Friday, September 4, 2009

Obituary: Churchgate Food Court

Not only is Churchgate Station in Bombay smack in the middle of the principal commercial area of the city, it is also a stone’s throw from the stock exchange, and most of Bombay’s government buildings. Every evening, a hundred thousand clerks, peons and down-on-their luck underwriters leave their offices and trudge to the station to catch their train back home. But before they embark on their journey home, where do they have dinner?

Opposite Churchgate Station, in the veritable shadow of Eros – the movie theatre, not the god – there is a little triangle of pavement formed by two intersecting roads and the diagonally-situated LIC building. If you went there by day, you would notice nothing remarkable – perhaps a newspaper vendor or two, and the obligatory sugarcane juice stall. But if you went there of a night, you would be hard put to recognise the place. You would find a clutch of food stalls which had magically sprung up on our little triangle of pavement, and enough crowd and bustle to rival Churchgate Station across the road.

People would sit on stools, steps and newspapers, tucking into their food and discussing local train crowds, waterlogging, and the sudden fall in Mahindra stock prices. Every night, amateur polemicists would offer a hundred different solutions to the city’s transport problems. Every night, a thousand plates of unda pulao would be consumed.

It was Bunty who introduced me to this place. Many is the night when, after my daily toil at the law firm which was nearby, I would head here for dinner. Sometimes I would eat alone; other nights, we would get our dinner packed and eat it on Marine Drive.

There are two reasons why we liked the place so much. First, it was cheap. There were not many joints in this upmarket area where an interning law student – poor almost by definition – could have dinner for less than twenty-five rupees. Second, though our triangle of pavement was tiny, and there were only about six stalls, there was an incredible amount of variety on offer: sizzling noodles being tossed madly into the air, eggs boiling furtively in battered aluminium pots, kebabs being slow-roasted on skewers. There were more mundane options too: a diverse range of thali meals, and the ubiquitous pao. You could also have tea – either a full cup or, in classic Bombay style, cutting. For dessert, there was kulfi-falooda as well as ice-cream.

Bunty and I used to affectionately call it Churchgate Food Court, for it was a poor man’s version – almost a parody – of the glitzy food courts in shopping malls which serve a variety of cuisines in an open space at roughly six times the price.

Our favourite was the eight-rupee maska-bun with jam (Rs. 2 extra for double maska). The maska-bun man would take a sweet bun, slice it open, and proceed to stuff it with more butter and mixed-fruit jam than any bun deserves to be stuffed with. At home, I tried to make it myself, but it just doesn’t taste the same. Is it memory that softens the bun and sweetens the jam and makes the butter creamier?

On this trip to Bombay, I decided to pay a visit to Churchgate Food Court and found it deserted. A paperboy told me that it does not exist anymore, evicted no doubt by one of those periodic drives that aim to make our cities look more ‘international’. I mean, I know about progress and modernisation and the inevitability of change and all those things. It is naïve to think that we can cling on to the old ways forever. But still, on nights when we realise that a thriving institution has vanished without a trace, we are permitted a sigh of regret, a sappy self-indulgent blog post or two, aren’t we? Where does the maska-bun man practise his art now? Where are the underwriters having dinner tonight?


Anonymous said...

Excellent Post

rorschach said...

they'll be back. hopefully. these 'periodic drives' usually don't have a lasting effect on such places. thankfully.

and i second ..nice post.

Rick said...

dada, apni bhalo lekhen.

Anonymous said...

OMG... I suppose this one of your very few if not only evocatively nostalgic post....a brilliant one nonetheless...

Sroyon said...

@Anon1 & Rick: Thankee.

@rorschach: Alas, I was told they have been gone for six months already.

@Anon2: I remember at least two others: this and this.

Rahul Saha said...

What? Where do people eat nowadays then? Surely this is a load of rubbish, the paper vendor was having fun with you surely. You look kind of simple you know.