So long, Sams

Ahead of the imminent closure of Usha Khanna’s 50-year-old Cafe Samovar, her daughter and mid-day columnist Malavika Sangghvi pens a diary.

I was six when our mother, Usha Khanna, started Samovar; and with an elder sister who was 11 and a younger brother who was four, I guess Samovar became my fourth sibling.

each day, our mother would take the bus from the sandy lane that led to the Juhu Beach and ride it to its last stop at the Santacruz depot, from where she would catch a fast train to Churchgate and then upon alighting, would stride purposefully in her hand-block print cotton sari, her hair in a long plait, swinging her Shilpi Kendra jhola, through Mumbai’s wide roads and Art Deco precincts to the Jahangir Art Gallery.

Usha Khanna outside her cafe
Usha Khanna outside her cafe

She was 38 at that time.

I think it was a teacher in my school who first made me aware that our Mum was doing something different from other Mums. “She’s started a cafe,” one had said.

I did not know what a cafe was at that time.

With actor Amitabh Bachchan during the launch of the book ‘The Making of Samovar’ in 2007
With actor Amitabh Bachchan during the launch of the book ‘The Making of Samovar’ in 2007

All I knew is that our father, the award-winning documentary filmmaker Rajbans Khanna, was away a lot in Delhi, working on a project, and that our mother would not be home when I returned from school.

Not be there to listen to what happened and didn’t happen that day. Not be there when we returned after playing on the beach. Not be there to help with homework or baths.

By the time she had finished her work at the cafe, in fact, it would be, what we had been taught in geography class, ‘twilight’.

A few Samovar moments from the book
A few Samovar moments from the book

In the pollution-free, palm-fringed, thatched-cottage Juhu of that time, twilight was a vivid and palpable canvas of lurid colours framing an acre of dark coconut trees.

By the time my mother returned from her day’s work at Samovar, it would be twilight.

And most often there would be at least three anxious children waiting in the balcony for her return.

Usha Khanna with Dilip Kumar, Mrs D’lima, Mr Shetty and the Samovar staff
Usha Khanna with Dilip Kumar, Mrs D’lima, Mr Shetty and the Samovar staff

She would be walking much slower now. But once she met us, she would be full of stories of her day. She’d tell us of the brilliant but impoverished artists she’d met, the students from elphinstone college next door who she’d fed, the crazy eccentric customers who she’d have to handle and the shy journalists and excitable new wave filmmakers who’d spend hours sharing their creative endeavour with her.

We grew up hearing about Ara and Husain and Gaitonde and KK Raina, and Kumar Shahani and Kabir Bedi and Protima Gupta and Dolly Thakore and Satyadev Dubey and Vick Adarkar and many others.

Usha Khanna, Meher Moos and Parvana Boga Noorani enjoying lunch at the cafe in 1999
Usha Khanna, Meher Moos and Parvana Boga Noorani enjoying lunch at the cafe in 1999

We grew up hearing about imli ka chutney and boti roti rolls and aloo chaat and mango panna and potted kulfi.

There was a lady called Mrs Wood who’d rush into Samovar with a wooden ruler to herd her students back to class at the college next door; a celebrated poet called Nissim ezekiel who’d feed the cats in between writing verse and sips of tea and a journalist called Busybee who’d spin magical sentences (often about Samovar) while nursing a hangover at the cafe.

Through my mother’s daily recounting, we got to know about psychedelia (she’d been left books about Peter Max), the Beatles’ great iconographer, Joan Baez (a customer had loaned her a few album) and the secrets of the leading Bollywood columnist of the era — Devyani Chaubal, who’d share the heartbreaks of the top stars during her lunch breaks away from the Star and Style, at the Samovar.

By the time our family acquired a car (an old Ambassador that would, with great precision, breakdown at the busiest juncture of Linking Road) and we were taken on the long journey into ‘town’ on Saturdays to spend time at Samovar and go with our parents to select music for it from the Rhythm House next door, our mother had told us so much about the cafe and its patrons that it felt like an extension of our home.

In those early days, Samovar was run by the formidable Mrs D’lima, a neighbour of ours from Juhu and the equally formidable Mr Shetty, with my Mum presiding over the two and often playing mediator in their many legendary squabbles.

early customers might recall Mrs D’lima’s unparalleled religiosity and Bible worship and Shetty’s mischievous delight in teasing her about it.

I guess in F&B terms Mr Shetty was the back office, handling accounts, operations and supplies and production, while Mrs D’lima had been entrusted with front office responsibilities like PR, marketing, customer engagement and the like (it might come as a surprise to some that praying for Jesus’ intervention to save the souls of naughty students was not part of the job).

I guess at that time, because my mum had never run a restaurant before, (in fact I am pretty sure no one in five generations of our family tree had) the roles of Shetty and D’lima hadn’t been so clearly defined.

The result: constant and increasingly hilarious mini wars, guerrilla attacks and full-blown battles.

The late night phone call, which my mother received informing her of closing sales often became all night counselling sessions with one or the other of her senior staff weeping, hyperventilating, or complaining about the other.

By the time my mum came to tuck us in and kiss us goodnight, her face would be furrowed and she would be very very tired.

But just as the sun rose again the next morning she would be up, packing our tiffins for school, making sure we got our vitamins and nourishment at breakfast and waving to us as we got on the school bus.

And then she would be off once again, to be with her fourth child; the one that would claim so much of her attention, energy and time; the one she would nurture as lovingly, carefully and creatively as she had her other children the one called Samovar, which for reasons my 88-year-old mother tries to but cannot understand, is not being allowed to live beyond 50 and that we have to bid goodbye to at the end of this month.

Because, as I said at the beginning, I was six when our mother Usha Khanna started Samovar; and with an elder sister who was 11 and a younger brother who was four, I guess Samovar became my fourth sibling.

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