The Secrets Of Saher Agiary


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Meher Mirza takes us on a walk around the delightful Saher Agiary.

Mumbai has lost so many of its memories under highways and malls that I am loath to share the few pockets that remain, but I shall gird my loins and do it anyway. There is a little lane that wriggles upwards from Breach Candy, a lane that is eschewed by most people. At its entrance sits a security guard who has the laborious task of directing the one or two cars that flash past. Sometimes, a dog, exhausted from its strenuous daily labours, sits beatifically at his feet. Mostly though, he sits alone.

If your interest in this lane has been piqued, you may wish to climb the gentle slope upwards. There are some splendid trees that hem the road, squatting on their skirts of thick, coiling roots. There is also a well, an old, mouldy, forgotten well that pious Parsi ladies and gents press their foreheads to as a sign of respect to the angel of the waters (almost everyone else weaves past it).

Keep climbing until you reach the steps – you will know them when you see them. They will lead you to the courtyard of the Saher Agiary, a wide, spotlessly clean courtyard that is cupped by tall, shady trees. On cloudless, windless summer days, when the sun feels hot enough to melt a hole in the earth, this courtyard always stays a few degrees cooler than the rest of the city. Every evening, a dog (another one) comes by with his walker, gambolling and prancing. An elderly couple sometimes sits on the wall that girdles the compound. It is a place of peace, quiet enough to pry loose a few stubborn thoughts.

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There is another set of steps that leads to the main structure itself. Built for the vast sum of Rs. 13,000 and consecrated in 1846, the Saher Agiary is a charming low building with a deeply overhung tiled roof. Inside is a floor built of cool stone, scalloped with wear. Wide wooden benches. Slow fans stirring the warm, syrupy air. The gentle, corpulent priest ghosts away as you enter.

Clearly, the Saher Agiary is not the most popular fire temple in Mumbai, but there are two times in the year when it judders to life. One is during the Muktad*, when the fire temple is ablaze with coral-coloured flowers tucked into gleaming silver vases and the sandalwood smoke sits heavy in the air. And then the other, later in the year, when November deepens into winter and the somnolent courtyard lights up with colourful fairy lights and music. It is navjote and wedding season for the Parsis and Iranis.

If you have made it this far into my story, I will tell you another secret. Behind the agiari building, you will find a secret garden of sorts – a brambly, tangled undergrowth where nobody ever goes and you are forced to contend with your own company. All around you are tall, grand buildings, but, just for this moment, it is only you, sitting in a remnant world and learning to read the small print of life.

*Muktad: Zoroastrians believe that the souls of their dead return to earth once a year for 10 days; it is said that the souls bless those who remember and pray for them on these days. It falls just before the Parsi New Year in August.

Saher Agiary, Off Bhulabhai Desai Road, Mumbai 400 036.

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Colaba Agiary Lights Up Like Fairyland At Celebrations


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Step into a quiet little Agiary that turns into a sparkling jewel-box by night.
There’s no point visiting the Colaba Agiary and its attendant baug in the strangling heat of summer – it is flat and empty and utterly unremarkable. It sits quietly, waiting for its moment of glory. It is perhaps more than 180 years old and, when it was first built in 1836, it was not even a part of Bombay. Genteel ladies and gentlemen used to travel there with a platoon of staff to ward off the inevitable dacoits who pockmarked the area. But greedy Bombay wouldn’t let it be. Its belly swelled and distended until it consumed the southern-most tip of the land, Navy Nagar, and took the little Agiary baug with it. Today, the Colaba Agiary is wildly popular for weddings, navjotes and even film shoots.
Come Saturday evening and it springs to life. Fairy lights twined around palm trees and window frames glint and glitter in the twilight gloom. A gentle wind from the nearby seashore ripples the leaves. The flowers stretch across the baug walls and hang down from its tiled roof in vast aromatic panes. The bride is swathed in a white sari that floats gently in the evening breeze before settling into the shape of a fragile lily. The place rings with music and laughter. It is as close to Fairyland as Bombay ever gets.

As dusk settles into night, the party grows more and more lively. But this is all a prelude; everybody is waiting for dinner and time is finely diced into the minutes until it will be served.

But Parsis have earthier concerns. The otlo (verandah) running alongside the baug is thick with people anxious for a Parsi peg and a handful of potato wafers. Impeccably attired ladies and gentlemen sit around the tables facing the stage, sipping their drinks and dipping into snacks brought around by dapper waiters. An astringent aunt, uneasy with life’s constant changes, casts a stern eye over her niece’s dangerously dipping sari blouse. A corpulent uncle discusses anxiously whether the catering will be by Godiwala or not. His wife looks exasperated; it is a well-known fact that the Colaba Agiary is the first choice for Godiwala. A grandmother, whose eyes are permanently calibrated at the nostalgia setting, will bring up her childhood when Bhoot nu bhonu and Khodaiji nu band* were considered de rigueur at fancy functions such as these. Friends and relatives stop by to gossip, drink wine and whisky and show off their garas. Meanwhile, a DJ stationed beside the stage revives the fusty playlist with abominations such as Bieber’s Baby. As dusk settles into night, the party grows more and more lively. But this is all a prelude; everybody is waiting for dinner and time is finely diced into the minutes until it will be served.
Soon, the main event. A man takes the stage to announce it. “Jamva chalo ji.” The long dinner tables are cloaked in white tablecloths and settled behind the stage, facing the sea. A tidal wave of people immediately engulfs them, and the pehli paanth, or the first seating, is filled within minutes of the announcement. By the kitchen on the left, the guests spot a sturdy lady marshalling the waiters. Word spreads immediately that the food is indeed catered by Godiwala; there is a collective sigh of relief. Fretful cheeks cool at the sight of the salty globes of topli na paneer and the lagan nu achar. Waiters decant raspberry and ginger sodas onto thirstily waiting tables. From the kitchen spills out fat slices of pomfret soaked in a tangy white sauce, sali marghi, akuri and mutton pulao dar.
After the final plates of custard and kulfi have gone around, there is no longer any reason to tarry. The guests depart in a flurry of hugs and waves, making pie crust promises to meet each other soon. Their cars pull away, their headlamps spilling yellow light onto the road outside. The baug empties, the music is silenced, the stage darkened. The little Agiary waits softly, quietly, for the next weekend.
*Bhoot nu bhonu – catering done by an unfortunately-named man called Bhoot. Khodaiji nu band – Khodaiji means God. The two have long departed for their heavenly abode.
Colaba Agiary, Off Pilot Bunder Road, Near Afghan Church, Navy Nagar, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005. 
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Find Solitude At Bombay Panjrapole


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Meher Mirza finds sanctuary in animal shelter Bombay Panjrapole animal shelter, surrounded by cows and human-free time.

Panjrapole makes me wiser.

The first time I go there is with my mum and her friend, a lovely lady with a fierce love for the lost worlds of Mumbai. It is a weekday when we visit, and we are immediately swamped under a sea of scurrying humanity as we pivot towards Madhav Baug, the portal that leads us to Bombay Panjrapole. At Panjrapole, I raise my phone to take a photograph of the striking verdigris architecture, when a stern security guard rushes over to me. “Photo not allowed, photo not allowed,” he admonishes me, his moustache quivering with indignation. It is too late though, I have already taken a photograph, and it is good. Afterwards, I post it on Instagram where someone helpfully comments, saying photography is not allowed at Panjrapole. The lesson learned here is clear. Photography is not allowed at Panjrapole.

I walk through birdsong and the soft lowing of cows and feel my frustration stilling, soothed by the sad eyes of these gentle, ambulatory animals.

The second time I go is with my friend, as part of a walking tour with a bunch of wide-eyed tourists. Panjrapole is one small part of a much larger meander through Bhuleshwar, and as we dip in and out of the area’s many temples, untying and retying our shoelaces, my atheist friend becomes increasingly irate. At the final temple (just outside Panjrapole), while the others ooh and aah, he absolutely refuses to go in. I, of a less surly disposition, go forth happily and learn of the shelter’s history. Way back in 1834, the British were ruthlessly culling the city’s stray dogs, and Bombayites’ hackles rose in protest. It was Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Amichand Shah, the soft-hearted sethias of Bombay, who opened the Panjrapole as a shelter for the street dogs and pigs. Today, it serves as a shelter and infirmary for cows – who have names – stray dogs, donkeys, hens, parrots, goats and ducks.

The third time I go, I go alone to commune with the cows and their adorable calves. I’ve had such a frustrating week dealing with intractable clients and petulant parents; I need human-free time. While navigating the crowds, a man gropes my bottom and I instinctively whack him with my umbrella. But he is gone before I can raise my usual hell. Still dismayed by his effrontery, I wend my way to the main gates of the Panjrapole to pay my entrance fee. Inside, I walk through birdsong and the soft lowing of cows and feel my frustration stilling, soothed by the sad eyes of these gentle, ambulatory animals. I hold out some unidentifiable grassy blobs that the Panjrapole authorities sell, and there is a tiny riot behind the barrier, the calves all scrabbling to reach my hands. I feel the softest gnaw followed by appreciative belches. I lean over the barrier and pet one’s head. In return, it peers over the barrier and nibbles the hair off the top of my head.

I suddenly realise that this is the happiest I have been in weeks. It’s the littlest things that often help dissolve the din in my brain, things like the playful nudge from a calf or even a grateful belch from its mother. And perhaps that is my third lesson. Or, then again, perhaps it is that I shouldn’t lean too far over the barrier. I don’t know.

Bombay Panjrapole, Near Madhav Baug Post Office, Bhuleshwar, Mumbai 400 004. Phone: 022 2242 5493

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An Evening At The NCPA


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Meher Mirza gives us a preview of what goes on at the Symphony Orchestra of India performances at the NCPA.

The first time I can remember stepping into the NCPA’s hallowed portals was when I was in college. As a wide-eyed literature student, I could be found in the upstairs section of the Experimental Theatre gawping at my seniors who put up plays I thought plumbed the deepest wells of profundity. “Our proximate self-presence comes to be revealed for its discontinuities” was the type of thing that rolled naturally off my tongue then. I never watched the humorous plays, of course, because how shallow, right? (Later, I found a better use for the upper floors and I am sorry to say it had nothing to do with the performance and everything to do with snogging boys).

Now that I am older, I – together with a sea of elderly Parsis – gravitate towards the Tata Theatre and the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre for my Western classical music fix. It is a running (although koylo) joke that if anyone wanted to finish our community off in one go, the easiest way would be at a Western classical performance. As wonderful as the music may be (and it isn’t always), the most fun is to be had scanning the impeccably-coiffed and attired audience. All musical performances see us snootily looking down our bulbous noses at the Johnny-come-latelies who dare to (*gasp*) clap between movements. The scorn that is reserved for those numpties who let loose a volley of coughs during a performance, is indescribable. And god forbid your mobile phone is not switched off! Our withering, icy glares would freeze the Amazon.

As wonderful as the music may be (and it isn’t always), the most fun is to be had scanning the impeccably-coiffed and attired audience.

All that stuffiness notwithstanding, it really is all about the music for most of the patrons. The list of patrons of the Symphony Orchestra of India reads like a who’s who of the Parsi community, and not everyone is a curmudgeon. Some are really rather delightful, like an elderly gentleman who attended almost every Western Classical music performance some years ago. Said elderly gentleman was immediately recognisable by his scimitar-like nose that spliced the air whenever he bobbed his head up and down to the music. Which was always. Every time through every performance. I never once spoke to him, but I was always inordinately fond of him and became very sad when he stopped attending the concerts.

Then there is Mr. T, a friend’s father, who invariably “forgets” to buy tickets for his family because he considers them too much of a distraction during performances. And I will never forget the day I took my 85-year-old grandmother to a music recital, only to have her bring down her rolled-up programme on a particularly chatty gentleman’s head. (He was chatting through Brahms violin concerto! Unforgivable! What did he expect, really?)

Of course, a night at the NCPA never ends with just the concert. After the performance is over and everyone has been disgorged from the theatre, it’s usually time for dinner and chit-chat at the al fresco NCPA Cafe – “That soprano! What perfectly-modulated passagio! But mora khodae, did you see her frock?” “I must say, Rishad looks papeta jevo gol in his new jacket.” Everyone’s tongues are unsheathed as they chatter over dhansak and chicken farcha, voices swelling together in a combined contemplation of high art and gossip. If the performance feels like a tremendous inhalation with everyone holding their breaths, this is the calming exhalation, the dissipation of all that collective pent-up energy. To me, that’s always been the best part of it all.

Introduction to Parsi speak:
koylo: lame
mora khodae: my god
papeta jevo gol: round like a potato

The Symphony Orchestra of India celebrated its 10th anniversary season in September 2016 with concerts from 12 September to 30 September.

In addition to Western Classical Music, the NCPA also features events and festivals in Indian and Western Music, Dance, Theatre, Film, Literature and Photography.

National Centre for the Performing Arts, NCPA Marg, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400 021. Phone: 022 3989 5050.


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The Healing Powers Of Camy Wafers


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Meher Mirza tells a tale of healing a broken heart with Camy Wafers’ potato chips.

This is a story ostensibly about Camy Wafers, but it is actually a story about my poor, beleaguered heart. This story begins, say, seven years ago, when I ended my relationship with my first boyfriend for the last time. We had been together for many years, although the glue that had held us close at first had unpeeled many, many times. The fights were plentiful and long, and we careened sickeningly from one end of a torrid argument to another; it felt as though we were gliding irrevocably towards a crash, and neither of us had our hands on the steering wheel. Well of course the crash came, as we both knew it would, and it would be fair to say I crumpled completely – I cried all the time and couldn’t focus on work, on anything that was outside my cloud of grief. Worst of all, I couldn’t eat. I had become that giant cliché, a heartbroken girl.

Alarmed at my rapid weight loss and permanently red-rimmed eyes, my friends and family brought home packets of this and plates of that. My mother cooked up biryanis and dhansak and my dad came home drowning in boxes of lemon curd tarts and hazelnut chocolates, all desperate attempts to restore my flagging appetite. My colleagues took me to Kailash Parbat for pani puri and office chat, and my friends floated in and out of my house with wine and cheese and pav bhaji and hugs. Day after day swam by.

And forever and after, whenever I plunged myself into my dark cocoon, I remembered my little wafer packet, a ridiculous, absurd, embarrassing little beacon of hope.

One day, my mum phoned me at work to ask me to bring home puris from Camy. I passed the Colaba Market store every day as I motored my way to and from home, and she was going to make me a plate of sev puri that very evening. At Camy, still drenched in my miasma of misery, I bought the packet of puris. “Kucch aur chahiye?” enquired the cheery fellow behind the counter. The answer was of course, yes, I wanted many things – an unbroken heart, my boyfriend back in my life, a little peace and a lot of perspective. But I couldn’t tell this gent that. So, instead, I bought the entire store, more or less. This included: 1. Plain, salted wafers 2. Pudina wafers 3. Tomato-flavoured banana wafers 4. Cheese wafers 5. Lime-flavoured ruffled potato wafers 6. Criss-crossed sali potato wafers.

I staggered out with my burden and was immediately stymied by the lack of taxis willing to drive me home. So I walked from Colaba on towards Marine Drive, towards Babulnath, towards Peddar Road and finally home. Somewhere along the way, I tore open a packet of Camy’s plain, salted wafers (caveat: I have always loved them best of all wafers) and took a tentative nibble. I tasted every grain of salt on that beautiful skinny, crisp wafer. In fact, it was so good that I finished the entire packet by the time I had reached my building. And there, covered in tiny shattered, shards of wafer, I had a glimmer of a revelation. It had been three weeks since my break-up. I was tattered and unravelled, but I had managed to claw my way out of the gnarly thicket of my unhappiness. I have no doubt I would have reached this point anyhow, perhaps the next day, perhaps while eating a samosa in a bus or while watching Frasier. However, it was the wafers that did it this time. And forever and after, whenever I plunged myself into my dark cocoon, I remembered my little wafer packet, a ridiculous, absurd, embarrassing little beacon of hope. But a burly one nevertheless.

Camy Wafers, 5-6, Oxford House, Near Colaba Market, Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Apollo Bandar, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005.

In addition to its Colaba shop, Camy Wafers has shops at Gowalia Tank, Khar, Andheri, Mahim and Byculla. You can find the other locations on our map.

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pac parsi amelioration committee

PAC Serves Parsi Snacks For The Soul

SPACE EXPERIENCE PEOPLE FOOD + DRINK VIDEO pac parsi amelioration committee


Parsi Amelioration Committee or PAC as it is better known, is over 70 years old and is named for the charitable work that is done by a Parsi trust for the poor and the needy. It’s an easy to miss food stall near Nana Chowk, Mumbai. Our advice would be to make a little effort and not miss PAC if you’re feeling peckish (or ravenously hungry). Think rawa fried lamb cutlets, chicken pattice with puffy, buttery pastry, not-too-spicy lamb samosas, badam pak, chapat and other utterly delicious Parsi snacks. Parsi Amelioraton Committee, 292 Shastri Hall, Shop No. 3, Nana Chowk, Tardeo Road, Mumbai 400 007


If you’re looking for a charming café, this isn’t it. PAC isn’t the most salubrious space – frenetic Nana Chowk traffic ribbons past it, the harsh glare of the tube light illuminates a shabby glass display and you will have to step over a stray dog who drapes herself across the entrance. But none of this matters once you have eaten there, because the food is excellent (and the dog is gentle and adorable). The glass counter is stacked with mostly non-vegetarian snacks that flaunt themselves like cheap tarts at anyone who passes by. I am always passing by and always smitten by them, my stomach loudly confessing its desires for the pies and the pattice, the samosas and the batasas, the shrewsbury and ginger biscuits. PAC is where I go to escape the pap and pabulum of everyday mealtimes. PAC (Parsi Amelioration Committee) is nearly 75 years old and is named for the charitable work that is done by a Parsi trust for the poor and the needy. Today, most of the staff ladling out the goodies are non-Parsis; gone are the bustling, sonsy Parsi matrons of yore. Not that that makes an iota of difference – the cooking has always been consistently good.

PAC’s mango chunda packet tells us that it is “Tenderly pickled With loving hands”. How do you resist such a thing?

As a delicious shoehorn into the world of Parsi snacks, try the chicken pattice, little golden pies small enough to be polished off in two big bites. The puffy, crispy, flaky, buttery pastry hides a belly full of lightly spiced, creamy chicken. If you like, you can lift the pastry lid right off and eat it plain so that it crumbles in your mouth. Then you can eat the rest. This pattice has sustained me lovingly, during my most difficult times — on exam days, after acrid fights, on long and empty nights. Cold, claggy pattice straight from the fridge may not have been the most delicious thing in the world, but it was always solidly, comfortingly there. I’m waxing on about the pattice, but the Mirza family favourites are the samosas. These are not the regular Punjabi samosas with their thick shell and vegetable stuffing. PAC’s samosas are to the baug-born – an unctuous mutton or chicken filling with the barest hint of heat, enveloped in a thin shroud of batter and deep fried until crisp. There is no chutney that accompanies these samosas. Eat them at tea time, after roasting them on the tawa. Then there are PAC’s very good, very sturdy mutton cutlets. The heart of the cutlet is a mince and potato blend that is well-seasoned, wrapped in rawa and fried. There is also the chicken farcha, in which the chicken comes cloaked in a veil of lacy batter. PAC’s mango chunda packet tells us it is “Tenderly pickled With loving hands”. How do you resist such a thing? And although winter definitely isn’t coming any time soon, keep an eye out for the vasanu, eeda pak and badam pak (savoury, spicy, fudgy concoctions) that are rolled out in November, December and January to warm stomach and soul. People also flock to PAC for its coconut ghari which is a pastry with a sticky, shaved coconut stuffing; dense kumas cake; toddy-soaked bhakra biscuits and chapat, a sort of Parsi crepe. Clearly, I have eaten at PAC many, many times. Yet, whenever I think of it, I am always reminded of the first time it swam into my life. Many years ago, my parents hosted a jashan ceremony at our home to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Family and friends poured into the hall, the priests’ sonorous chants engulfed the room and the smoke from the holy fire stained the air. When it was all over, my mother came in with cool rose sharbat for everyone. Tray after tray of PAC’s samosas, pattice, cutlets and bhakras were disgorged from the kitchen, and I was assailed by a meaty, smoky aroma. It was, of course, the smell of the food, but also, in that moment, the aroma of my culture, of camaraderie, of happiness, of enduring love.

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Antiquated Thirst Quenchers At Davar & Co.


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Well before the juggernaut of Pepsi and Coke, there was the cold drink.
Null Bazaar is perhaps not the most salubrious of locations at the height of summer, but its twisting streets throw up a handful of surprises. One of these is Davar & Co. Take your taxi up to Gol Deval and then drift through the road that unspools from the temple. Keep on until you reach the corner and there, on your left, stands that curious creation – an entire shop dedicated to the humble “cold drink”.
The decor is what is politely known as “unassuming”. Davar & Co. is nondescript, a rustic relic of Mumbai’s history that is said to have opened in 1948. The proprietor hunches taciturnly over the worn cash counter while his minions sit around. A few tables and benches are strewn about the place by way of furniture. But it is a veritable oasis in the summer, a Willy Wonka-esque wonderland of rainbow-coloured syrup bottles, all ready to be transformed into icy elixirs. The shop is arrayed from floor to ceiling with them.
A board perched high above our heads tells us that milk-based drinks, cold drinks and squashes are available here. The list of squashes is very brief. The cold drinks list is rather long. What is the difference between the cold drink and the squash, we enquire? The squash is made from pure fruit extract, whereas the cold drink is a blend of fruit and essence. The milk drinks I avoid, having an intense and unmanageable dislike of the white stuff since childhood.
We order our drinks. At Davar & Co, you can get your squash in a bottle or a glass, with or without ice. If you are sturdy of heart and stomach, go for the ice.
For your own sake, I make a few gentle suggestions – if you feel like drinking the varhiali drink, stomp the urge underfoot. It’s dreck. You may try it with flecks of rock salt, if you like; salt shakers sit on every table, presumably to rescue the taste of the drink. But dreck wrapped in a cloak of rock salt is still dreck.

At Davar & Co, you can get your squash in a bottle or a glass, with or without ice. If you are sturdy of heart and stomach, go for the ice.

Similarly, my friend tried the sekanjabin syrup and lamented long and loud over its synthetic flavour. However, the sekanjabin is by far the most popular syrup, so don’t take my friend’s word for it. In May, bottles simply fly off the shelves into thirsty traveller’s shopping bags. The green mango sharbat is very sweet, but drink it with plenty of cold water and ice and a smidgen of the aforementioned rock salt and it will immediately elevate the taste.
My favourite though is the kokam (spelt “cocum”), listed neatly with nimboo, aam and orange under the Squash section. But if kokam doesn’t float your boat, there are also plenty of other flavours such as rose, strawberry and phalsa, which are also nice. Taste every one. Drink as we did, until your belly is swollen with syrup. Then stagger out with bottles of the stuff.
Davar & Co., 533, Maulana Azad Road, Null Bazar, Bhuleshwar, Mumbai 400 004. Phone: 022 2346 2314 
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