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'Let's Go To Sam's….'
Published: Volume 13, Issue 4, July-August, 2005
Samovar became a bank, a home away from home, a post office for artists who had no address in the city.
- Devieka Bhojwani

City artists, writers, editors, architects, film stars, raise their voices as one, against the eviction of Café Samovar at the Jehangir Art Gallery, in Mumbai. The 40-year-old eatery is close to the heart (as also the stomach) of most of creative South Mumbai, perceives Shirin Mehta.

Columnist, author and hardcore Mumbaikar, Shobhaa Dé, wrote this in the Café Samovar guest book, after she took her family to the tea and lunch place, at the Jehangir Art Gallery, some years ago: ‘Samovar is not a café, it is an emotion. After today, I am certain it has found a niche in the hearts of my children too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday they bring their kids here and say proudly, Oh…your grandmother used to love the mooli parathas here. And everything will be just the same….’

Not if the trustees of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (Prince of Wales Museum) which runs the Jehangir Art Gallery, have their way; nothing will have the chance to remain the same. Café Samovar, Mumbai’s sliver of an artists’ haunt, that has nurtured the city’s creative ethos in the heart of its architecturally excellent Kala Ghoda area, is facing a closure threat. In March, a show cause notice for eviction was issued by a government officer to restaurant owner, Usha Khanna, who filed a plea challenging the eviction action by the museum’s board of trustees. Samovar had faced similar threats before, in 1974 and 1981. At last count, the Jehangir Art Gallery had asked the café to pay Rs 20 lakh for ‘illegal occupation of space belonging to the gallery’.

The flood of letters and memories, albeit orchestrated by Khanna’s energetic daughters, Devieka Bhojwani and Malavika Sangghvi, that this unfortunate event has unleashed, is a true measure of what this 40-year-old café, dubbed Sam’s by its regulars, means to Mumbai’s creative world. Samovar has indeed been a refuge for the young, the upcoming, broke dreamers who came to the city looking to make a name and find their fortune. It is in fact part and parcel of Mumbai’s ‘City of Gold’ flavour. Khanna recalls the time when veteran artist, K H Ara, with little money in his pockets, announced his passion for baingan ki bhaji, and she had it made fresh and hot in the Samovar kitchen. “Samovar became a bank, a home away from home, a post office for artists who had no address in the city,” says Bhojwani, leafing through a file of letters from well-wishers. These are being sorted to be stuck on the walls, opposite the monsoon gumboots overflowing with money plants.

“It was my mother’s rule that no one be thrown out of Samovar; you can sit here the entire day if you wish. She made us promise that nothing will change. Keep the prices low and the simplicity must always remain, she maintained. We don’t want to be another restaurant in Mumbai, we want to be Samovar. It is so tragic that the gallery is not seeing what an important role Samovar has played as a cultural melting pot,” says Bhojwani.

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