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A love for sweets and fascism: The history of Bombay’s iconic cake shop Monginis

The Italian founder of Monginis was a fan of Benito Mussolini.

Did you know that Monginis, the iconic Indian cake shop, was founded in Bombay in 1902 by two Italian brothers? A hundred years ago around this time of year, the Mongini brothers would be wrapping up their elaborate Easter Bazaar at their store on Churchgate Street in Bombay.

Discovering an unexplored private archive is many a historian’s dream. In July 2016, a friend in Mumbai, Simin Patel, opened the doors of a treasure trove for me – her family’s trunk of old papers, postcards, picture books and assorted memorabilia. Among the first things in that trunk to catch my eye was this old box from Mongini Ltd.

Though I have grown up on a steady diet of Monginis birthday cakes for several years of my life, it never occurred to me to think that not only might the name Monginis be of Italian origin, but also that the company might be more than a hundred years old!

So I racked through old articles of the Times of India to learn more about the company. Turns out that in 1902, Messrs Mongini opened their restaurant and confectionery on Churchgate Street in Bombay as Mongini Ltd. In 1919, following a widening of Churchgate Street, they reopened their new and larger building as the Mongini Brothers. The Times of India reported that “Messrs Mongini’s building will prove a valuable addition to the palatial business establishments of the city… The ground floor will be used as Refreshment room and confectionery. The dining room will be located on the first floor. Whilst the 2nd floor may be reserved and arrangements made for wedding receptions, dinner parties, presentation ceremonies and so on.” (Times of India, March 21, 1919).

The Times of India, December 6, 1929.
The Times of India, December 6, 1929.

So not only was Mongini’s famous for its cakes, it was also a place for Bombay’s European and later Indian elite to have dinner while listening to classical music, hold meetings, book clubs and all manner of cultural and business soirees. In the 1930s, Mongini’s became quite famous for its Hungarian orchestra, directed by Laszlo Szabo and played by Hungarian musicians. There were concerts on Tuesdays, dinner dances on Fridays and Saturdays and, as the Times of India said, Mongini’s was quite the “favoured haunt at afternoon and evening of the city’s socialites, intelligentsia and business bosses”. The chocolates and cakes were, of course, special, particularly on the occasion of the annual Easter and Christmas Bazaars. Several Times of India articles describe the crackers and chocolates of all sizes and descriptions piled high, alongside sweets both freshly made and imported like marrons, crystallised fruit, sugar-coated almonds, caramels, toffees, wafers, Easter eggs, gauzy butterflies and black cats for table decorations, and the bakery making fresh Christmas cakes to be sent all over India.

What is less known perhaps is that LU Mongini, one of the founding brothers of the company, was a proud fascist who wrote several letters to the Times of India praising “the immense services rendered by Mussolini to Italy” and explaining how “fascism [had] saved Italy” from the disaster that was Communism in his opinion. Mongini was a member of the Bombay Presidency Trades Association, consul for the Italian Touring Club of Bombay (which seems to have promoted tourism in Italy), and director of the Fascism centre in Bombay founded in 1925.

The Times of India, March 29, 1929.
The Times of India, March 29, 1929.

While debating the benefits of fascism with another reader of the newspaper, he wrote quite frankly, “If on the one hand Fascism insists on discipline and places restrictions on so-called liberty, on the other hand it creates order and economic balance in the State.” He had no qualms admitting that fascism curtailed the freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right to strike, because it protected the regime from sedition and defamation by giving it a “firm strong hand”. Besides, fascism for him was more than just a party, it “[identified] itself with the nation… It [was] the Italian nation itself”.

Though none of the letters by LU Mongini to the press on the subject of fascism ever mentioned Mongini Ltd, we know that it is the same Mongini because the address from which he signed his letters was that of the shop (45 Church Gate Street). Thus, the man who supplied sweet delights to elites all over India and Bombay was also the man who thought Mussolini and a “strong regime” were the answer to Italy’s troubles. Following the turns of history and the outcome of the Second World War, fascism and Mussolini may no longer be things to be openly proud of. But there was a time when even moderates thought Mussolini had made great contributions to Italy, as even the man debating with Mongini over fascism conceded. For Mongini, and many others of his time, these were all things to take pride in – the strength and supremacy of the nation, the squashing of all criticism of fascist violence as “defamation” and “seditious propaganda”, and abolishing civil and workers liberties to strengthen “the Kingdom of Fascism and its Duce”.

Monginis, now Mio Amore in Kolkata, no longer has anything to do with Italy or Fascism of course. Ownership passed to Indian hands and the brothers left the country at the time of Independence. But, as you buy your next chocolate cake or eat an Easter egg anywhere in the world this season, it’s worth wondering – do you know people who believe in similar things today? And if so, who are the Il Duces of our times?

The Times of India, March 13, 1934.
The Times of India, March 13, 1934.

This article first appeared on Archivenama.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.