Thursday, 4 September 2014

A French lady in Girgaon

Hey Everyone!

I'm back with a bang from a fairly long hiatus with lots and lots of retro news - folks, ideas are just buzzing and I can’t wait to put pen to paper and   for your perusal. However, let me make a start and arouse your interest.


A trip to Pondicherry  is  always a delight  but this time it was a double delight when I  pleasantly ran into Alexandra  Quinn with whom I had worked almost 15 years ago on an assignment  in Bombay which we both enjoyed for a year .

Alex, a French anthropologist from the University of Sorbonne, was on the lookout for a Marathi speaking person with working knowledge of French and an anthropologist like herself. My professor Dr Kamla Ganesh called me and asked me whether I would like to work with her. Not really knowing what I was in for, I jumped at it. Alex then explained to me that she had already done one assignment in Bombay couple of years back “Tracing the journey of the Dabbawallas” in Bombay. She literally lived their journey for two whole months before she wrote about them. Well this assignment was all about women who supplied lunch dabbas and snacks to all Bombaywallas who wanted to partake of home-made and good wholesome food. The category of women she selected was of a low to middle income group who were part of a food centre called KUTUMB SAKHI.  A large kitchen with all the amenities, this centre distributed food to different SAKHI kiosks all over the city but mostly the fort area.  Alex wanted to feature these women and their food culture as part of her PhD programme. So interacting with them, their families and getting acquainted with their lifestyles was the agenda.

Image courtesy here

Kutumbh Sakhi was run by Mrs.Nawalkar wife of Mr.Promod Nawalkar, M.L.A in the S. K. Patil Udyan  in Marine Lines - a beautiful park with fountains  and a greenhouse type  of semi enclosed area. This park had a dual purpose – a park for all both the young and old during the day and in the late evening   was used as place for quiet reading and study for many young students and working people for lack of space in their own homes. Many Bombay wallas will surely recall this green lung in the city but currently I see this place totally cordoned off. Not knowing what’s going on - whether redevelopment demolition or disappearance of the garden itself.
Soon Alex and I set to work. The first move was to establish a friendly rapport with the women for we were definitely going to intrude into their lives for the next couple of months. Not only their lives but their houses too. To get them to talk about themselves to a foreigner itself was a herculean task. And as an interpreter and a research assistant I had to put all my persuasive skills to test.  It was difficult but soon found that each of the women had a vulnerable side. Some were widowed young , others abused  battered  or abandoned  yet others reeling from the behavior of their own kith and kin – but yes all of them trying to make a life for themselves  through Kutumbh Sakhi. And FOOD.  I then realized that food can be such a leveler.

The environment was so lively and harmonious here. It was when the women met during every morning or afternoon shift that everything changed. There was bonhomie and cheer all around.  Many an amusing anecdotes were recounted and exchanged with zest and perhaps a little exaggeration all in good spirit. For me, it became tedious to translate every word to Alex especially the finer nuances of the Marathi language into either French or English as Alex’s English was not too fluent. So the dictionary was a constant companion! Occasionally Alex felt left out while we joked and I could see the frustrated look. But she was a good sport and we tried to do our best.

Many a times she wanted to visit their houses and most of the women were reluctant. I could sense this because of their living conditions. It was a sensitive issue but I knew we would need to push it gently.

What an experience it was - most of them lived in Girgaon in the different wadis –had to explain to Alex what a wadi was. She was fascinated with Girgaon and for the next one year had explored every bylane of Girgaon like no Bombaywalla had, I bet . The few multi storeyed structures which dominated the quaint shops selling myriad things, sweatmeat shops displaying the typical Maharashtrian fare especially eateries like Panshikars from where she would never return empty handed was a treat. She loved the crowds of Bombay, the packed trains, the street food, the roadside chaiwalla where she savoured “the cutting chai” and sugarcane juice walla , even the humble channa wala.

The entrance to Panshikar at Girgaon

Delicious Kothimbir Vadi and Ambache Panhe at Panshikars

(Both Images are clicked by Manjiri when we visited Girgaon together)

During the course of her research she was intrigued by the food rituals they followed especially according to the different seasons. I am referring also to the concept of the hot and cold food. At the end of her tenure she too was constantly questioning should I eat this or should I not. Their peculiar individuality fascinated her and she very rarely found two women to be alike and that was what was so interesting.  She loved the haldi kunku, satyanarayan poojas, the Holi festivals and the food which went with it. She became an expert at making puranpolis. Alex always wore Indian clothes while working and became a French chick only in the evenings.

On one of the visits to a family, we met a face reader who read her so accurately that Alex got afraid and ran away. She was amazed at the gentleman’s accurate reading of her life.
Alex had collected substantial data and was ready to weed out the unnecessary. She took away with her lasting and endearing memories.  
Our conversation at Pondicherry was only about Girgaon and how it was slowly losing its originality.

Today KUTUMB SAKHI kiosks have increased and so have their sales and it continues to serve the large community of Bombay with its wholesome fare. 

             Image Credit :Satish Bodas for rediff


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