Usha Khanna, the woman behind Samovar Cafe
Au Revoir Café Samovar by Meghna Pant
On the closing day of one of Mumbai’s most favourite eatery: Samovar Cafe. I sat on a shared table (the surge of patrons let me have it no other way) and ordered kheema paratha and sweet chai.
I can spend my time here like the others: taking photographs, ordering packets upon packets of takeaway, talking to scribes, or gazing around the 700-foot eatery in nostalgia. Instead I think about what made Samovar Cafe so special. After all, there are thousands of cafes across Mumbai. And some of them offer equally good food or ambience or prices. Yet, it was Samovar that became part of the city’s cultural fabric for five decades.
My eyes fall on the cafe’s owner, Usha Khanna, a regal elderly lady dressed in white, and I know I have found my answer. Samovar Cafe was iconic because it had a woman’s touch.
Khanna started the cafe fifty years ago in order to give people a nice place to eat and also, in her own words, in order to make friends. Never mind that she didn’t have financial backing or a business plan or even a restaurant background. Never mind that while setting up the cafe she also had to look after her three pre-teen children.
Samovar proved an instant hit with writers, poets, movie actors, intellectuals, media persons, students and the common folk. It was a leveler in a city where people stand divided by the cars they drive, the houses they live in and the choices they make.
It imbued the spirit of a woman who gave Mumbaikars a small place where they could exchange ideas, fall in love, pen their poems and discuss politics. It was here that many marriages and friendships and careers and great love thrived.
Samovar Cafe was iconic because it had a woman’s touch.
No wonder then that biding goodbye to Samovar Cafe on its last day seemed less like a farewell and more like a celebration. A celebration of a woman’s entrepreneurship, a toast to her courage, a salute to her perseverance and vision. Usha Khanna knows this. For I see her turn for a moment, to look back at her cafe, and in her farewell is her smile.
She knows the empty space will never forgo its beautiful memories.