It is truly startling when the realisation of the big change of Bombay to Mumbai which happened gradually but steadily sets in. The days of trams, saltwater inlets between the little islands which made up Bombay in the entirety, the divas and Bollywood, the Bombay talkies and the makings and breaking of this Tinsel Town.
But through all of this, there have been a few culinary establishments which have survived the yoke of changing times, changed with the world whilst still retaining the same undercurrent of tradition, and still stand today as the landmarks of erstwhile Bombay.
Kyani’s and Aram, these two establishments that stand in the old buildings of South Mumbai in the Fort area are not only landmarks, but also tourist stops wherein you can witness the world coming in to get a glimpse of the Mumbai life which is set out for everyone to see yet shrouded in the mysteries of it’s own multicoloured language.
And these two establishments, bustling with life even decades later, make their way into the community as a background, a setting, a stage, where relations are made, nurtured and laughter and togetherness reverberates.
Co-run by cousins, owned by Farrokh Shokri, Kyani and Co was established in 1904 and is celebrating it’s 115th year this year. Speaking with Philly, one of the cousins who help run the place, he begins when asked about their iconic decor of mirrors and the quintessential table clothes, “People come here mostly for the ambiance, the ladies can check their hair in the mirrors and people use the table cloth sometimes to wipe their mouths.” Well, well!
“Though rarely, when it’s very crowded, we feel the need to kick out the lovelorn couple, we get one at least every day, who swoons for hours over one cold drink,” he adds laughing. Kyani and Co, when established, was just as it is now, welcoming everyone, every religion, and caste, as well as income group.
Affordable and yet classic, it has stayed woven into the spirit of South Bombay as a classic, an affectionate distant relative figure to all those who have come here, some as habit and some as celebration.
Not too far from here and yet more on the forefront is the iconic, crowded corner right across the streets from CSMT (previously Victoria Terminus, to be remembered in the spirit of Bombay), is the family run food establishment Aram, the owner of which, Madhav Kamble (amazingly strong at 85, affectionately called as Baba), welcomes me in with open arms and eyes which seem to have witnessed the transformation of Mumbai from a front row seat.
Established on August 9, 1939, after Kakasaheb Tambe discovered this corner locked in during Prohibition, as this spot used to be one of the four bars in the building previously. It is still going strong as one of the most prestigious landmarks in Mumbai.
However, as World War II began a month later, Prohibition was lifted and the soldiers from the army tenements provided an instant boost in business, remembrance and nostalgia all coloured with a beaming pride, as Mr. Tambe recounts.
Retaining its spirit where the common man sits beside esteemed newspaper editors and sips on tea whilst in the middle of the city centre, a stone’s throw from Azad Maidan, the establishment and the endearingly called Baba have witnessed the city rise from its every glorious fall.
“Mumbai is, and has been, like a chameleon, changing with the needs of time and adapting faster than any other city in the world,” he emphasises. “But most importantly,” after a dramatic pause, “Mumbai is a true metropolitan city.”
One of the most striking things about this establishment is not at all anything materially relevant, but the feel of home which hits you as soon as you walk in. Untouched by the vagaries of commercialism, Aram has retained that instinct of ‘home’ that every man, woman and child can recognise.
Food has made up a very crucial part of the concept of community, and here in Mumbai that is truly exemplified. People are rooted in tastes and memories and yet the changing world carries them with it. There have been times when these establishments may have felt threatened by the newer ones sprouting with their First World concepts, and yet, the loyalty of the city to honour their true place in the city has left them untouched.
Thousands flock from everywhere to Tinsel Town, thousands take the trains to and fro, hearts are broken and healed simultaneously on these streets, music and cinema still reigns over all, and together we come with a promise of survival, just as the city has risen from its ashes several times, over food and chai to celebrate the true spirit of Bombay.
Of tradition, and resilience in the changing times. Walking out in the rain, laughter echoes, and without looking back one wonders whether it is an echo of a distant laughter still preserved in the cracks of the stones.