Category Archives: Mumbai

A ghosthunters guide to Mumbai

In India, there is a small crew of people that go out at night, armed with EMF sensors or detectors, EVP recorders, motion sensor cameras, and touch sensors, to explore myths about the paranormal. Yes, you can call them desi ghosthunters.

One such team is The Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS), group of paranormal investigators and researchers, parapsychologists, demonologists, spiritual healers, and counsellors. Their modus operandi includes heading to “active spots” armed with equipment to try to record and, later, analyse these abnormal energies.

“Before we go to a location,” says demonologist Sarbajeet Mohanty, “we try to get a recent picture of the location so that psychic mediums can give a reading of what to expect or find at the locations, which provides a roadmap for the investigators.” Mohanty founded PAIRs with psychic developer Pooja Vijay.

Disclaimer: PAIRS highly recommends you do not venture into these places without proper knowledge. All PAIRS investigators have been researching this field from the past 6 to 10 years and are certified. Enter at your own risk. 

Amar Dham Crematorium, Panvel

Cemeteries and crematoriums are apparently common hunting grounds for ghosts – location certainly does matter. This particular burial ground has spooked many a passer-by. One story goes that a woman crossing the street outside at night suddenly got goose bumps, and at that very moment the nearby lights went off, including those on her scooter. Others have spoken about seeing apparitions and moving shadows and hold them responsible for the accidents that happen in the area.

During their investigations, the PAIRS psychic team found that the location had multiple spirits, as recorded through changes on the temperature sensor and EMF sensor.

Amar Dham Crematorium, HOC Colony, Panvel, Navi Mumbai 410 206.

Mumbai Pune Highway

The story goes that PAIRS member Jignesh Unadkat was riding his motorcycle on the highway, near Bhingari, Old Panvel, when a wayward car forced him to the side of the road. It was then that he realised there was someone standing in front of him, and he veered off the road to avoid hitting the person. His bike was damaged, but he survived. When he went to look for the person, he realised there was no one there.

A few days later, Jignesh, along with Mohanty, returned to the spot to investigate this strange phenomenon, armed with a PAIRS Spirit Box app (developed by Brian Holloway of Soul Seekers, Javier Sanz of  Spain Paranormal). “Jignesh got two replies to questions,” says Mohanty. “One was, ‘Do you recognize me…my bike overturned here some days back’ to which he got a ‘yes’. The other was ‘How did you die?’ to which he got a one-word reply, ‘accident’.”

While this may be a “real” story, there are many legends associated with the place. Another story has a well-dressed lady asking for a lift. Those that don’t stop are treated to a vision of the women running alongside their vehicle, with an evil smile, saying, “You’re next”. Many crashes have been attributed to it. Mohanty says there is also a ‘fake road appearing out of nowhere, which if taken leads to death’.

Vasai Fort

Vasai Fort, or Bassein Fort, is a sprawling structure built by the Portuguese that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The fort has been under the control of the Portuguese, the British, and the Marathas and has been silent witness to many deaths. It is one of the many places in the city that locals truly believe is haunted – though that didn’t stop Coldplay from shooting their video there.

Shishir Kumar, former journalist and founder-president of paranormal research organisation Team Pentacle, and his team conducted an investigation at Vasai Fort. Initially, they didn’t think it was haunted because it still had many people living in the vicinity. “The first time,” says Kumar, “everything went smoothly and none machines worked. Then I used this trick where I asked the spirits to clap as I clap, and that started happening.”

Mohanty adds that their psychic readings reveal a woman who was murdered and whose body was dumped near the well in the fort. Village lore says a lady, assumed to be a witch, committed suicide in that same well, but her body was never found.

Vasai Fort, Killa Road, Police Colony, Vasai (w), Vasai 401201

Mukesh Mills

Mukesh Mills was built in 1870s by the East India Company and was shut down in 1892 after a strike. Soon after, a fire broke out, killing thousands of people. This dark history is possibly what led to it being considered haunted. The mill is a popular shooting location, and there are many stories of how no one, not even film crew, venture there after dark. In fact actor Bipasha Basu has claimed she was unable to speak her dialogues in one room because of some strange power.

PAIRS’ investigations and psychic readings reveal that the location has “some evil and negative spirits from its dark and painful history”. “Such psychic readings are a warning for us not to venture in there,” says Mohanty, “especially if you’re a beginner.”

Mukesh Mills, Narayan A Sawant Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

St John Baptist Church

This Portuguese Jesuit Church was abandoned in the 1800s after an epidemic. Although no one visits the place any more, a Mass is conducted once a year. The claim is that the church is haunted by the evil spirit of a bride who scares anyone who enters the place. In 1977, an exorcism was conducted there, and everyone present suddenly heard a loud moaning sound and maniacal laughter. It was believed that the exorcism destroyed the spirit.

In 2016, a PAIRS team visited the space to check if it was an “active” location. “We were about to enter,” says Mohanty, “when Pooja told us that a woman was watching us from the wall nearby. When inside, we heard footsteps running away from the place. Later, one of the team members told us that while he was texting, out of the corner of his eye he saw an apparition near him. All this happened in broad daylight.” Mohanty intends to return to do proper investigation.

St John Baptist Church, Seepz Road D, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400 096

 

[This story was first published in The City Story: THE GHOSTHUNTERS’ GUIDE TO PARANORMAL MUMBAI]

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The Goan good food guide

Goan food is the new flavour of the season in Mumbai. Tourists, who travel to the sunshine state, clearly cannot get enough of the food – the choris or cutlet pav; the Portuguese-influenced rissois, vindalho and sorpotel; the coconut and amsol-filled curries; and the coconut-milk based dodol and bebinca.

It’s an experience that is now possible to avail of, sometimes at a price, in the city. There’s no feni or shack and the sunshine and sand is missing but, a few restaurants here are doing their bit to provide a feel and a taste of Goan food.

Snow Flake

Walking into this restaurant is like going back in time. Nostalgia oozes out of the marble topped tables, the sepia-tinted photos stuffed in dusty shelves and the creak fans. The day’s specials, a stock list of about ten dishes, can be found scrawled on a whiteboard in the corner. The cats at the entrance all seem to embody to susegaad feeling of the place – you may sometimes feel like stretching yourself out and curling up into a ball after a good meal here. It is here that I find food that comes closest to what my mother prepares at home – offal laden sorpotel; the tangy fish curry, ambotik; tongue roast with browned onions and just a hint of gravy and quite the best fish cutlets I’ve eaten in the city.

Snow Flake started as an ice cream shop/bakery selling food to what was once a thriving Goan population. Today, the customers are sparse but they soldier on, relying on patrons like me, keen for a taste of home.
At: 18, Ribeiro Building, first Dhobi Talao Lane.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Sushegad Gomantak

Sandwiched between shops selling Keralite fare and kebabs, this tiny restaurant isn’t easy on the eyes. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for with delicious food and warm service. The only wall décor here is a chart showcasing the fish in the Indian Ocean with their local names, a blown up clipping of a newspaper article mentioning the place and the day’s specials. There’s a menu of course, but everyone comes here for the fish – eaten fried or in a curry.

It is here that I always manage to find xinanio (mussels), best eaten fried and piping hot; kalwa (oysters), typical had in a thick curry; and muddoshi (lady fish), also eaten fried. The restaurant’s cooking style is Goan Hindu and is heavy on curries, many of which don’t feature coconut. The fried fish comes with a thick coating of rice flour and rava and isn’t oily. Other stand out dishes include prawn cutlets accompanied by a thin, green chutney; tisrya sukhe – shellfish served with a garam masala and coconut mixture; and a crab thali featuring one huge crab in a spicy red curry.
At: A11, Opposite Paradise Theatre, Mahim Shivsagar Society, LJ Road, Mahim.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Gables

This eating house is often ignored by those seeking out the more popular New Martin, which is around the corner. A visit to this four-seater restaurant will surprise you. One of the few places in the city offering free Wifi, Gables has a faux tiled roof inside, a wall mirror giving the illusion of extra space, two glass-fronted stands showcasing chops, cutlets and other fried snacks, and even a bookshelf filled with old magazines and the odd cookbook.

Mel, the in-house cat, will accompany you while you eat. There are also a few Italian dishes but skip those and opt for the sorpotel (with chunky bits of pork) or sausage chilly fry mopped up with fresh pao. The prawn rava fry or calamari fry will satiate your fish cravings.
At: Opposite Shiv Mandir, Colaba.

Soul Fry

The 20-year-old place enjoys iconic status in Bandra, not the least for those weekly karaoke nights, I’m told, also serve as good matchmaking venues! The festivities apart, Meldan D’Cunha, the affable owner the place, loves experimenting with food. This finds the form of lesser known Goan, East Indian, Koli and Manglorean food. Here, the cafreal, prawn recheado, and sausage fry find place with the Portuguese-influenced crab xec xec, caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew) and Guisado De Galinha (chicken stew). These are best washed down with pints of beer for that perfect laidback vibe.
At Pali Mala Road, opposite Pali Vegetable Market, Bandra West.
Call 7208316545

New Martin Hotel, Colaba

This iconic institution in Colaba is a simple, no frills place. The formica topped tables, high seating, the two blackboards announcing the day’s specials – the interiors may not have changed even if the owners did. ‘Goan meals served here’ is proudly painted on the door shutters and a small board hanging outside.

The hotel now has Manglorean owners, but the food is still Goan though heavier on the spices. The beef chilly fry is succulent and spicy; prawns pulao has golden long grained rice heaped over a masala prawns and their pork sorpotel is adequately greasy and flavourful. Their specialty is beef steak, cooked till tender and served with generous helpings of onions and potatoes. Here, just like at Udupi restaurants, you might have to sometimes share a table with strangers. There’s no need for conversation, everyone is too busy eating.
At 11, Glamour House, Strand Road, Apollo Bandar, Colaba.

Mangoes

This rooftop restaurant in Orlem gets its name from the fact that the owners are Goan and Manglorean. They serve both kinds of cuisines. The décor here is spartan with plastic chairs and tables. It doesn’t matter because Mangoes serves some hearty Goan fare, largely focuses on non-vegetarian food. There’s the beef, and pork roast – both of which are so popular, people freeze it and take it abroad; tongue jeere mere, caldin, the street staple roce omelette, cutlets and potato chops.
At: 601, 6th floor, Almar Arcade, Near Punjab National Bank, Orlem.

Fresh Catch

A pelican with his catch of the day greets you at the entrance of this Mahim icon. It’s an indication that if nothing else, you can get good fish here.

The interiors remind me of an old aunt’s home – patterned napkins, red checked tablecloths, black chairs, sepia-tinted photos on the wall and music from the 70s and 80s. The service is warm and the food, homely. Best known for its butter garlic crab, Fresh Catch also dishes up stellar bangda jeera meera, a spicy and tangy balchao, prawns sukka and a wholesome seafood pulao filled with juicy prawns, crabmeat and shellfish. The prices may be a tad expensive for Goan grub but the food is delicious, which makes it worth it.
At Lt Kotnis Marg, Near Fire Brigade, Off L J Road, Mahim West, Mahim.
(Read a detailed reviewhere.)

Porto & Poie

The azulejo-tiled space in Juhu is the newest Goan restaurant to hit Mumbai’s shores. It’s a simply-designed space – the outdoor area has a small balcao area with a bar in the centre. On the inside are black and white photos of markets in Portugal and Goa, a tiled ceiling and laterite stone-arched windows.

It is the food prepared by Goan chef Gracian de Souza that reminds me of home. The tender marinated salted tongue with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, the crunchy and cheesy Portuguese style prawn rissois, and the classic Goan fish curry and slow cooked tenderloin chilli. The vegetarian dishes are stellar too, especially the coconutty mushroom and tendli tonnak. There’s no feni but there is Vagator Rave, with its hints of cashew and sweet pineapple, and the welcome drink, the alcohol-soaked cherry liqueur ginjinha.  Best of all, there is poee, brought in from Goa every day.
At Above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road; 6 pm to 1.30 am; Call 26602955
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Lady Baga

A makeshift beach with a shack, a surfboard and swaying palms greets you at the entrance of Lady Baga in Kamala Mills. One whole wall is painted blue and has the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California on it. Inside, the place channels a kitschy shack vibe with swinging hammocks, fairy lights, stars, coloured walls and cane furniture with tie-dye cushions.

Behind the bar, Eric Lobo dishes up cocktail experiments. His version of cashew feni is a potent cashew and and coconut vodka. I recommend the scotch-heavy Ginger Man, and the Bloody Mariana – a Bloody Mary with balchao and Goan sausage-infused vodka. The food, from the hands of an East India chef, is worthy of seconds. The stand out dishes include rissóis prawns, kokum & chilli pumpkin and Chef Aloo’s prawn curry – a rice plate with prawn curry with bhindi, tendli pickle, kismur, fried whitebait, and local red unpolished rice.
At Oasis Complex, Kamala Mills, Gate No 4, Lower Parel. Call 022 4931012

O Pedro

The food here isn’t Goan, not the way I’ve grown up eating it. But it is delicious and inspired by Goan food, which makes for some interesting dishes. There’s rissois stuffed with crab instead of prawns and coated with Panko crumbs; kalchi koddi served as a sauce with boiled eggs, kismur with raw papaya and shrimp, red rice sannas, and serradurra with orange segments. There’s even a sourdough poee, best paired with chorizo butter. The best one being the veal tongue prosciutto, a take on salted tongue with pickled cucumber and a garlic-mustard aioli.

The interiors, some call it granny chic, are filled with knick knacks and elements expected in an old house – cane backed chairs, hanging creepers, the red tiles and the plates on the walls. A good place to hang out at is at the polished wooden bar, sipping on the homemade Vasco Sour with its hit of Goan toddy vinegar, and tapping your feet to the music.
At: O Pedro, Unit #2, Ground Floor, Jet Airways-Godrej BKC Building, Bandra Kurla Complex.

Box:

Goa Bhavan Canteen
At Cross Road No.12, Samarth Ramdas Marg, Gulmohar Road, JVPD Scheme, Juhu.
Call 98205 97275

Goa Portuguesa
At Mili Building, TH Kataria Road, Matunga.
Call 24440707

C D’Souza
At 314, Cawasji Hormusji Street, Opposite Our Lady of Dolours Church, Marine Lines.
Call  22065893

Goan Cart
At 1st Domnic Lane, Tank Road, Orlem, Malad West.
Call 9820756797

Cozinha Goana
At: Beverly Park, WING-A, Mira Bhayandar Road, Chandan Shanti, Mira Road. Closed on Mondays.
Call: 9920854955

 

[Versions of this story appeared in The Hindu and The City Story]

Taken hostage in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack

Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“Sir, I would like to talk to you …”
“I would love to talk, but am a little caught up.”
“Not a problem. When will you be free?”
“I wish I knew. You see, I am still stuck in the Trident and am a hostage …”

I dropped the phone.

I had entered the field of journalism exactly five months back and here I was, smack bang in the middle of covering my first terrorist attack. It all happened by accident. The day had started out as a nightmare. The previous evening, just as I was about to turn in for the night, I started receiving frantic calls from home. Their questions about my safety soon turned into hysterical lectures: As a journalist, how could I not know that Mumbai was undergoing a terror attack?

I switched on the TV and slowly pieced together the horrifying sequence of events. A group of terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba had conducted a series of attacks across south Bombay. They had targeted the CST train terminus, two hotels — Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace — Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and the Nariman House Jewish community center.

After watching for about three hours, I turned in for the night. This wasn’t the first time Mumbai was dealing with terrorists. The city had survived before and I was confident things would return to normal the next morning.

They did not.

My boss woke me up to say the terrorists had taken people hostage at the two hotels and I, still a trainee, was needed at work. The city wore a deserted look — everyone had stayed home. In contrast, the office was abuzz — keyboards clacking, telephones ringing, instructions being shouted and television channels blaring breaking news.

My boss walked up to us trainees and gave us numbers of rescued hostages and told us to talk to them. It was one thing I was hoping never to do as a journalist — intrude on someone’s grief to ask them, “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” Or, how do you feel? As a trainee, I didn’t have the choice. I started calling. There were four numbers; three went unanswered. The fourth got me a hostage.

Now, for someone who was stuck in his room, alone, with the blinds closed and lights off, Srijit was calm. He told me what had happened: “It started around 9 p.m. My colleague and I were having dinner when we heard the first blasts. After that everything went haywire. We decided it’s safer to remain in our rooms, on the 24th floor. We have no contact with anyone else from the Trident. The firing was constant and went on throughout the night. I lost the signal on the television; I think the terrorists cut it off so that we don’t know what is happening outside.”

The elevators were shut, and he had locked the door and pulled down the blinds. He was worried about his colleague, a U.S. citizen — he had heard reports that foreign nationals were being targeted. His minibar had a few bottles of water, a couple of boxes of nuts and biscuits and a bar of chocolate — enough stock to last him a couple of days, he told me.

Before hanging up, he had one request: “Keep me posted on what is happening outside.” He was staying in darkness and his phone was the only link to the internet and his son in Kolkata.

I did, through messages and the odd call. I fed him whatever the TV was telling me — the number of people dead, which terrorists had been captured and reports on law enforcement. In turn, he told me about the other hostages he had befriended via the intercom, how none of them were eating because they were too scared. He wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to get out.

I felt his fear, anxiety, helplessness and despair. 

I ended each call telling him those very useless words “be safe.” He took it in good grace.

By the end of the first day, he felt like a friend, someone I had known for a long time. The thought of what would happen to him terrified me. I had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, November 27, the phone calls, and the gun battles, continued.

People watch from the top of a residential apartment as a helicopter carrying National Security Guard commandos prepares to attack militants at Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. “Every time the explosions go off, the entire building shakes,” he told me.

His inside information was more accurate than what many television channels were screening. But I didn’t tell him about reports that over 20 hostages had been killed in the hotel. Instead, I told him that India’s NSG, National Security Guard, was close to getting them evacuated. He had still barely eaten anything, and was using the intercom to speak to other hostages trapped on the same floor. On the third day, at 11 a.m., I got the call I had been waiting for.

“I am saved.”

Early morning, he had a knock on his door saying “housekeeping.” He opened it to find 20 commandos and armed men in plain clothes. He was escorted out like royalty.

Later that day, I went to meet him. We exchanged a hug. He was full of praise for the security forces who had rescued him. He was taking back “souvenirs” of his ordeal: a bottle of water and a half-eaten packet of salted peanuts.

It is difficult to explain the relationship that formed between us in those three days. I’ve never been on the front of covering any terrorist attack or violence; I don’t have it in me.

A little background: I hail from a tiny state in India called Goa, known for its peace-loving and laid-back life. I’ve only ever seen terror attacks on TV; I was completely detached from them. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe — I couldn’t fully grasp the impact of what was happening. The 26/11 attacks changed me because there was a personal element to the violence. I felt the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness and the despair.

Suffice to say, that naive trainee reporter who had led a sheltered life had finally grown up.

I wrote this essay for Ozy on the ninth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. Read the original piece, here

A taste of the North East in Kalina

In the morning, the suburb of Kalina is a quiet place. A few shop shutters go up, a straggle of people return from daily Mass, and stray dogs start riffling through the piles of garbage being swept from the street. 

Near the St Roque Grotto, a small two storey space starts to come to life. As part of his morning ritual, Yaomi Awungshi, 36 is having tea and breakfast with his family. In some time, the plates and cups are cleared and the place is open for business.  

The business being Thotrin Café, the suburb’s newest, and what they call the city’s only, North Eastern restaurant. “We serve food from typically cooked in our homes, and from other states,” says Awungshi.

“This area has a lot of families from the North East. We wanted to offer them the tastes of home,” chimes in his cousin Worsem Zimik, 34. Awungshi and Zimik both belong to the Tangkhul tribe – they identify as Nagas but geographically, their home is in Manipur. The menu features Naga tribal dishes and some from other North Eastern states too.

Food stories

The restaurant launched three months back. It is a small space with just four tables. There’s a blue ceiling, few potted plants, and a full length motivational poster covering the door to the kitchen.

“You can call us and request any dish and we will make it,” says Awungshi proudly, adding that recipes are sourced from family and friends. On the menu are dishes like the Manipuri salad shingju, oxtail soup, thukpa, mayang pai manak – a meaty potato mash made with King Chilli and fermented river fish; steamed chicken with bamboo shot and shiitake mushrooms; thesui – fermented soyabean, ngari – fermented river fish with King Chilli, and even escargot. They also serve pork and beef items but that’s off the menu – they don’t want to alienate customers. Dishes are of substantial portions, cheap (the most expensive dish is Rs 220) and meant for sharing.

The diners streaming in and out of the place include family and friends from nearby, Catholics from all across Kalina and Vakola, and members of the community who come from as far as Mira Road and Borivli. “We get a lot of students too. They come to study at the Kalina University and so, settle down here. They often don’t have the time to cook or look for specific ingredients. This was our way of helping them,” says Zimik. When he first came to the city to study law 15 years back, there was no place to buy homemade food or ingredients so he started cooking himself. “We have airhostesses who are regulars who always gush about the food and say it tastes like home.”

Zimik, who had to abandon his dream of becoming a lawyer due to financial reason, has worked in the hotel industry for over a decade. He is currently an operations manager at AB Celestial, Mahim. He believes the time is ripe for the city’s diners to ‘indulge in their love for regional food by trying out our food’. He would know. One of his work stints was at King Chilli, the Chindian fusion restaurant down the street from Thotrin. There, customers could order off-the-menu Manipuri food items like Khaiko Kasathei (a dry fish salad) and Harsa Kasathei (chicken salad with onion, lime juice and King chilli) and Alangsa, a beef offal stew-like dish. The dishes, once only eaten by members of the community, are no popular with anyone looking for a taste of the North Eastern cuisine.  

The right ingredients  

The popularity of the King chilli (or bhut jolokia as its popularly called) these days means it is easier to source. For other ingredients specific to the region, people turn to small community stores that source their wares from the North East.  The Kalina Masjid lane has two such stores selling foodstuff, vegetables, breads and sweets specific to the Manipuri and Naga community. Think fermented fish and bamboo shoots.  

Thotrin gets its produce from the store sharing its name, which Awungshi started three years back. He  gets his produce from home, thrice a week, and the pickles, fried items and bread all made by the family.  The small space is packed with clear packets of fresh vegetables – mustard leaves, Indian bean root, white pepper, aiyang thei (Naga eggplant), fermented bamboo shoots, and dried King chilli.

vegetables

Fresh vegetables and dried fish comes in every week from Nagaland

The fish comes in pickled form or a dried version (usually done over heated charcoal) and packed within small woven bamboo baskets. There’s a rack from which hang pickled sweet red plums, packets of meat masala, and tins of fish and meat pickle. Two small refrigerators nearby hold vegetable salads and pork pickle. The dry food stack has strips of dried beef intestines, fried beef and pork, chewy doughnuts sprinkled with coconut, crispy rice cakes and a sweet puri-like bread made from black rice. “When we opened, on the first day itself we had 100 customers!” laughs Awungshi. “That’s when we knew we were right in starting the place. It was that time we had the idea to open the restaurant too.”

store 1

The vegetable rack at Thotrin store

Both places are open through the week. Sunday afternoon is the only time you will find them shut – it’s because the family goes to church. People from the Tangkhul tribe are largely Protestant and go to a small hall within the Air India complex at Kalina for afternoon (and English) services. And after church, they are usually joined by a small group of people who come to get a bite to eat at the restaurant.   

The brothers look at Thotrin as a space that brings the community together, a social hangout spot. “We want to take this food and the restaurant all across Mumbai,” says Zimik with a smile. “We want to make it famous.”

Thotrin Café is situated opposite St Roque Grotto, Kalina Kurla Cross Road, Santacruz East; open from 9.30 pm to 11 pm; call 077382 30296

 

 

Worth the Mani

I am at a table with three strangers. We don’t talk; our mouths are busy shoveling down idlis, wadas and upma. The only sounds we make come from the cracking of a crisp dosa, and the slurp of hot filter coffee.

A waiter hovers by, ready to refill our bowls with ladles of fragrant sambhar. The thin and tangy vegetable stew coats the idlis (steamed lentil rice cakes) on my plate, giving them an orange tint. In another bowl, the soup-like rasam, made with tamarind juice, tomato, chillies, and spices, soaks through the medu wada (crisp fritters made with urad dal), softening them up.

I wipe both dishes clean, resisting the urge to lick my fingers as many around me do. Someone near me gives a satisfied burp. Nobody bats an eyelid. At Mani’s Lunch Home in Chembur, table etiquette and manners are secondary to enjoying a good meal.

Rasam Vada

Rasam vada.

In Mumbai, there’s cheap and then there’s lunch home cheap. Mani’s Lunch Home, or Mani’s, falls in the latter category – nothing on their menu costs over Rs 150. The 80-year- old institution serves simple, homely, vegetarian South Indian food. Last year, it shut down its Matunga outlet and moved to the eastern suburbs of Chembur.

I visit the new digs for a late breakfast. It takes time getting used to the white walls, metals chairs and air-conditioned interiors. The old Mani’s felt like the dining room of a friend’s home, warm and inviting. Here, under the glare of white lights, the four of us sharing a table are extremely conscious of each other. We sit properly, without fidgeting.
Once our orders arrive though, all propriety is forgotten.

A flurry of waiters deposit plates of dosas the length of my arm, tiny containers of chutney, filter coffee in tumblers, fluffy idlis, crisp wadas and bowls of sambhar and rasam. There’s no cutlery so we use our hands and dig in. My Ghee Roast Dosa is paper thin and crumbles as I break into it, revealing a mound of masala’ (boiled potatoes with onion and tempered with mustard and curry leaves). In between bites, I pour the filter coffee from the stainless steel tumbler into the cup, cool it and take small sips. It is milky
and sweet enough to jolt me awake.

dosa

Masala Dosa. Photo courtesy: Mani’s Lunch Home

Eating at a lunch home is a lesson in portion control. I barely wipe the last drop of sambhar from the plate, when a hand materialises out of nowhere and fills it up. After two rounds, I feebly wave the waiter away. He is understandably surprised. Whoever says no to extra, and free, servings?

By now, I am regretting all the food I’ve ordered. I can’t seem to finish all that I have ordered. My fellow diners have finished up, paid and left. They know their limits. They also know that you don’t waste time at a lunch home, you eat as quickly as you can and leave, making way for other hungry diners.

As I pay the bill, the owner KS Narayanaswamy walks over for feedback. I am full of praise but, he isn’t fooled. He saw me wave away second helpings. “You didn’t finish your paper dosa,” he says, accusingly. I sheepishly apologise, promising to return and do justice to everything I order.

This was part of my breakfast series for Roads & Kingdoms; read a full review of the place in Midday

Harkat Studios: A co-working oasis

A stray cat stares at me imperiously as I pick my way around her. Her amber eyes follow me as I enter Harkat Studios, the city’s hippest and possibly coolest co-working space cum performance venue. Once I’m in, the cat stretches and goes to sleep.

Harkat, I soon learn, has that effect on people. It makes everyone feel at home.  

The co-working studio has been in the news ever since it opened its doors in the tree-lined, quiet locale of Aram Nagar in Andheri. The founders, Micheala Strobel (or Mika) and Karan Talwar knew they wanted a space that was quiet, green and welcoming. Indeed, walking on the gravel path to reach the studio, past bungalows shaded by a green canopy and breathing in the quiet, it’s hard to believe this is Mumbai.   

 

 

Outdoor

The outdoor section has its own library and a canopy of trees.

Harkat has an outdoor and indoor space. The outside is a courtyard, now shaded because of the monsoon, with benches and potted plants. Inside, it is one big room, leading off into a narrow green room, and a kitchenette and bathrooms.

It’s been designed as a living room and it certainly feels that way. The all white space has splashes of colour, from the painted repurposed furniture, yellow girders, framed posters, and rugs. CDs hang from the ceiling, competing for attention with low-hung bulbs. 

 

 

I spy little nooks everywhere, different seating zones to cater to every kind of freelancer. A sturdy centre table can be used for a business meeting; side retractable panels on one side of the wall for those who want privacy; mattresses and a painted trunk for those who like sitting on the floor. My favourite is the individual desk, painted in bright colours.

It’s fully equipped for work and my freelancer’s eye is appreciative of the plug points, the printer, the strong Wifi signal and that necessary writer’s fuel, chai (there’s kombucha for those drinking healthy). Another creative working staple, silence, is available in plenty – it is the first thing that attracts me to the place. “We did all this ourselves,” says Mika, her arm sweeping across the room. She points to a table, painted blue with glass on top. “This was a discarded window frame. We got it in Behram Baug and painted it. It was a team-building activity,” she says.

 

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What started out as a bookshelf n contains fascinating set of odds and ends. Photos courtesy: Harkat Studios

The coolest thing here, apart from a vintage typewriter, is the bookshelf. That Harkat staple is visible in almost every picture of the space; an unmoving background to the proceedings. For once, it’s not the books that fascinate me as much as the other knick knacks. “It was originally supposed to be moveable. But once we started putting in the shelves, and added in the books and other things, it became impossible to move,” says Karan. Now, it’s like an open treasure box, scattered with a kaleidoscope, vintage camera, a matryoshka doll, a tie, trophy, painted bottles, paintbrushes and candles. It’s not the prettiest sight; it looks like an elongated stepladder, draped with fairy lights. But, it certainly is compelling. It fits right in; all the furniture here is repurposed or salvaged antique. I run my hands down the wood, trying to imagine where it came from and the stories it must hold. It’s kitschy without being over the top. “The fact that we had no money proved to be a big advantage,” chuckles Karan. “It ensured nothing here is stark or perfect. Everything has rough edges”.

Harkat’s biggest asset is its ability to transform from a laidback co-working space to a performance venue. On most days, it’s a co-working space with people huddled over their laptops, nursing mugs of unlimited coffee and chai. On performance days, held over the weekends, it undergoes a quick 20-minute transformation. All the furniture is moved outside or lined against the walls. The kind of performance – a writing workshop, a film screening, a comedy special –determines the stage area, the décor and whether chairs will need to be borrowed from upstairs. Harkat can comfortable hold about 50 people, 75 if they’re squeezed in together. On Sundays, the outdoor area turns into a vegetable market, selling organic produce.

Hovering in the background and ensuring that everything is on track is a person Mika calls the ‘life of Harkat’, the office boy Ram. It’s not uncommon to hear someone call out his name, several times in the day, asking for his help.

Lunch at the co-working space is communal affair and often, after eating, people curl up on the mattresses and take a nap. “Everyone feels at home here. People come here to work or just to make some tea/coffee and chat with others. It’s a neighbourhood hang out,” says Mika. 

As I sink into a plush yellow armchair, sipping on water from a wine bottle (‘no free wine here’), I can’t help but agree. Harkat is comfortable enough for me to work and for a break, I can curl up with a good book or just take a nap.    

Harkat Studios is located at Bungalow No. 75, JP Road, Aram Nagar Part 2, Versova, Andheri West.The co-working plans start from Rs 300 (a day) to Rs 7,500 (for a desk). Log on to http://co-work.harkat.in   

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.