Monday 22 March 2021

A Mumbai Icon And A Disappearing World


It is thought that the first Parsees came to India between the eighth and tenth centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, they are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades their numbers have declined due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate.  However, their presence is still felt through their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and the work of internationally renowned writers including Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar and Bapsi Sidhwa. They are also known for their famous cuisine. 


During the middle years of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsee and Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including salti boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsee chapatis. Sadly, most have now disappeared, some have reinvented themselves as places to enjoy beer and snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. Café Britannia in the Fort neighbourhood falls into the latter category. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid’s son, Boman eventually took over responsibility for the café and was an iconic presence there until his death in 2019 at the age of 97.


The name of the café was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and Rashid thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the café has been operating since then. Although not as elegant as it must once have been, it retains a certain charm with its peeling paint and beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago. Less charming although somehow endearing are the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the walls and on the menu. These include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down. Others assume a more authoritarian tone. My favourite notice reads “Do not argue with the management”. I wish I’d thought of that when I worked with the public. It goes nicely with a favourite sign of mine seen in another Mumbai café that says “This place is for eating not meeting. Eat and go”. These notices can be found in most of Mumbai's Parsi and Irani cafes and as well as directing the behaviour of customers they have inspired at least one prominent Mumbai writer. The Bene Israel Jewish writer Nissim Ezekiel wrote the following after spending time in Bastani, another (now sadly closed) Irani cafe in south Mumbai. 


Do not spit

Do not sit more

Pay promptly, time is invaluable

Do not write letter

Without order refreshment

Do not comb

Hair is spoiling floor

Do not make mischief's in cabin

Our waiter is reporting

Come again

All are welcome whatever caste

If not satisfied tell us

Otherwise tell others

God is great

I met Boman Kohinoor twice, the first time in 2017 when I enjoyed a plate of his famous vegetable biryani accompanied by a sweet lime soda. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said, “I’ll be back”. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying “I’m back” before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press cuttings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the café. He was a devoted royalist and received extensive media coverage when he was invited to meet the royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came following his making a video appeal explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them. He continued to come and go from my table to speak to other customers, always saying “I’ll be back” and “I’m back” at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or teasing me about where I come from. “So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom” he asked me. I told him “London” and he agreed that this was a good answer.


Before I left, he asked me for three favours. I was to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate next time I saw them and to come back and eat there again. The first two were beyond my ability and at least one would probably have got me into serious trouble should I have tried to do it. However, I did manage to return and to enjoy his food a second time. I was also able to give him a large copy of the photograph I had taken of him, proudly holding the laminated news clipping featuring the picture of him with the royals. His death was a sad day for Mumbai and for India, the end of an era and the loss of one of the few remaining links with old Bombay.

Saturday 13 March 2021

The Language of Thieves

London's Jewish Book Week (JBW) is one of the highlights of the literary calendar. Every year it attracts huge audiences who come to hear authors talking about their latest books and current issues of Jewish (and wider) interest. This year, for the first time, and for obvious reasons JBW took place online before a virtual audience. Whilst I missed the excitement of the live appearances and the chance to browse in the pop-up book shop I welcomed the chance to attend the festival from the comfort of my armchair whilst enjoying coffee and cake!

I watched several sessions but was so interested in Martin Puchner's book The Language of Thieves that I ordered a copy online whilst listening to him speak and then read it within two days of receipt. It tells two stories. Primarily a history and examination of Rotwelsch, a language spoken in Europe from the Middle Ages to the mid twentieth century, mainly by vagrants and members of the criminal class, it also tells a parallel story of his uncovering an uncomfortable truth about his family.

The author describes Rotwelsch as more of a sociolect than a language, that is a variety of language used by a distinct social group, in this case mainly homeless people. It enabled communication between its users who cam from different parts of Europe and also allowed its speakers to disguise their conversation and on occasion to evade the police. Puchner relates early childhood memories of men coming to the door of his family home, his mother giving them food and his being unable to understand much of what they said. His parents explained that these people lived on the road and spoke their own language. More than this, his father was able to explain some of the words to him, sparking a lifelong interest and eventual academic research into the subject. 

Although Rotwelsch was primarily a spoken and not a written language, its speakers left pictoral codes, carved into the foundation stones, fences and gateposts of houses. These signs, known as zinken, provided information for other people of the road about the possibility of receiving food from a particular house, places to avoid or advice on the kind of behaviour that might secure some help, such as religious piety or offering to work for food. Others can best be described as tags, symbols identifying particular characters a bit like those used by modern graffiti artists. I especially liked the idea of an image of a parrot being used by a man able to speak several languages. 

Rotwelsch borrows words from various sources, primarily Yiddish and Hebrew but also Romani, Czech and elsewhere. Hebrew speakers will recognise the words lechem (bread) ganeff (ganav in Hebrew meaning thief) and mackum (makom in Hebrew, meaning place) as well as many others. Examples of this are given throughout the book and there is a nice touch at the end of each chapter where the author gives a short lesson on different themes, enabling us to talk about the police, prison, making an escape or to take the American Oath of Allegiance in Rotwelsch. Through detailed research he discovers that although the language has almost disappeared today, there is perhaps a successor version called Yenish which is spoken in Switzerland and has a degree of official recognition there. 

Puchner is a Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He was born and grew up in Nuremburg, the site of the enactment of the notorious Nuremburg Laws, Nazi rallies and of course the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War. It may come as no surprise that the Nazis were not big fans of either Rotwelsch or the people who spoke it. This was partly because of its use of Yiddish and Hebrew words but also because of the lifestyle and non-conformist behaviour of its speakers. What did come as a surprise to the author was finding out about his paternal grandfather's had involvement with the Nazi Party and his authoring of an anti-semitic tract about the use of names as racial markers. This unwelcome surprise, which turns out to have direct links to Rotwelsch instigates a painful search for more details of his grandfather's story and its impact on the family. 

Whilst listening to the author speak, I was reminded of other languages or sociolects that have served similar purposes. Both Polari, a kind of slang spoken mainly by gay men (but also by others) until at least the 1970's and Cockney rhyming slang have been used to disguise the conversation of its speakers and on occasion to evade the police. Both are in danger of disappearing.  

The Language of Thieves is a fascinating work that not only tells the story of the language and its speakers but also the context in which it grew, developed and eventually disappeared. The book is an important and eminently readable work of social history. It deserves a wide audience.

You might also like Best Reads of 2020 Part One Indian Contemporary Fiction   Best Reads of 2020 Part Two