By Kahini Iyer Mar. 04, 2021
Even as Mumbai has opened up, a host of small businesses are conspicuously absent from its landscape, as they were unable to weather the months of lockdown. This latest obituary is for Bandra’s beloved Karachi Bakery.
As hard as it may be to believe, it’s March again. A whole year of the Covid-19 pandemic has passed us by, and for all of us, it has been a year of profound loss. While many have had to endure the unexpected passing of loved ones, young and old, others have dealt with quieter losses: the jobs they have been laid off from and the offices where they spent their days; the homes that are no longer affordable; and the friends and family they cannot meet.
And then there are the losses that are less immediate, but somehow still feel equally personal, like the cinema halls, bookshops, and restaurants where we would, once upon a time, spend leisurely hours. Even as Mumbai has opened up, a host of small businesses are conspicuously absent from its landscape, as they were unable to weather the months of lockdown. This latest obituary is for Bandra’s beloved Karachi Bakery.
Rumours abound as to why this venerable neighbourhood institution closed its doors. Over the last couple of years, Karachi Bakery has been targeted by right-wing groups like the now-ruling Shiv Sena and its zealous splinter faction, the MNS, for its name — a fate shared by the equally unfortunate Karachi Sweets. Now that the shop is shutting down, MNS leader Haji Saif Shaikh has taken the credit for terrorising the establishment with his party followers back in November and demanding that they change their name. According to Shaikh, the reference to Karachi is “anti-national” and he was insulted when the owners claimed ancestral ties to their native city.
But it turns out the MNS is wrong, and not just because they are sorely in need of a history lesson. Karachi Bakery has disputed the idea that they have shut down due to any kind of political pressure, instead citing the slowdown in business during the pandemic and the increasing costs of rent. (Still, we might do well to enjoy a Punjab Sind mango lassi or a spring roll from Royal China while we can, before those eateries are shut down on charges of being unpatriotic.) It’s even possible that the shop will open up again in a new location. For now, regardless of the reasons it went under, we mourn the loss of one of the city’s most iconic bakeshops.
Like so many such establishments sprinkled throughout Mumbai, Karachi Bakery was more than a place to buy your daily bread. It was started in 1953 by Khanchand Ramnani, a Sindhi migrant who had left his home in Karachi during Partition. When Ramnani settled in Hyderabad, he opened the first outlet and went on to franchise the bakery with fourteen outlets remaining popular to this day. The brand has grown immensely, and now packages its famous cakes and bakes for loyal local customers as well as NRIs who miss their familiar flavours. As tastes have changed, the bakery has modernised, offering up exotic treats like ragi biscuits and Italian biscotti – a far cry from the humble rusks and nankhatai we have grown up dipping in our evening Bournvita.
Clearly, Karachi Bakery belongs in Bandra, the suburb that combines old-world charm with quirky small businesses and a plethora of hipster-centric cafes. And yet, it is no more. Mumbai, a city packed with small family-run bakeries, will officially be the only metropolis in India to not have a Karachi Bakery. It may seem like just a blip when you can get fresh pao and tasty puffs on every other corner. Anyway, when old-school bakeries with their homely breads and biscuits are already giving way to fancy artisanal joints that serve up wholegrain, gluten-free sourdough loaves, or decadent croissants made with imported French butter, what is the point of a Karachi Bakery? Isn’t it part of a dying breed, a dinosaur hanging on in a world where it is obsolete?
For the connoisseurs of the Mumbai bakery, the answer is a resounding no. Like all its contemporaries, Karachi Bakery might not have any pretensions or frills — no organic ingredients or experimental matcha-flavoured teacakes. But therein lies the timeless charm of the classic bakery, where you can reliably find the same chicken mayo sandwiches, ketchupy mini pizzas, and cream-covered pineapple pastries that you have eaten since childhood. Sure, some bakeries might go so far as having eggless cakes, while others boast the best kheema bun in a three-kilometre radius. Each one has its prized specialty to which no pretenders can ever compare, and for Karachi, it was their legendary fruit biscuits. By and large, however, you can always count on the same wholesome (not healthy) carb-laden comfort foods, always prepared fresh and exactly as you remember them.
From my family’s favourite Yazdani Irani bakery in Fort, to the Catholic-run American Express on Hill Road, to the Sindhi Karachi, Mumbai’s bakeries transcend barriers of geography, background, and religion. Those who have lived in the city long enough pass on their preferences through the generations: the tradition of the holiday plum cake coming from Hearsch and the birthday cakes from A1, the conviction that only Merwan’s mawa cake is worth having with chai, the stubborn insistence that while everyone else has cheaped out on their khari biscuits over the years, Kyani maintains a gold standard.
Like the smell of baking bread, these goodies wind their way to our kitchens and coffee tables, seeping into our everyday existence until it becomes nigh-impossible to think of breakfast or teatime without them. It’s a nostalgic simplicity that no French croissant can satisfy, and the Karachi Bakery community will be feeling its absence. I will miss the buttery shortbreads, and although I know I can order them online, it won’t ever be the same as stopping by the inviting Linking Road shop.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.