Nobody plays cricket in their compound anymore. My teenage sibling doesn’t know the story of the Ramayan. The bhelpuri-wallas have been kicked off the streets of Bombay. Cricket, mythology, bhelpuri – these are traditions I wish had never changed.
The Indian taxi driver’s obsession with the horn; an absence of food writing in Indian fiction; the chutney recipe at Swati Snacks – these are traditions I would like to change.
The Ripon Club, established in 1884, is one Bombay establishment rooted in tradition yet in desperate need for something to change if it is to survive this decade. I was recently invited to their famous Wednesday-Afternoon-Dhansak-Lunch. The first time I ate dhansak – a Parsi lentil and meat curry – was in the summer of 1997 in my then Parsi boyfriend’s mum’s kitchen. I didn’t love it then and haven’t cared for it much since. So while I wasn’t looking forward to the food I was definitely excited about a meal in one of the Parsi community’s most closely guarded social clubs.
We walked into a large dining room flanked by the kitchen at one end and the Bombay Fornicator-lined library at the other end. Wednesday lunch is the most popular meal of the week and the room quickly filled up with members and other guests who had bagged an invitation.
We began with a tomato soup; a recipe I only see in mum’s kitchens and India’s gymkhana clubs. It was tart, creamy, completely inappropriate for lunch on a hot day, but ordered with such love by Mrs. Host that I had to finish the entire bowl. Mr. Host’s stories about the origins of the Ripon Club helped!
We then made our way to the dhansak buffet, and I stood in line behind octogenarians and their walking sticks. We served ourselves mutton dhansak and its traditional accompaniments of brown rice, kachumbar (raw onion salad) and fried kababs. The mutton kababs were tiny taste bombs and I could have easily made a meal of them. The dhansak could have probably done with more cooking and the salad with more onions. The main course was followed by club favourite dessert – caramel custard. This one was fragrant with rose, and oddly delicious.
It wasn’t the best food I have ever tasted, but I wouldn’t have missed out on that meal for the world. We were a table of nostalgics and nothing beats an afternoon in an old Bombay institution surrounded by storytellers and the kind of history they never teach you at school. Mr. Host ended the afternoon with a tour of the club which is spread over two floors. It is heart-breaking to see a piece of history fall apart before our very eyes. One could easily mistake their upper floor for an abandoned old home, or one that had not seen any life in decades. The massive room wears a forlorn look, occupied by a dusty old billiards table, few broken chairs, and not a soul.
The original membership of the club was all male. A dwindling number of Parsis (and I suspect a disgruntled female population) encouraged them to change the traditional all-male membership rule to include women. Ripon Club serves a traditional funeral meal as a weekday special, but won’t open up their club to non-Parsis even though they are desperate for new membership. Time stands still at the Ripon Club, but not in a good way.
Tradition plays an important role in creating cultural and ethnic identities. But it is also natural progression for rituals to change as priorities, practices, values and economics of societies change. When a custom stops serving its purpose, isn’t it time to consider a change? When a city’s legacy is threatened, isn’t it time to allow progress to overtake tradition?
Who makes the decision?