Bombayana by the Dozen

Altaf Tyrewala 2
Photograph: Anurag Banerjee

Photograph: Anurag Banerjee

For many of my social media contacts, a part of the world came crashing down in January 2014. B Merwan & Co, an Irani café and bakery in Grant Road, had announced its closure. Merwan! Was! Closing! Suddenly, everyone was reminiscing about the bumaskas, masala omelettes, mava cakes and other comfort foods they had imbibed at Merwan. Few among my contacts had been to the bakery in recent times, but that was quickly set right. Never in its 100-year history would Merwan have witnessed such a conglomeration of gizmo-wielding, moneyed hipsters on its premises. The paeans to it were soppy and predictable. Business at the bakery spiked, as golden-hearted, teary-eyed scavengers of Bombayana trooped in to enjoy what they believed were the last delights to be had within Merwan’s old-school confines.

As the months passed, Merwan-mania reached a fever pitch. But, since none of Merwan’s bleeding-heart customers came together to form a “Save Merwan” fund, the bakery finally downed its shutters in April 2014. However—and here’s the comical or cynical twist, depending on one’s frame of mind—the place reopened a month later, in May.

I called the place recently, posing as a breathless, just-returned NRI. “Are you open?” I asked. The man who answered said, “Sir, would I be speaking to you if we were closed?” Classic beleaguered Irani irony, of course. “I read you were closing,” I protested. “No, we were never closed. We had just shut down for a month for repairs. Same establishment, same owners; nothing has changed.”

The man was wrong. Everything has changed. When B Merwan & Co breaks its contract with the city and doesn’t shut down as it has promised, it’s a sign that Mumbai’s hoary old institutions—its cafés, bookshops, cinema halls, restaurants, reading rooms, opticians, cloth sellers, suit makers, paanwalas and so on—have begun the cynical, pragmatic descent into cashing in on their very “hoariness”. While new, suburban Mumbai thunders ahead with a can-do attitude that is practically American—epitomised by the Metro that starts from Versova (the heart of Bollywood), winds down Andheri–Kurla Road (the artery of the city’s IT industry), to end in Ghatkopar (home to the city’s largest Gujarati population)—Old Bombay is hobbling down the snooty European path of museumising itself.

The writer and urban theorist Jane Jacobs said, “New ideas must use old buildings.” People who collect antiques and scour flea markets must instinctively realise that the only way to understand the past is by owning its debris. But this is to assume that the past is a benign and benevolent great-grandmother who died in her sleep and left behind blessings in the form of heirlooms and Oval Maidan-facing apartments. When the past is a canny grandfather who knows the worth of all that he possesses and grudges younger generations their inheritance (material or otherwise), what then? When the present puts a price tag on itself in anticipation of its impending “pastness”, can the future be blamed for wanting no piece of it?

Maybe it’s better this way. By desentimentalising themselves while they’re still around, our old people, old businesses and old establishments are setting future generations free from the burden of notions like legacy or tradition. Like “booksing”, a form of profuse bibliophilia that conceals a deep disregard for the actual act of reading, Bombayana, too, could be a profuse hankering for all things old and sacred about this city without the genuine desire to stem the tsunami of change and redevelopment sweeping through Mumbai.

Economics trumps all at the end of the day. Real estate in Mumbai cannot be messed with. No amount of crowdfunding or institutional grants can compensate for that plum property deal that leads, for instance, to the closure of a 105-year-old institution, as happened with New and Secondhand Bookshop in Dhobhi Talao in 2011. Unlike B Merwan & Co, this bookshop’s closure was final and irreversible. It was a tragedy at a personal level, because the bookshop had been started by my great-grandfather and was being run by my uncles. I came close to taking it over from them; I was insistent, despite my uncles’ warnings about the failing sales and overall disinterest in reading. I thought I could revive it, spice things up with a little café, a space for readings and events, a vigorous website. I was confident people from Mumbai and around the world would troop into the place, even if it was less about the books themselves and more about wanting to partake in an artificially resuscitated slice of history. Now, three years later, I’m relieved that I did not take over New and Secondhand. The fact that it was an institution would have made me blind to everything going wrong in the books business. The idea would have become more important than its lived reality. Eventually, I would have come to resent it, perhaps to the point of wanting to burn the damn place down. One man’s “vintage” is usually another man’s royal pain in the neck. It’s unclear why B Merwan & Co back- tracked on its seemingly certain plan to shut down. But this much is certain: Merwan’s antic has put a corrective cast of doubt on Mumbai’s booming “retro” economy. In the coming months and years, other decades-old establishments in Mumbai are bound to announce their impending closure. The Bombayana brigade would be best advised to treat such declarations with caution. Let these businesses fade away without much of a hullabaloo. If they actually go, well, that’s just the nature of the world. If they don’t, that’s one less egg on the Bombayana face.

Altaf Tyrewala is the author of No God In Sight, Ministry of Hurt Sentiments, and Engglishhh, and the editor of Mumbai Noir, a crime fiction anthology. His works have been published around the world. He is the director of the Chandigarh Literature Festival. He lives in Mumbai.

2 Comments

  1. Shekhar Sidhaye March 30, 2015 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    Dear Altaf, after a long time I read your work and I loved it to the extent that we chatted through the nights near the Clarke Quay. I was not aware that you had a connection to that great bookstore…which I loved since my college days at Sir J.J. Applied Art.
    Thanks for this article!

  2. John Matthew June 11, 2015 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    It’s nice to read about the disappearing Bombay. Indeed, I didn’t know you were part owner of New and Secondhand. Now I know.

Leave A Response