Thursday, 27 August 2015

Britannia and Company


         The cat, comfortably curled up on his cushion on the counter, snoozed through the din - the clickety clack of cutlery meeting the plate; of happy and satiated stomachs echoing  in the gentle laughs and boisterous talks; more hungry souls waiting patiently under the shade pulled out to cover just that much of the pavement in front of Britannia and Co. An old fashioned board leaned against the counter, behind which a senior Parsi gentleman sat looking out into the January afternoon. While waiting for our turn to be called in, Merwan Kohinoor  made small talk like we were old customers. His nephew Afshin, at the opposite counter with the sleeping cat, finally called us in.  We stepped into the dark cavernous space filled with people, furniture, and an old world charm. Stashed with packing  material and packaged food, cupboards stood at the corners, crates of bottled coloured Duke drinks peeped out of shelves. Zarathustra, fading with time, looked out of a frame.

 Could we take pictures of this place please?
Sure! Go right ahead! Take pictures of my cat, of the place, the food, my father but not of me. Your pictures will be ruined, he said with hearty laugh while supervising his staff to pack food. Just joking, Afshin went on to add. Actually, I am a communist and we are not supposed to be photographed.

 I didn't know which to believe.

    Tucked into the Ballard Estate, that old business district of south Bombay built on land reclaimed by the Bombay Port Trust, Britannia and Co, stuck out in that colonial facade. We had jostled our way through the congested roads and traffic snarls from Goregaon East, with its eruption of concrete structures to accommodate the teeming milieu. The Ballard Estate, a reminder of the British era like many others in the country, housed the famed Britannia and Co, the last of a handful of restaurants serving authentic Parsi food. And we had endured that tiring commute from the suburb, not just to savour their delicacies but more for the experience of this place.

    Two white boards shaped curiously like coat of arms than signboards, flanked the entry. A smiling Prince William and Duchess of  Cambridge leaned out of the mezzanine balustrade, looking out at the diners tucking into their sali boti, cutlets and the other dishes arriving at the tables. A calendar with large numbers fluttered in the circulated air from the ceiling fans. A row of coloured floral tiles adorned the scruffy walls with paint peeling and an old fashioned clock kept time in a place that seemed to have entered a time warp. As we waited for our food to arrive, which was really quick, nonagenarian Boman Kohinoor Irani, the owner along  with his brother, went around the place talking to the diners. He finally shuffled his way to our table, peering through his thick glasses with a warm smile.
"Hello! How are you? Are you comfortable?"
"Yes, we are thank you! You have a lovely place here!"
As if on a cue, he motioned us to wait and went back to his place below the stairs. A plate of patrani machli  arrives at the next table making us wish we had ordered that too. Boman Kohinoor is back again with a waiter following close behind carrying our food. But he was more keen on showing us the laminated sheets of newspaper cuttings, certificates, a photo of the Queen of England among others. A practice which I gathered, he regaled all his customers with. And then with a flourish and a beam radiating across his wrinkled face he produced the sheet of acknowledgement from the Queen of England's office. We made all the appropriate sounds at the object of pride. The waiter placed our dishes on the red checkered table cloth making us lean expectantly from our bentwood chairs to take in the aroma.
With a "Enjoy your meal!", off he went to a couple of foreign tourists with the testaments of this establishment started in 1923 by his father.


    The mutton berry pulao, needless to say, did not let us down. The red pieces of the berry sat prettily on the heap of fragrant rice poorly concealing the succulent mutton under it. A spicy fare with a tart surprise. The waiter gave me a knowing smile when I pulled out the camera before the whole thing was devoured. For him, I was perhaps another one of those many over excited customers. Some of the other specialty that we couldn't possibly manage, we packed for dinner. The dhansak being one of them.  It was important for us to take in as much as we could considering that places like this were shutting shop. It was not just about the food but also about the ambiance enriched with an air of a past coupled with warm hospitality shown by the owners as well as the waiters. It wasn't difficult to notice that there were no concerted efforts to beautify the place, create an ambience or force hospitality like the new crops that would go out of their way to assemble a place like this. The difference lay in being innate like the bonhomie in the air inside. Everyone, from the owners, the waiters and the customers seemed to be at ease.


   Spooning their delicious caramel custard, the eyes went around and the mind wandered a bit. The place looked like it was falling apart with its days numbered just like the fast dwindling Parsi community itself. Maybe in a world where new entrants are pushing their way in, these little spaces are trying to hold on to their glorious past of the British era. A time when they were patronized by the Europeans for their enterprising nature and the continental food they served. The menu now catered to the spice seeking Indian taste buds. The Parsis have maintained their promise of sweetening the existing society from the time they first set foot on the Gujarat shores. A community that has given a lot  and never created strife. Adapting and growing in changed scenarios is there forte and yet they remain distinct. They have  occasionally been brought into the Bollywood movie frame with all their idiosyncrasies to bring forth an indulgent smile or a laugh but their  contributions are immense in every field.

   Within India, this Zoroastrian community is made up of two sets of immigrants and largely identified by the period in which they sought refuge in India. The Parsis, from the Pars region, had settled almost a thousand years ago with their promise of sweetening. By the time the Iranis came seeking shelter from drought and persecution in their Yazd region of Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Parsis had settled well and prospered in their adopted land. It was they who helped the Iranis to migrate and offered work in their homes and establishments. The oft repeated story of the growth of Irani cafes that numbered almost 350 at one time, is of how one evening when the Iranis had gathered to reminiscence about the land they had left behind, one of them served tea and charged them for it. These cafes soon became popular for providing good food at reasonable rates to all strata of society. It wasn't long before they became the favourite haunts of artists and writers.

  The loyal customers continue to throng the place before it becomes a casualty to changing times. Curious tourists like us stream in to experience a space that is unique in its identity and a glimpse into a subculture of Bombay.




  1. That's a lovely glimpse for I know little about Britannia or Parsis. Don't kill me but I am stuck on the picture of Caramel custard.

  2. I can understand Alka! Imagine I got to eat it!

  3. The fact that Boman Kohinoor Irani,in his nineties, and his brother, go around the place talking to the diners shows how enthused they still are about their work and the business. This display of warmth is rare in the present generation.

  4. I have lived ten years in Mumbai and at least four out of that I have haunted just those quarters and I still missed this diner surviving the vagaries of past. You have written about the devoted people who run this place in your regular style, expressive and full of anticipation. Perhaps in my next stay in Mumbai I will find my feet walking right in.

  5. Lovely post! Haven't been there in ages but you brought it alive with your words and photos!

  6. You seem to have recreated the ambience of Britannia and Co. so beautifully that I feel like I just had a meal there and even met those people you encountered there.
    It is so so sad to hear that these places are dying, sadder to hear that they are having to turn up the heat in their dishes to cater to our-spice loving palates. :(

  7. Absolutely Chaitali! That's what sets them apart!

  8. Thank you Chaitali Patel, am glad I could refresh your memory.

  9. Hey D! Some of these places need to be preserved for their heritage and for their value addition.

  10. I hope you do, Uma. The place is like time travelling.

  11. Such a wonderful post Ilakshee...heart-warming! :)


Your words keep me going :)