Married at a young age, my grandmother moved to Bombay with her husband, Jaffer Ali Padamsee, who joined the family business, Saleh Mohamed Padamsee, that dealt with exclusive glass imported from Czechoslovakia among other places. Till today some of the windows of my grandmother’s flat have her initials KJP etched on them in an elaborate arabesque design. This is only an indication of the kind of affluent lifestyle the Padamsee family could afford. The Khoja community in Bombay to which they belonged was wealthy, progressive and liberal.
This was my grandfather’s second marriage. His first wife had died early after giving birth to five children who had all passed away in infancy. The second time round he would ensure that his children would survive.
I remember her always in a long floor-length dress usually of dark blue cotton with a small print in white. The neck is round, the sleeves are short. Her bunch of keys, for she is constantly locking and unlocking everything, are in her pocket. Her hair is cut short in what we today call a “boy cut”, and she washes it with aretha, a nut with a strange smell that she soaks in a brass vessel that lies on the bathroom floor.
The bathroom is all in pinks: floor, walls, washbasin, tub, bidet. There is no actual toilet, for that is in an outhouse on the terrace. My nani’s morning starts with opening out her large airing cupboard full of all kinds of groceries and doling out spoons of sugar and tea on a thali. Then she uses a cup to measure out the rations for the day as well, rice and dal. She is beyond thrifty, she is positively parsimonious!
I remember one instance when I locked horns with her – over the money she owed one of the servants she had dismissed. She asked him to return three days later for the meagre sum of three rupees twelve annas that she owed him. This injustice was too much for me to bear and in her presence I pulled out my wallet and paid the man. Those were my “socialist” teenage years and I must have been one of the few grandchildren who battled with her – and won!
Each floor of Kulsum Terrace told its own story…
On the ground floor, the sole flat was occupied by Miss Hurley, an ancient ballet dancer from Soviet Russia, who was said to have escaped the revolution by walking to India! She was at least eighty, and yet, so the story goes, walked daily for a swim to the American Club at Breach Candy. It was at least five kilometres away and for much of my childhood, the swimming pool there was closed to Indians.
On the first floor a ladies’ tailor, Sherbanu, a distant relative of my grandmother, ran a small dress-making business. We children made fun of her behind her back because of her untrimmed facial hair. I recall accompanying my mother on many afternoons to Sherbanu as she designed clothes for herself. Her room was always bathed in light, there would be several women there in various stages of undress, fascinating for a teenage boy, and because the flat was on the first floor, the sound of traffic was frighteningly loud.
Diagonally opposite her flat there hung a dusty blue and white signboard, bearing the letters “Marge’s Bargain Sale”. Run by Marge, a large rundown Anglo-Indian lady, the store had rows of second-hand clothes and heavy coats on sale, good for a bargain when one was travelling abroad and needed outerwear. The tiny flat reeked of musty clothes smelling of mothballs, all in need of an airing, but for us, when we were children, it was almost like the treasures of Aladdin’s cave.
The second floor for the longest time operated as a high-class brothel, with the staircase often resounding to the full-throated laughter of Arabs and the clickety-clack of the high-heeled call girls who accompanied them. My grandmother found them easy to deal with as they paid the rent on time and kept the police away by doling out the regular hafta.
Her children’s friends and even her grandchildren’s friends often came around at lunch or dinner time, because she was known to be a superb cook and a generous hostess. Delectable mutton curries, her signature keema potato curry, a sour and sweet dal, paya (trotter) curry… Her flavours and recipes were legendary. The smell of onions being fried till they turned a dark brown (bresta), the melting mouth-watering excellently cut pieces of mutton without a trace of fat, thin delicious rotis with a generous layer of oil on them, fish fried to perfection with a tangy covering of green masala… Khoja cuisine contains elements of both Iranian and Gujarati cuisine but it is uniquely its own, not to be mistaken for Bohri or Memon food.
She often stood over the stove herself, frequently drinking cups of tea, pouring it directly from a boiling saucepan into a cup and drinking it while it was still scalding hot. For many years of my childhood, the cook referred to as ‘lame boy’ by us, because he had lost his toes in frostbite in the ocean during the battles of World War II, churned out these signature dishes. But even when cooks changed, her food tasted remarkably the same, for she supervised the making of every dish closely.
‘An amazing contradiction’
My grandmother would read late into the night, her gold-framed spectacles perched on her nose, a reading lamp poised over her head, deliciously enjoying the very “British” characters of an Agatha Christie novel. Occasionally she stretched out a hand to drink water from a matka resting on a metal stand with a ladle precariously poised on the lid. Exactly how it would be in a Gujarati village. How this woman had grown from her early years on a farm in Saurashtra.
She was an amazing contradiction, as were many others of her generation, completely liberal and accepting of the many affairs her sons had, and relating easily to their stay-over girlfriends of all religious backgrounds, and yet turning completely intolerant when her sons married these very women! She then debarred their entry to the family home and refused to meet her grandchildren. Though her house reverberated many evenings to rehearsals, parties and dancing, Kulsumbai was rarely seen at a performance.
On every birthday of her children and grandchildren she would be ready with an envelope with the person’s name on it, written in the spidery scrawl of her handwriting. Within it, the princely sum of a hundred rupees which was a vast amount of money in the 1950s and 60s.
And for her own birthday my grandmother took us to the same restaurant every year, Coronation Darbar. On one occasion, I remember her ability to pull off the whackiest of jokes with a completely straight face. The government had recently imposed a service charge on bills in restaurants and this appeared at the bottom of a bill presented to my grandmother. ‘What is this?’ she asked imperiously, her index finger with its five diamond rings twinkling in the light. The waiter sheepishly pointed with a vague gesture to the table and everything on it: dishes, cutlery et al. ‘Fine,’ she said grimly and opening her large handbag, began to put the unused cutlery into it. Seeing the alarmed look on the waiter’s face, she burst out laughing.
Excerpted with permission from Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir, Speaking Tiger Books.