The year was 1985, a time when one of the most exciting things about the week was the screening of a Hindi movie on Sunday evenings on the state owned (and the only) television channel Doordarshan (DD). Everyone in my household would finish their chores and be ready for the 6 PM start of whatever movie was chosen by the overlords at DD. One such Sunday evening, our Black & White Dyanora television showed us a movie called Choti si baat. Of course, these were the days of no internet, and hence no ready access to information on the movie one was about to watch – unlike current times when you get to tune yourself before watching any movie – you know the cast, you know the genre, you know the reviews, the IMDB/tomatometer ratings, etc. As a 10 year old in 1985, I had no such baggage. The only thing I would be interested in a movie was what we kids called “dhishoom-dhishoom” – aka action scenes – stunts, car chases, gun fights, sword fights, galloping horses, sword fights or gun fights on galloping horses – you get the idea. Due to the previously mentioned lack of the internet, there was no way of knowing whether the movie I was about to watch fed to this violent appetite of mine. However, I had figured out a way of finding out whether the said movie may have any of the dhishoom-dhishoom, I so eagerly wanted to see – I had figured out that if the opening credits showed “Action” or “Stunt coordinator”, there was a good chance that I will be a happy camper by the end of the movie. And if the credits did not mention these, well, it was time to find something else to do. After watching the credits of Choti si baat, it was quite clear that there won’t be any action – moreover one look at this Amol Palekar chap (the “hero” of the movie) and I knew it was a hopeless pursuit.
As a result, I ended up watching bits and pieces of the movie. Two things I remember from this first watching of the movie – 1) the heroine of the movie (Vidya Sinha) did a lot of standing around at a bus stop followed by walking around on the streets of Bombay while being followed by the lame Amol Palekar & 2) the heroine and another character played by Asrani along with Amol Palekar eating what looked like some delicious food at a cozy & comfortable looking restaurant. The restaurant/cafe is what left a mark on me : I distinctly remember thinking that this is unlike any restaurant I have seen in the movies – to remind you this was the 1980s, restaurants in Hindi movies were large, mostly windowless rooms with chandeliers and plaster of paris statues of half-naked women! These rooms would be filled with men in ill-fitting suits sitting around round tables while a svelte woman pranced seductively around them. These mustachioed men would cast occasional lascivious looks at the camera while sipping their beverages and puffing their cigars. The restaurant in Choti si baat, was nothing like these unattainable places, it seemed like a “real” place, a place where “real” people go – the decor had simple paintings, bamboo curtains, there was a hubbub that had a genuine restaurant-ish vibe about it and no svelte woman was gyrating about since this darn place seemed quite cramped – almost like a narrow hallway. There were no chandeliers for lighting, natural light was flowing in, you could
see the greenery outside, table fans were hung from the walls, a clumsy looking menu board could be seen in the background, the tables were too close to each other – overall, it was all very “non-filmy”. I distinctly remember, the 10 year old me wanting to go there and eat whatever the characters in the movie were eating.
Years went by, and as I started to get interested in music and movies, I happened to stumble upon Choti si baat once again in my college years. I must say this might be the first movie of the romantic-comedy genre that I enjoyed entirely – for its grounded characters, for its easy humor, for the wonderful lightweight performances by Amol Palekar, Asrani & Ashok Kumar, for its wonderful music (especially – Lata’s soulful Na jaane kyon and Yesudas and Asha’s lovely duet Jaaneman Jaaneman) and most importantly for its nonchalant depiction of realism by it’s director – Basu Chatterjee. The realism of his rom-com movies is unlike the ones from the rom-com movies of this decade, where the realism seems to be deliberate and created out of meticulous production design. Examples: Wake Up Sid, Life in a Metro, Band Baaja Baraat, etc. Seeing the restaurant scenes again, brought back memories of 1985, brought back that longing of going to that restaurant. This time around, I paid attention and the Asrani character says the name of the restaurant “Cafe Samovar”. I had no idea what Samovar meant, but the name somehow just sounded so perfect for that place.
Years passed, and every once in a while whenever a Choti si baat song would hit my ear drums, I would think of Cafe Samovar and the desire to go there would be awakened. I lie not when I say, I could literally picture myself in that place. I googled the place and found out that it’s in the Kala Ghoda neighborhood of Bombay inside the same building as the Jehangir Art Gallery. Knowing where it was, made my desire of visiting Samovar even more stronger. It was just a happy coincidence when I found out that A loves Choti si baat too and would also love to go to Cafe Samovar someday.
I have visited Bombay numerous times over the past 20 years, sometimes staying there for weeks, but never acted upon the desire to visit Cafe Samovar. Until one sweltering muggy day in June of 2014 when me along with A, my brother, his wife, and his son found ourselves in Bombay. Come hell or high water, I had set my heart upon having lunch at Cafe Samovar that day. After a bit of wandering around looking for the gallery and getting drenched with copious amounts of sweat in the process, we found it and made our way to the cafe which is tucked away in the right corner of the lobby of the building. We saw the sign of the cafe on its narrow doorway and as soon as we entered the restaurant I had a sense of being transported back almost 29 years after I had first laid my eyes on this place on the black & white screen of our telly. When one anticipates and desires something for a long time, the actual event, or the place, or the thing that one was looking forward to does not usually live up to ones expectations, leading to heartbreak and disappointment. This, however was not the case with Cafe Samovar, the moment I entered the narrow hallways, it was exactly how I had imagined it in my head for all these years. Sunlight was streaming in through bamboo curtains, tables were arranged too close to each other, there was non-pretentious art work hanging on its walls, there was a comforting hubbub of people, servers, conversations, whirring of the fans from the walls, clinking of silverware on ceramic plates, fragrance from parathas/chole/kheema wafting in the humid air – it was all too blissfully perfect.
We settled into a table and ordered a plethora of things – I ordered what Nagesh ordered in Choti si baat – kheema paratha! We also had chole, dahi wada, neembu paani, lassi, egg curry, aloo paratha, etc. As the food arrived, we gobbled it up with much love and fervor. It was delicious, satisfying, and what can I say, but you had to be me to really feel how I was feeling! I was sitting there in Cafe Samovar lapping up every moment and I hear my name being called out from a table two rows from where we were sitting. Needless to say I was quite surprised and saw in the general direction of the sound to find an old friend from college beaming at me. PB and I had not seen each other in over a decade, and it was quite pleasant to meet him. He was on a day trip to Bombay with his wife and they had decided to come to Samovar for lunch. Serendipity or Choti si baat, whatever it was, this added to the whole experience of Samovar. After catching up with PB, exchanging our phone numbers, and paying the bill, we left the cafe and browsed a bit in the art gallery.
A few weeks back, I got a text on my phone from PB that Samovar has closed. There was a small cloud of sadness that followed me for some time, but it cleared off pretty soon, and was replaced by a feeling of contentment of having been there, and having experienced its “being”. I am not going to get in the matter of why it closed etc. Simply because, I do not want to know and will leave it to the fact that, it’s the way of the world and life – Old has to go to make way for new.
We all keep the memories of places and people we love and are no longer around, inside of us. It’s a natural human condition. Although even before Samovar closed, I had brought one little relic of Samovar into Washington DC. I put Kheema Paratha on the menu of a cafe (Pansaari) run by a friend. A and I can frequently be found making and serving food at this cafe. Everytime I explain the food to the customers at Pansaari, I upsell the Kheema Paratha – and when they order it, I get a warm feeling. This is how I have managed to keep my Samovar alive.
P.S: Writing this post has been a good reminder that what and who I love today, may not be around tomorrow. Loving them fully and unconditionally is the only way to keep them alive for as long as I am alive.
ना जाने क्यों होता है यह ज़िन्दगी के साथ, अचानक ये मन किसी के जाने के बाद, करे फिर उसकी याद