An Irani grandpa, with a Devil’s charm, has nine names. His grandson calls him Batman. His fantastic stories add to the taste of the delicious food. He casts a spell. These eateries in Bombay are on the verge of extinction. Soumitra unveils the magical world for Different Truths.
Time and tide wait for none. It’s an aphorism. It couldn’t be truer in the food business. For a while, I have been toying with the idea of eating out at an Irani restaurant, before they actually dwindled away into oblivion. The threat of extinction loomed large. To do that one had to be in Bombay (to me it’ll be always that and never Mumbai) and savour in the delight. On a breezy February morning, I chanced upon a whistle-stop visit to my favourite megapolis. It had me guiding the cabbie to Ballard Estate, that part of the city, which housed one of the best Irani joints – Britannia. I had faint memories of having dined there more than two decades ago. I decided to relive those old and fond memories, albeit in more modern times.
It was a Saturday afternoon. The street bore a languid and weary look possibly after having withered the jostling of demanding office-goers throughout the week. I walked around a bit to reach my destination. From outside, the joint wore a clean and peaceful look. It was nestled in old world charm, a rather solid looking structure, reminiscent of the British Raj. I trundled in, a bit unsure. Inside, it looked spacious unlike the cloistered feeling one encounters in some of the modern day eateries. Tables of varying sizes were neatly laid out. But, the one in the corner caught my attention. I promptly took it. The menu card on each table plastered beneath the thick-glassed transparent table-top thankfully circumvented my need to call for those greasy looking booklets. These had exchanged many greasier hands and never failed to evoke a feeling, I loathe.
After having settled down and still unsure about what I really wanted, I looked at the menu and tried to do a vague recall of some of the delicacies that were mentioned. In process, my frown, accentuated by my thickset eyebrows must have seemed quite pronounced, if not actually comical. It was then that I met him.
A pleasant, but frail looking gentleman bearing a slight stupor – whom I took to be the owner – came up to my table. He looked old and grand-father like. A merry twinkle in his eyes and the freshness of manner belied his age. Rather simply dressed, an old fashioned bush shirt tucked inside trousers worn high above the waist, he had the confident look of a man. He had weathered many a storm, and yet ready for one more, should the need arise. In a polite yet firm manner, he introduced himself as Boman and enquired about my preference of dishes. There was something inexplicable in his manner that made me forget momentarily that I had come to eat. I was ravenous and got around to peer at him instead – thickset eyebrows et al – in a way which seemed to suggest, “Hey ol’ friend I see you.” The connection was instantaneous.
I motioned for him to sit down and share a meal with me. Proudly, he declined. Naturally, he was the owner! But, while standing beside me, he let me know that he had nine names.
“Nine?” I looked aghast. “Yes my friend, nine. Shall I tell you all?” He chuckled merrily and rattled forth: Bemoon (his mother called him by that); Bomi, Boman, Boman Shah (by the Parsis); Beman (by the Iranis); Behman (by the Persians); Brahman (yes, Indians, who else?); Bow-man (Americans and Europeans). But, what I liked best was the name given to him by his grandson – Batman!
He went on to tell me that the restaurant was open only from 12 PM to 4 PM, on which I looked rather surprised and enquired why. He bent down and in mock stealth asked me to guess his age.
“Eighty,” I hazarded a guess. He certainly looked that old.
He laughed a hearty laugh like a child and asked me to try again, but, “with a long jump” he cautioned. Now almost in disbelief and yet I let it rip – 90? “Take another jump, but a short one” he chuckled. Was it a jaw-dropping “92?” He was clearly delighted by now. “I am ninety-four,” he proclaimed proudly, in his pedigreed legacy. He clearly earned a lot of respect from yours truly. He told me about his grandfather who lived on till 114, and was quite confident of breaking his record. By now we were chatting away like old friends. Two very different people with as diverse socio-economic background as you can imagine, and moreover separated by almost 50 years of age. It also answered my question why the joint was only open for four hours a day.
We finally got around to what I should eat. After assiduously finding out about my taste and preference, he suggested that I should go for a Mutton Berry Pilao. A certain Irani delicacy, he explained. The food arrived, piping hot. Needless to say it was very delicious. It did full justice to the price – Rs. 650 a plate. Mind you, it wasn’t cheap. Afterwards, we got around to chatting about a few more things, especially about his grandfather, the one who supposedly lived on till 114. Needless to say, I came back satiated.
So why am I rambling? Is there anything really special about a 94-year old man serving delicious Irani food for four hours a day? It was not very competitively priced either. Perhaps he wasn’t 94. May be it was only a ploy to get me hooked on to a conversation and have the already charmed customer eat out his hand.
Without going into the accuracy of the facts, the point that needs mention here is ‘personalised service’.
Now, everything ahead of us is ‘digital’. So it is with the experience of dining. We seek reviews through an app and based on inputs decide where to eat. Even the booking is done online. We arrive at a pre-determined time. The waiter already knows exactly what to bring forth. We eat, we keeping checking our phone for messages and many more apps. We tuck in some more and perhaps even manage a light banter or two between these phone-centric flourish. We eventually finish your meal. We pay the bill and walk out. Ah, do remember to carry our phone on our way out – an extension of us. If not actually it’s our alter ego. We are satisfied!
Mind you, not for once am I hinting otherwise. Everything works in a clockwork precision. There is an immense amount of respect for your valued time, as exhibited. Perfecto.
Now, take a step back. This experience of mine, which I narrate, has a certain old world charm about it. There is no technology here. Perhaps, that is why such models will eventually wither away. The menu is sparse with few choices. Not snazzy outlet. No pretty girls with plastic smiles and phony accents to do the balancing act. All you have is an octogenarian, who claims to be nonagenarian, but a raconteur par excellence. He can charm his way to your wallet, taking recourse of a mighty fine experience that he has just bestowed upon you. Everything about it indicates that it can’t be scaled up. It is way too personalised. It can’t grow. And, what doesn’t grow eventually dies! And yet I can promise you that folks like me, who have dined in such places (there are few) will come back no less satisfied. Answers are not found ready-made here. One is made to seek out through one of the oldest methods known to man – building human connects through storytelling.
Stories may be simple. They might be complex. They may be true or not. But, one thing is for certain that they’re very interesting. They have the listener captivated as much as the food that satiate afterwards. I certainly hope that the Batmans of this world live long enough to beat any record – even their 114-year old grandfather’s. I know I shall return.
Pix from net