I moved into Mumbai from Kolkata exactly 20 years back to start my career as a market researcher after completing my MBA course. I was put up by my office at a PG in Bandra. This was the first time that I was staying away from home. There were the pressures of a new job too and I would sometimes come home feeling deflated. On one such evening, a fellow PG-ite suggested that we go out to check the 'Bandra Fair' which everyone was talking about.
We stepped out after dinner and got into a bus labeled 'Mount Mary Steps', which is where the Bandra Fair is held every September. We had to get down after a while as the bus couldn't go ahead because of the traffic. We were jostled by teeming crowds of people, all blowing paper horns and whistles for some reason. We walked for a while, but were unable to find anything that looked like a fair ground or even a church and came back to the PG feeling shaken and distraught.
It has been 20 years since, and I have somehow never made an attempt to return to the Bandra Fair. I have held the opinion that it is something that causes bad traffic.
Mount Mary Church and Bandra Fest; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
Once Upon a Time in Bandra
Bandra girl Annabelle Ferro DeSylva, who is married to the 'Bandra Bugger' (a reference to the name of his blog and book), Clement DeSylva, tells me that the Bandra Fair was more integrated into the local community earlier. The area where the Bandra Fair is held was once dotted with Catholic-owned cottages, and for the residents the Bandra Fair was an integral part of life.
The Bandra Fair, in case you were wondering, refers to the festivities around the celebration of the birthday of the Virgin Mary at the Mount Mary Church. This is the colloquial name for The Basilica of our Lady of the Mount, which is where the Novena prayers are offered during this period.
Many of the cottages Annabelle referred to have been sold off and new buildings have come up in their place. The locality sees new residents, and for many the Bandra Fair is something that happens in the periphery of their worlds.
Annabelle talks fondly of how grandmoms in the erstwhile cottages in the bylanes of Bandra would cook and sell food from their houses, which folks visiting the Basilica would feast on when famished after their visit to the church.
Local favourites being sold in the stalls; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
The high point of the fair for young Catholic boys and girls from her growing up days, Annabelle tells me, was the September Garden Jamboree. The September Garden refers to the compound of the Mount Carmel Church at Bandra Reclamation, which hosts the fair. Annabelle has fond memories of the bands that would play there during the fair, the crowning of the Bandra Fair King and Queen that would take place there, and the Well of Death and Laughing Mirror stalls that would be set up along with Catholic food stalls offering favourites such as chorizo pav, sorpotel, vindaloo, fuggias, potato chops and pan rolls.
Folks from Goa and Mangalore along with the local East Indians primarily make up the Catholic community of Bandra. In local slang they are referred to as GEMS (Goan East Indian Mangalorean South Indians). Each community has their own way of preparing the popular dishes such as vindaloo, sorpotel and so on. Each family has their own variations too, thanks to inter-marriages between the communities.
A lot of the charm of yore is gone, says Annabelle, and hanging around at the September Garden is not as much of a high point for her children as it was for her generation. "Before there was Facebook, we had the September Garden to connect with our friends," said Annabelle with a twinkle in her eyes. She adds, "The September Garden has changed its identity over the years and is different from when I was a child -where you knew almost everyone by name or you went with someone who did. My daughters go to offer their prayers to Mother Mary but not to the September Garden as such. They have other means of entertainment now.
Women selling goodies at the Bandra Fair; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
A Return to the Bandra Fair
I decided to make another 'summit attempt' to the fair this year after staying away from it for 20 years, thanks to Valentine Norohna, a young Goan and a Bandra boy. He is a friend that I have made at the café in Bandra that I often work out of, Candies. We often exchange notes on our favourite food haunts when we bump into each other. Valentine offered to help me navigate the fair this time. Valentine reiterated what Annabelle had said about her daughters. That he too goes to offer his prayers but hasn't really gone to the fair for the last decade or so. He was willing to get back into ring for me!
Unlike my first visit, this time I knew where to head to, thanks to Valentine, whom I met outside the gate at 7 pm. I took in the beautiful surroundings of the church, and then we went to the cafeteria next door. On sale there were Cheese Sandwiches, Chicken Burgers and Pork Sorpotel Hot Dogs. I found out that these are made by the nuns who stay at the church. They make and sell the snacks during the fair, and have been doing so for years. The proceeds go to help run the orphanage they look after.
Pork Sorpotel; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
Feeding the Devotees of Mother Mary
Valentine and I then walked down the Mount Mary Steps. Dotted on both side of the steps were lots of makeshift stalls. The first to catch my eyes were stalls selling roasted black channa. This is apparently the preferred energy booster of Bandra Fair visitors for years I was told. No one seemed to know how the practice had started.
There were stalls selling Kadio Bodio, local candy sticks. Then there were stalls selling Milk Cakes from Uttar Pradesh and Karachi Halwa as well. Valentine told me that pilgrims who came to the fair take back sweets and channa from these stalls for their families back home and this is distributed as prasad. Unlike Hindu practices or what I have seen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the prasad is not taken in to the church to be blessed.
Tucked in between these stalls were a few who had on sale the East Indian bottled masala, Goan masalas for vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries and masalas such as the Mangalorean Kundapur masala.
Stall No 39 run by the Carvalhos, who live opposite the steps, offered Goan renditions of ladoos. The dink and Shev Ladoos are worth trying, which are made lovingly by the stall owners. The family seemed to be one of the very few preserving the old Bandra Fair practice of local industry by selling their ladoos and Kadio Boddio. There were a couple of stalls that promised Goan sweets such as bebinca, bol and dodol though most seemed to be out of stock the evening that I went to the fair. As was the stall that promised Chorizo Pav. Instead of local fare, what one saw in plenty was the favourite of community fairs across India, stalls selling Rajasthani pickles!
Ladoos at the Bandra Fair; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
My mother-in-law, Pervin Bilimoria, told me that they would go to the Bandra Fair in the early 1980s with my wife, who was then a little girl. The attraction was to get Goan food that one didn't get that easily in the city otherwise. My late father-in-law loved his vindaloo as do many Parsis and would be most happy here.
The September Garden Ground at Mount Carmel had a bit more to offer in terms of food. There were stalls selling Catholic dishes such as pan rolls, chorizo pav, sorpotel, vindaloo, as well as Jai Maharashtra Chaat, Purani Delhi Kulfi and Schezwan Chinese. Valentine explained that some of the stalls were let out to parishioners here by the church at lower rates than the BMC run stalls outside the church, which were more commercial and beyond the reach of the local community.
The best of what I ate at the September Grounds was the Chorizo Pav and the East Indian sorpotel and fuggia that I picked up to take home from the Youth Stall. The food here is cooked by families of the young priest and parish youth running the stall and the proceeds go to charities run by the church.
"It was like going back to the Durga Pujo fairs in Kolkata. So many people!Such lovely chikki, dink ladoo, sorpotel and sausage pav to eat," said Diganta Chakravarty, a young chef originally from Kolkata, on visiting the fair a couple of days after I did so. He mirrored my thoughts. I too found the atmosphere at the fair happy and festive. The smiles around me were infectious.
I walked back home after my visit to the fair feeling at peace. It was as if the Virgin Mary had herself welcomed me to the Bandra Fair that evening.
Food stalls at the Bandra Fair; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
What About the Bandra Feast?
The Bandra Fair is called 'Feast' too.
"Where is the feast," I wondered. "Is there a practice similar to the bhog given out at the Durga Puja grounds or the langar at Gurudwaras?"
Another Bandra girl, Sophia Netto, who works with the SodaBottleOpenerWala restaurant and has introduced dishes such as the East Indian-styled Pork Vindaloo and Sorpotel, Goan Potato Chops (mutton and veg), a curry called Lonvas and her grandmom's thali sweet (a coconut-based dessert) at the restaurant's BKC outlet as a tribute to the Bandra Fair, helped me out on this.
Sophia told me that the visitors to the Bandra Fair came from across the city, and now from even across the country and the world. After visiting the Basilica, they would drop in tired and hungry, at the houses of their relatives and friends who lived at Bandra and who in turn would keep an "open house" with tables loaded with food for the occasion. The families also got together during the festival in each other's houses and local favourites were cooked for the 'feast'. Sorpotel seems to be the most commonly made dish across houses for the occasion. The fact that it is more difficult to cook than other dishes such as the vindaloo or curries, perhaps ensures that it is special enough for festive occasions for local Catholics, whether it is for the Mount Mary Feast, Easter or Christmas.
I got Sophia to share the recipe of an East Indian curry called the Lonvas, which can be made with either chicken or vegetables. You can give it a try to bring in a bit of the Bandra Fair flavour at home.
Sophia Netto's Lonvas recipe
1 onion finely chopped
1 cup mixed vegetables (e.g. carrot, cauliflower) diced or 250 g chicken on the bone
1/2 cup gavaar (beans) broken into small pieces
1 cup water
1 cup coconut cream
6 garlic cloves crushed
1 1/2 tbsp East Indian bottle masala
1 tbsp tamarind pulp or 1/2 tbsp vinegar
Oil for frying
Salt to taste
Lonvas; Photo Credit: Kalyan Karmakar
1. Fry the onions in oil till they are translucent add the garlic and cook until you get the aroma of the garlic
2. Add the bottle masala and take off the fire immediately
3. Stir the contents well add some water and put it back on the fire add the vegetables (or chicken) and the gavaar, stir fry lightly, add water and half cook the veggies/ chicken add the coconut cream, and salt let it cook well
4. Add the tamarind pulp and vinegar at the end before taking it off the stove. Don't cook it much further after adding them as the cream will separate then. This is best eaten with pav/ gutli pav or steamed rice.
About the Author:
Kalyan loves to eat and he loves to talk about all that he eats. His wife urged him to start writing about it, otherwise she would have to hear it all. He blogs as 'finelychopped' and is the author of The Travelling Belly published by Hachette Publications.
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