Sitting on a patch of pavement on Dr Annie Besant Road for nearly four decades, Narendra Singh, the kulfi wala, has seen the locality of Century Bazaar go from what he calls a working-class “khatron ki jagah (place of dangers)” to an affluent commercial area. Very little though, has changed when it comes to his clientele that keeps returning for his range of mawa kulfis.
For more than 35 years, Singh has been unloading two large aluminium crates, a weight scale, piles of leaves and a stool sharp at 7 pm. “I started my business in this area at a time when the place had a reputation for daylight murders and after sunset, taxi drivers were scared to pick up passengers,” he recalls.
It was only Singh and a bunch of other young men who set up stalls selling a variety of street-side food who broke up the desolation in the area. An ordinary evening would begin with late-night office-goers returning home stopping for a quick bite. When he started out, he sold a 100 gram piece of kulfi for 60 paise.
“There would be traders from Solapur and Kolhapur who would come to the city just for a day and stop by to eat kulfi. They would return to me each time they visited the city,” he says.
At his home in Worli Naka, Singh churned out malai, pista, mango, kaju, fig, strawberry and raspberry flavours, receiving nearly 120 litres of milk every day. “Everything depended on how much mawa could be extracted from the milk. There were times when I had to return the milk because it didn’t yield enough mawa,” Singh says.
After all, things had to be perfect by the time he set shop each night, because as word spread, the crowds around his stall only increased. “People used to come from Mahim, Sion, Matunga and that is only because I never compromised on quality. I have seen children grow up before my eyes. A lot of them moved abroad after they grew up. But whenever they return, they tell me that they remember eating my kulfi when they were young,” he adds.
Now 62, Singh had moved to Mumbai from Haryana with his family as a 12-year-old and took a number of jobs before finding himself working at an ice-cream company in Worli in his early 20s. “In those days the company would deliver a mix of ice cream that was half water and half milk. But it was very popular at wedding receptions. I would be paid a commission of Rs 5 for delivery and a salary of Rs 35. I knew that I had to do something on my own if I wanted to survive in the city,” he says.
He then targeted the post-dinner crowd in Worli with his range of frozen desserts. “People always want to eat something sweet after dinner. And when you have guests, you always want to treat them to the best in your locality. That’s the reason I’ve done so well,” he says.
Even though costs had to increase to keep steady pace with inflation, and while he now sells a kilo for Rs. 400, Singh has combined that with a generous policy of credit and freebies. “I’ve never insisted on a customer paying on the spot. If you don’t have the money to pay me, that’s fine, but eat first. And whenever I see a child crying for some kulfi but the parents refuse to buy some, I cut off a 20 gram piece for the child and tell the parents they can have it for free,” he says.
In the 1970 and 1980s, when the BMC undertook an extensive road-widening project and relocated residents to far-flung corners in Malad, Singh experienced a brief dip in business. Before long though, they were back. “That’s what makes it such a homely atmosphere here,” he says.
Illness apart, the only time when Singh was forced to take a break from work was when multiple blasts ripped apart Mumbai on March 12, 1993, one of which took place just meters away from his spot.
“The son of a friend who runs a restaurant there was killed in the blast. It was felt as though my own home had been attacked, so it did not feel right to do business and earn money at that place. But after five days, I returned because I had to make a living too,” Singh adds.