If you are ever in the Panbazar area of Guwahati, then you are sure to spot Mahamaya’s banner which proudly sports the ‘Estd: 1918’ tag. This iconic establishment has been around from the time when most households could only afford to buy and use cycles as their prime mode of transportation. This was the time when owning a simple lantern would take your social standing up a notch. Keeping in tune with the times, Mahamaya started as a simple tea shop with limited snacks like labanga, nimki and the like.
The man behind the establishment, Naroram Barman, hailed from Chamata Nalbari. He used to stay with his family in the village. ‘Earlier on, there was barter system in the village and everything people need to sustain themselves was available but then times changed and the young people needed to look for jobs to earn money. My father and his brothers also wanted to make a living which is why they decided to try their luck in the city. They used to walk from Nalbari to Hajo and then take a bullock cart to get to Guwahati back in the day,’ shared Arjun Barman, current proprietor and son of Naroram Barman.
At that time when Mahamaya first opened its doors, there was no concept of eating out. People did not feel the need to eat outside and so Mahamaya started out as a tea shop where working folk could drink a cup of hot tea and munch on light snacks during tea-time. ‘At that time, the population of Guwahati was very less; and there were only one or two cars, most people would just use cycles.’
Arjun Barman started looking after the management of the shop in 1963. ‘I had to focus all my attention on the restaurant after my father passed away.’ Running one of the oldest tea shops in the city, he does know his fair share of local personalities. ‘I know Hiren Gohain. Akhil Gogoi sat on that chair for years (pointing to a chair at one corner of the restaurant). Ministers like Himanta Biswa Sarma and Chandra Mohan Patowary have also visited the establishment.’
Even though the world outside has changed, Mahamaya has more or less remained the same. When you step inside, the colours of the walls, the vintage menu board and the simple furniture will remind you of a simpler time. Arjun Barman reveals that he doesn’t want to upgrade the restaurant in order to make it look similar to its modern competitors. ‘Mahamaya was always meant for the common folk. Even though times have changed and there are people with high incomes, a big percentage of the public are still managing on meagre incomes and I want them to have a place where they can eat their fill without having to worry about going over their budget.
Barman’s son also looks after management. They have devised a schedule which makes it convenient for both of them to oversee daily operations. Arjun Barman still personally opens and closes the establishment every day. Although they do not plan to make big changes, they do hope to make small improvements in the coming months. ‘My son has a hotel management degree and he keeps telling me to renovate. I do not want to change much but I am thinking of replacing the tables and chairs.’
Next time, you are in the area, do drop in to savour of cup of hot steaming tea and become part of Mahamaya’s history.
By Meeta Borah
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast January 2018 issue