New India Lodge is listed on a ticketing site with the descriptor: ‘experience Mumbai’s most unique dining event’. However, it is so much more than that. The immersive performance is an invitation to travel back in time to the 1940s, meet the residents of the lodge and dine with them. The location is a secret building, and there is a great deal of theatre involved.
I arrive at the designated spot—an inconspicuous store in Crawford Market. We are handed postcards with dorm numbers, and escorted shortly after to a building with a shop front. Almost magically, a rickety old staircase appears and we walk up flights of stairs to the third floor—rechristened as the New India Lodge for this experience.
Written by Shubhra Chatterji and directed by KV Divya Rani, with food by The Nommers- Home Cuisine Collective, this is PaChaak Productions’ second attempt at immersive dining—after a pre-pandemic one in The Clearing House compound. “Titled The Lost Supper, it told the story of a Parsi-Goan couple and a lost dessert recipe after the death of the chef,” Rani explains. The 30-person event was made up of mixed media to tell a culinary tale and serve a meal to the audience.
New India Lodge is similar in intent but relies heavily on theatre through a series of characters, who are residents of the lodge. We meet one of them right at the staircase, who offers pieces of chikki to the participants. His name is Arun Kumar, and he is reportedly on a mission. A lodge manager welcomes us into an exquisite room filled with artefacts that are effective in transporting us to a different time and world. There are welcome drinks, more chikki, and a historic food tale.
In this immersive piece, we expect characters to pop up at different junctures, with a plate of food, coupled with stories about the dish. The lodge manager intervenes often to remind us of the era we inhabit during the course of the evening while also making us comfortable.
The next story is that of two Surti tradesmen, a Hindu and a Muslim who are having a fight about food. We have moved to a dorm in the functioning lodge with modest beds and striped bedsheets. A Bohra and a Surti dish are introduced to us along with their history and stories. A teacher emerges from within the audience and sermonises the emotional connections of food in an attempt to break up the fight. As we dig into the second course, the characters mingle with the audience, even prodding us to buy a saree or two from their shops in Mangaldas Market.
Next up, is a character enacting a bemused Varghese Kurien, who enters the scene in search of his young daughter, Nandini. Audience members join the search, only to be escorted through an artsy corridor to a pantry-like room where his wife Molly greets us. Hers is a well-crafted character played by an able Akshata Acharya. She interacts with the audience, telling us stories of her life in Kannur, travelling to Mumbai, her wedding, and about raising her daughter. Molly passes around spices she claims to have brought from her hometown, and introduces us to her fragrant pineapple pulissery. She infuses new life into an evening, which has by now become mildly perfunctory and predictable.
Molly whips out a pothichoru (a packaged Malayali meal) and reminisces about the ones consumed on train journeys and trips to college in the former Madras Presidency. The parcels are served in delicate China on a makeshift table.
The meal is simple and flavourful, made up of red rice, pineapple pulissery, inji puli, potato curry, with bombil fry and an omelette for non-vegetarians. Actors and audience members then move tables to sit on two sides of the room. And soon after enters a Punjabi bride in all her wedding finery, bearing a bowl of kheer. This course is served with the side of a Partition story.
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A ginger cat enters the makeshift proscenium and settles down. She looks up at the performer like an audience member and stays. Sadly, the actor fails to capitalise on what could have turned into one of the finest moments of an informal, interactive performance. She (Inji the cat) does get a mention in the curtain call.
There is a token mention of caste and the Constitution, which is quickly followed by a song about a hopeful new India. The cast joins in, and during the last course of the evening, a modest paan is served.
New India Lodge: Atithi Devo Bhava is a refreshing concept, aptly housed in a piece of living history. It’s more than a dining experience and less than a full-fledged performance. It harks back to the birth of a new republic but stops short of peeling the layers off these troubled times. It wants you to think but not enough to ruin your appetite. The location is its biggest charm, followed by the performances of the lodge owner played by Sandesh Pawar and Akshata Acharya, who deserve a spin-off of their own.
New India Lodge: Atithi Devo Bhava will take place on 28 October, followed by performances in November in Mumbai. Tickets are available on www.insider.in.