Updated: September 27, 2019 11:24:22 am
June, 2014: “Kate, William, George” he says, his wrinkled hands pointing to the laminated photograph. His eyes twinkle behind his square-framed glasses as he discloses that Kate is pregnant again, flashing a smile that reveals several missing teeth. “What?!” He nods knowingly, “I received inside information last week.”
You’d think that Kate is his daughter, or niece, or perhaps his brother’s wife’s or nephew’s sister. But I look down at the photograph in his shaking hands and it’s the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, beaming in baby blue. Prince George, their first born and the future King of England, is swaddled in their arms. I look up, and there they are again, a waving Kate and William, this time, in cardboard-cut-out form. Perched against a mezzanine, they are the first displays in a priceless exhibition of hand-painted signs: “Debit and Credit Card Not Accepted.” “Please do not argue with management.” “Management has got right to check any article or Individual on suspicion”. “Customers are requested to take of their belongings”. “Right to admission is reserved. “Only at Britannia & Co. est. 1923, Wakefield House, 16 Ballard Estate, Bombay.”
December, 2016: Every day, as the lunch hour nears, lawyers, college students, office workers and tourists throng to Britannia, a city institution, that has been serving its patrons “exotic Parsi and Iranian cuisine” for as long as India has been independent. Here, customers feast on patra ni macchi, sali boti and dhansak. Of course, the queen of them all, is the delectable berry pulao, a chicken dish of speckled white and yellow rice, that is garnished with cashews, caramelised onions and crimson barberries imported from Iran. I am sipping on my Pallonji’s (est. 1885) Raspberry soda, when I glance down at the words on the menu before me: “There is no love greater than the love of eating.” Tell me about it.
June 2017: The pista green paint is peeling off the café walls, and the whirring of prehistoric ceiling fans alternates with the scraping of forks against plates licked clean. He is shuffling about the restaurant now, stopping by tables to show and tell. Out comes the folder of his prized possessions: The laminated, xerox-copied, dog-eared documents. When the German lady is ready, he begins, “I seldom go out when someone from the Taj Mahal Hotel called on me and said their highnesses want that I should meet them.” A pause, and a pursing of lips later, “I was very honoured to meet the charming prince and the beautiful princess.” His audience is gripped. The next story: “See this, Her Majesty the Queen had written this letter to me.” “Japan! A Japanese man came here, now see this article he wrote.”
December 2018: Boman Kohinoor —Irani, nonagenarian, seasoned raconteur and the Queen’s Guard in Bombay — is the proprietor of Britannia Restaurant, and one of my favourite people in the world. Although 90, he is a permanent fixture at the establishment his father set up as a continental restaurant in 1923. Mr Kohinoor is an Irani — a descendant of the small community of Zoroastrians, who fleeing religious persecution in Iran, made India their home in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Mr Kohinoor tells me that Britannia’s berry pulao is but a spicier version of the Persian zereshk polow, which his late wife adapted to suit the Indian palate. He also talks of his grandfather, a 19th century immigrant from Yazd, who lived to be “114 -one, one four.” He tells me he’s planning to beat his record. “When I die, you see that rascal at the counter,” he points past me, “behind the counter, he is my son, he will take over.” I look back, and spot the rascal, a middle-aged gentleman. Beside him, on the counter is a snoozing cat. I wonder if the animal is a nod to the Persian heritage. Next to it, a sign reads, “Do not disturb”.
Mr Kohinoor urges me to live until 120. He then says, “God bless you,” and “Please give my regards to Madame Hillary Clinton, and no regards to Mr Trump.” I laugh. The cat stirs and stretches, its eyes glinting towards the wall across.
On the flaking pista wall, hang three national flags, one below the other: The Indian tricolour, the Union Jack, and the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Within a metre’s distance, is a portrait of Zarathustra, the Zoroastrian prophet, and his maxims, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” Two other persons provide Zoroaster company. To his left, is a smiling Gandhi, wrapped in khadi. To his right, is Queen Elizabeth II, a crown atop her head, a sceptre clasped in her hand. I wonder what they think.
This article was first published on September 27, 2019 in the print edition under the title ‘The Kohinoor in Bombay’s crown’. The writer, a Mumbaikar, studies history and Persian at Princeton University.
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