Meher Marfatia: History by the half dozen

Jul 23, 2017, 06:20 IST | Meher Marfatia

Six of Breach Candy's oldest shops reveal tales of tenacity and tenderness on this sea-hugged strip

Soli Surty and Subhash Birwadkar at Ever Ready Laundry have mastered the art of keeping customers’ clothes  dry-cleaned spruce for over 60 years. Pics/Atul Kamble
Soli Surty and Subhash Birwadkar at Ever Ready Laundry have mastered the art of keeping customers’ clothes  dry-cleaned spruce for over 60 years. Pics/Atul Kamble

To think an 11-storey structure was Breach Candy's tallest skyscraper around 1960. Mecklai Mansion, opposite the American Consulate, was bought by a Sindhi builder 20 years after the Aga Khan presided over its 1936 housewarming ceremony. The result being the building I live in - Peacock Palace on Warden Road, officially Bhulabhai Desai Road, to honour the philanthropist freedom fighter.

Sister streets like Pedder Road and Napean Sea Road cannot claim as many stores still going strong from the 1940s as this sea-kissed stretch. From Mahalaxmi Mandir to St Stephen's Church, six of the oldest faithful include a laundry, a florist, a bookseller, a paanwala, a liquor shop and a children's clothes store.

If Subhash Birwadkar has tagged silk sarees and delicate woollies at Ever Ready Cleaners for 32 years, 88-year-old Soli Surty's is an even earlier association with the laundry his friend Soli Mistry opened in 1942. I chat with both to figure how they keep satisfied, not just SoBo residents, but also those driving the distance from Chembur, like BM Shetty with a fixed visit every Saturday. Retired from Leach & Weborny when its last outlet shut seven years back, Surty declares, "Customer connect is everything - and we're scrupulously strict about certain controls."

Birwadkar obligingly reels off a string of celebrity client names, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Sachin Tendulkar and the Bachchans among them. An affectionately remembered patriot patron was Congressman and former Sikkim Governor, Homi Taleyarkhan, whose Gandhi topi and bandhgala suits were starched spruce by Ever Ready.

Farida Irani, Warden Wines and Liquor Mart
Farida Irani, Warden Wines and Liquor Mart. Pic/Suresh Karkera

For anyone asking that question the Bard posed in his eternal love story, Goodwill Florists will tell you, everything is in the name. Extraordinary warmth marked the rapport flower lovers enjoyed with Alphonso Pinto, who started Goodwill General Store in 1947, to turn florist 10 years later. His son Lancy and daughter-in-law gratify smiling customers as they fill vases with soft foliage and baskets of beautiful blooms. A remark Alphonso often repeated keeps them inspired: 'The richest home is incomplete without fresh flowers.' Seasonal sprigs to pretty perennials from Bhuleshwar to Mahableshwar brim in bucketsful of liliums, roses, carnations, gladioli, chrysanthemums and orchids.

"People come to us for quality, though a dozen flower outlets crowd the area," says Lancy. "At one time, Goodwill and Pushpa Milan at Kemps Corner were the only florists here. Our clients were mainly Parsis and foreigners. They prize punctuality and depend on us to deliver sharp on time in the morning." My husband and I have happy personal experience of this. Our aunt Meher Master gifts gloriously scented bouquets on birthdays and anniversaries, arriving all satin ribboned and colour coordinated the moment we open our eyes.

What could be worse than a home without flowers if not one without books? Down the strip, Warden Book House has averted such a fate for thousands of families. In 1952 it became possibly Bombay's first circulating library. Ketan Shah, manning its counters for what feels like forever (the 53-year-old reported to work on losing his father Mavjibhai at age 16), tells me their roots lie in Beraja village, Kutch. Mavjibhai migrated to the city with four brothers, to run Five Star where Warden Book House is presently located. Like the Goan coors of Dhobi Talao, Five Star offered an interesting social arrangement: shelter and camaraderie for migrants touching town to carve a new life. The lodging facility faced a fine flank of jungle and beach, beside which nestled Scandal Point rockery, dubbed for the romantic wartime niche it granted soldiers stealing sunset moments with their girls.

Ramesh Thadani of Om Cold & Sweet Pan says believing in karma over competition has been the secret to the staying power of his shop
Ramesh Thadani of Om Cold & Sweet Pan says believing in karma over competition has been the secret to the staying power of his shop

The Shahs then converted Five Star to a raddi outlet - "a trade 80 per cent of Kutchis took to. We came with nothing and this needs zero investment: a weighing scale and hundred-odd rupees," Ketan says. Consular corps officers and royals residing along the stylish strip, looking to discard hardbound editions, scouted for a place to borrow as well as buy books. That marked the raison d'etre for Warden Book House.

Residing in the neighbourhood, impresario Hosi Vasunia would spend an hour or two here, browsing, smoking and relaxing. When Crossword greeted readers at Mahalaxmi, far from sales dropping, unexpected numbers trooped into Warden. They missed its intimate adda ambience. A young loyalist, Neena Joshi found the cozy confines irreplaceable - "You were enveloped by the warm, sometimes crisp-sometimes musty smell of books. They had more comics like Asterix than another library I frequented and didn't give disapproving vibes on my choice of Mills and Boon titles!" Stocking select coffee table books and self-help bestsellers, Shah and his son Karan are aware theirs is a nurturing, no-profit profession. "The library closed four years ago. As a bookshop we continue to struggle against crazy online discounts from Amazon and Flipkart," says Ketan.

More philosophical about staying the course, Ramesh Thadani of Om Cold & Sweet Paan says, "I don't believe in competition. At the end it is you, your karma and your naseeb." Exiles from Sindh, Thadani's father Bhagwandas Prataprai Thadani and his elder brother Sundarlal Prataprai came in 1947 to Ahmedabad. In Bombay a year later, they settled at SS Nagar in Sion before reaching Breach Candy. "Bahut bhari time tha, we saw the toughest times," he says. The 52-year-old was born in Nanik Niwas, where the Thadanis set up their stall opposite Tata Garden.

I taste a chilled 'paan ball' from his mini freezer. The most marvellous burst of flavours explodes in my mouth. Khuskhus, sauf, kopra, gulkand and gulab ki patti dipped in rose syrup are among the delectable ingredients Thadani routinely orders from Shah Kunverji Khimraj & Co. at Gol Deval in Null Bazaar. "My shop is my temple," he says, hailing everyone with a hearty "Hari Om" and is greeted likewise. "Muslim customers make it a point to wish me with 'Hari Om', which is wonderful," he says, adroitly packing permutations and combinations of every conceivable paan delight in foil for overseas fans.

Crossing over to Warden Wines and Liquor Mart, I meet the lady who works without a qualm from 9 pm to midnight. Well past the hour that sees parties on the street get swinging with whiskies and rums bought from Warden, Farida Irani locks the store her father-in-law Aspandiar Erachshaw Irani opened in 1975 in the architecturally handsome Dhun-Abad building. "From the well-heeled to the poorest, my customers respect me," she says. Some come to the store from morning for a daylong supply when they cannot afford the cheapest brandy, she worries. She counsels the most hardened tipplers who, quite surprised, ask: "What kind of booze shop owner are you?"

Flunkeys of film stars and politicians pick up bottles by the crate. Having taken over the reins from her husband Aresh, Irani is reassured the shop will be tended in future by their son Zaosh. "I was shy when I stepped into this business 20 years ago," she laughs. "Not only is that replaced by confidence, I am privileged to be part of people's happiest celebrations and hear their saddest stories."

From paan and liquor displays it's a mid-strip hop to chintzy nursery prints stacked at Pritam Children's Wear. I end this jaunt at what was my haunt for wispy little cotton nappies and smocked dresses in the 1990s, the decade of my babies. I catch up with Divesh Damania, son of the gent who sold me these. His father Pravin established Pritam as a tailoring shop in 1944 when Europeans popped in from Breach Candy Club for fittings.

In 1960, Pravin Damania introduced children's clothing. An astute switch, considering the quick stop new mums could make post-delivery at the Claude Batley-designed Breach Candy Hospital a stone's throw away. "It was as convenient for Dad to drop me to Breach Candy School exactly upstairs and then open our shop," Divesh says. "We've built customer relationships over generations - great-grandmothers hobble in to choose baby outfits. Our range is up to age seven.

Because kids outgrow clothes too fast, parents don't trust the Net. Trying on for size leaves us enough walk-in customers."

The street's shops may have prosaic local names but not so its buildings. Behind Pritam stands Westfield Estate, where Salman Rushdie grew up. Its Anglophile landlord Suleman Oomer actually christened his properties Balmoral, Belvedere, Windsor Villa and Devonshire House. By the time another apartment cluster was awaiting tenants to move in on December 24, 1936, Oomer had exhausted the Angrez epithets. He simply called it Christmas Eve.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at

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