Sneha Nair explores the city of Mumbai and discovers the charm of old,
family-run businesses, and communities that have stubbornly held their
own in the face of glaring modernity
For over 500-years now, Mumbai has stood as the land of promise for those who have dared to dream big. The ancient port city has been home to communities from across the world that have managed to build fortunes here. While some have branched out to more lucrative areas to accommodate changing times, others have stuck on and become landmarks in the city’s historical and commercial evolution. Take Khamisa for instance. A lingerie store in the heart of Crawford Market, the city’s first wholesale hub that has been serving female patrons since 1910. Curiously, it has an all-male team that can discuss everything from trainer bras, to thongs with cool indifference that makes their clientele feel comfortable. It is a family business that has been passed down to three generations of Khamisa men. Its current proprietor, 39-year-old Abubaker Khamisa says that when it first started, this was a store that would stock garments for both, women and children. “But then in the 1950s, there was a sudden rise in demand for lingerie and we switched to that.” Rumor has it that they made padded bras for Meena Kumari. As Khamisa talks, his 18-year-old son Amir, who is all set to take over from his father, watches over the salesmen serving customers curiously. Even though in the last decade Mumbai has seen a rise in sophisticated stores, Khamisa remains unthreatened. “We try to keep up with competitive products. Back when lingerie wasn’t easily available in the market, we used to keep corsets and local made brands from all across the country. Today, we hope to give our customers the latest trends in the market at best rates,” says Khamisa. He explains that there are two other branches in the city, one next door and one in the popular suburb of Bandra.
While Khamisa may have adapted itself to trends, a few streets down the road inside the Mulji Jetha textile market is Ghella Dayal & Co, a firm that has been trading in mulls and grey cloth since 1850. This was four years before the first textile mill of Asia was built in Bombay. As trade waned in the port city of Surat due to the decline of the Mughal Empire, merchants began moving southwards to the former fishing village of Bombay to partake in the raw cotton trade with China that was started by the East India Company. 200 years down the line, the Mulji Jetha market is still reminiscent of this part of history. While most of the shops may have changed hands since the 1800s, the majority of owners are still from the Marwari and Kutchi community. To indicate how little has changed, Hansraj Dayal who runs his grandfather’s business with his two brothers points to two hooks on his store ceiling, “We’ve been at this store since the time the market was built. In fact, at that point, my grandfather didn’t have a home, so he would loop a cloth through these hooks and sleep right here.”
While textile manufacturing in Mumbai may have seen many ups and downs, the Mulji Jetha market has firmly established itself at the centre of Mumbai, “Initially, we used to trade mulls and grey cloth from the Japanese mills. As local mills came up, we had an agency with some like Thackersey and Bombay Dyeing. When some of them shut, we started making our own materials in power looms,” says Dayal. Their store still sells cambric, grey mulls in Kerala and Saurashtra to make dhotis and lungis “Of course there are new materials in the market and everybody is moving to salwar suit and kurta, but I’m least interested in them. I feel the mulls business is still steadier than these new found ones,” says Dayal as a matter of fact. He then begins discussing material with two other shop owners in Gujarati.
The one thing that binds all these businesses is the sense of community. Over two centuries down the line, most of these local hubs hold on tightly to their traditions. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Bohri community of Mumbai. Besides trade and religion, what binds them is food. At the centre of which is the Bohri thaal which is a normal fixture at community events and weddings. The thaal is a large plate of food which is shared by a minimum of eight guests. The cuisine is inspired by Arab, Mughal and Surati style of cooking and two desserts are offered before one descends into the savory dishes. The Bohri community cooks or bhatiyaars, as they are known commonly, have a special place in the community for their skills. Their importance has further been cemented with the dictate of religious leader, Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin who started Faiz ul Mawaid Al Burhaniyah (FMB) in 2013. The FMB has made it a rule that every Bohri across the world should get to eat at least one home-cooked, fresh meal a day in community kitchens. Bhol caterers prepare about 7000 such meals for FMB every single day across Mumbai, Gujarat, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Madhya Pradesh and even Dubai, Africa.
Started by Husseinibhai Bhol in Mumbai in the late 1950s, the company flourished under his son Shk Saifuddin Bhol. After his retirement, his son, 30-year-old Saleh Saifuddin Bhol has added international flavours to the much loved thaal, although he keeps it all within the Syedna’s commands. “Our Syedna wants the community members to stay healthy, He has therefore made a strict rule that only healthy food is served in the FMB, and no more than two sweets are to be served. Not even at weddings. The FMB itself is a great way to ensure that every day, every member of the community – rich or poor – eats healthy,” says Saleh whose wife, a dietician has also started a calorie conscious tiffin service that is available to Bohris and those outside the community too. While the communities thrive and embrace new traditions and business styles to adapt to the current scenario, there is still one glaring problem—lack of a female presence.
“My father was a wholesaler in the Mulji Jetha market till the 1950s and we had a small shop. We were never allowed there as women. The only time we went there was on the day of Diwali. We would go eat the good mithai and that was it. We weren’t really allowed to sit at the shop,” says Ajita Madhavji, who currently manages the Hamilton Studios in Ballard Estate, Fort. Formerly a cloth merchant at Mulji Jetha, her father Ranjit Madhavji decided to pursue his passion for photography in the 1950s when he realised that the profit margin in the business was more than 100 per cent. He bought the Studio from the Baghdadi Jew Victor Sassoon in 1928 and continued working from there for well over half a century. While Hamilton may have moved to digital cameras, it still retains the style of painted photography that Ranjit Madhavji was known for in the 1950s. Hamilton’s business may not be as heady as it was until a few years ago and Madhavji may no longer visit the studio often, but Ajita sees hope in youngsters and foreign visitors who drop in to get their portraits done. “When they see themselves in a different world on entering the studio, the youngsters always say – oh wow, we are going back somewhere!” chuckles Ajita, who is also planning a coffee table book with some of Hamilton’s chosen portraits and the stories behind them.
No story on Mumbai’s business communities can be complete without the mention of the Parsis who came to the city via Gujarat. They are known to have made most of their wealth by trading with China for opium and then cotton after the British had taken over Bombay. With the wealth gained with overseas trade, Parsis began setting up local industries like the first textile mill and even Asia’s longest running newspaper, Mumbai Samachar that continues to be a popular paper unto this day. One such entrepreneurial spirit was Pherozesha Sidhwa who was inspired to start a tile factory by Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, or the “Maker of Modern Karachi” as he is known today.“Mr Mehta told my grandfather don’t become a lawyer because India doesn’t need lawyers, it needs industrialists so we can be independent of British imports,” says Firdaus Variava, Sidhwa’s grandson, who inherited the company from his mother’s side. Sidhwa named the company Bharat Tiles as a way of indicating the patriotic intent behind the company. Over the decades, it stayed as a niche among the family businesses, until its current revival was done by Firdaus’ mother who wanted to conserve the legacy of handmade tiles that are made using coloured cement. “At that time the company wasn’t making a profit and my family was thinking of shutting it down. However, when I saw these original moulds, something clicked in me. I insisted that the production of these tiles be restarted, in order to retain our heritage,” says Dilnavaz Variava, Firdaus’ septuagenarian mother. In 1999, the company exhibited at the Kala Ghoda festival and attracted architects, as well as homeowners who showed great interest in using these tiles. Today, along with their original patterns, Bharat Flooring and Tiles also creates modern designs using their traditional processes. What was thus started as a patriotic gesture to create self-sufficiency, has now gained a fresh start and even adapted itself to modern demands.
The Chinese have not been that successful here. This community traveled from Calcutta or by sea, to trade in the port city. When China shut itself to the world after the arrival of communism in the 1940s, the Chinese traders here resorted to other trades such as shoe-making, dentistry and personal hygiene. 43-year-old George Bhang is a product of this diaspora. He runs what is perhaps the last Chinese shoe store in Mumbai, and it is not profitable. Nestled among souvenirs and recharge cards, the shoes are more memories than wares for George. “I never learned the art of shoe making because even during my father’s time, the shoe business was dying as cow slaughter was banned and there was a scarcity of leather,” he says. His wife, Glenda, runs a beauty parlour from the same area and that is in better luck. It was passed on from his aunt, to his mother and now to his wife. However with no heirs interested in taking the family business further, the Bhangs are certain they will be the last of the family to run the place.
More hopeful is his next-door neighbour who runs Ling’s Pavilion, a Chinese restaurant that is a favourite among locals. The Ling family – formerly traders – moved to the restaurant business in 1945 when Yick Sen Ling started Nanking in Colaba. His son, Baba Ling got into the business at the age of eighteen and learned most of the trade by observing. “I learned cooking from looking and seeing. Actually, this is not a business you learn, it has to be in you – my father was also a very good cook,” says the 66 year old who now manages Ling’s restaurant branches in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Delhi with his son and brother. 70 years down the line, all the ingredients are all still sourced from their original vendors and the Ling brothers personally oversee this task. “We believe in cooking what is called grandmother’s food, but we do it with only fresh and locally sourced ingredients. Our food is not just popular among the city dwellers but also among Chinese or South East Asian dignitaries. They always ask how we have managed to make such authentic Chinese food because the taste reminds them of home,” says Baba Ling.
Like most city dwellers, both Ling and Bhang complain of the rising prices in the city and how staying afloat is becoming harder. “You see that a lot of the new Chinese migrants from Calcutta move to Malad and further down because living in South Mumbai is unaffordable,” says Bhang. A little north of Colaba, Ignatius Facho who runs a 70-year-old grocery shop behind the chaotic Hill Road in Bandra, agrees. “My father was a schoolteacher when he initially came from Goa. He retired early and started a shop here because he thought it may be a profitable business as the only grocery store around,” he says. He sees his father as an exception because according to the septuagenarian shopkeeper Catholics aren’t generally business-oriented. At 77, Facho who is forced to shut his dilapidated store plans to move to his native village in Goa. “There are maybe three or four Catholics in Bandra who run a business. Most successful businesses around here are run by other communities – Marwaris, Gujaratis and Muslims who generally come from business families.” According to Facho most of the development in Bandra is recent. “Up until the 70s we didn’t even have electricity here. There were mud roads, and fields. Most of the businesses were fishing related and run by natives who lived on the coast for centuries.”
Paul Uttankar at 74 is one such fisherman who can trace over seven generations Chimbai village near St. Andrew’s church, Bandra. While he may be Catholic, Paul and his family have proudly held on to their last name. “Our last name indicates how we are natives of this land. Why change it to D’Souza or Fernandes or some such when Uttankar marks us as original residents of this city. My family has done all sorts of businesses over the generations—building hooks and repairing boats, stitching nets, along with fishing. Ours is a family that truly belongs here,” says Paul. That said, he is now worried that there is nothing left for him to do in his own village. Uttankar and his brothers have retired and their children have begun working in rigs. With very little land left to be divided, most of them have sold off their shares and moved further north to Mira Road and Bhayandar where property is cheaper. “We used to have huge fish in the sea here, but now the few boats that go in come with paltry returns. You can barely smell the sea anymore, even though it’s right here—that’s because nothing remains in it,” laments Uttankar whose centuries old family legacy struggles to stay afloat in the face of evolution.