There's something dazzling about Dadi's toothless smile. Perched on a diwan propped beside a window overlooking Raja Rammohan Roy Road, the dappled sunlight creates a pattern of shadows on her raisin-like skin, which is just as intricate as the oil-canvas painting of Istanbul that hangs on the wall behind her. As she tells me the story of her life—from a neighbourhood star to a national sensation—Dadi's candour becomes palpable. "Humein toh kuch acidity nahi hoti hai shaam ki chai peene se," she says cheekily when I politely brush off her advances for chai on the pretext of health.
Inside her newly renovated home in KN Bhatia chawl on Prarthana Samaj Road, it's hard to imagine that this is the same 77-year-old Dadi that I (along with millions of netizens) gawked at with admiration on mobile screens. It all started with a video uploaded by an Indian news publication in April 2021. Not only did it shoot Dadiji to fame, but also led to a lockdown-struck nation rechristening her as the hardworking, beacon of inspiration—Gujju Ben. But for her grandson, Harsh Asher, upon whose designs their food business Gujju Ben Na Nasta exists, fame (or at least, recognition) was something he intended.
The making of a star
As it happened, after closing his former business due to the exigencies brought on by the pandemic, Asher, who has innately entrepreneurial sensibilities, conjured up the idea of putting his Dadi aka Urmila Asher or Gujju Ben's kitchen skills to use. This is happening at a time in 2020, when the country has freshly entered a nationwide lockdown, leaving most Indians seriously befuddled. It was in the laps of this confusing, alien, new phenomena that consolidated Whatsapp groups for housing societies were born. And that became a bonafide marketing channel for the enterprising Asher, who tied up with Gujarati and Parsi housing communities to distribute his grandmother's homemade goods. Until then, Gujju Ben's food business was limited to making achaars, which firstly, sold only in fits and starts; and secondly, wouldn't sell at all once pickling season got over.
As the demand for Gujju Ben's nashta grew amid skirting chawls and housing complexes, so did the need to ramp up infrastructure that could shoulder increased production. Thankfully for her and Asher, employees came in the form of local women who had also become unemployed by dint of the pandemic and the space showed up when a friend from the chawl agreed to sublet his own apartment. It was then that Dadi really, truly entered a stage that allowed her to be the work-horse that she is at her core; which ultimately became fodder for headlines like, "Inspiring Story Of a 77-Year-Young Dadi Who Works 80+ Hours a Week."
But this was not perchance. For the Asher family—that has had a long relationship with adversity, be it in the form of deaths, accidents or loss—fortitude is the fuel that keeps it going. And for Asher, watching his Dadi toil for hours, kneading thepla dough, rolling gathiya and flavouring a variety of shaaks or vegetables on her haunches, served as a steady reminder of that lesson in fortitude. Could more people benefit from it? He thought as a gentle nudge from his fiance prodded him to write to digital publications. "I remember, I was travelling back to Mumbai from Coimbatore when I sent that message to the reporter. It was about 2 am and I had missed calls by 7 in the morning," he tells me as he searches his phone frantically to locate the text.
Age is just a number
A lot has changed since, with Gujjuben's culinary oeuvre finding a brick-and-mortar existence as Gujju Ben Na Nasta, the shop. There's also a commercial kitchen that Asher managed to lease in 14 Khetwadi with profits made over the last year. And of course, a trademarked food company that you can now easily order from via food aggregating apps like Zomato and Swiggy.
How does that feel?
"Achcha hi lagta hai na," she tells us in a matter-of-fact way as she tries to explain something about how her discovery has been beneficial for others, too, failing to articulate and launching into a chuckle. Dadiji, though, is no stranger to success—after her husband lost his job at the Khatau Mill in Agripada, amid the Great Bombay Textile Strike of the 1980s, the then 40-something took up cooking jobs at Gujarati homes in and around the locality. Gradually, as adulation for the food spread among the community, Dadiji caught the attention of newly migrated Gujarati NRIs, who were beginning to settle in London.
Until the 2000s, she went on several six-month-long (or as long as her travel Visa allowed) trips to offshore locations at the behest of her cooking chops. "Sab jagah ghumi hoon main," she tells us with a twinkle in her eyes, proceeding to give more details, but in a somewhat rote manner, when she's interrupted by Asher. "Ada speech na bol," he corrects her in the Kutchi language, reminding Dadiji that she need not take me through the contents of the speech. The speech in question is the one that Harsh and her are working on together to present at a TedX talk—another accomplishment in the septuagenarian's long list of recent victories. Which if you think about it, in a world torn by a global health disaster and still limping back to normalcy, is a valuable lesson in hope. For Dadi Ji is really, truly a living, breathing example of the fact that age, after all, is just a number.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.