Odd thing, this. One of Bombay’s icons, the ubiquitous Irani restaurant, purveyor of one of my favourite (and most of Bombay’s) breakfast meals, kheema with pav owes its existence to the vegetarian Jain community. This is how it came to be. In the early part of the 19th century, when real estate was booming in Bombay (when isn’t it?) and buildings were popping up hither and thither, the Jain community, who happen to be a bunch of the keenest of businessmen in the business, of well, business were faced with a dilemma. As they we’re going about snapping up commercial property in the new and upcoming constructions, vaastu-shastra (that’s Indian feng shui to put it simply) practitioners tapped the Jain businessman surveying a corner location in some prime property and whispered something into his ear. According to vaastu-shastra, it’s inauspicious to own real estate whose two walls meet at the corner.
Naturally, the Jain businessman washed his hands off the property quicker than he would do so if he were to accidentally touch an egg. In stepped the Irani businessman who quickly snaffled the prime corner location for a song, thank you very much. Oh behalf of all the Bombay’s carnivores, thank you very much indeed.
The Irani restaurant in my locality was called Persian Restaurant & Stores. But neither me, nor my friends called it anything other than Irani’s. Its chai was legend and apart from us humble boyz in the hood, you could have spotted the celebrated artist, Maqbool Fida Hussian enjoying an early morning cuppa on the premises. But enough with the celebrity name-dropping. Gangway, Mr. Hussian, poster boy (poster grand-daddy?) of Bombay’s art scene, for here is the story’s real hero. A young South Indian boy by the name of Poster.
Poster was a baharwallah, which simply put, means the ‘outside man.’ Still baffled? Allow me to explain. Since the reputation of Irani’s chai had spread far and wide, there arose the need to slake the thirst of its devotees who were unable to make the pilgrimage to the restaurant. Hence, the bahar wallah. Poster’s job was to take orders for chai, etc from shops and homes in the neighbourhood. His domain began beyond Irani’s external boundaries and ended wherever his feet would take him. So he generally strolls all over town, collects orders, reports back to HQ, processes orders, delivers orders, collects money. In the meanwhile, he collects more orders, reports back to HQ… you get the picture.
Since we met outside Irani’s before embarking on any item on the grueling daily agenda of football practice, gulli-cricket, matinee shows, first-day-first-shows, more football practice, experiments with mind-altering substances (legal and not), late night shows and other things I can’t mention for my mum might be reading this extremely long sentence, Poster became more of a pal, and less of a chai dispenser.
In fact, it was us who named him Poster. And here’s how it came to be. We were standing outside Irani’s waiting for our chai to arrive, when we notice this short, dark-skinned boy clad in faded black long pants and a synthetic red turtleneck step on to the road. A quick glance at the contents held in his hands revealed his métier in life.
Now there’s one thing you can count on finding on any busy street in Bombay. A BEST bus rumbling by. Or a Premier Padmini taxi whizzing past. And as any battle-scarred Bombay pedestrian will vouch, you keep your person well away from these four-wheeled public chariots because their loco commanders firmly believe in the motto: My way or the highway. But it looked like Irani’s newest employee had not read the Bombay Survival manual. As he began to cross the street, a BEST bus rumbled into view and quickly bore down upon him. Unfazed, the chump stopped dead in his tracks. He did not back down an inch and the bus dashed past missing him by millimeters. Observing no deterrent to his progress, the boy calmly crossed the road without spilling a drop of his, and the restaurant’s precious fluid.
In Bombay, when a person had a face-off with a vehicle and parts of his anatomy had to be scraped off the road, it was common slang to call the injured party, poster. As in, ‘Voh Kumar ka gaadi ke saath takkar hua aur vho poster ban gaya.’
As we watched him disappear in the distance, we turned to each other to compare notes. Before anyone could make a comment, we heard someone mutter, ‘Paagal chokra, poster ban jayega ek din. Kya naam hai uska?’ ‘Poster,’ one of us said promptly. And that name stuck.
We all have our list of poster boys. e.g, Andre Agassi is my p.b. for tenacity, George Bush, Jr. for stupidity. This kid was my poster boy for insouciance. Here’s to you, Poster. I raise my glass of chai (unfortunately, not Irani’s) in salute.