Simin Patel And Hashim Badani Walk Us Through Mumbai’s Often-Overlooked Spaces
I’ve been a resident of Mumbai for all of my 27 years and, yet, I must shamefully admit that much of this ‘maximum city’ remains a mystery to me. I continue to depend on Google Maps to get me to familiar places, I lose my way more often than I’d care to reveal, and I almost always miss discovering a hidden route or quaint nook because I’m preoccupied with my phone. Simin Patel is flummoxed by my admission and attempts to fix this inanity on a Wednesday morning, as she checks a mental list of places we will be visiting during a specially curated walking tour. The 34-year-old historian is the founder of Bombaywalla, a company that is in the business of guiding visitors and locals in the direction of the lesser-known sites within crowded neighbourhoods that may well be invisible to the inhabitants of this bustling city. And on tour-free days, you will find her bent over a laptop screen at Ministry of New, a co-working space in Fort, where she often spends long days doing research. Fact-checking, she says, is perhaps the most important part of her job.
It’s 8.30 in the morning, and while Patel is readying for the shoot, I notice a tall figure skulking around the Verve office. I gingerly call out, “Hashim?” and he turns immediately, a shy smile on his face. Clad in jeans and a simple T-shirt, travel and fashion photographer Hashim Badani is clearly more accustomed to being behind the camera than in front of it, evident from his deer-in-the-headlights expression. Today, however, perhaps thanks in part to us having been neighbours in the past — we both grew up in Byculla and he happened to study at the school opposite mine — he is quite accommodating about switching positions.
Patel and Badani collaborate on selective Bombaywalla projects that involve documenting small business enterprises like music classes and laundries, and they are also putting together a coffee table book on Mumbai’s Irani cafes. It’s like they are on autopilot; Patel, who holds a PhD in the history of the Parsi community of colonial Bombay, interviews the owners of the places they pick, then Badani swoops in and breathes life into her words through his moodily lit photographs that freeze time yet capture the transient nature of life in this metropolis.
The 33-year-old photographer mainly works on documentaries and editorial shoots and talks animatedly about a project on animal consciousness. “We visited different parts of India to determine whether animal sentience originated in the East or the West. It was strange and interesting to work with this premise; we are so taken with ourselves that we do not stop to consider whether animals harbour the same feelings as we do. A fascinating fact I discovered is that if fruit flies don’t find a compatible mate, they feast on rotten fruits before intercourse so that they are intoxicated during the act and can just get it over with.”
It’s been a while since Patel and Badani talked; he spent the last couple of weeks travelling around Armenia for the second time; the first was when he was commissioned a story there three years ago. “I don’t like to simply visit a country for a few days, come back and write about it,” he says. “I try to return at least one more time so I’m more acquainted with its history.” Patel smiles as she indulges him. “Hashim is so elusive. He’s not in the city for the most part, so getting a hold of him is a real struggle. Bombaywalla wouldn’t have come such a long way if his photography skills weren’t so phenomenal; I absolutely love his Bombay photo series”. They say three’s a crowd, but, when it’s a crowd that enjoys banter and storytelling, creative sparks are bound to fly. After Badani, Patel and I engage in in a quick walk down memory lane, discussing how much the city has changed, the three of us head out to our first destination of the day — Café Dela Paix in Girgaum.
At first glance, the cafe appears identical to Marine Lines’ Kyani & Co., which is not entirely inconceivable, seeing how both of them are famous for serving a top-notch Irani spread. I have to say that I’m on home ground here; my mother is Persian, and I indulged in my fair share of kheema pav when I used to have the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast. Patel and Badani instantly go up to the owner, Gustad Irani, with whom they launch into a conversation. There is no shop talk here, and the three of them chat as though they are long-lost friends who have been waiting to catch up over some Irani chai. I request Miss Bombaywalla, as Patel is often referred to by her hosts, to give me a quick tour, but she insists that I get all my information from the source. Irani is more than pleased to comply, and he talks about the glory days of his little cafe. “My grandfather was asked to name this eatery Café Dela Paix by the owner of the building at the time, who had just visited Paris and was captivated by the original Café de la Paix that faces the Paris opera house. Coincidentally, we are situated very close to the Royal Opera House ourselves, and the name stuck. Back in the day, diamond merchants and those who worked at the spare parts’ market used to be regulars, but they have shifted their bases and fewer people stop by now. We have a few ideas in the pipeline that might revive the kind of patronage the cafe enjoyed when it first opened in 1935, but even if they don’t work, I won’t give up. This place was run by my grandfather and then taken over by my father, who handed it down to me. This is my legacy and I am tethered to it,” Irani says, as he fondly gazes at the weather-beaten walls and goes on to tell me about the real gold paint that decorates the frames adorning them. The resident historian is only too happy to let me have the floor as I volley questions at the owner, who suddenly — and accurately —points out that Patel and I look quite similar with our matching bangs and aquiline noses. It’s true, I realise, as I inspect Patel’s features. In a way, I think it makes us kindred spirits.
Our next stop is the Gamdevi Hair Cutting Salon. In the car, Badani playfully nudges Patel as he reveals her criteria for deciding whether or not a location is worth covering on the blog. “If a place has new flooring, it’s out. Whether it’s an Irani cafe or a business, if it doesn’t have the original flooring, Simin won’t even be interested in looking at it.” Patel sheepishly concedes, “He’s not wrong, you know. Unnecessary tile changes have been my pet peeve for the longest time. I’ve written many angry letters to trustees when I’ve visited institutions where old tiles have been replaced by drab cement jobs. And they don’t even have the artistic prudence to maintain consistency. A grey patch of cement is an abomination to look at alongside an antique maroon-and-yellow tile.” I wonder if this seemingly random men’s salon in Gamdevi being on our itinerary might have anything to do with her penchant for original tile floors. Patel says, “I recently found out that the building that this 100-year-old salon is attached to is part of a redevelopment project, so this could possibly be the last time we will visit it. The destruction of the old city is speeding up. Sure, there are some big restoration projects in the pipeline, but those are restricted to Grade-1 heritage structures which you know will be preserved anyway, since they are such an important part of our history. It’s the Grade-3 heritage structures that are being demoted to a much weaker category than they are already in so that they can be razed to the ground for more lucrative prospects. The salon will eventually be relocated to a tower, but how is the owner going to recreate the spirit of the space?”
Sure enough, when we set foot inside the salon, it feels like we’ve walked through a time portal. Every object in here seems to be a relic from another era, right from the tattered posters and vintage wooden cabinets to the classic chairs and rusty mirrors. Once again, Patel and Badani dive into an intimate conversation with the owner. Dinesh Jadhav is the fourth generation of the Jadhav family to carry on the trade and currently the only barber in the salon. He is in the process of giving the finishing touches to a client’s weather-appropriate buzz, a haircut that I imagine would be entirely out of character for Jadhav, as I take in his centre-parted, henna-dyed locks. He tells me, “Youngsters want trendy hairstyles, while old-timers want the original styles from my grandfather’s time so it’s a nice mix. This salon was set up by my great-grandfather in 1917, and all three generations of our family after him have worked here. Many people tell me to install an air conditioner in order to attract more clients, but I am adamant about not making any changes to the interiors. I have no interest in money; I only want to ensure that the names of my forefathers are never forgotten.”
Patel and Badani sit in the barber chairs, and she considers asking Jadhav to trim her bangs that keep plastering themselves to her sweaty forehead due to the sweltering heat. I realise that Patel shares a high level of comfort with the people she chooses to write about, and this camaraderie extends beyond the confines of her professional life. That’s a rarity in a fast-paced city, where you barely find enough time to stay in touch with your friends, let alone folks you meet through work. The founder of Bombaywalla values human connections above all, and this is evident from her next words to me, “I was part of the organising committee of St. Xavier’s College’s Malhar fest in 2003, and we stayed in touch even after it ended. So naturally, I turned to them when I was studying at Oxford University and decided to set up Bombaywalla — one of them handled the communications aspect of it, another did the design for the website and, soon enough, Hashim came on board too. I wrote my first blog post on Navroze in 2013, and we celebrated our sixth anniversary this year. We are now officially known as Bombaywalla Historical Works. Our motley crew has remained intact over the years, and it gives me immense pleasure to be able to say that I still work with my friends from college.”
The last leg of our little tour finds us at Swadeshi Market in Kalbadevi, where K. N. Ajani is located. Legend has it that the eponymous founder, who originally sold standard cloth, was struck by a sudden flash of patriotism during the Swadeshi movement and eschewed his original trade to manufacture nutcrackers, knives, scissors and locks. Patel discloses that she initially walked right past the shop, but was lured back because of the massive pair of scissors used as a signage board. “The shop completed 100 years last July,” the current owner, Paresh Ajani, informs me as he beams from ear to ear. Patel and Badani seem at home as they climb over a barricade and make themselves comfortable on the baithak, an elevated seat reserved for close friends and family. I am invited to join them, and when I do, Ajani enlightens me with facts about nutcrackers, which once used to be their highest-selling product. “They were as ubiquitous then as cell phones are today. Nutcrackers used to be in high demand with bridal parties who wanted to test if the groom could cut a betel nut to prove his manhood. But it is now a declining practice as people chew readymade supari.” Ajani proudly displays a printout of Patel’s blog post about him on his counter, and you can tell that he has a soft spot for her because he presents our entire crew with sturdy locks from his shop as a token of his appreciation. Patel is all smiles when she says that it’s the people that make the place. “I obviously take the history of a space into account, but I think it’s so much more special when the people in it turn out to be as welcoming as Pareshbhai. We bring all our tour groups here because he always has stories to share and will go out of his way to ensure that they learn a thing or two. It’s the same with the Irani cafe. Gustad always receives our guests warmly and they end up having a really good time.”
I ask Patel if she can recall the exact details of the first-ever walking tour she conducted after Bombaywalla revamped its business model in 2017. She answers before I can complete my question, “Absolutely! We started at the squalid and ended with the highly sophisticated. The walk commenced at the red-light district of Falkland Road near Kamathipura, moved towards the middle-class area of Sandhurst Road and ended at the splendid Royal Opera House. The people who signed up for the walk included historians and academicians, who then went back to their archives and found ads of the Royal Opera House in some Gujarati magazines. They took photos of the clippings and sent it to us, and these are now a part of what we show on the tours.” Badani adds, “You really develop a sense of self when you dig deep into a city and its inhabitants. For example, with Irani cafes, I’ve noticed that the people behind the counters are sometimes rigid about rules, while other times they are flexible. Some have a pleasant vibe and display cool posters on the wall, while others have boards with dos and don’ts firmly in place. The space essentially turns into an extension of their personalities, and I enjoy discovering people as much as places. When it comes to a city like Bombay there are so many diverse personalities co-existing, and it’s a real treat to capture them.”
Patel and Badani are both creative souls, and when two people with such fertile imaginations work together, some friction isn’t uncommon. There must be a potent adhesive that holds this explorative collaboration together. The duo looks at each other knowingly and takes turns explaining, “We want to encourage people to celebrate the little things. Bombay is replete with art deco and Gothic architecture but we miss out on the true character of the city when we only document its primary heritage buildings. There is also this constant feeling that we are racing against time in our endeavour to discover and document spaces, like you saw with the men’s salon in Gamdevi today. Jadhav has already shut shop and is in the process of bidding farewell to a place that was built by his great-grandfather. All we aim to do is archive every worthy structure before it is lost. Our only advice to people is that if they see something interesting, they must photograph and share it. Everyone can be a local custodian of history by adding to the city archives, because it is highly possible that in two weeks, the quaint little laundry you’ve been passing on your way to work for years will suddenly cease to exist.” Patel and Badani leave me with these wise words that resonate in my mind as I make my way back home at the end of the day, and I resolutely close all my social media apps, lock my phone and tuck it away into my pocket.