Manori, a fishing village located near Mumbai, is a beautiful place to visit in the monsoon, judging by the crowds that throng the ferries even on a weekday. Among them is Alphi D’Souza, CEO of the Mobai Gaothon Panchayat (MGP), a community of East Indians in Mumbai. Follow him into the village and he will lead you to his family house, which doubles up as the Mobai Museum dedicated to preserving East Indian culture.
The 240 sq ft museum comprises two make-shift sheds, built at a slight height in D’Souza’s compound and held together by bamboo poles and chutta (dried coconut leaves stitched together). Inside the two sheds are about 50 utensils, farming instruments, and other artifacts stacked up in a haphazard way.
It’s a dreary sight until D’Souza starts explaining the culinary role of these vessels. “These vessels can be used only with mud chulhas, which cannot be accomodated in flats. That’s why they (the vessels) are only used during food festivals or community solas (picnics),” says D’Souza. “In the earlier days, any potter would be able to create these vessels. The higher frequency of their use meant that they had to be replaced. Today, there are just a few potters in Mahim and a couple in Vasai who know how to make these vessels,” says D’Souza.
D’Souza grew up in a large joint family in Vakola, a locality in the Mumbai suburbs. His century-old cottage had a common kitchen where all the relatives would cook by turns. The whole house would smell of the East Indian bottle masala. “They say that bottle masala cooked in an earthen vessel is a specialty by itself,” he says. Each food item was cooked in a different utensil. The tizal, a roundish mud pot, was used for making curries. Then there was the forma for making cakes and baking piglings. “It is a big, deep earthen vessel with a cover on top. The cake was mixed, wrapped in a brown paper and put in the forma. This was then slow baked for a couple of hours,” says D’Souza. The pigling required more work. It had to be cleaned, its insides were removed, and then stuffed with masalas, cut liver and bread pieces. The pigling was a specialty meant for occasions like Christmas, anniversaries or weddings.
Apart from heavyweights like forma, there are also smaller brass and copper vessels, as well as bharnis (jars made from porcelain) which were used for storing pickles and masalas, as well as for fermenting wines. One of these utensils is still used by East Indians in their modern-day kitchens. “The khapri, which is used to roast handbread, can be used on the stove,” says D’Souza.
There are a few farming equipments in the museum, harking back to days when most of the men in the community were farmers who worked on their own land in Mumbai. Today, the land is used to construct buildings. D’Souza’s own home has been converted into a society where all his relatives have flats of their own. All old vessels were sent to relatives’ places, and have been subsequently sold off. And it is this disappearing heritage that D’Souza’s museum preserves.