In Focus

These Food Sellers Refused To Give Up

By Manu Shrivastava

(This is part of the series #ChangingColoursOfColaba that details how Mumbai's most historic precinct Colaba has changed over the years and how, despite overwhelming changes spurred with time, residents are fighting back to retain their original flavour even recreate it to match its past glory)

The COVID lockdowns didn't spare anyone and everyone was affected by it in more ways than one. Someone lost their loved ones, others suffered critical losses in business while a few had to restart their lives from scratch. However, it's the spirit of determination and survival that defines human beings in the harshest of circumstances and Colaba had its share of survival stories too. 

When the lockdown blues started fading away, one of the first things that provided a glimmer of hope For many people, just being deprived of their favourite snack was a cause of stress during the lockdown. Most thought and hoped COVID-19 would stay just for a few months and things return to normalcy soon, but only went on to be disappointed. One wave ebbed for a while to lead to another, that hit even harder, and then a lull before the third. If there's anything that was certain with life, it was the uncertainty. 

NEIGHBOURHOOD BHELWALA: Septuagenarian Ramdhani Gupta is a familiar face across Colaba
Surviving The Lockdown Lulls

Durgesh Gujar and Krishnakant Gupta, friends since school and now partners in their latest venture, a waffle shop called 'Belgian Waffles and More', thought the same when they started their joint venture in October 2020. The duo had never imagined that the pandemic was here to stay and suffered heavy losses when Mumbai was shuttling between lockdown and unlocks. 

"Initially, when physical movement was restricted in the city, we would rely only on food delivery apps and takeaway orders. It was a very difficult phase as we had just started business and it was already suffering losses. Yet, we hung in and with time, things began to look up. By Diwali last year, we were hopeful of a change for the better," maintains Durgesh.

DETERMINED: Durgesh Gujar and Krishnakant Gupta (right) at their shop
Selling Bhel To Generations Together...Yet!

It was determination and a sense of entrepreneurship that ensured vendors like Durgesh survived the harsh lockdown. Friend Krishnakant had a living example in his family in his grandfather, 78-year-old Ramdhani Gupta - a known face across Colaba - who had weathered good times and bad, for decades, but didn't give up what he started long back...selling bhel at the far end of Third Pasta Lane. 

"My grandfather came from Kadahara village in Jaunpur district, alone, and started selling bhel. Initially, he would come to Mumbai, sell bhel for two-three days at the mela at Azad Maidan during Ram Leela and then return to his village with the earnings. He soon realised business is good and decided to shift and started living in Ganesh Murti Nagar. Even then he would come to Pasta Lane every evening. Later, in 1979 he shifted to a rental room in Colaba's Azad Nagari and continued selling bhel," says Krishnakant.

After the lockdown, Ramdhani didn't sit at home or retire, he resumed work with the same enthusiasm he had when he first started. Today, it's been 58 years and that warm nook at the end of Third Pasta Lane awaits him every evening. "My father and his two brothers would help him and, since 2009, I also started helping my grandfather while working alongside," quips Krishnakant. Not only is he the third generation helping Ramdhani, three generations of locals in the area have literally grown having his bhel.

The residents of the area have the fondest memories of their favourite bhel wala and eating bhel is like a daily ritual. Local events are incomplete without Ramdhani's bhel. "Recently, a gully cricket match was held in the lane and my dada was there selling bhel to the children, their parents and grandparents who started eating his bhel as children themselves," adds Krishna.

Serving Kulfi Cold Yet With A Warm Smile

Mumbai's 'world-famous' Chowpatty aka Girgaum Chowpatty never fails to attract tourists and locals who throng the beach at the first given opportunity, rain or shine. At Chowpatty's Bhel Plaza, a slice of heaven for street food lovers mostly from Colaba, one can't miss but notice 50-year-old Munish Kapoor serving customers kulfi and falooda with love and a big, humble smile! His shop 'Kapoor Punjabi Kulfi Falooda' has been a permanent feature of Chowpatty since one's earliest memories and continues to draw ice-cream lovers to his place even today.

PROUD SON: Munish Kapoor carries his father's legacy forward with a big smile
"My father opened this...what was Chowpatty's first kulfi shop even before I was born...many many years ago. Before that he would sell kulfi by carrying it in a matki on his head, pacing the length and breadth of the beach, selling it to visitors. Later, the British government gave him a license and rest is history." 

Munish's father, Narotaram Kapoor came to Mumbai from Ropar in Punjab to make a living. "Our family's ancestry can be traced till as far back as Lahore but today all of us are in the kulfi business in India including my brothers and son Vikas." COVID hit his business hard as well but with online orders and food delivery options available during the lockdown, "things weren't that bad." 

Munish started working with his father when he was still a teenager. "Today, I have 14 workers at the shop to help yet I can do everything myself - from making rabri, kulfi, falooda, cutting it, etc." He has moved with times and makes sugar-free kulfi too. A diabetic himself he says, "mujhe to yahi kulfi pasand hai, sugar-free wali nahi," he says sheepishly.

All the shops at Bhel Plaza today, including his, are licensed with the necessary Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of Maharashtra approvals. At the shop, Munish greets visitors, politely hands them the menu card and takes time to explain to each customer the options available. "I am carrying my father's legacy ahead and am proud of it," he says.

Diversifying Business With Enthusiasm

For 43-year-old Bhanwar Singh Gujar who sells tea in Colaba Market, the pandemic gave way for something new and better. Bhanwar Singh has been working in Mumbai since 1992 and in Colaba since 2008. Before the lockdown, he would make and sell tea from a small tapri in the market, catering to the shops and offices in the area. "I had gone to my village in Rajasthan during the lockdown where I stayed for nine months. Upon return, I decided I have to do something more and 'expand' my business. So, even as everyone was getting worried, I realised it was a good time to invest and take a calculated risk. I took a loan from friends and family and opened a bigger shop selling tea, idli sambhar, bun maska, etc." 

NEW GOALS: Bhanwar Singh has big plans for his new shop
With COVID-19 restrictions easing out and economy resuming normalcy, his business has also picked up. Running the shop with his brother and two helpers, Bhanwar Singh is hopeful that he will soon be able to pay off all his debt and start making profit as well. "My new shop has more visibility now gradually customers are noticing the new items I am selling. I will soon start selling sandwiches also once I manage to get a worker to make those," he gleams with pride.

Starting Afresh Post Lockdown

In Mumbai, any mention of food is incomplete without the quintessential vada pav. This was probably what 21-year-old Mohammed Hussain thought when he started selling vada pav in Colaba after Mumbai started opening up. In tow with his brother Mohammed Mujid, he started his new venture in August 2021, taking a big risk of starting something new in uncertain times.

TOUGH START: Allahabad's Mohammed Hussain's stayed put in Mumbai even survived initial losses
"I was out of work during the lockdown and had to return to my village Sultanpur Akbar in Allahabad district. When things were better, I took a loan from relatives who were willing to help and started my vada pav stall with full conviction," he says.

Initially, the sales were low but he didn't lose hope. Hussain insists, it were his parents, sister and brother's duas that gave him the strength to keep going and finally bide over tough times. "First I was running under losses but gradually business has improved and I am much more relieved now."

In No Mood To Stall Business

Among one of the permanent features of the by lanes of Fort area is Jagit Kumar's sandwich stall that has been thronged by businessmen, traders, lawyers and journalists working in the zone. In the 16 years he has spent making different types of sandwiches, Jagit has seen the topography of the zone change drastically. His stall that stands right opposite what was once one of the most buzzing eateries of the time, 'Fort Central' at Cowasji Patel Street. "Once Fort Central shut down, several other restaurants replaced it but none could survive and now the space lies vacant," says Jagit.

FOND MEMORIES: Jagit Kumar's sandwich stall is an old favourite
Not only this, he has seen many people come and go including journalists who would once work for the publication Afternoon Despatch & Courier that shifted from Afternoon House to Nariman Point and then to next-door Janmabhumi Bhavan before shutting down for good. "Every afternoon, journalists working in  'Afternoon' would gather at my stall waiting for their order. I knew their regular order by heart and would love hearing their wonderful stories while waiting at my stall."

A resident of Dhobi Ghat in Cuffe Parade, Jagit's family comprising his parents, wife and four children stay in Jahanabad in Bihar. "When the lockdown happened, I left everything and rushed to my village. It was a very difficult phase and I had to fend for my family and I could not even work. As soon as travel was allowed, I returned to Mumbai and started my stall in April last year."

Personal Loss Apart, Keeping Hopes High

The lockdown forced many traders and entrepreneurs to shut shop and change jobs for survival. When Dhobi Chawl's 32-year-old juice-seller Mastan Qureshi had to close his stall during the lockdown, he had no clue what he'll do to feed his family. For the last 12 years, Mastan had been selling juices of all kinds - apple, mango, pineapple, grapes, chiku, etc. - to the health-conscious locals of the zone and children tired after a day's play. 

TRYING TIMES: Juice seller Mastan Qureshi took up odd jobs during the lockdown
Taking care of his family comprising his mother and two sisters was no easy task when the lockdown was implemented. "I had no time to think and started doing whatever work came my way. During the lockdown I even worked as a helper carrying mitti at construction sites and later sold vegetables. It was an extremely difficult phase for my family."

The lockdown was a tragic period as he even lost his father an year ago. Having reopened his stall a few months ago, Mastan is hopeful things will change and return to normalcy. "I am the only earning member of the family. Business has picked up a little but it's not like before. I hope everything returns to pre-COVID times."

Lost Jobs, Not The Spunk To Survive

Not too far away, 21-year-old Uddesh Kadam invites passers by to his Momos stall, that he runs with brother 27-year-old Krunal Kadam, with a big smile. The lockdown was a harsh period for the family as Krunal lost his job and the company where Uddesh worked shut down. When the city starting opening again, the brothers, instead of finding other jobs, decided to start something of their own.

FAMILY VENTURE: Krunal, Milind and Uddesh Kadam (from left) selling momos
"We realised we have to think fast and smart to be able to survive. Food line is never 'out of business' so we started our venture selling Momos and Maggi on 2 April 2021," says Uddesh. Proud parents Milind and Minal Kadam encourage and support their sons in every way possible. A family venture, at 'Awesome Momos', the father helps at the stall whenever possible and mother pitches in with the preparation of the momos. 

"My sister Prachi who took cooking classes during the lockdown taught me how to make momos. So my mother, sister and I prepare momos everyday starting in the morning and finish by four pm. Then, my brother and I set up the stall at Colaba Market in the evening," says Uddesh. Despite the initial lull phase when the sales were low, the brothers kept their venture alive and now things are already looking better. 

(Note: Some subjects may have removed their masks only to be identified in photographs to be used with this news report. COVID-19 appropriate behaviour has been maintained at all times)

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