Walk, talk, eat Parsi

It’s Navroze today! The perfect time to delve into the gentle refuge offered by the city’s Parsi shops against the bleak miasma of homogeneity. Meher Mirza leads you to some of the shops she (and her mother and possibly her mamaiji) grew up with. Here you will get things such as affordable garas, beaded torans and silverware, but also delicious food. Because it is really not possible to overstate the importance that food holds for Parsis.

Shop like a Parsi

Grant Road is not the most charming part of the city — it has none of the graciousness of Bandra, the glamour of Juhu, nor the energy of Colaba. But in and around the chaos of Grant Road lanes are shops that are untainted by our swiftly transitioning, frenetic lives. Let us begin with Coronet, which sits right opposite the large slab of brown that is the Girgaum Court. Coronet has not changed in half a century and neither has its merchandise: little stickers of the prophet Zarathustra, gilded frames, the beaded and glass torans that are hung on Parsi doors, net sadrahs worn by fashionable lasses at weddings, to name just a few. This is where I found my niece a nightlight with an illustration of Pariya mai, a Parsi fairy who fulfils all fervent wishes.

But most startling of all is the profusion of Chinese artefacts on the shelves that speak volumes about the abundant Parsi trading tradition with China. Although the trade has since dwindled, it has stoked a lingering fascination with the country that has manifested in various ways — for instance, in Parsi surnames Chinoy and Hongkongwala; in Parsi homes, many of which boast of blue and white Chinese pottery (mine too); and woven into the gara (the garas (saris) of yore were made from Chinese silk with Chinese embroidery). Naturally, the Coronet stocks garas too, and you may perchance spot a coat with spindly gara embroidery running down the front.

Close by, Motafaram’s is small, nondescript and not particularly prepossessing. But you stop noticing this when the pushy lady behind the counter starts persuading you to buy saris. “Arre beta, just try this sari no? Come, let me drape it for you. Arre, look how well it suits you.” The lady has been serving there for many years and is patently not a Parsi, but speaks the language with the fluency of one born into it. Motafaram’s sells affordable garas but also sari borders and material that can be fashioned into ijars and jhablas (the loose pyjamas and shirts that Parsi children don for navjotes). You may have to go through a lot of dreck before you find your treasure, but it is there. The last time I visited, the saris came thick and fast, the pile on the counter growing ever higher until finally, the saleslady flung a wilted-looking sari over my shoulders. It was of a pale, indeterminate colour but all around it danced embroidered Chinese motifs of pagodas, bamboo trees and parrots. Irresistible, no?

Next door, the comparatively salubrious environs of Damania & Company beckon. Damania is a bigger shop, although not by much and its shelves are heaped with colourful saris — plenty of garas and the spectacular kors (embroidered sari borders) that are often passed down families as heirlooms. There’s also Chantilly lace and shamu (chamois?) silk ones. This is where young ladies from the nearby Gamadia Parsi colony come to shop. There are plenty of readymade saris, but you can request the tailor to snip and chop to your specifications.

Cross the road and you find yourself at two narrow shops standing cheek-by-jowl and selling exactly the same thing. The signboard on the left reads Jai Khodiyar Maa and on the right, With Blessings of Khodiyar Metal Works, now Mazda Store. The latter curious name is easily explained — the two shops used to be one, until peevish cousins quarrelled and split it. Both shops are stacked from floor to ceiling with gleaming silverware. What do we buy here? The ses, a ceremonial thaal that is filled with auspicious silver items, but also silver door torans, sparkling chowk dabbas to make the pretty chowk patterns that I stamp onto the threshold of my home every morning, and tiny engraved silver glasses and trays. The shops cater to every demand of a Parsi life — for instance, during the reflective, mourning period of Muktad (just before Navroze), Muktad vases become available while the ses is wildly popular during the wintry wedding season.

1Jai Khodiyar Maa and Khodiyar Metal Works — Shop No 01, 76/ 86 A, Dinaz Mansion, R R Mohan Roy Road, next To Girgaon Court. Right opposite these two tiny shops, you will find Coronet. Two shops away is Damania’s and Motafaram’s (next to Harkissondas Hospital)

Amidst the sprawl of Grant Road East, within spitting distance of the euphemistically — named Super Cinema, is Apoo Menesse & Co (Cloth Merchants), vendors of anything that can possibly be required for Parsi weddings and navjotes. Apoo Menesse stands as a tacit opposition to any type of globalisation.

Inside the large, airy shop, you will get sadrah material, kustis that devout Parsis wind around their waist, topi and lehenga sets for little children about to do their navjote, ijars (loose pyjamas) and jhablas (shirts). “Oh, we are the Shroffs,” beamed the jolly lady behind the counter, when I ask about the curious name of the shop. “Apoo and Menesse were two business partners who used to own this shop. We have just taken over from them and now we even have a branch at Cama Park in Andheri.” A little taken aback by my interest in the shop, she peered myopically at me, “Where are you from? Abroad?” Which was a sad reminder to me to make more frequent visits here.

Apoo Menesse – Grant Road East, right next to Super Cinema

The Ratan Tata Institute at Hughes Road also sells hand-embroidered garas that are gorgeous but have prices to match.
Felinaz, also at Grant Road, is a fairly new shop that sells saris (including garas) and tailors sari blouses and petticoats,and also dabbles in accessories such as clutch bags.
The Banaji Atash Behram was consecrated in 1845 and within its verdant compound, sits a wee shop that looks about the same age. Eduljee Sukhadwala supplies not only sandalwood to visitors of the temple, but also agarbattis, dhoop, loban, prayer caps and a few other Zoroastrian odds and ends.

Eat like a Parsi

3It is physically impossible to pass by PAC (Parsi Amelioration Committee) and not buy anything. The shop itself is nondescript, only made conspicuous by the constant throng of Parsis clamouring for its wares. And such wares! Chicken crust pattice; the tender chicken encased in a crisp, flaky shell. Golden chicken or mutton samosas; crunchy, chewy and savoury. Mutton cutlace; pluming themselves in their lacy frilly cloak. PAC’s sunny-coloured board also displays a list of other dishes available — carrot and dry fruit pickle, the dense kumas cake with its lip-tingling spice; khajoor ni ghari which is a pastry stuffed with dates. Go at noon, before all the good stuff gets sold out. It is the perfect antidote to a world in which our food comes increasingly cloaked in euphemism and PR.

PAC – Shastri Hall, Shop No 3, Ground Floor, opposite Adenwala Bungalow, across Bhatia Hospital.

One of the most delightful bits about walking in Bhuleshwar is the possibility of discovery that seems to lie just around the corner. Some years ago, I discovered Davar and Company in just this way. The shop has been around from 1948 and it doesn’t look like anything has changed since then. Davar’s is a mecca for anyone with a yen for squashes and syrups — there are bottles and bottles of the stuff everywhere you look. They turn out many varieties including rose, mango and pineapple and such, but my favourites are the phalsa, the kokum and the green mango, drunk with plenty of cold water and ice. The staff will brew you a jorum then and there, but you can also buy bottles to bring home.

Davar’s 533 Ishwar Bhavan, Null Bazaar, Opposite Gulalwadi, Maulana Azad Road, Girgaon

Mumbai’s culinary landscape is shape-shifting rather rapidly, but some old favourites are happily, still standing. One such is Meher Cold Drink House, tucked away in the warren of lanes of the Fort area, from as far back as 1939. As the name suggests, Meher is stacked with bottles of aerated cold drinks, but I suggest you avoid those. Instead, try its chilled, frothy lassis which are a great antidote to the punishing scorch of summer. The highlight of course is the mitthoo dai (sweet dahi) that is set and served in small chai glasses.

Meher Cold Drink House – Ground Floor, Mackawee Mansion, 7, Rustom Sidhwa Marg, Borabazar Precinct, Ballard Estate, PM Road, Fort

RN Kerawalla’s big claim to fame is its range of deliciously soft sapats, the leather or velvet slippers that I wore all the time while growing up. The RN Stands for Rustomjee Nusserwanji, who opened the shop in 1887. At the time, the shop sold only sapats (maroon velvet for ladies, leather for gents); the thriving Parsi community at the time made that possible. Today, while sapats are still its speciality, Kerawalla also sells sadrahs, topis, satin lehengas for children, embroidered scarves, napkins, shawls, agarbattis and German silverware, the mainstay of our religious rituals. Its little patisserie offers an array of snacks such as samosas, rolls, sandwiches, khari biscuits, cheese papri and sariya, the white, rectangular wafers that herald the start of any lagan nu bhonu.

Kerawalla- Right next to Paris Bakery, Dhobi Talao.

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