The Chowpatty Cooking Club Book Review - a delicious potpourri!

The Chowpatty Cooking Club is a delightful romp of a novel. It’s the kind of book one would raise in a toast and say, ‘Cheers!’ Set in the tony address of South Bombay’s iconic beachfront, Chowpatty, the story centres around a trio of buddies, Sakina, the story’s raconteur, Zenobia, the Question-Asker and Mehul, the Know-It-All and the parallel friendship between their mothers, Ateka, Freny and Dina respectively. The latter run a Chowpatty Cooking Club, which dishes out weekly snacks with detailed recipes comprising Bohri, Parsi and an unnamed cuisine. The story unfolds in Bombay in the backdrop of the Quit India movement in 1942. Caught up in the patriotic fervour of those times, the kids decide that they, too, must contribute their bit to serve their country. But even as they make plans in between chomping on all the tasty weekly snacks they despair at their mothers who they feel are too immersed in cooking. Little do they know what’s really cooking as author Lubaina Bandukwala dishes out a charming mystery around the historical radio broadcasts that formed the underground resistance against colonial rule.

The Storytelling

The author paints a lovely portrait of the world of children such as Sakina’s cousin not allowing her to bat even when he’s out; the bullying faced by Mehul and how Zenobia tackles the situation; their collective boredom at adult soirees; their desire to be viewed as heroic even as Sakina hopes to be friends with the British again because she wants to go to London! Sakina’s asides on her teachers, Meena Miss and Miss Feroza’s forays to the staff room as well as Mehul’s letter prank and the Holmes sequence are an absolute hoot. Bandukwala’s marvellous sense of humour will leave readers chuckling right through the Acknowledgements and the Author Note as well!

However, the humour and zest go underground in the chapters devoted exclusively to the People’s Radio and the police attempts to ferret them out. It’s probably because these are the sections where the children vanish from the narrative altogether. More’s the pity. The story itself takes a while to kick into gear as there are detours into some members of the joint family like Faiji Samina, which seem more for adding colour to the proceedings and tend to detract from the main narrative.

The locations and timeline of events are painstakingly detailed but the chapter headings lack the zing of the writing style and spring to life only where the old newspaper clippings are creatively showcased as scrapbooks. It would have helped though to have the text in the clippings repeated in captions for greater clarity. 

Why It Should Be Read

It’s a breezy read brimming with humour as Bandukwala provides a glimpse of living in a joint family, and customs such as eating from the same plate of food in Sakina’s family and wearing the traditional Parsi Gara sari in Zenobia’s family; There are also new terms to learn such as maghrib and Zohar namaaz as well as Faiji (father’s youngest sister), Motabu (grandmother) and foi (father’s younger sister). Readers can snack on khaman ni pattice, dhokla, golpapdi, as well as the ‘basket’ paneer, mawa cakes and butter batashas that are trotted out from the various kitchens. 

The author does not shy away from acknowledging privilege. Sakina is well aware that her family is the only one to own a car and has an entire floor as their apartment due to moneyed roots in a Surat trading company bequeathed to her grandfather by a Britisher. The world of privilege is brought out through details such as the photograph of a glamorous cousin presented at the court of England in Zenobia’s home; the Buick in the garage and the imported china crockery in Sakina’s home, when ‘Made in China’ didn’t have the same connotation that it has today.

It’s a nostalgia rush for those familiar with old South Bombay when it boasted automobile showrooms and a film studio. The famous strawberries from Mahabaleshwar also make an appearance. It’s also a throwback to a time when the tram and tonga still ruled and cars were an exception and when cooking with sigris using coal was de rigeur with the cook Shamshuddin refusing to use the gas stove.

But Bandukwala refrains from romanticizing the past. While different communities were neighbours and friends, there are pointed comments on non-vegetarian food being cooked in Sakina’s home by Mehul’s relative and a bully tells Sakina she’s expected to leave the country because of her faith. Class and community divisions also get hinted at in Sakina’s acute observations that despite being part of a cooking club, ‘our mothers seldom went to each other’s kitchens’ and the fact that they had barely known Mehul earlier though he lived just a lane away and went to a school adjoining theirs.

The gendered nature of living spaces is also subtly brought to the fore with a khat swing forming the centre of living room conversations in Sakina’s home but not shown being used by the women of the family; the kitchen ruled over by Shamshuddin who resents female intrusion in what he sees as his domain; Ganga being assigned the work of taking the children on an outing even though she finds them a handful; a Bahadur driving the car and Sitaram acting as a watchman. Women not being expected to speak up and being silenced if they do while men are free to argue at will is well brought out. It’s heartening to see women who are often reduced to the footnotes of history being shown as active participants in the freedom struggle through the characters of the mothers and Bela and Parul. Dina uses a brilliant analogy to explain to the children why the British are being opposed. Read the book to find out what it is!

Besides the Congress Radio - on which there’s a Historical Note and references for further reading at the end of the book - Bandukwala manages to cover many other aspects of the Independence movement as well: the hotspots of the Independence movement such as Gowalia Tank, Blavatsky Lodge, Mani Bhavan; Yusuf Meherally who coined the slogan of ‘Quit India’; the Khudai Khitmatgars; the Simon Commission; the Indian cotton that was exported to British mills and led to Gandhi’s drive for handspun cloth and khadi and the bonfire of foreign cloth. Identifying the innumerable historical nuggets in the story and unearthing more about them could be a different kind of treasure hunt for readers young and old.

Somewhere, the book is also serving a dual and daresay in the current clime, a subversive purpose of using the past to make a comment on current times. Sample these: ‘crushing the voices of Indians in their own land’; the underground radio broadcasts served to ‘bring accurate news that the colonial government did not want Indians to hear’ and which as Usha Mehta pointed out, ‘even the newspapers did not dare touch upon’ seem to echo the workings of the present dispensation; and much like the bugbear of national security today, ‘the government is using the war as an excuse to control all media – saying anything against the government is considered a crime’. Given how food has become a violently contested space and how books and magazines are denied to prisoners, who include young students, it’s poignant to read lines such as ‘the best kind of friendships are those that are built over shared food’; ‘Sawant’s work most of the time was delivering books and magazines to students who had been arrested and put in jail’.

At the same time, Bandukwala is at pains to show that friction from deeply divergent views need not always lead to permanent schisms. If there is a Jeroo aunty, Zenobia’s grandmother whose ladies club organises a fundraiser for the British war effort, there’s also Zenobia’s mother, Freny aunty who helps the revolutionaries. So also, old friends Kakaji Mustafa and Mota Pappa can have their differences but he is never barred from their home, though he may be seen as an uninvited guest; Vithal Kaka, Mehul’s grandfather gently explains to his relative Dhiren Kapadia about the need to switch from imported cloth to swadeshi manufacture and chides him for his tasteless remark on the Chinwala’s non-vegetarian food.

Bandukwala shows that history can be creatively reimagined without suppressing reality and when done with panache and sans rancour it can serve as food for thought rather than poisoning minds against one another. When Mota Pappa asks Sakina, ‘But why do you want freedom, and what does freedom mean to you?’ Sakina admits she’s ‘riding with a feeling in the air’. Read The Chowpatty Cooking Club to reflect on the leher in our midst and where we’re headed in this 75th year of Independence.


The cover design is understated and pleasant. It’s only on reading the book that each frame’s image derives greater meaning but even without it, there’s something very unusual about the colour palette used and the cover design. 

In terms of sheer visual impact, it’s one of the standout covers for Duckbill and when the book first appeared on social media there were many asking for the name of the artist. Take a bow, Samar Bansal!

Book Information

The Chowpatty Cooking Club for children aged 10+ is published by Duckbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The book is part of its Songs of Freedom series and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world's forests. So, go ahead and purchase a hard copy though it's also available as an e-book. Priced at INR 250, buy it from an indie book store. This reviewer got hers from Kahani Tree through an email order and they ship across India. You can also order it through WhatsApp.

Author Note

Lubaina Bandukwala is the founder of the Peek-A-Book literature festival for children. Children’s writer and editor, she has also authored Coral Woman.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with GrandpaBringing Back GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.


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