By Pinakin Jayant Sep. 28, 2019
It takes a bit to get used to Britannia’s eccentricities: the sleepy cat on the counter, the Union Jack and cut-outs of the British royal family on the walls. But of all the quirks of this nearly 100-year-old cafe, there are none that approach the legendary status of the proprietor himself.
One of the most naive things I’ve done in my life (and I’ve done a few) was walking into Britannia and Co during my internship in Mumbai with all the arrogance of a third-year media student to ask if I could shoot my degree film there, my big bargaining chip for this being exposure. Everyone in the establishment, including the service staff and the cat, glared at me with the sort of a look that suggested equal parts pity, incredulousness, and hysterical laughter before gently telling me the establishment didn’t need my circle of influence to make ends meet in the city. On seeing that my dreams were crushed, the wizened manager, Mr Boman Kohinoor gave me a caramel custard and asked me to come over sometime for lunch. He pulled a strand of my hair and wagged a finger at me, “Only girls have such long hair,” he said.
There’s no new perspective I can hand out about Britannia. It’s been on every listicle about iconic restaurants in India before listicles were cool and it’ll probably continue featuring on them for the foreseeable future. It always inspires argument and divides food connoisseurs with different hot takes about it. There’s no escaping the fact that the place is linked with the city’s culinary fabric. Britannia is a part of something uniquely Mumbai — its frozen-in-time Irani cafes, a handful of which have managed to survive and flourish through decades of change in the city. And at a time where chefs are trying to (sometimes unnecessarily) push the boundaries of Indian food, Britannia remains an evergreen constant.
When I shifted to Mumbai to work, I didn’t have any friends in the city. A large part of my battle with loneliness was made easier by food. I’d visit and revisit establishments alone, eventually being welcomed into a select group of regulars who were treated like family by the staff and management. Britannia was my first “luxury meal” in Mumbai. My best friend and I saved up for a week and ploughed through two entire portions of their berry pulav (each for ₹800). Mid-way through our meal, Boman Kohinoor walked up to our table and sweetly asked us if we were enjoying our meal, demanding we stay until our tummies were full. I told him how much my friends had raved about the caramel custard, to which he smiled and signalled to his staff to get us a taster. I told him about how Britannia was my mother’s favourite place to eat in the city, to which he told me he’s probably served her when she was my age too. He had just turned 93. After that, whenever I’ve walked into the place he would always ask if I’ve had enough custard with a twinkle in his eye. Such acts of kindness from strangers made it so much easier to forge a connection with the city.
It takes a bit to get used to Britannia’s eccentricities. There’s always a sleepy cat sprawled on the counter; on occasion, they place a “Do Not Disturb” sign right next to it. There’s a collection of objects carefully placed around the room that merit at least a couple of Instagram stories — for example, a full size cutout of Prince William and Kate Middleton right above a sign that declares “Smoking is an offence”. On one of the walls you can see the Union Jack sandwiched in between the Indian tri-colour and the flag of Iran. But of all the quirks of this nearly 100-year-old cafe, there are none that approach the legendary status of the proprietor himself.
Boman Kohinoor was obsessed with the royal family. He’d waste no time telling you how the country has been ruined post-Independence, with nostalgic stories about the clinical government efficiency of pre-colonial times.
Boman Kohinoor was obsessed with the royal family. He’d waste no time telling you how the country has been ruined post-Independence, with nostalgic stories about the clinical government efficiency of pre-colonial times. He had written to Buckingham Palace several times, even getting a reply from Queen Elizabeth herself — now framed on one of the walls. He was also the only person I knew firsthand who claimed to personally know most of the legendary freedom fighters I’ve spent years reading about. Meeting him even for five minutes was such an exciting experience, because the man was a repository of stories.
A few months ago, I visited Britannia with a couple of my friends from Europe who wanted to see “real India”. Thrilled at meeting prospective customers from England, Boman Uncle walked over to our table, and after admonishing the length of my hair again, took out a photo carefully kept inside a plastic bag. He was beaming alongside Prince William and Kate Middleton, who had an impromptu meeting with him after a video of his confessing his love for the royal family did the rounds on social media. “They’re my friends now!” he told me. I laughed.
A small part of every patron Britannia’s had felt a little hollow after hearing about his death last week. He was 97. Through his long life, he’s made several unforgettable memories for thousands of people who’ve walked through Britannia’s hallowed doors. The next time I visit I’m going to read the almost-rude “Don’t argue with management” signs and feel a little pang of grief, knowing no one’s going to come and demand I cut my hair with a grandfatherly affection. And no one’s going to look at my forlorn face after a bad day at work, and send me a free caramel custard.