Monday, December 17, 2007

Bhaji Galli

Bhaji Galli takes its name from ‘Nana’ Jagannath Shankersheth’ who owned large areas of land in this neighbourhood of Grant Road (W). It is named Shanker Sheth Lane and Jagannath Lane but, of course, nobody would remember these. They would simply know it as Bhaji Galli. You would be able to buy all types of fruits and vegetables here. Bhaji Galli has three hundred plus licensed vegetable and fruit vendors. Some of them will keep only specific kinds of vegetables. Ten vendors sell only tomatoes, four vendors sell tuberous roots and tubers , more than twenty vendors sell fruits , three vendors sell sprouted pulses , around ten vendors sell ‘kanda batata’ and the rest sell a mélange of vegetables.

So how did this little lane become a vegetable market, popularly known as Bhaji Galli? Well, the genesis lies within the confines of a very big chawl towards the Grant Road station end called Bhalchandra building. In the 1930s, the white Gandhi topi wearing vegetable vendors from Vasai, popularly called ‘Vasaiwale’ used to sell vegetables in the chawl’s courtyard. They used to procure home grown vegetables from the weekly markets of Virar, Vasai, Nala Sopara, Bolinj, Holi and Nirmal, arrive here in the afternoon and go back after selling off their wares. This would ensure that the vegetables sold by them were fresh. Slowly over time more and more people started setting up their shops till they were spread across the whole lane.

Though the “Vasaiwale” coming here have dwindled drastically, one such Vasaiwala, Babu Jeevan Naik has been coming here for the past fifty years. The vegetables he sells are always very fresh and lush green. He says that twenty five percent of the people now telephone him and opt for home delivery. He has customers who come from Colaba , Haji Ali, Walkeshwar and Malabar Hill, apart from the office goers who pick up vegetables on their way back home.

Jerestin Sidhwa , a Colaba resident has been visiting Bhaji Galli for the past 15 years. She says that she prefers this place as many of the seasonal vegetables are available here but not at the Colaba market. “The vegetables here might be slightly more expensive but are better and fresher and I just love the shopping experience here”, she adds.

In one of the arms of the lane, you can identify the East Indian women from Vasai in their traditional maroon sarees who sell specific home grown produce. Jacinta Augustin Burbos is one of the few East Indians left and she sells fresh but small quantities of pumpkins, village grown aubergines, flowers, lemons, snake gourd, lemongrass, ‘alu’or colacasia leaves, bitter gourd, kelful or banana flower and even the wild ‘gavthi’ mushrooms in season.

One more interesting vendor is Kamlakar Karande popularly known as KK. He introduced what he calls ‘Continental’ vegetables to Bhaji Galli in 1982. This was when these exotic vegetables were not as commonly available as they are today. He was the only vendor who stocked basil, thyme, celery, parsley, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, bell peppers, pak choy, avocados (from Ooty),cherry tomatoes,babycorn,leek and mushrooms and sell them at reasonable rates. He was one of the few vendors who called out to you in English “ Want to take some celery or parsley sir” he used to shout out at every passerby. His grandmother Kandabai Khade was one of the four original vendors who set up shop or benches as they were known then in Bhaji Galli in the 1930s.

Octogenarian , Shashikala Dalvi will never forget Bhaji Galli. She resided in this area before she got married and moved to Dadar. “For many years after my marriage, I used to take back ‘fresh vegetables’ from my ‘regular’ vendors whenever I used visit my parents’ home", she reminisces.

If you visit Bhaji galli in the evening, you will find it crowded with hundreds of people buying their vegetables with shouts of ‘Tomato daha rupaye kilo, Batata aathra rupaya kilo’ in different nasal twangs, renting the air. It truly is a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Mumbai's Irani cafes and a blog

My first tryst with Irani Cafes was with the one opposite my house. It used to be called Sassani and I can still place the Irani gentlemen who used to run it. He was tall and lanky, bespectacled and always used to nice to us, ‘kids’ when we used to regularly go there to have ice cream or cold drinks priced at Rs 2 then... We used to keep buying lots of Kwality ice-cream (it used to be only Kwality and not Kwality Wall’s) from Sassani as they were running a contest of completing a collection of little pictures of aircrafts (given with each ice-cream bought). I used to also like the big Jujups and the jelly biscuits. All this stuff was more special to us kids than the bun- maska and chai that one reveres now.I also used to be awed by the big ‘barnis’(bottles) filled with biscuits, cookies and other items which used to be lined up at most of the Irani cafes.

As time went by I encountered other Irani cafes... Persian at Grant Road where my grandfather used to take me to buy bread (bun, ladi paav, brun and sliced) on a daily basis. Kyani, Sassanian and Bastani as they were very near my school. And then as years went by I visited many of them because of the stray dogs or cats that they used to look after and call WSD for the treatment or just to have a chai and bun-maska. Over the years I went to B Merwan at Grant Road, Koolars at Matunga, Kyani and Bastani at Metro, Yazdani at Fort, Café de la Paix at Girgaum,
Byculla Restaurant and Bakery at Byculla, Stadium at Churchgate,Military at Kala Ghoda and many others. Will write a blog on Irani cafes and their strays later.

All Irani cafes were the traditional chai bun maska places but better business sense prevailing converted into eating joints (Britannia, Ideal) or beer bars. (Brabourne)

Many articles have been written on the Irani Cafes which you can read here ,
here and here. Busybee wrote some here and here in his Round and About. I always wished that some one would document the Irani cafes before it is too late. It is already quite late as many of the Irani cafes have closed down. I wished I had the time to do it.

And then I happened to meet Bruce Carter, a local historian from Australia who started collecting information on the Irani Cafes. In a Bombay street directory of 1947, he found more than 300 Irani cafés listed. Today, there are only around 20 left. When I asked him why he chose to document Irani Cafes, he had this to say....

“I use a lot of oral history in my work. Oral history has the ability to bring the past alive in a way that documents cannot. There is also great power in the spoken word. Two stories that particularly struck a chord with me were the story of an Irani arriving in Mumbai in the 1940s, during the monsoon. He had traveled for days, overland, and arrived to this strange city, with pouring rain, spicy food and a language he did not speak. Yet he made Mumbai his home, and has given the city's people something that, on the face of it, is so 'everyday' it may not be thought about too much. This is typical of migrant stories the world over - the self reliance and want to carve a future typifies the migrant experience”.

“Coming from Australia, we are a land almost exclusively of people from 'other places' - I am first generation, the child of migrants. So I relate to these stories of packing up, taking a step outside the familiar, and finding a new future in a new land”.

He continues “Another story that sticks in my mind is that of a young Irani boy starting junior college. The master was reading the roll. He came to the name IRANI, the master stopped, looked up and said to this young boy "ahh, your father must be a chaiwalla, yes?” The whole group of boys burst into laughter. The young Irani was embarrassed, not understanding what was so funny about his parents running a cafe. After all, they were giving their community a service, providing not just chai, bun maska and omelets, but also provisions such as soap, pens, toothpaste etc. Surely this was something good? He thought. Nevertheless, for the rest of his years at the school, the master always called him "chaiwallas son"...”

He says that he tried to do some research but there wasn’t much information on the Irani cafes available. – “I was taken by the ambience of these cafes, and was keen to know more. Beyond fairly superficial 'nostalgic' news pieces I couldn’t find anything written that seriously examined the people who have given Mumbai what are, today, an institution in the city. The exception to this was a short film by the organisation, PUKAR done a few years ago. Looking at this film, I thought 'wow, there are many stories to be told here, lets start talking to people”

He then began by visiting as many Irani cafes as he could find, and over time started doing oral history interviews with Irani cafe owners and their families. Almost without exception, these people were open and welcoming and very keen to share their histories with him.

He then started a blog which you can find here . He adds that the aim of the blog is to get people to contribute, and start to 'map memories' - in this sense using communication technologies as a preliminary research tool, and see what pictures emerge and how, if at all, they differ from the other research that he is undertaking. Keep checking his blog for more as he has already conducted 15 in depth interviews which he will keep updating on his blog. He has already written about Brittania and Co and Sassanian.