When my local Shiv Sagar gave way to a Café Coffee Day, I knew I had to snap out of the Bombay I used to live in, and get to know the Mumbai it had become. But before I did that, I owed myself a last stroll down memory lane.
1994: the year I moved to Bombay from Hyderabad. Until now my Bombay was restricted to my grandmother’s home, swims at Breach Candy Club, horse riding at Band Stand, and an occasional pani puri at Kailash Parbat. But 1994 changed all that. I was at a hip college in a hot city and there was no looking back. I joined the youth organisation AIESEC where I met Dreamboat Abhimanyu. After weeks of pretending I didn’t know his name (or the colour of his eyes, or how much sugar he liked in his tea, or notice that his right dimple was deeper than his left, or that he wore blue on Wednesdays and white on Saturdays…) we ended up at a meeting together. It only felt right to have a work discussion over chai after.
He took me to Satkar, an Udupi restaurant near Churchgate station, and I was on my first ever date.
Nearly two decades later, I walked into Satkar again and felt the rush of my old Bombay wash over me. They have an air-conditioned section now and their purely Udupi menu has expanded to include Punjabi, Chinese, Mughlai (with 17 paneer dishes) and of course Bombay items. But not much else has changed. Lord Ganpati still watches over customers, the owner still collects the cash, Bollywood songs blare out of a bad sound system, one tattered menu is passed on from table to table, and couples are still welcome to romance over one masala chai for several hours.
As a real Bombayite I could never order bhel from anywhere but the street and I didn’t have the courage to try the “Sixer Mixer Chaat” nor the “Veg Triple Schezwan Fried Rice”. So I ordered what Abhimanyu ordered for me all those years ago – masala chai (Rs. 40) and idli (Rs. 60). The owner stopped by and instructed me to “…take more sambhar. It’s not fattening.” And so I did.
I have returned to a city where bookstores sell more Apple accessories than books; BMWs take up more road than is available; and Starbucks-inspired coffee shops are more rampant than bhelpuri-wallahs. But it is also still a city where cafés like Satkar celebrate a half century, even as they gasp for breath under the imported menus of Hakkasan and Pizza Metro; where banana sellers makes sure the street kids don’t go hungry; where people still pause for a breath over raw mango sunsets.
Today, I choose not to.