On some weekdays, Dr. Simin Patel would hop on BEST bus No. 126 that ferried her from Dhobi Talao to her home in Tardeo. As soon as the bus approached the Anjuman fire temple, she’d instinctively crane her neck towards the opposite building. The object of her affection was an ornate grill with a Victoria motif, right above the signboard ‘Cruz Music Classes.’ “You need to be in a bus to really see the grill,” says Patel over the telephone. One day, she popped in during an evening class and found a Goan man teaching keyboard, drums, and guitar to wee kids from the area (‘Gujaratis, Parsis, and Sindhis, so there’s always variety,’ he’d said.)
“If I had to describe Bombay to an outsider, I’d say it’s a historic city where you need to know where to look—and when to look up,” smiles Patel, who conducts heritage walks under the name of Bombaywalla Historical Works. Her blog, also named Bombaywalla, lists quaint and quirky vignettes on the balconies, windows, clocks, and floorings of colonial Bombay. “I was lucky to live and study among South Bombay’s historical spaces, but I never really appreciated them until I began my Ph.D on Parsis and colonial Bombay in 2009,” she admits.
Before the lockdown, her work on a book on the city’s Irani cafés meant that Patel was forever chatting up their owners-turned-family-friends, downing Irani chais. “Café De La Paix, a forgotten café in Girgaum, is like home now; all I need is the window seat and a bun cheese omelette. I conduct works meetings there, and even celebrated a birthday. Once a stranger wanted to contact me—he simply went to Café De La Paix and left his number!” laughs Patel. It’s the sort of place where unexpected friendships are forged. “The café’s owner, Gustad Irani, is a deeply spiritual man. He tells me about significant days in our religious calendar, like the day we honour the dead, or when we should observe vegetarianism.”
Forever on the lookout for the old and the disappearing, Patel says the people she meets on the way are as endearing as the structures. Before March, she couldn’t imagine a week going by without a meal at Colaba’s New Martin Hotel. “It serves the most magical Goan food: sausage chilli fry, pork sorpotel, and apricot custard. It is tucked in a glamorous art deco building from the 1940s,” says Patel. “It’s equally about the kinship you find there.” Every Saturday, Patel would notice how an 80-something lady would come for lunch, with a back brace and walking stick, always going for the curry rice. “We began chatting, and I learnt she is a ‘Mango’—half-Manglorean, half-Goan—and lives alone, nearby.”
Over time, Patel discovered that she was tracing her mother’s footsteps all along. “She sought out these places long before I did, a lone woman out on her lunch breaks from the office. As a youngster, I’d pester her about why she ate alone, but now I understand. By the time I discovered C. D’Souza in Dhobi Talao’s Dukkar Gully, my mother already had a story about how the owner Philomena had once cooked her pork vindaloo.” Philomena is no more, and Patel will always remember her sitting like a sentinel on one of the old wooden tables—“with another lady, Bella, sitting statue-like on another table”—watching the gully for hours, wordlessly. When Patel is in the area, she always picks up batasa biscuits from Paris Bakery nearby.
Another historic place Patel has grown fond of is Swadeshi Market in Kalbadevi. She once stumbled upon a shop called K. N. Ajani, which was set up in 1918 and sells nutcrackers, locks, scissors, and knives. Patel unearthed delightful stories, like how their nutcrackers were sought by bridal parties who wanted to test if their groom could cut a betel but, or “sticklers who wanted to check the quality of annas by cutting them.” “Few people know that the Ajanis have an inimitable design archive of letter papers, box designs, and inland letter cards,” says Patel. All you need to do is drop by, ask for the current owner Pareshbhai, and be ready to listen to stories of how his grandfather switched from selling cloth at Masjid Bunder and moved to Kalbadevi because he wanted to be a part of the Swadeshi movement.
“Once you begin walking this city and really looking, you gravitate towards signs and stories, like I did,” smiles Patel.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.