Whose heritage is it anyway? The Ghantewala conundrum

The 'heritage' baked beans in Flurys


I had once worked in what could be called a 'heritage building' though it was not officially one.

This is a building called Laxmi Building in Fort. In agency circles it is famous for once being the office of HTA. That's where I had years back spotted the late Mike Khanna, the then head of HTA, at the lift when I had come for a meeting. For me it was like celeb spotting. I was quite kicked to be occupying the same office as him years later when HTA had moved out and TNS was occupying that office for a while before we were exiled to the badlands of Andheri E to a spanking and heritage-less new building.

My excitement doubled the day I entered Laxmi Building to work when a young colleague pointed out a dusty, faded plaque by the tottering lift. According to it, the building was inaugurated by an alumni of mine from Presidency College. A certain Subhash Chandra Bose!

The office was really cool. I had a huge cabin to sit in with a terrace attached where I would occasionally go and stand like a Mughal emperor and look down on the lanes of Fort while the boys in my office would slink across for a smoke.

However, that's where the fun ended. The magnificent white sofas in the rooms were broken. Sitting on the unsteady chairs was like living on the edge. The aircons were noisier than Candies on a Sunday afternoon. The toilets were straight out of a depressing art film of the 80s. The lift made you feel as if you were entering a haunted house. I was told that rats scurried across the staircase at night. I never stayed back long enough to see them.

We were slated to move out and no-one was really keen to spruce up the place.

Which is when I realised that 'heritage' is alluring for those who are spectators to it but not for those who are stuck inside it. I saw my stint in Laxmi Building as a four month working vacation where I had a ball in Fort. Working in such a decrepit office day in and day out would be a pain though.

As I am sure it is for those who live in crumbling heritage structures which have not kept up with the times.

I remembered my Laxmi building stint when I saw the angst on social media about the closure of the Ghantewala sweet shop in old Delhi a couple of days back.

I have never been there but food writer, Marryam Reshii, tells me that the sohan halva at this 250 year old mithai shop was the stuff of legends.

Ghee laden sohan halwa of Ghnatewala. Pic: Alka of Sindhi Rasoi


The lament about the shutting down of this shop, supposed to be one of the oldest existing sweet shops in Delhi, reminded me about the outpouring of grief in Mumbai when Merwan was supposed to have shut down (though it opened later), when Samovar shut down and, in the case of my friends and me, when Vallibhai shut down.

The first thought that struck me when I heard the Ghantewalla news was, how many of the people who said that they were upset about the closure had frequented the shop before it shut down?

And therein lies a story. 

A lot of these legendary places are located in parts of their cities which people don't frequent as much now with the cities expanding their boundaries. Often their offerings represent dishes which don't reflect the flavour of the month anymore in terms of cuisines and health consciousness. The truth is that my trips to Vallibhai too were restricted to just a handful of times in a year. It was just too far and I can't eat the fatty, meaty bara handis regularly any more.

I am sure that these restaurants that shut down could have done with a bit more encouragement while they were running. We can give our heritage establishments a boost by patronising them when they are functional rather than lamenting when it is too late after they have shut down. The latter is catharsis which has cannot be derided of course but one has to be practical too. After all a business can't run on love alone. It needs money.

It's not to say that the lack of customer support is always the only reason why these places shut down.

In the case of Cafe Samovar, it was because they lost the spot they had rented out. Vallibhai's is said to have been sold out as a part of the redevelopment process. 

Change, after all, is a sad inevitability of life.

There are also times when future generations want to move on and do something else. The grand old Boman Kohinoor, of Britannia, keeps telling anyone who is willing to listen that his sons are waiting to sell off the place once he is no more. The motivation has to be there for heritage to survive.

When B Merwan was supposed to have closed down I read a report where the owner supposedly said that running a bakery is hard work and that he is tired and that the next generation is not interested. All valid reasons if I was in his place to call it a day.

Of course we have some examples like Botin in Madrid (which claims to be the world's oldest functional restaurant) and Kareems in Delhi and Nizam's in Kolkata where future generations have carried on the family legacy. 

While one doesn't want to get into the debate on whether roshogollas were invented in Orissa or by Nobo Krishna Das in Kolkata, the story of the Das family is fascinating. The way they have modernised with the times and have spread their reach, through the  K.C Das empire, to international markets makes for an exciting story which you can read about in Biswajit Ghosh's book on Kolkata.

In Lucknow you have the son and grandson of the legendary Tunday carrying on his legacy. The restaurant at Aminabad is an improvement on the one at Chowk and, by offering goat along with beef kebabs and air-conditioning too, have increased their appeal to a larger audience.

Closer home in Mumbai, the hundred year old Cafe India got a new lease of life when the Irani bakery was converted into Jimmy Boy, an Irani restaurant whose USP is the laganu bhonu (wedding feasts) that they offer.

Sometimes a bit of outside help is required when the family puts up its hands.

There are a couple of examples of this from Calcutta, a city which possibly cherishes its culinary heritage a bit more than others. Occasionally it does something about it!

So Priya Paul's Apeejay group took over Flurys which had come to a doddering halt after being run by five generations of a Swiss family of the same name. The Apeejay group, gave it a new lease of life. They have restored the flagship store at Park Street and given it a European tea room feel. Plus they have distributed its products in markets across the city. 

Recently the Lalit group took over the long shut grand dame of Kolkata, the Great Eastern Hotel, and, as you can read In Anindya's piece here, have restored it to its former glory and have retained its iconic bakery. I had gone there as a kid with my parents when I was new to Calcutta.

As a country we have some great culinary legends and it is important that we hold on to this. More stories such as that of the Apeejay and Lalit led resurrections are needed. Initiatives such as that of the Das family to move with the times are commendable and inspiring.

We can do our little bit by making an effort to go to these heritage eateries, eat there and spread the word about them.

Would love to hear more stories about India's culinary legacy being maintained and would love it if you share them in the comment section.
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