Smoker’s Corner bookstore: Stories in the dust

A leering Shah Rukh Khan greets me as I enter the foyer of Botawala Chambers in Fort, Mumbai. The buzz from outside – vehicles honking, people gossiping at the cigarette store on the corner and pedestrians walking – instantly recedes. At the same time, the temperature appears to drop a degree. This, of course, has nothing to do with the actor or the women he shares a magazine cover with.

I’m at Smoker’s Corner Bookstore – a place that gets its name from the sailors who used to come by and stock up on tobacco and cigarettes at the tobacconist just outside the building. Now, they’re just ordinary people smoking around the corner. If I breathe in deeply enough, I can smell the cigarette smoke beyond the mustiness.

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The bookstore has no space – barring the stairs and a rickety chair – to sit and read.

This used to be a library but, there’s no board pointing out the name of the place or offering titles at discount; there’s no one to welcome us into the space; and there’s no
registry of what’s available. It’s just a collection of dusty wooden shelves and stands decorating the lobby of the building and two small rooms at the side. It appears as if someone just took a collection of books and hastily laid them out on shelves and stands. It’s hot and stuffy.

It wasn’t always this way.

The book Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle shares a note about the origin of the 
bookstore. In 1954, the proprietor Suleman Botawala took over the tobacco shop and filled it with books, turning it into a library. Botawala was pursuing his passion for books and reading, and over the years, built up a steady clientele of readers. He passed away in 2009 and since then, the place has lost its sheen and presumably, given the empty shelves, its customers.

The available books number to less than a 1,000 and are a motley collection. They’re scattered across two wooden stands in the middle, glass shelves hugging the walls, and two little rooms (alcoves) on the side. Some of them are tied with thread, to keep their pages together and to keep them from falling off the stands.

My favourite part about visiting this bookstore is I never know what I will find, what treasure I can take back home for a mere Rs 50. Finding that one book, however, necessitates my walking through all the sections, combing through the titles. The fashion and news magazines are the only issues up to date editions; everything else is older than me, and secondhand. There’s a selection of picture books on the royal family (back when Lady Diana was alive and part of it); fairytales for children; a Dr Who collection; Bible studies; magazines with advice on enameling, raising a child, and being a good granny; and unusual self help books such as How to Eat Worms.

As with any other old bookstore, I spy an assortment of romantic titles, with author’s names in embossed gold and postcard perfect pictures of fields and castles promising compelling love stories. There’s a nice nostalgia section for 90s kids like me with books on Destiny’s Child, Olsen twins, once upon a time Bond girl Halle Berry, and Reader’s Digest back issues.

As I go though the books, people walk past me, without a second glance. The place has become part of the wall, unseen by those who see it daily but rich in character for other like me. I try and imagine it as a buzzing place at one time, with readers crowding around shelves eager to pick up the latest sports magazine or bestseller. It’s difficult because Smoker’s Corner wears an air of neglect that’s hard to shake off.

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Exposed wires, dusty books, creaking shelves – the place has a general air of neglect.

Suleman’s son Zubair now looks after the store, as a way of remembering his father. He isn’t around when I visit but the man at the counter, who makes notes of our purchases in a ledger, assures me he does spends time here.

I pick up a book called Foetal Attraction whose reviews call it ‘screamingly funny’, the diary of Anakin Skywalker (in case I ever do decide to start reading Star Wars), and mystery novel by the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard.

As we leave, my friend and I pause for a moment outside, trying to cool down. My friend lights up a cigarette. He is no sailor but this seems fitting tribute for a bookstore indirectly dedicated to smokers.

 

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I picked up seven books for Rs 400 only. Photos courtesy: Danish Bagdadi.

Smoker’s Corner is situated at Botawala Chambers, Sir PM Road, Fort; call 2216 4060; closed on Sundays; prices start at Rs 30.

The story was written for and originally published in The City Story.

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Sushegad Gomantak: A thali for your thoughts

Pennies are passé.

A thali filled with crispy fried fish, a thick curry the colour of the morning sky and a
colourful salad is worth a bagful of pennies. That is, if you are a Goan living in Bombay and starved of good fish.

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Tisreo Sukhe served with sol kadhi and cabbage.

On days when the craving for home food fills the mind and conjures up visions of a crunchy mussel fry, butter garlic prawns, or a vibrant mackerel stuffed with red masala, there’s only one thing to do. I go to Mahim, to the food-filled lane opposite Paradise cinema and walk into a tiny eatery called Sushegad Gomantak. There, I choose a spot among the five odd tables and settle in for a fishy feast.

But, before placing an order, there’s a system to follow. First is greeting Raju, a man with an easy smile who doubles up as cashier, waiter and delivery boy. This is followed by a discussion on fish – what’s cheap, what is good, what is special today and where did they buy it from. Once I tell him my order, he goes to the tiny kitchen at the back and relays it to his mother. 

Sushegad’s kitchen is presided over by Savita maushi, a diminutive woman of 65, under whose strict supervision passes every dish that’s served to guests. She doesn’t step out of the kitchen, greeting new customers and regulars from inside. Speak to in her native Konkani and she will reluctantly leave her post and come out and talk to you. Savita grew up in the now tourist haven of Calangute where she learned to cook
from her mother. Her favourite fish used to be pomfret, plain fried or coated with masala. Today, cooking it daily has made it lose its charm and she prefers the bangda (mackeral). Savita moved to Mumbai when she as 13 and sharpened her cooking skills by feeding a family of 10 daily. This continued after her marriage.

The eatery is small, just five tables, a board describing all the fish in India and another with the day’s menu scrawled on it.

Ordering fish here is easy – just pick the kind of fish and decide if you prefer it fried or in a curry. It is helpful to know the local names of the fish – bangda (mackeral), muddoshi (lady fish), tisreo (shellfish), makli (squid), muddoshi (lady fish), tamoshi (red snapper), mandeli, xinanio (mussels) and mori (shark). There are thali options and a few chicken dishes too but everyone comes here for the fish.

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Eating the crab masala can get quite messy. 

Fish at Sushegad Gomantak is prepared quite simply. The cooking style here is Goan Hindu – heavy on the spices and coconut and no beef or pork. There is the sukhe, the dry version made by pounding together ginger, garlic, chillies, turmeric and lime. The curries have a few additional ingredients – coconuts, dried chillies and black pepper (kali miri), dhania (coriander), jeera (cumin), garlic, onions, green chillies and tamarind. Then there’s my favourite type of preparation – coated with a batter of rice flour and rava coated, lightly salted and plain fried. As with the chillies, pepper and tamarind, Savita  gets her oil from Goa too – she only uses khobraya cha tel (oil removed after drying coconuts in the sun). It is the oil that gives the fried fish its distinct flavour.

My staple order is fried xinanio (Rs 250), a tangy and spicy mori curry called ambotik (literally sour-sweet) (Rs 200), the very spicy and coconut-ty tisreo (Rs 200) and the juicy and up-to- your-elbow- messy crab masala (Rs 250). The only correct way to eat here is with your hands, making a mess and calming the fire in your mouth with the tangy and bright pink sol kadhi. Sometimes, I also order a crisp prawn cutlet (Rs 150), packed with onions and juicy shrimp. 

Every fish dish is a meal itself and is served with onions, a plain cabbage salad and a simple but delicious green chutney. If I’m feeling particularly, I will order the thali. 

The reason I come here alone or bring Goan friends along is because the food is good,
authentic and homely and just as in Goa, once the food is at the table, all talking ceases and attention rightfully shifts to the food.

The true taste of a good Goan meal: I always feel like taking a good, long siesta after eating.

Sushegad Gomantak is located on Lady Jamshedji Road, opposite Crown Bakery in Mahim; open from 11am to 11pm.

Snow Flake: a feel of Goa in Mumbai

In a neighbourhood rich in historic value, from the Art Deco building that is now Metro Multiplex to the ministry of sounds that is Furtados, you only discover Snowflake by accident. It is one of those places that time forgot.

On a visit to Kyani Restaurant down the road, I followed a line of cats sunning themselves on the road to find the entrance of what looked like someone’s home. As I would when faced with an open door back home in Goa, I entered and immediately felt as if I had stepped back in time. There’s a sense of calm and sepia-tinted nostalgia that envelope the place. The atmosphere is very laid back; staying too long can have soporific effects. Just ask the cats lazing around the doorstep.

 

The fans creak slowly. The chairs and tables are similar to what you would find at an Irani café: sturdy black wood and marble tops. There are half-empty showcases plastered with posters, old photos, plate souvenirs and other odds and ends. In one corner a blackboard states the menu; a white board has the day’s specials. Snowflake may appear rundown, but it has character. Everything has a sense of quiet pride to it.

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The whiteboard in the corner lists the day’s menu.

This is a place that has seen better days. Once upon a time, I learn, Snowflake attracted a huge crowd. Mrs Vaz, one of the members of the Rebeiro family that runs the place, is my source for this information. The family is generally reluctant to talk, which is why it is rare to find information anywhere about Snowflake’s history. It started out as a bakery, selling cakes, snacks and ice cream to the many Goans in the area. The customers may have moved on to other parts of the city or abroad, but Snowflake is adamant that the menu will remain unchanged.

The food is simple, like the kind you will find in every Goan home. There are the staple pork dishes, beef (they had removed it from the menu for a brief period after the statewide beef ban before bringing it back), fish curries, pulao and cutlets. I have tasted it all. The sorpotel is my favourite. Tiny pieces of pork, fat, liver, skin and various other parts of the pig, jostle for space on the plate. The gravy is neither too thick nor too thin, and no, unlike in Goa, they don’t use pork blood when cooking it.

Another underrated fish dish is the ambotik, that sour and spicy curry that bursts into song in your mouth. The ambotik here is a lightly spiced, thin gravy made with shark (mori). Mix it with steamed rice and it is fish-curry-rice heaven. The Sausage pulao is pungent and packed with flavour, the vindaloo has chinks of soft pork pieces and fat, and the xacuti is redolent with the taste of coconut.

Thanks to the regulars, if you go to Snowflake too late in the afternoon or evening, you are likely to find some dishes sold out. Like the fish cutlets. These delicious morsels are flat, oval shaped and thin and come packed with minced fish coated in a rawa batter. I’ve eaten six at a go.

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The fish cutlets are a bestseller here.

The food here won’t leave a dent in your wallet – all the dishes are priced below Rs. 200. Snowflake may not be making profits, but they don’t seem too bothered by it. As with the Parsi establishments in the city, they have their fixed ways – they will shut at 9:55 p.m. every night irrespective of whether you are still eating, and the food is cooked in limited portions, no matter the demand. I try to visit whenever I am in the area, have taken all my friends there, and even told a few city chefs about it. It is my little way of giving back to a place that has given so many wonderful meals that taste like home.

Snow Flake is located at 18, Ribeiro Building, Ground Floor, 1st Dhobi Talao Lane, Mumbai 400 002; call 22014252. 

 

[Note: This story was first published in The City Story]