A 113-year-old dharamshala, meant for Parsi travellers and known for its delectable dhansak, has kept the spirit of the community alive despite struggling in terms of numbers.
The Manackjee Rustomjee Dharamshala stands in the heart of the clutter of central Kolkata, at 9 Bow Street. But once inside, the two-storey mansion is a quaint old place. There are 13 bedrooms spread across the first and second floors. The ground floor houses the kitchen and a dining hall.
You can stay here only if you are a Parsi or married to one. But you don’t need to tick either box for a hearty Parsi meal.
There is one caveat — order has to be made a day in advance. Before the pandemic, the food at the dharamshala kitchen had a loyal fan base in the city.
Every now and then, members of an online heritage or food lovers’ group would visit the place for its food and flood social media with pictures. The pandemic has, however, forced the operators to only allow the take-away option.
“There is just one boarder from Mumbai right now,” said Pesi Bulsara, the new resident manager of the place.
There are four senior citizens, who are permanent residents. “For the past several years, the place has been a home for senior citizens as much as it is a dharamshala,” said Bahadur Postwalla, 85, a trustee of the Calcutta Zoroastrian Community's Religious and Charity Funds that maintains the place.
The senior citizens who moved into the place used to live alone in Kolkata. In the dharamshala, they are looked after by caregivers.
A typical day begins around 7am, when the sweeper begins cleaning the place. “There is nothing much to do and much of the day is spent idling around,” said Bulsara.
Breakfast is served between 8am and 9.30am and by 9pm, the sprawling mansion has pin-drop silence.
When the place was built in 1909, it was meant to be a facility for Parsi travellers to Kolkata, which was still the capital of British India and a bustling centre for trade and commerce.
Parsis have a 240-year-old history in Kolkata. The first Parsi to have come to Kolkata, around 1767, was Dadabhai Behramji Banaji, according to Pioneering Parsis of Kolkata, a book by Prochy N. Mehta, the first female president of Calcutta Parsee Club.
Parsis used to trade with Armenian brokers in Surat.
“These Armenians came to Murshidabad and then Calcutta. It is possible that some Parsi traders may have accompanied these Armenians, first to Murshidabad and then Calcutta,” the book says.
The number of Parsis in Kolkata started going down since the latter half of the 20th century, said seniors in the community.
“In the 1960s, there were around 2,500 Parsis in Kolkata. Now, there are less than 450. With the decline in Kolkata’s stature as a trade hub, the number of Parsi travellers has also gone down,” said Postwalla.
The pandemic has further dented the footfall in the dharamshala. But the operators said they would keep running the place because it “embodied Parsi culture” in the city.
“For years now, we have been running the place despite incurring losses. But we never think of shutting it down,” said Noomi Mehta, senior trustee of the trust that owns the place.
The previous manager and her husband, who had been in charge of operations for decades, resigned earlier this month, he said. Before the pandemic, the place used to come to life when Kolkata hosted the Parsi Pentangular Cricket Tournament, involving teams from Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Secunderabad, Nagpur and Surat.
The five cities would take turns in hosting the tournament every year. Kolkata last hosted it five years ago.
“One or two teams stay at the dharamshala during the tournament. The place then turns much busier,” said Postwalla.
The dharamshala used to get “all noisy and boisterous” when the Surat-based group of theatre-veteran Yezdi Karanjia made a trip to Kolkata for a performance.
“The pandemic changed all of that. But we are hopeful things will be better soon,” said Postwalla.