Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: A case study for why the doughtiest community is one bound by food
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis
Read more columns in this series here.
The Goodies Tree of Sewri
In these times of weaponised ‘nationalism’, here’s food for thought. Literally. It stands no chance against the age-old pull of community. Within this lies our strongest bond of all, the bharta, biryani, bissi bille bath, basundi that grandma used to make. Food is a pan-Indian obsession, and we have the pot-bellies to prove it. In a geography where signature dishes change every 50 kilometres, it arouses fierce loyalty and rivalry. It’s the equivalent of an India-Pak cricket match.
Urban living with its multicultural pastiche has elasticised ‘community’, taken it beyond its classical ethnocultural boundaries to include passion cohorts: the aerobics to Zumba fiends, laughter clubs, the Alibag aristocracy ( and arrivistes), trekkies, the commuter train card-players and their sassy/ saas-complaining counterparts in ‘Ladies’. But once again, the doughtiest community is the one bound by food. Even lockdown, which laid low so many others, could not fell it. Instead, it gave rise to Insta armies of amateur chefs.
Which brings me to MyTree, the unique food community of Sewri. Its seed was sown three years before corona spiked our plans, but it branched most profusely in the pandemic. Smita Vyas Kumar, MBA, brained this app-based idea. It offers home-cooked food by and for hyperlocal communities. It began in what were then the only two gated complexes of TJ Road, her own Ashok Gardens, and Dosti Flamingos. Residents uploaded dishes on this closed-circuit platform for neighbours who wanted a break from their own kitchens and khichri.
With its slogan of "Khao Khilao Kamao", it is mutually assured satisfaction. The consumer gets a yummily wholesome, caringly made meal (or snack). For the supplier it is a source of revenue and, more important, empowerment. No longer is Mamma’s ghar ki murghi daal barabar; instead she’s become the buttered-up toast of the neighbourhood. Many like Madhu Chhabria, 71, who harboured ambitions of starting their own home-delivery service but couldn’t manage the time, resources or scale, have found a perfect alternative.
Smita feels as warm as comfort food about this. “MyTree helped uncover so much talent, build up so much confidence in taken-for-granted homemakers. We have chefs who have now become mini celebrities in the neighbourhood for their signature dishes. Their success gives me great pride and satisfaction.”
But it was lockdown which really turned MyTree into a ‘kalpa vriksh’. It was the answer to the prayer of households forced to cook and clean without the once-indispensable part-time help — while balancing WFM and cooped-up kids. Word of mouth (what else?) created a huge demand from many communities since it offers food made in limited quantities from a trusted, safe, similar SEC source.
Unstoppable Smita set up eight new branches across Mumbai during these no-go months, in addition to managing the existing clutch which had grown to four. “It was tough because I had to do it totally online without physically meeting a single chef.” Four more hyperlocal branches will be launched in December.
There were also logistical hurdles. Take the original MyTree: In the first strictured months, food could not be exchanged between the member communities of TJ Road. Vegetables were also difficult to procure. Yet, the chefs rose valiantly to the occasion, rescuing many a family with simple, home cooked meals. Including the basic bane of every woman: chapatis. Every day, they rolled off hundreds of hot rotis, theplas and parathas. Not forgetting to appease the kiddie cravings for pizzas, pani-puri and pancakes.
Smita is especially pleased about MyTree’s special outreach during lockdown. To senior citizens living alone without help who were provided suitable dishes taking care of dietary demands and preferences. To COVID-stricken families, planning and supplying nutritious meals to help nurse them back to health. And, not least to the security staff who stayed on the premises over those long months; those at Ashok Garden, with its larger number of ‘chefs’, were served four meals a day including a sweet.
When rules relaxed somewhat, MyTree began buzzing between Ashok Gardens and Dosti Flamingos. Residents now have an embarrassment of riches, from evening samosas to khow suey for dinner. The chefs/customers of these two large complexes walk across to the gates to deliver/ pick up orders and savour the much-needed conversation that sustains spirits in these troubling times. Smita smiles: “Many new relationships grew from MyTree. Hopefully they will continue.”
The bonding power of food has flowered on MyTree, individual need has fruited into neighbourly supply. Both parties khush. It vindicates the platform’s name, a play on the word ‘maitri’, friendship.
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