Mumbai: Some six decades ago, a young and aggressive but weary trade union leader, George Fernandes - who died on Tuesday - was famished after leading a day-long agitation of taxi drivers in south Mumbai.
It was around midnight and most decent eateries had shut. But as he sauntered around hungrily in the Girgaum Chowpatty area, he saw a tiny stall selling Mumbai's favourite street-food - paav-bhaji and fruit juices.
Fernandes was served promptly by the youthful and smiling owner of that stall, Suresh Poojaria. The union leader's tensions melted away.
"I felt very sad and sorry to hear my dear friend George is no more. Besides many of our snacks, he relished one of our specialities, custard apple (sitafal) milkshake," Poojari told IANS.
Today, Poojari, 86, runs the famed Sukh Sagar (Ocean of Happiness) chain of nearly three dozen restaurants in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Dubai and other places in the Middle East and soon plans to open outlets in the US.
Later, Fernandes became a regular and strong buddy of Poojari - both hailing from neighbouring Karnataka. While Fernandes was from Mangalore, Poojari's roots lay in Padukone village, Udupi, barely an hour apart.
"There were many evenings when he stepped out for an after-dinner stroll to the Sukh Sagar Restaurant and order his favourite dessert - custard apple milkshake. He would not hesitate to await his turn if the place was house-full. But if I was around, he would walk and sit in my office," recalls an emotional Poojari.
On several occasions, Fernandes would suddenly appear and hurriedly order a parcel of two-or-four custard apple milkshakes, which Poojari would meticulously pack. These were meant to be taken to New Delhi by flight by Fernandes.
The last visit to Sukh Sagar and a warm reunion meeting with Poojari was when Fernandes was the Defence Minister. He took time out to gorge on his favourite milkshake.
"What struck me then was that even after becoming a union minister several times, power and position did not go into his head. He remained the same humble being, arriving at my restaurant in an ordinary vehicle instead of the red-beacon official car. No security trappings. He would jovially greet the old-timers. That was his greatness," Poojari said.
Whenever Fernandes visited Sukh Sagar, he never discussed political issues but only personal or 'sukh-dukh' matters relevant to two commoners who had come to Mumbai to make it big in life from absolute scratch.
While Fernandes was jobless and often slept on Mumbai's pavements, Poojari, at age 10, started life as a waiter for Rs 4 a month. He later slogged 18 hours in a Bombay Port Trust canteen for Rs 6 a month, attended night schools till Class IX, and then became a voracious reader with a personal collection of over 1,000 books today across all topics in different languages.
Starting with a wooden stool stall operating a hand-held mixer six decades ago, Poojari's Sukh Sagar has grown into an international brand in India and abroad, an ice-cream factory, a shopping mall, a 50-room three-star hotel in Bengaluru, together employing over 1,000 people.
Today, it continues to be patronized by celebs like Amitabh Bachchan, leading industrialists, politicians and foreign clientele for its 'Value for Money' food.
- By Quaid Najmi
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