12 July 194
If you came to our house at 16 Chowpatty Road, you would be served tea in a fine china service embossed with an important-looking crest. No, it was not the crest of my family, but that of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. In case you are wondering why we would serve our guests in china meant for the trains, it was because Mota Pappa’s company, Abdeali Chinwala Trading Esq, imported these from China and sold them to the railways. All the extras came to us in big chests made of teakwood.
Many years ago, Mota Pappa had come to Bombay from his hometown of Surat, to work for an English businessman. The businessman trusted him so much that when he left for England, he left the company to him. Since then, the British have been an important part of the Chinwala household.
Not actually. I hardly knew any Englishmen. But Mota Pappa was friendly enough with them, so all kinds of big orders came from the British and made my grandfather a wealthy man. He bought a whole floor in a four-storeyed building in the leafy lanes of Chowpatty. And we were one of the few people I knew who owned a car.
Friendship, my grandfather says, is all about give and take.
Like our new friendship with Mehul. Mehul lived just up the street from us at Walkeshwar. His school was next to ours. I wonder why we hadn’t seen him before. No matter, we saw a lot of him now.
Mehul could be annoying. He wouldn’t play “presenting at court” with us, even though we promised to make him the king. But he had other uses. He had a sweet innocent face, so the ber-walla outside our school always gave him extra ber, which Zenobia and I promptly ate up. In return, we protected him from a group of bullying kids – but more about that later. Friendship, after all, was all about give and take.
While we’re on the topic of friendships, I think the best kind of friendships are those that are built over shared food.
Every time Mamma had a menej, which is what a gathering of women friends meeting is called in Bohri households, she would ask Freny Aunty for a recipe. And since Freny Aunty’s cook knew lots of European dishes, Mamma always managed to make something that made her the envy of all her friends. And then my mother would return the favour with the best Bohri biryani when Freny Aunty was entertaining.
Soon they got to know Mehul’s mom, Dina Aunty, and their friendship grew over cups of tea and they started sharing recipes too! And together they came up with the idea of a cooking club. Every week they would take turns to make a new dish and send it to the other two with the recipe. Thus was born the Chowpatty Cooking Club.
“As thick as thieves” was a new phrase we learnt in Meena Miss’s class. And I thought that was a perfect description of the ladies of the Chowpatty Cooking Club. They were always putting their heads together over new recipes. We were not complaining – we had a wide variety of food over which to seal our friendship.
Full Family Drama
9 August 1942
Once, an English businessman came to visit my house and he said, “Do all of you live under the same roof ?”
Yes, we all live under the same roof. It’s a big roof. There’s Mota Pappa and Motabu Amena, my grandparents. Then my Tyeb Kaka and his wife Shirin and their two children. My Pappa Husain and Mamma Ateka and I, Sakina. And yes, Faiji Samina.
She is such a drama queen, my Faiji, my father’s youngest sister. She was also the family’s filmy expert. When Faiji dressed up in her silk sari with the puff-sleeved blouse and sallied forth on a Friday evening, we knew a new movie was out.
On Sunday mornings, she would the tell us the story of the film – as she was today. My cousins Taizoon and Khadija and I sat in the hall, with her perched on the sofa and us at her feet hanging on to every word that fell from her lips.
“And Rhett Butler walked out saying, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’,” she said, her eyes swimming with tears at the tragic end of Gone with the Wind. “Kitlo dashing hato!” she breathed. “So very very dashing!”
I loved these sessions. In my mind, I was all these things from the characters in Faiji’s stories – brave, clever, saving the world! In fact, all I dreamed of was being a heroine in real life.
“Men,” Faiji hissed as she sat back, “can never be trusted!”
I stored this piece of information for future reference and waited with bated breath for more. But it was not to be. Three staccato raps on the door signalled the arrival of Kakaji Mustafa, an old friend of Mota Pappa’s.
“Arre bhai, the Congress wallas have started yet another agitation. Now there’s chaos and violence all over the city!” said Kakaji as he hurriedly stepped inside.
Faiji clasped her hands across her chest with characteristic dramatic flair. “Su thayu? What happened? Ya Allah! We’ll all be burnt in our homes! Dead before my life has even begun! But what happened? You’re not telling us, ke su thayu!”
Kakaji paid no attention to Faiji’s theatrics. He sat down next to Mota Pappa, who had been reading the paper as he swung gently on the khat, the big swing that hung in the middle of the hall.
“What happened, Bhai Mustafa?” Mota Pappa frowned.
“Yesterday, at the Congress public meeting, Gandhi announced the Quit India movement. He said that all Indians must fight for complete freedom from the British. They should do whatever it takes to make this happen, or die,” Kakaji said.
Mota Pappa nodded. “Yes, I heard the Congress was organising a public meeting.”
“Well, because of the announcements at the meeting almost all the senior Congress leaders were arrested. Gandhi was taken off to Pune. Nehru, Patel and the Maulana are apparently being jailed in Ahmednagar.”
Mamma, who was rearranging all the little china figurines in the teak and glass cabinets, looked up.
Kakaji fumed, “See what happens when you resist the British! Complete independence! Quit India! These are ridiculous demands at this time. There is a war going on!”
“It’s not our war. It is Britain’s war against Germany,” Mamma said quietly.
“Well, we are part of the British Empire and we should be supporting the war! Only the British can keep us safe. Hitler is a monster!”
“So are the British in India!” Mamma retorted, anger in her eyes. She spoke politely though; she couldn’t openly defy an elder in the family.
“If we support the British government, it will make them sympathetic to the cause of freedom.”
“That’s non – ” Mamma trailed away as Pappa caught her eye. She pressed her lips tightly as if the words would come bursting out if there was even a small gap between them.
I was beginning to feel anxious. I did not like all these arguments. I wanted to close the window and shut out all the fighting in the city. But what to do about the fighting in the house?
I looked at Motabu. I saw a wrinkle of worry appear on her forehead. She silently walked to the kitchen at the other end of the house.
I heard her telling our cook Shamshuddin, “Ja jaldi bazaar ja. Bring home whatever you can get.”
Her words made me even more worried. What if we couldn’t get out of the house? And more importantly, what if we ran out of food?
11 August 1942
A small flat in Chowpatty
Since the day the boxes were put into the garage, the spy had kept an eye on it. It stayed shut but didn’t seem locked. And today, he saw something else – a coil of cable stacked against the shutter.
Cable? What is it for? Have they left something out by mistake? This is my chance to see what they are up to.
Excerpted with permission from The Chowpatty Cooking Club (Songs of Freedom series), Lubaina Bandukwala, Duckbill.
Lubaina Bandukwala’s The Chowpatty Cooking Club, set in 1940s Bombay and based on three children who become unwitting participants of the Quit India movement, and Aditi Krishnakumar’s That Year in Manikoil, based on the Burma War between British India and the Japanese Army and its repercussions, are part of the Songs of Freedom series by Duckbill to mark 75 years of India’s independence. The series looks at stories from different parts of the country in an attempt to understand what it was like growing up when the Independence movement was happening: the excitement of a new start, the tension of overthrowing oppressors, in the daily drama of being a child.