The Dishoom Covent Garden Story

BOMBAY, 1949. A sultry June evening. Lights glow golden. Candles flicker in the warm breeze that arrives gently through the large open windows of the café.

I watch, entranced, as Ruby brings the last bars of her song to a wistful close. Cheers erupt from the audience. She stands at the microphone, grins bashfully. Her sari, draped and perfumed, is bottle-green and gold. The glamorous of Bombay, members of the band, old friends, wayward sailors all clap and shout their praise. She bows slightly.

Ruby seems to float off the stage. A gramophone clicks and crackles to life and music starts again. She glides between tables, past where I am sitting, making her way to the bar. Gin and lime with ice only. “Come beti, sit with me,” suggests her mother, Yasmin, at the bar, drink in hand, strikingly beautiful in deep blue chiffon. They begin to gossip and laugh conspiratorially, as they often do.

Yasmin loves these evenings in her café-cum-club like nothing else. Each performance a hit, attended by all manner of Bombayites and revellers passing through this slightly wild port city. The obviously wealthy hobnob with the beautiful, the rakish and the occasional ne’er-do-wells. Jazzmen, languid on rattan chairs, unwind to swing and jazz sounds. Cine stars, at home on the page 3 society photos, chatter self-importantly about the latest talkie showing in the new cinema next door.

I remember years ago when this was just a large, sleepy Irani café owned by Yasmin’s father. An abiding favourite for patrons of all ages from Fort and beyond, it was a refuge from the street. I used to idle here over Bun Maska and Chai and read my newspaper while fans stirred the warm air gently. I look across the room at Yasmin, as she nods at the barman to top up her glass with a chota peg of whisky.  

For the young Yasmin, life in the café had been dull and stuffy. She had dreamed of a different life. Wilful and rebellious, she drank and smoked and you might say that she found herself where she should not be, at the bar at Green’s Hotel. There, she encountered a certain straight-backed Lt. Calum Hourston-Gordon, Highland Light Infantry. They say he was extremely handsome, if slightly roguish, and that his bright blue eyes made her smile. I’ve also been told that there was little that could have kept them apart that warm night in Colaba.

The delicious and intense affair was conducted in the rooms of Green’s and Watson’s Hotels over the course of the next year. The Lieutenant had been wholly sincere when he reminisced of his childhood in the Cairngorms and they talked of Yasmin’s future as Mrs. Hourston-Gordon and their life together at his family home in Ballater. Who knows what the natives of Aberdeenshire would have made of her, or indeed what she would have made of them. But, perhaps inevitably, he left, his regiment posted away from India, leaving a tearful 19-year-old Yasmin with a baby girl (and a whisky habit).

Those early years of motherhood for a so-called ‘fallen woman’ in Bombay must have been very tough. They say that Yasmin rose above the dishonour and tittle-tattle with a remarkable and healthy indifference. She never really cared what people said. Her father, of course, had been shocked by her scandalous behaviour, but he was a good man and he was always there for her. Looking at her now, I suspect that there is hardly a moment she regrets. Yasmin was different. She always had a rare and enviable confidence, a self-sufficiency that allowed her to turn things to her to advantage. When her dear father passed, she dreamed again, this time to turn the café into a place where everyone could be everything they imagined and more. Including her wonderful baby girl.

Born the same year as India’s first talkie, ‘Alam Ara’, was released, spirited little Ruby was surely destined for stardom. I hear that since she watched Hunterwali as an impressionable 7-year-old, she dressed and styled her hair according to her favourite heroine – even wearing shorts and fashioning herself a mask. Demanding of life and buoyed by her mother, Ruby grew up ambitious and determined to be in the films. Glittering lights, red velvet curtains and the films of the silver screen all captured her heart, none more so than those featuring the swashbuckling stuntwoman, Fearless Nadia.

No doubt, the persistence, confidence and striking good looks that she had inherited helped her find her way to the film sets of Wadia Movietone Productions, the very company that launched Nadia. Too briefly, she swung swords, fought lions, ran through fire. Sadly, her dream was cut short after injuring her spine thrice, swinging from chandeliers. No-one thought she would make a recovery.

But she was tough and undeterred, and far too used to being the centre of attention. Her mother’s café soon became her new stage. As I look around, I can see only a few traces of the way it once was. It has changed, and somehow the place now reflects more or less perfectly the polish and poise of mother and daughter. It is certainly anything but sleepy.

To her mother and their patrons, Ruby is the star of Bombay. A stream of guests flows into the club nightly to see her perform and to take in the heady atmosphere and drink strong toddy-laden tipples. Each night, as she stands on the stage, the large windows offer her a front-row view of the next-door cinema. Do I sense a trace of disappointment behind her eyes? She will never be in the Bombay talkies. Perhaps the touch of sadness adds something to her presence.

Regardless, the band plays on, the music enchants, and Ruby continues to bewitch Bombay. Don’t fail to visit the café and don’t fail to see her. And do remember me to Yasmin.

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