Longings in Lockdown.
Could you possibly miss your own city even while you are still living in it? We are living in strange times. Difficult times. Some of us have been fortunate to be in the comforts of our homes. Thrown into new routines of webinars, tiktoks, Dalgona coffees, endless dishwashing, Netflix, and dread of the apocalyptic world outside our homes. While many, abandoned by the city or without a choice, continue to painstakingly get back to their homes on foot, thousands of miles away.
In the confines of my home, I find myself revisiting my city like a distant memory, with a cup of tea in hand and in between never ending chores. A memory filled with taste, sounds, smiles, conversations and a humdrum of footsteps, cars, stubborn spirit and trains that never stopped. Sounds that I realised now had comfortably embedded themselves like a soundtrack in my life. Making the silence and chirping (though a blessing) startling and a bit unnerving. A memory so vivid and rich that it began to leave a dull drumming ache which I was not expecting.
The gift of photography and my assignments, often take me to new places and push me to do things that I would not have done. Sometimes, this also means I’m taken to my own backyard. Right before the lockdown while creating a visual guide for a website about Mumbai, I found myself purposefully revisiting my city. I sat at iconic restaurants, walked the streets, stood in line to try street food, gawked incredulously at architecture which otherwise I would usually whizz past. Along with it also came human stories, conversations and deeper roots of places, all of it giving it a new meaning. I did not know then, that I was creating photographs that now feel like a family album of a space and time that feels far away, evoking all kinds of emotions that I cannot put in words.
I now flip through this ‘family album’, missing my own city and trying to make sense of the future and what lies ahead.
My wandering started from the far tip of the city the Kolis at Sassoon Dock. I watched as the fishermen loaded their catch onto the docks. Feisty lot of women all dressed in their colourful sarees, set to make their sales. Loading their cane baskets on their head, their sarees carefully knotted in a way to keep them in place and out of their way, they marched forward to make their living.
As I carefully dodge past them, to the other side, I see a chai walla, all set to serve this elixir to the running city. Sipping this sweet and delicious goodness, I watch this different side of Mumbai. The world goes by me, slow curious stares without being uncomfortable. Allowing you to exist in their space, even if you were an anomaly.
After a short walk from Colaba, I get an interrupted photograph of the Gateway of India, taking in the beautiful, magnificent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in the quiet hours of the morning. There was a certain lull right before the storm of the tourist crowd began, the boats were anchored, the pigeons flocked in thousands circling in synchronised harmony, the quiet heroes feeding the strays and birds as the camera men set up their mini printers waiting for the tourists to pour in for their quintessential tourist photo. A photo that often states, they have arrived at the Gates of Mumbai. Arrived to let hope and dreams take their path.
My next stop on the list, had to be Marine Drive. The Queen’s necklace, a smorgasbord of stories in the morning. The ocean was calm. The uncles in white shorts, all part of a walking group, discussing the stock market and what might rise and fall, the laughing clubs, the marathon runners, the quiet meditators by the sea, lovers who do not find a place for love all lined up discreetly under an umbrella at times stealing kisses and the heartbroken sitting quietly looking for answers, dogs of all sizes, the strays unfazed, men selling quick shots of aloe vera from the back of their car, a ton taking selfies, a few napping and a few getting pumped to start their day. Undoubtedly I know this is my favourite spot in the city, the gift to take a moment by the sea and watch the tide hitting the tetrapods at different forces, to watch sunrises and beautiful sunsets and have endless meandering conversations with friends. The sea pulls people from all walks of life. It holds meaning not just in the morning but throughout the day.
I wonder if I should grab a quick bite at Kyani & Co., dreaming about the bun maska, mawa cakes and uncles who’ve followed this routine for centuries quietly occupying their favourite spot with their morning paper.
As I scribble down notes and conjure up images of dishes in my imagination from my favourite places I realise I am doomed knowing a bulk of my article will be about food and my favourite places to eat in Mumbai. Food is a way I’ve connected with this city and most cities.
Keeping a day out, I marathon my favourite restaurants, filling that family album with butter garlic crab from Trishna, crispy rava dosas and pineapple sheera from Madras café, and food that makes you sigh with happiness and fills your soul.
I get to Britannia in Ballard estate, happy with a space and decor that never changes, talk to the uncle at the counter, watch the cat by the fan, bow to the Queen, wait hungrily for the Berry Pulao, Dhansak and the Patra ni machhi, wash it down with their super tangy classic Raspberry Soda and end it on a sweet note with caramel custard. All of it brings up memories of sharing so many meals here with my dad.
I glutinously dream of food that bridges the gap between people in Mumbai, between communities and classes. From The Bohri Kitchen, to home kitchens, and moms and women sharing their family recipes, their own community food for everyone to experience and relish.
Food carefully handed down through generations like Madras Cafe. The gift these iconic historical places give us, of a certain comfort in everything remaining the same. Like their south Indian frothy kaapi that they expertly, repeatedly toss in front of you. Also food that comes from stories, that become legendary fairy tales, resulting in modern restaurants being inspired to create their own versions. The Eggs Kejriwal in The Bombay Canteen. The happiness of a simple oozing sunnyside egg with cheese, placed on a toast over a bed of green chilli paste.
Affordable food that is available in street corners and outside colleges and office gates. From a hearty snack at Ashoke Vada pau with his signature crunchy bits and a crispy green chilly to the toasted Mumbai Masala sandwich at various corners or the quick roll at Bade Miya after a night out.
With some distance from all this, along with the heavy heart and sadness, I feel a certain pride for these little treasures in Mumbai.
Restaurants big and small by so many diverse communities, by migrants who moved to Mumbai and brought along with them their own food and flavours, that over time have become a central part of the food culture in Mumbai. Places that have not just fed us and created spaces for memories with our family and friends but people who have opened parts of their own soul, family secrets, and unique flavours to so many of us. Stories of struggle, legacy, hope, joy and dreams, all put on a plate for anyone to enjoy and be a part of. That has somehow gone into my stomach, seeped into my heart and memory, and now effortlessly occupied such a huge place in my family album. Not to mention brought so much joy and connection with my own city.
Now engulfed in this album of the past, locked in this Covid lockdown, I think of those same migrants having to put their dreams on hold and return to their towns, of restaurants shutting down unable to afford rent, of my fisherwoman and how she would be managing her daily wages, the Parsi uncle and his restaurant where he did not have the option of deliveries, and just this entire industry trying to keep their head above the water. I shudder to think whether this family album is all that will remain of some of my favourite places, chipping away at happiness, leaving a void, never getting to say goodbye. But then again I think of the same fisherwomen and men, and the difficult days, when the ocean leaped in anger, the rain poured incessantly, leaving their baskets empty. They sat patiently watching the waves, studying them knowing there must be another way and often in those empty times, the village, community, state community, stepped in, in any way they could. When it does pass, and the sea calms down again, and the boats get back on the sea, they will tuck their sarees in again to keep them out of the way and straighten themselves up and move forward. Because that will always be the soul of my city, we will move forward from this, tirelessly, passionately, with a heavy heart for everything that was lost, with new lessons, a rested soul and hope that we can rebuild again.
Back to Dishes.
Special thanks to Charvi Thakkar for helping out in editing this article and Culturallyours.com for giving me the opportunity to make me create this family album.