Painting the Town Red: Inside M. F. Husain’s Bombay
Canopied by clouds pregnant enough to deliver the season’s first showers, Colaba Causeway doesn’t reach a quarter of its usual cacophony when I drive down Thursday morning.
Hunched by the kerbside, I see owners of tiny stalls busy sorting supplies they’ll shortly upsell to unassuming tourists, in Hinglish, or even amusingly accented Arabic.
They’re also preparing (mentally) for the overzealous teenagers who’ll troupe down to bargain their pocket money’s worth for fake Ray Bans, Levi’s surplus and Zara rejects.
Two kilometres from here is Cuffe Parade. Built on reclaimed land, the uber-plush locality is where Maqbool Fida Husain resided, a gradual but substantial upgrade from the communal chawls of Badr Baug in Grant Road. His bold, progressive interpretations of primordial Indian mythology had stirred both his fortunes and the art world, earning him accolades aplenty.
India’s Picasso, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and what not.
Across the street from here, wedged within the ground floor of the grey-stoned, Victorian-era Rehem Mansion, is also Olympia Coffee House & Stores, a Muslim Chilia-run restaurant, an instituition of sorts, where the nattily dressed painter often culminated his morning walks. Mostly with Munna Javeri, a friend who still lives six buildings from where Husain once did.
It’s peak breakfast hours when I walk in and most customers seem to be regulars, much like Husain was through the ’90s. A menu isn’t offered, nor is one needed. Not today. Straight up I order M.F. Husain’s morning muses. Keema, with pav. Eggs, sunny side up. Chai, half a cup. A full cuppa, I recently learnt, was never his cup of tea.
Ashraf had guided me in minutes ago. He wore a skull-cap, his pajamas ending above his ankle (a trademark of the Muslim Chilia community he belongs to). Of the four chairs circling the white-mélange marbled table, I had deliberately occupied one from where I could see, and savour, the place’s pulse, a vantage point the Pandharpur-born painter always preferred while eating out.
I consume the commotion, with my heart set on the salad plate piled high with half a dozen lime wedges, their yolk-yellow peel indicative of a juicy yield (I can’t wait to squeeze them over keema). Like puppeteers, the two men behind the cake-and-bun-brimming counters are controlling everything; one trrriiiing of their call bells sets off waiters in a tizzy, their forearms balancing up to three porcelain plates.
Buttered, tutti-frutti-filled buns being dipped in milky chai on the table beside mine makes me yearn for my food triply more. I finish the peas-and-dill-sprinkled keema, both portions, fairly quickly, and as soon as I am done, Ashraf brings me my bill, a measly 350 rupees for a kingly meal, and all that lemon.
As I stand sluicing the grease off my hands with the Daliesque pink blobs of Lifebuoy melting in the soap dish under the “Wash Basin,” my stomach tingles at the knowledge that Husain too once stood here, rinsing oil off his gnarled fingers, like he must have after mixing oil and paint.
It’s half past 10 in the night but when I see the WhatsApp call come in, I answer at the first ring, simultaneously grabbing my notebook and the closest pen in sight.
Just 10 minutes ago he’d acknowledged my SMS with “I am on a cruise in Alaska. Anything urgent?” Knowing how slim my chances were then, I had simply replied, it’s about M.F. Husain.
That’s all it took.
Within seconds Munna Javeri is on the line, willing to entertain a travel writer whilst travelling to Alaska no less, just because a rock-solid, 38-year-old friendship must be honoured, across continents, beyond time zones, nine years after his buddy breathed his last in a London hospital.
Winding his memory back to those times, Munna lists their addas, all in south Mumbai, all eating establishments.
Well, he loved good food and “he definitely knew where to grab a good bite,” Munna says, his tone, despite the dodgy cellular network, is filled with pride, showing off how his friend was in on it “…chilia, chaat places, five-star fine diners, he knew them all. Partially also because in the days when he was painting Bollywood posters and making wooden toys, he ate out a lot.”
Treasuring the gems Munna had so ebulliently expressed, the next morning I set out. Stepping into the shoes of an artist who never wore a pair, I visit spots he did, sampling fare his dexterous fingers had once made morsels out of, talking to owners, waiters and anybody really who remembers anything Husain…
… barefooted, tinted retro specs resting on the bridge of his long nose, a trademark of the Sulaimani Bohra community he belonged to.
Stadium Restaurant, near Churchgate Station, was another favourite the two frequented, a Muslim Irani-run establishment, different from the Parsi Irani cafés.
The furniture is basic and the weathered walls could really use a Husain. My mind veers off to a signed sketch framed inside Noor Mohammedi, featuring (unsurprisingly) a horse, the sun dazzling to the stallion’s right, something in Urdu scribbled inside it. It was an impulsive gift to a place whose paya Husain occasionally slurped up.
Such spontaneously done drawings were his reward, his rating, his hefty tip, to places he liked, be it restaurants or random paanwallahs.
Inside Stadium though, waiters barely ever smile, a trait that seems to have trickled down from the top, for my attempt to extract anything Husain of the man behind the counter fails gloriously. All I get is a stern, “Don’t waste your time, madam.”
It’s 9.30 on a weekday morning and I’ve little time to waste. Retreating to my seat, once again, I order keema pav. It pales in comparison with what I’d polished off at Olympia. But the bun maska isn’t bad, my colleague, who’s just finished breakfast, assures.
Before exiting I smile at the fair, middle-aged gentleman. A fruitless pursuit though. Hair dyed and parted like Jitendra, both his features and the folds on his forehead remind me of Mehbooba Mufti; his frown lines just won’t thaw.
Conceding defeat, I move on.
With still some time left until my next appointment, I decide to peek into Joy Shoes. Munna’s shoe shop in Colaba’s Taj Mahal Palace was redesigned by Husain—evidently. His signed footprint, engraved in Egyptian gold, is the second thing you’ll notice when you enter Joy Shoes. The first is a Husain hallmark—two galloping horse sculptures guarding the marbled entrance like glorified dvarapalas.
Inside, the pops of olive and orange stand out, like they do in Sprinkling Horses, whose sharp, cubist strokes fetched an astronomical $1.14 million at a Christie’s New York auction in 2011, the same year the modernist passed, at 95, still painting.
Childlike in spirit, age was barely a deterrent for the artist who was driven away to Dubai by Hindu hardliners for his nude renditions of Hindu goddesses. Burning his effigies, they accused Husain of hurting their sentiments. If anything, I’d imagine, it was the other way around; his pining to return was palpable. It’s a pity he couldn’t.
Yet despite Mumbai’s evolution, Husain’s Bombay remains.
At least some of it.
Joy Shoes is also where he’d show up at lunchtime for Munna. They’d take off, sometimes not farther than Golden Dragon, the fine dining restaurant across the corridor. “Pan-fried noodles with shredded chicken was his standard order,” says Sarfaraz Deshmukh, who waited Husain’s table.
He ate, hobnobbed, and even painted for hours at the Taj. At its coffee shop Shamiana, Anil Baban Chaskar remembers Husain’s fingers deftly colouring the canvas plucked out of his jhola, halting only to sip the fresh lime soda he’d served him.
He had a massive soft spot for chaat too, and for that he’d dash off to Swati Snacks in Tardeo; also my next stop.
“I remember seeing him almost every other Sunday,” says Asha Jhaveri, owner of the mid-sized, wildly popular vegetarian restaurant that even non-vegetarians rave about. “He’d come with Munna. He’d also bring his family,” Asha, dressed in a yellow tunic and black capris, seated on a table across, says, trying to scratch her memory for more but then again, like she says, “It’s a story from many years ago.”
As I sit people-watching, Asha glides into the kitchen to recreate items Husain had, for me to eat and for my companion to photograph. Across the glass panel, I can see her conduct the chefs, their white toques bobbing as they put sev to puri.
A little while later two sunshine yellow plates arrive. We try the sev and dahi-batata puris, and devour the panki. Indigestion being a concern, Husain particularly relished this mildly spiced rice flour preparation, wrapped and steamed in banana leaf, peeling its yellow bits off the green leaf, slowly and carefully.
Calcutta meetha. No tambaku. That’s how Husain Sahib liked his paan,” recalls Jagat Narayan Singh in Hindi so pure, so neta-like, I take a few extra seconds to process.
Husain often stopped by at Volga Pan House in Fort, sometimes thrice in a single day.
On a scorching weekday afternoon when I visit, Singh, now a portly paanwallah probably in his 50s, is seated on a wooden plank jutting out of his tiny paan shop, one leg folded up, the other dangling down, inches above his chappals. He lords over like Ganesha on an assortment of spinach-green betel leaves, some desiccated coconut and a mound of slacked lime, piled high in tin containers that have seen better days.
It isn’t peak hour. He’s got time to indulge. “He mostly came in a kaali peeli. Same, no chappal. Pop his paan and leave after some baat cheet (a quick chat),” he recounts, voice dripping nostalgia. What’d they talk about? “Just. Everyday things.” When I coax for content or context, slightly miffed, he shoots a sharp “Gharelu they, bhai (He was like family),” response at me. I gulp down this (over) familiarisation claim with my very own Calcutta meetha.
This isn’t my first time here, though. I usually drop in past midnight, when people wait in parcels, scattered outside an establishment that has for years drawn the many characters that make Mumbai’s canvas so unique, so colourful. Families in SUVs after full on meals; tipsy youngsters spilling out of nearby pubs; young boys, their gossamer-thin moustaches freshly broken, cracking their lungs over loosely bought cigarettes.
Essentially then, for the price of a pan, you get a taste of a city…
… a city that Husain migrated to from Indore to make it big, a city that chased him away but has also kept his memories alive.
Tug at the heartstrings of people the maestro rendezvoused with and the anecdotes come to life—bold, brisk, beautiful, like the strokes immortalised in Husain’s paintings.