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Malavika’s Mumbaistan: MUMBAI CALLING

ByMalavika Sangghvi
Jun 16, 2024 08:18 AM IST

Alex Sanchez, the celebrated chef launching the new restaurant (Otra) and Jinx Akerkar the nonagenarian mother being celebrated by her son the famous restaurateur Rahul Akerkar at his eatery Ode, happen to be dyed in the wool expatriates who have enriched the city

Recently, a delightful instance of some typical Mumbai-style serendipity occurred over a weekend, in a city famous for being intensely and intricately connected.

Malavika’s Mumbaistan: MUMBAI CALLING

To the outsider, they might have appeared as two random events over a single weekend, but long-term city insiders would discern a delightful pattern within. The first was the launch of a promising new restaurant at Kala Ghoda by a celebrated chef and the second, was a loving ode to his nonagenarian mum (and other mums) on the occasion of Mother’s Day by a famous restaurateur at his eatery in Lower Parel; and though they took place at what some believe to be the yin and yang of Sobo’s eating out districts, and perhaps, at competing establishments, they were united by the fact that they spotlighted the same underlying theme: the striking role expatriates play and have played in Mumbai’s daily life and development.

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And that is because both, Alex Sanchez, the celebrated chef launching the new restaurant (Otra) and Jinx Akerkar the nonagenarian mother being celebrated by her son the famous restaurateur Rahul Akerkar at his eatery Ode, happen to be dyed in the wool expatriates, deeply roiled in the very warp and weft of Mumbai, who like so many of their ilk have enriched the city with their presence and enterprise.

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The feisty German American Jinx Akerkar, arrived in Mumbai 68 years ago by ship (from NYC to London and then via the Suez Canal) to marry the charming young Maharashtrian gent who had won her heart at university.

Over the decades, she carved a niche for herself, as a prominent and much-loved figure in Mumbai’s cultural and social circles, working for almost seven decades in various capacities - as a translator; in trade missions and even compèring at Miss World contests!’

The daughter of progressive and well-travelled parents, Jinx says she had been taught ‘shuddh Hindi’ by a very grand tutor from Lucknow before her arrival here, but very quickly picked up the ‘Kai ko kali pili bom marta hai?’ local patois. Soon, she gave birth to two of the city’s notable talents: theatre actress Avantika Akerkar and restaurateur Rahul, whose seminal Indigo at Colaba had more or less set Mumbai’s standalone restaurant ball rolling.

It was a very different Bombay that Jinx had arrived to, in the 50s.

Mumbai’s expat community consisted primarily of American and European Heads of banking shipping, oil and insurance companies and their families. It was a time, she says, of trolleys and trams and bungalows with gardens and gates when there were no buildings taller than the 5 storeyed ones on Marine Drive. Supported by retinues of household staff, the expat community had more or less kept to itself, meeting each other at soirees and clubs, supporting the arts, throwing itself into local charities and social work and raising funds for good causes.

Mumbai’s population had been small, the roads were quiet, Akbaralleys had been the go-to department store, NCPA the cultural high point and the only thing she missed, Jinx tells me, was the absence of good toiletries and an occasional glass of wine; happily, for her, she’d managed to obtain a permit for ‘a quarter of a unit’- but alas, the local produce had been undrinkable!

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From the days when India produced undrinkable wine, to the time when internationally celebrated restaurateur Alex Sanchez arrived in Mumbai, one of the world’s f&b hot-spots, from San Francisco in 2010, there has been a sea change.

The 27-year-old Alex had come to head the kitchen at the yet-to-launch ‘The Table. He says he’d agreed to come for 3 months, but had instantly fallen in love with the city and has been here ever since, first putting the table on the international map, then branching off to launch his own highly successful Americano and most recently Otra - a celebration of his beloved Kala Ghoda, Mumbai and his Latin American heritage.

Sanchez’s arrival in Mumbai had been on the coat- tails of the post-lib era when the F&B universe was on an upswing, but even so, he says the beginning had been lonely and challenging: from the quality and availability of ingredients to the language barrier.

But he’d persevered. “This city has an energy that is hard to describe,” he says, “And for all its 20+ million people, it’s still a tiny little village with a very strong sense of community.”

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Jinx and Alex are just two instances of Mumbai’s expats who have lent their talent and energy to make a difference and give Mumbai its distinct flavour. The inventory of others of their kind is as long as it is rich.

Such as the glamorous Laura Hamilton, who’d come to Mumbai during the Second World War and had run the Malabar boutique at the Taj becoming a city legend for her connoisseurship and her keen sense of style; or Jenifer Kapoor, who’d vastly enriched the city’s cultural life by establishing the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu; or Annabel Mehta (mother of Anjali Sachin Tendulkar) who has worked tirelessly for improving the lives of street children; or the colourful Irishman Leybourne Callahan, who single-handedly fostered an appreciation of Rugby; or Gabi Kapoor, whose fine taste and appreciation of Indian textiles gave Burlington’s its cache. And so many many others.

Indeed, over the years the register of expatriates who have made Mumbai their home and their passion, has swelled considerably. From Matthew Spacie - the then COO of Cox and Kings in Mumbai, who created the NGO Magic Bus, to Martin da Costa who founded the Seventy Event Media Group – recognised as one of India’s leading experts in events planning and festival management; to Italian Alessandro Giuliani whose SDA Bocconi Mumbai biz school is said to be a game changer for those pursuing an MBA locally; to Manuel Olviera from Barcelona whose eateries La Loca Maria – and Panthera – have raised Mumbai’s foodie bar considerably- and the glam brigade OF Katrina Kaif, Jacqueline Fernandes and Nora Fatehi, wherever you look, expats have made their mark.

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The International Organization for Migration of the UN defines the term expatriate as ‘a person who voluntarily renounces his or her nationality, but often the word is interchangeable with others such as migrant/immigrant and sadly the terms often imply biases about wealth motive, race and privilege.

Be that as it may, it can be safely said that in Mumbai’s case, the people who came and stayed- call them what you will- WHO made the city their own, have left a lasting contribution to its distinct verve and vivacity-one that it duly acknowledges and is grateful for.

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