When she had begun to work at a very young age, never had Supriya Mancherji, then Supriya Dattagupta, ever thought that she would be running a Parsi eatery. But that is what she does now. Her bustling Kyd Street eatery in Kolkata’s business district is called Mancherji’s.
It is a small, pocket-friendly place, free of “decor”, with a few tables and chairs scattered around. The food is not fancy either, but robust, like the energy that flows from Supriya, now 58, who presides over her eatery from behind the counter at one end. Other than the standard Parsi dishes, Chicken Dhansak, Akoori, Chicken Farcha, Salli Chicken and Lagan Nu Custard, on offer sometimes is a special food, such as Dudhpak, a sweet rice dish served with crisp pooris.
A diverse crowd drops in here, including office-goers as well as foreign tourists.
Mancherji’s caters lunch to several offices nearby. The contents of the packets show a great variety, from sandwiches to Paneer Dhansak, the last a Parsi dish customised for vegetarians. After she set up shop here, Supriya realised that if Parsi food was her USP, it would help her if she added to it some regular fare. But its Parsi flavours remain a pleasant change in a commercial locality dominated by wholesome, but often unexceptional spicy smells. Just sitting down for a cup of coffee and a slice of Lagan Nu Custard at Mancherji’s is worth it. The pudding is rich, generous in portion and delicious.
Supriya explains the name “Mancherji’s”, which also makes her explain her late husband’s name, a tautology, with a smile. Her husband Manchi Mancherji had suggested the name Mancherji’s.
“He was called Manchi because that was a shorter form of Mancherji. He was named after his grandfather, Mancherji Khursigiara,” says Supriya. But at that time there were too many Khursigiaras among Parsis settled in Kolkata. So Supriya’s father-in-law changed his surname to Mancherji. Supriya’s husband’s first name became Manchi, otherwise, he would be Mancherji Mancherji!
Supriya, who grew up in a middle-class Bengali Hindu family in south Kolkata, acquired her Parsi life quite by accident. She had begun work as a secretary in a private firm soon after graduating from Jogamaya Devi College. In a few years, she had worked at different places as a secretary — and was doing other things, such as making dolls, something that she loved to do. She sold them too. One can sense in her a restlessness that makes her want to connect with everything that is around her, be it the staff, some of them working for many years, or the guests at her eatery.
When she wanted to get married, she only felt annoyed with the demands of the Bengali marriage market. She said yes when a cousin spoke of a Parsi man. “It was an arranged marriage,” she says, in answer to my look of surprise.
Her mother-in-law, Hilla Mancherji, introduced Supriya, who did not have any idea of cooking, to Parsi food. Supriya remembers Hilla, who was beautiful, elegant and accomplished, with great admiration and gratitude. “I owe everything to her,” she says. In the same breath, she mentions her husband’s sister Shernaz Macherji, a Mumbai resident, who keeps sending her quality Parsi spices from Mumbai. “They come in large cloth bags, packed with such care,” says Supriya.
Hilla, who, Supriya says, was a friend of the actor Nargis, was known for her cooking and would run a Parsi food delivery service from her Lenin Sarani home for 25 families. Supriya still lives there.
Hilla was imaginative, taking off from traditional dishes to make things like prawn curry with bamboo shoots or a hilsa baked with chutney, meaning a green herb and spice mix that can also be used as a marinade.
Supriya stepped in to help Hilla with her catering business. Soon a bigger space was needed and Supriya stepped set up shop around 2005 at a nearby location, on her own steam. The business was named “Mancherji’s”. About 10 years later, before Hilla passed away, it moved to its current address, where Supriya is to be found from 11am to 9pm every day. With the Covid looking less lethal, business is picking up again, paper packets are piling up and covering all surfaces, and Supriya is managing all with aplomb.
Apart from the Parsi dishes available daily, Mutton Dhansak, Chicken Berry Pulao, Khichri Saas, Khara Veeda (spicy ladies fingers), Mutton Keema Patties, Patrani Machchhi, Bombay Duck fry or even the baked hilsa are available on order.
“I saw how Covid devastated businesses all around me,” says Supriya. And lives. “It taught me so much.” She is grateful that she could keep herself afloat throughout.
This is a long way from secretarial jobs. What had made her take the plunge into a business, with no experience, and no capital of her own?
It was a leap of faith, literally. “I could only do it because of my faith in my guru, Shri Shri Ram Thakur,” says Supriya. “He is behind everything. Without him I am zero,” says Supriya.
“After waking up I have tea and place a cup of tea in front of his portrait and have tea myself. Then I pray to him for 20 to 25 minutes.” Ram Thakur was an ascetic born in 19th century Bengal. “My prayer is my strength. Only this makes me go on,” she says. She prays to a pantheon of other spiritual leaders, from other religions, by repeating their “mantras”, like that of Ram Thakur. Hanging on the wall is a small shrine. “I have everyone there. Shri Shri Ram Thakur, Zarathushtra, Mahavir Jain, Guru Nanak, Jesus Christ, Gautam Buddha, and Haji Waris Ali Shah of Dewa Sharif, whom she calls Waris Baba, and whose photograph in the shrine is covered in a chadar. She prays to all of them. “They are jostling for space,” she says.
Supriya retains her own religion, though her daughter, who is studying law in Bangalore, follows the Parsi faith.
If Supriya attributes her success to her faith, it is clear what she brings to the table. Her presence at her eatery is total. She is there. “I even found my daughter’s private tutors sitting here,” she says.
She has saved the pictures of the dolls she made, more than three or four decades old, on the phone. She shows them to me one by one with great care.
She would buy the clay faces, made in Krishnagar, make the bodies and dress them up elaborately, often as brides and grooms, “Bengali” or “Christian”, she says. The Christian couple looked beautiful, she said and would get sold fast.
She has always felt the urge to do something. From a person who would play the kartal in the streets for a living and visit her eatery, she learned how to play the small instrument.
Now she is learning to play the dhaak, the main feature of a Puja pandal after the idol,at home. One day she hopes to learn to play the khol, a smaller drum. There is music everywhere. You have to learn to hear it, above the din of the Kyd Street.