The great city of Mumbai is one of the world’s largest mega-cities. With a population of over 20 million people, it has nearly more people living there than in the whole of Australia. And it is growing fast, just like the rest of India, which by 2050 will be the world’s most populous country.
Everyone is excited about India’s growth – its economic potential, its rapidly swelling high-consuming middle class. It’s the people that I get excited about – so many Indians! Indians are amongst the most eloquent people on the planet, they are also amongst the loudest, most opinionated, argumentative and tenacious. Maybe that's just my family. Either way, the contribution to the global discourse will be deafening!
Indians are also born storytellers. Or is it that in such a spectacular, colourful, noisy and chaotic place, there are just so many stories to tell. They topple over each other, our stories, layered in meaning, time and place. Many of them make no sense, but we love them anyway. And it’s not just the Indians themselves, people from everywhere come to India to find stories and leave with poetry.
In my own story, Mumbai will always be Bombay. I dream of Bombay, as the author Suketu Mehta puts so perfectly, “the city that has a tight claim on my heart, a beautiful city by the sea an island-state of hope in a very old country.”
In this Bombay I am for the most part, very young. In this Bombay I see my great grandfather Valentine, sailing off to the First World War in 1914, my great grandmother, sitting on a verandah waiting for his letters; my Nana, writing her recipe books and supervising her kitchens. My beautiful mum at art college, meeting my father in secret and then eloping with him. I go for long evening strolls to Apollo Bunder with my grandparents and we walk over marble floors not yet stained with blood to buy gingerbread man shaped brioche from the patisserie at the Taj Hotel.
It is also the Bombay of other people’s imaginations, the home of some of the world’s greatest characters and setting of its greatest novels. The city where the young and lovely Dina Dalal saves coins from buying vegetables to take buses to libraries all over Bombay in Vickram Seth’s A Fine Balance, where her beloved husband is hit by a truck as he goes to buy strawberry ice cream. It’s the city of Midnight’s Children, and the slums of Katherine Boo’s amazing Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It’s the city of Shantaram, which immortalized the Leopold Café around the corner from where I was born.
In Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts so beautifully describes “that first Bombay minute”, the “sweet sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate… the smell of gods, demons, empires and civilisations in resurrection and decay… the blue-skin smell of the sea… the heartbreak, and the struggle to live… the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage... the smell of ten thousand restaurants…. temples, shrines, churches and mosques… a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices incense and freshly cut flowers… it’s my first sense of the city – that smell, above all things – that welcomes me and tells me I’ve come home.”
I identify most with the fabulous Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, written by an author who has longed to return to the India of his own childhood. In it he goes on to say, “The earth is round and you go all over it, but ultimately you come back to the same spot in the circle.”
“Can you go home again? In the looking, I found the cities within me.”
My very first home was my grandparents’ house, a large, airy apartment in Sethna House on a road that was then named Barrow Road, off Colaba Causeway in Fort Bombay. Zena and Claude had lived in Sethna House since they were married in the 1940’s, and I remember it as an almost magical place, with open verandas and high ceilings, cool Portuguese mosaic tiles and slow ceiling fans.
Bombay was a different city when I was young, and from the flat we looked out onto a sea of treetops. So many birds nested in these trees, sparrows, crows and pigeons; there were eagles, and also the occasional monkey that would cause great alarm by appearing on the verandahs in the hope of stealing food.
Barrow Road was a quiet street, and everyone knew each other and more importantly, each other’s business. There was always plenty going on as we would watch the customers coming and going from Mr and Mrs Rodriguez’s Ballroom Dancing School on the first floor. Of even more amusement were the goings on of the ‘gully-wallis’ … the squatters and servants who lived in the lanes around Sethna House and where a lady named Rosie illegally brewed and sold homemade liquor to customers at all times of day and night.
In the mornings of my early childhood strong sweet tea would be served on the verandah and we would listen to the sounds of Colaba Causeway stirring – the clink of the Chai Walla’s tea glasses, shops opening and buses at the nearby depot starting up, and inhale the salty smell of the nearby Sasson docks, today one of the largest fish markets in modern Mumbai.
My Nana would convene her first meeting of the day as she drank her tea, and her old cook Mestha would be summoned for a lengthy and at times heated discussion about the day’s menu. Once lunch had been agreed, Mestha’s young apprentice Hira would be dispatched to the market to buy the day’s supplies. By mid morning, the house would be filled with the incredible aroma of masala being roasted and ground. If I was lucky, there would be fresh coconut water from the coconuts being cracked open and scraped in the kitchens.
Before lunch the street sellers would start to arrive at our door, the fisherwoman with her basket of fresh seafood from the nearby docks, the vegetable seller, the meat man and the bhel puri walla, who carried a large tin trunk filled with countless compartments and trays of ingredients to make the tasty snack. Nana loved to gossip with them, to question the freshness of the fish and to haggle at length about the crazy prices she was clearly being charged.
Lunch would be served like clockwork in Sethna House, and my favourite meal was always (and is to this day) chicken curry and rice. I could cook and cook forever, but I don’t think I could replicate the taste of that curry in my memory, with its fresh masala and just cracked-open coconut flavour.
The best part of the day for me came after lunch, when, completely exhausted from the morning’s activity, everyone would quietly disappear for a lie down. I remember being very young and lying on the cool cotton covers of our large carved wooden bed, listening to Nana, my mum and my lovely aunty Claudette chatting in hushed voices for hours at end.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe, and so happy, as I remember feeling in those early years at Sethna House. All of my inspiration for Spice Mama comes from my childhood in India. The stories, the noise, the people, the colour… I’m back in another world when I’m in the kitchen. Bottle Masala has become my magic dust.
From Sethna House we had our own special slice of Colaba Causeway to look out onto every day. I loved leaning over the balcony, craning my neck to watch life on the causeway unfold at the end of our street. This was the set of a 24-hour theatre, starting early every morning and becoming louder and more colourful as the day went on. The furious and constant beeping of taxis, buses and cars, the street traders, tourists, the incredible mass of people and more than occasional cow made for much entertainment.
Evenings were the best time to negotiate the Causeway and I would love to go for walks there with my grandparents. Relieved of the harsh afternoon heat, Colaba came alive in the evenings, the shops would light up and the traders would prepare for their next wave of customers, refreshed from siesta and ready to promenade jewel-coloured evening clothes in the dusky twilight.
I remember the fragrant smell of the lovely flowers the women wore in their hair, mixed with that of the spiciest street food sold fresh by roadside hawkers, vada pav, panipuri, dahipuri, served with glasses of chai, sugarcane juice and lassi. My very favourite stall on Colaba Causeway sold small cotton hankies, in every colour and pattern under the sun. Being allowed to buy one was a very special treat.
Colaba has been the busiest and best-known shopping destination in downtown Bombay for nearly 350 years, from the time when Bombay’s second governor took control of it from the Portuguese in 1675 and created incentives for traders to come from all over the region to set up shop there.
The Causeway was built by the British East India Company in the 1830’s, to connect the island of Colaba to the others that made up the great city of Bombay. When the Causeway was completed in 1838, it established itself, and Bombay, as the centre of commerce in the region.
During the 1800’s, both my maternal great grandfathers came to Bombay from Gujerat to seek their fortunes. They lived on the street in Fort Bombay, selling wares on large sheets on the pavement. By the mid 1900’s, each ended up owning a grocery store.
One of these stores was in Colaba, and it specialized in importing British food (tea, biscuits and tinned goods) to the many English that lived in Bombay during the Raj. My great grandfather also shipped these highly sought after products to a number of Maharajahs from the princely states surrounding Bombay.
A second great grandfather owned a grocery store in Jabalpur, then a British Garrison. This shop, Saleh and Sons, also sold British food to the soldiers in the garrison. Post-independence in 1947, ironically, the fortunes of both shops diminished.
“Do you know a place called Leopold’s?
Wonderful and lovely place it is, Leopold’s Beer Bar. Full of the most wonderful, lovely peoples, the very, very fine and lovely people. All kinds of foreigners you can find here, all making good business. Sexy business, and drugs business, and money business, and black market business, and naughty business, and smuggling business, and passport business, and… “
Leopold’s on Colaba Causeway was just around the corner from my house and while my childhood self remained oblivious to the no doubt exciting goings-on there at the height of the 1970’s, I like so many others was able to enjoy immensely its portrayal in Shantaram, as the place Linbaba meets Karla and her colourful friends.
Leopold’s is also less fortunately one of the first sites of the horrific Mumbai terror attack in 2008, where eight people were killed as they enjoyed their meals on a warm November evening. From Leopold’s the gunmen headed to the Taj Hotel, where they continued to shoot and terrorise hundreds of innocent people.
Sitting watching footage from the incident thousands of miles away in Perth, it felt like the sanctity of my childhood home had been destroyed forever. Going back to Bombay years later, it was difficult to reconcile the metal detectors and identity checks at the doorway of the Taj Hotel, the bullet holes and blood stained floors, and the fenced off entry to the Gateway of India with the Bombay of my past.
I had wanted to show my children how we had fed the pigeons, and watched the snake charmers and bought newspaper cones of chana and roasted corn covered in chilli and lime from the side of the road. I wanted to walk with them through the cool marble-floored corridors of the hotel to the amazing patisserie that sold the ginger bread man brioches I can still taste.
But as the saying goes, the past really is a foreign country, and the Bombay of my imagining is only accessible from afar.
My second home in Bombay is a place called Esplanade House, the home of my auntie and godmother Claudette and her Parsi husband Roossi Nariman. We visited Esplanade House at least once a day when I was a child, and I spent many hours there playing in the ruins of the old mansion with my cousin Homi.
Esplanade House was built in the late 1800’s by Jamsetjee Tata, the Parsi entrepreneur who made his fortune in Bombay and founded one of the largest private groups of companies in the world. It is one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever seen, and it is where Tata lived with his family until the early 1900’s. It was, and still is; a grand, palatial building with beautiful carvings, marble statues and painted ceilings, and it was one of the first private homes in Bombay equipped with electricity.
The Tata’s entertained lavishly at the mansion, and their private courtyard, filled with exotic plants was incredible.
After Tata’s death in 1904, Esplanade House was sold to a Parsi Trust, and in 1937, a penthouse floor was added to the building. My uncle’s maternal grandparents, also influential Parsi industrialists, were the first to move in, and the Nariman family, through changing fortunes, has lived there ever since.
By the time my auntie, then one of Air India’s glamorous new breed of international air-hostesses, married into the family and moved into Esplanade House in 1971, the building, like so many in Bombay, was dilapidated and in a total state of disrepair.
Locals referred to the house as Bhoot Bangla – house of ghosts, and stories of it being haunted were popular. House staff often spoke of seeing Jamsetji’s ghost walking in the dark corridors at night. My poor auntie was terrified, and quickly had the house blessed by the family priest.
My cousin and I were also scared of the then dark, musty floors below the penthouse, home to a variety of businesses, both on and off the books and not all of them electrified. We were thrilled to be taken on torchlit tours down the once grand staircases of the old building. The dark, unlit marble floored grand entry hall became home to squatters in the evening, and we would have to pick our way over sleeping bodies to get to the rickety, rat infested lift that would take us to the third floor.
Once we got there however, how different the world was. Light, white marble floors, high ceilings and chinese vases, the beautiful large carved wooden dining table around which the most delicious lunches would be served. There was a terrace above the penthouse paved with miniature mosaic in the most beautiful blues, and the ayahs would take my cousin and me up there to ride our tricycles and look out over the central Bombay skyline.
From the terrace, and from all the windows of Esplanade House, we could see everything… the bustle of Fashion Street, the crazy traffic of Flora Fountain, the rarefied world of the Bombay Gymkhana across the road, and the teeming masses of young boys and men playing cricket on Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan. Esplanade House was always the loveliest in the mornings, when the many windows were opened before the smog came, when Bombay was waking up, and when today, my uncle still leaves food for the birds that live in the high treetops onto which the apartment looks.
When we last visited Bombay, Esplanade House was at long last getting a makeover. The beautiful entry hall, the grand staircase, was being cleaned up and a well-known advertising company had moved into the ground floor. In late 2014, the amazing building won a UNESCO Asia Pacific award for Cultural Heritage Restoration. It has become once again, a bold and beautiful expression of the confident India that Tata must have once dreamed off, and I’m sure his wandering ghost must be proud.
My grandparents Zena and Claude sold their apartment in Colaba and moved into their own wing of Esplanade House in the 1980’s. They brought with them their (by this stage) old cook Hira, and he is still very much a fixture of life there.
Hira was a young orphan boy found by my grandfather starving at the Mazagaon Docks in the 1940’s. My grandfather had left the Navy and was working as a Ship Chandler for the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, one of India’s oldest shipping companies, supplying food and grocery products to two of its vessels, the Sabarmati and the Sarasvati.
Claude took Hira home with him, where he became an apprentice to their cook Mestha. He regarded my grandparents as his parents, and despite his fiery temper (there were quite often loud fights in the kitchen when my Nana tried to fire him and he refused to leave), he stayed with them until their deaths. We loved hassling Hira in the kitchens looking for bits of coconut and other food during the day, and we loved his party trick of eating hot green chillies whole while we watched.
During his years at Sethna House, Hira learned to cook all of Nana’s traditional East Indian recipes and his chicken curry, cutlets, potato chops and fried fish dishes are legendary. Arriving in Esplanade House to the aroma of Hira’s cooking, to lunch with my auntie and uncle served with ice-cold beer on the beautiful old carved table in the large dining room, will always remain one of the most special experiences of my life.
My uncle and auntie owned a poultry farm in Alibag, a seaside village about 100 kilometres from Bombay, from which my uncle supplied chickens and eggs to the city markets. We spent long summers on the farm, taking a ferry from the Gateway of India to the jetty at Mandwa. I loved that ferry trip, crowded into a boat and watching the Gateway of India get smaller and smaller as we sailed away.
Acclimatised to the mayhem of Bombay, the sea air and lovely silent beaches of Alibag were always such a welcome change. We could run! The farm of my childhood was as big as a city, with space to play and trees to climb on hazy days to the sound of crickets and the large farm generators in the background. My cousin and I loved to visit the chicken sheds to play with the tiny day old chicks, and climb the many mango trees to reach large fruit warm from the sun.
At the very heart of the farm was a small, whitewashed cottage laden with pink bougainvillea and set in a pebbled courtyard. It had low ceilings and cool stone floors and was the perfect place for a siesta in the hot afternoons. When the sun was lower the adults would slowly assemble on the back verandah of the cottage for hot tea, cold beer, spicy, freshly fried street snacks and chilled mangoes.
In the evenings, we would go for walks with my Nana in the surrounding fields… Nana always wielding a large walking stick to scare away snakes – of which there were many. I remember the farm boys walking through the house with long wooden poles before bedtime, checking under beds, behind doors and in pot plants for cobras that might have mistakenly made their way into the house during the day.
The last time I went to Alibag was in 2004, catching the ferry and stopping at Mandwa jetty for fried potato vadas from a small stall before taking a local rickshaw to the farm. Still charming, it is a different place now, with so much farmland subdivided and built up with the most beautiful holiday homes for Bombay’s wealthy to escape to. A sign of India’s progress no doubt, but I think I will always prefer the tiny old cottage covered with bougainvillea, in the middle of the farm.