Jiggs Kalra passes away: The restaurateur's tryst with food began before he became the 'Czar of Indian cuisine'

To the world, Jiggs Kalra was a famous chef. To me, he was a friend and brother with whom I shared a flat in the building called Anita on Mount Pleasant Road in Mumbai for seven years, and ate sardines on toast with baked beans — our Sunday gourmet breakfast. Occasionally, scrambled eggs.

We also covered the war in 1971 in the western sector for the Illustrated Weekly, where we worked, and where the Khushwant Singh rat pack comprised some of the most famous names in Indian journalism.

The idea of owning a string of restaurants wasn’t even on the cards then. And yet Jiggs began to develop a taste for the exotic; the fridge in our little bachelor pad — the size of a postage stamp — was often stacked with things that crept and crawled and smelled fishy. He began to hold small parties where he served canapes like Monaco biscuits with fish paste on them and then a half cherry, and we became famous for hosting 70-people parties in a sort of full-night relay (the flat was 700 square feet in area) that saw famous film stars and models trot in, ostensibly because they loved him, and perhaps for the booze.

As sons of army officers, we could access alcohol at Rs 8 for a bottle of Old Monk. Through this flat came Vijay Mallya, model Sheila Jones, the Bredemeyer sisters, actor Victor Banerjee and dozens of famous others. Often our mashed eggs on toast were augmented by ‘phoren’ stuff brought by our air hostess friends from the British Airways, Air India and sundry other carriers from touchdown to home.

 Jiggs Kalra passes away: The restaurateurs tryst with food began before he became the Czar of Indian cuisine

Jiggs Kalra. Facebook/KalraJiggs

Then he met Freddy Mercury, who was then Freddy Balsara; his home was close the building where we lived. At that time Khushwant asked us to do a story on the alcohol industry, and Jiggs had a humongous party at Freddy’s house with the idea of taking photographs for the cover story, except no one had put any films in the two cameras. So a week later, there was a second party.

Our neighbours were interesting. Prem Nath upstairs, Nutan below, Waheeda Rehman’s sister to the right. The children of the first two poured colour into our Vespa scooters during Holi in 1973 and wrecked the engines. I think we gave them a hiding, because many years later, we met Premnath’s sons and had a good laugh about it… but we weren’t laughing then.

The creepy crawly stuff increased in numbers, and for a while, Jiggs went vegetarian with a vengeance. The flat was a salute to Gujarati food. Around 1974, Khushwant Singh introduced us to MF Husain and it became our duty to take the then not-so-well-known painter to eat kebabs at Jehangir Art Gallery’s Samovar restaurant. Every such occasion he would draw (Husain, not Jiggs) stick-like horses on the paper napkins. If only we had only known, we would have had over a hundred priceless napkins and could have retired.

As bachelors we were always on the prowl for a free dinner, and one of our gambits was to suit up to attend a wedding. We got away with it quite often until both of us started appearing regularly on TV, after which this caper had to stop.

His last few years were hard. Ill health and a certain sadness — of feeling lonely — enveloped him like a fog. The last time we spoke, he wanted to visit me in Dubai and talk — that’s all, talk. Jiggs Kalra passed away a few hours ago. He must be up there, testing the kitchens of heaven and pushing his glasses up his nose, refining what’s for dinner — or changing the menu.

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 23:19:40 IST