Depression made me a restaurateur, says Khar cafe's owner

Updated: Feb 10, 2019, 09:04 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan | Mumbai

The owner of a quaint cafe in Khar talks about why conversations around mental health need to be as common at cafés as the keto diet

Almond cake from the KGC menu
Almond cake from the KGC menu

It was that last time when Mumbai's afternoons were switching from pleasant to hot. There are two sets of tables with the comfort of an umbrella's shade at Khar's All Elements. One is occupied by a guest wearing barefoot sandals, deeply tuned into a book on running, and the other by the owner, Gudiya Chadha. She scooches to another chair as we get talking.

Until now, she has only been a smiling presence at the eight-table café, someone who had once asked the chef to whip up millet upma with peanut chutney, though it was beyond breakfast hours. But, the proximity with the chairs leads to conversation, about how Vile Parle East is the best place to buy fresh vegetables and how this is her first restaurant venture. In fact, at 42, this is Chadha's first job. Her response to our amazement is "clinical depression".

Gudiya Chadha at All Elements. Pics/Praddep Dhivar
Gudiya Chadha at All Elements. Pics/Praddep Dhivar

The conversation continues a couple of mornings later, over coffee. Chadha has hers black while ours comes with almond milk, a cappuccino from a coffee and dessert menu that's shared with the South Mumbai hit, Kala Ghoda Cafe (KGC).

"I was just a few days away from my TYBCom exams when my marriage was arranged," says Chadha, adding that she was never considered "good at studies". Much later, she realised she was dyslexic. In fact, so rushed was her wedding that on the day of the mehendi, she stopped the car, and blindly picked up a few bangles on her way to the venue. The hurried wedding was at the insistence of her father. But, 20 days later, she lost him. "He went missing and then two days later, his body was found on the railway track in Surat," she says. Therapy - and this was 1998 - helped cope, but it would take 10 years to get over the sudden loss.

The loss also awakened her to depression. "A few days before the wedding, I was speaking to him and he seemed low. He had begun to engage less." Cutting off from the world, withdrawn eyes, she says, not engaging in activities that one earlier found joy in, are signs she looks for to assess someone's mental health.

Her new home and husband Jimmy's sense of humour helped. Also the drive to be "the Gudiya that papa wanted me to be". But it was the terror attacks of 2008 that made her realise you don't always get closure. A trigger in 2014, something in the family, led to a loop of overthinking. "I started reducing the activities I was involved in and my core nature started changing. This was not accepted by people. They'd say, 'Go cheer yourself up with a movie.' And, even though I had studied depression, I was in denial that it could happen to me."

What have you achieved, what is the meaning of life, where do you go from here? Chadha says she'd go to sleep crying and wake up crying. "Depression needs to be treated in the same way as cancer. Just like we have an Asian Heart Hospital or a Tata Memorial, we need a hospital that addresses mental health." Helplessness and bouts of crying came with guilt, which only led to more overthinking.

It was in 2016, after four days of being unable to get up from bed, which triggered the thought: "Is this the face you want to present to your children?" She headed to a psychiatrist in Lilavati hospital. By next year, she was on anti-depressants, after the initial fear of: "Will I have to depend on this for life?" The aim to keep herself busy led to other thoughts: adopt a baby or a dog. It was the "get work to be busy" thought that made her start a small gift-wrapping store.

"As a child, I'd make greeting cards and send to friends, and so thought I could start a store with small decorative items." She had decided to use a space her husband - who used to run U Turn at Khar - had rented and had thrown a lunch party to announce to family. But, at the last minute, the owner of the space called to say he wanted to give it to his son, a dentist.

She started looking elsewhere and came to 12th Road in Khar. What started initially as a small cafe-cum-store with clothes bought in Bangkok proved to be unprofitable. She had, however, calculated failure in her equation. "So what if I fail, I told myself. How much lower can I go? To 'what if I lose the money spent in the venture', I argued that my family would spend an equal amount on my healthcare. So instead of a hospital, All Elements is my healthcare," Chadha says.

As we talk, other tables add to the story of All Elements. One guest says she comes in every day and on days she can't, she packs a takeway. A senior gentleman, who asks the mid-day photographer about the camera he's carrying, comes four times a day. Every day. And, if Chadha isn't an experienced restaurateur, most of the staff isn't either. "One girl we hired because we knew her father ,who had lost his job," Chadha says.

But, back to the beginning of the second half. The store and the small café shut in three months when Chadha realised it was not a venture that could sustain. Her life coach Nipa Asharam provided her with a schedule to bring routine to her life. "When you have depression, sometimes getting out of bed is the hardest thing to do. But sticking to a plan helps. So, instead of meditating 10 minutes a day, bargain and do two minutes at least. Baby steps are important."

One day, Asharam suggested that Chadha reach out to Farhad Bomanjee of KGC to allow All Elements be his suburban outpost. "I wondered why will someone put his eggs in my basket, but Nipa said no harm in checking."

Chadha remembers Bomanjee sitting from across the table where she is now, for a photo shoot she barely manages to do without an awkward smile. The kitchen at the time was smaller, and, though the food was being liked, the menu was short. "I told him that the disadvantage is that it's in a quiet lane, but he said that's the charm. He had started KGC similarly in Ropewalk Lane. So he sent a quotation for us to use their coffee and cake menu."

Today, the cakes are brought in as per order from the KGC kitchen every morning. The initial menu was prepared by Pradeep Tejwani, then Vinay Hiwalkar, and today Amey Surve. It was when the breakfast menu was expanded that money started coming in. Breakfast, says Chadha, accounts for 40 per cent of their day's sales.

Money wouldn't have been a worry, but with the Kamala Mills fire in 2017, one of Jimmy's hookah bars shut down and she again tripped into guilt. But, it ended in December when, including orders for her gift-wrapping business, All Elements broke even. Today, they are in the middle of planning an outpost in Bandra Kurla Complex, where Jimmy's Dhaba used to operate from a rooftop. They plan to introduce a keto menu there as well.

"While it's great to see a full house, my real joy comes from seeing repeat guests; that my kids take pride in this third child," smiles Chadha. She admits that she regularly speaks to guests willing to listen about depression and won't shy away from saying that she carries her pills in her bag. "It all started when a guest from Delhi was sitting here and he asked me why I started All Elements. I asked him, 'Do you want the truth or a lie?'"

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