolphins frolicking out of the  blue and so close - the privilege of finding a window to a world so different from ours. We watched Toddy silently communicate to another fast approaching boat  to cut the engine and drift because these lovelies were out playing and frisking around.  The  sight of the smooth grey graceful bodies arch out of the water followed by the glimpse of  a perfect tail following close behind is what I'll remember for a long long time.