After a long time, I had occasion to visit the New Ajnabi Mithai Ghar, better known as Ajnabi’s, in Fountain Plaza. Ajnabi’s was a favourite haunt in the early 1980s of youngsters, especially college students; as far as I remember, the eatery was there ever since Fountain Plaza emerged on the shopping landscape in Madras. Ajnabi was popular for its mouthwatering varieties of sweets, savouries and chaats, and also what was called, the Jain eggless cake. Indeed, the eggless cake variety included fresh cream cakes, vanilla, butter scotch, choco truffle, black forest, strawberry, pineapple, black currant, orange, dry fruit, choconut and browny. More than anything else, it was the sort of perfect hangout of an evening in those days, like Tic Tac on Nungambakkam High Road.
Well, things haven’t changed much at Ajnabi’s. There was a crowd when I entered this afternoon. I noticed a range of juices, supari and papad, chips, channa jor garam… quite a mind-boggling variety. Young girls waited near the chaat counter for their plates of samosa, kachori, dahi puri, pav bhaji, dahi papdi chaat… The person at the cash counter, who I’m sure represents the second generation of the Gujarati family that runs the place, had a keen eye on his assistants and belted orders from time to time to keep the momentum of work on.
I wondered what it is that has kept this enterprise going, in spite of new eateries sprouting all the time in Chennai. Judging by what I saw in the half hour I was there, it occurred to me that if you offer quality and back it with personal care and service, you can be assured of a winner anytime, anywhere. I also noticed that the assistants were enjoying what they were doing- they were smiling at each other, pulling each other’s legs, and all the while working at a feverish pace. No complaints at all!
Surprisingly, the Ajnabi success does not seem to have rubbed off on some of the other shops in the mall (Fountain Plaza, unlike Spencer’s or the City Centre, is not enclosed – there are open spaces, nooks and aisles that still retain the charm of the early 1980s). I did not notice many customers in other shops. Of course, you cannot beat the numbers gathered at a popular chaat shop but even so, it is clear that many of the textile and fancy stores have lost out to their fancied cousins in the super malls. Jagdeep’s, or Jags, the ‘jean specialist’, is still there though the crowds you saw there 25 years ago are missing.
The car park was full and vehicles kept coming in as others left. The attendants were having a tough time regulating traffic inside the compound. It was heartwarming to see such hustle-bustle about the place. I left with a good feeling. Fountain Plaza, thanks to Ajnabi and a few other stores, is still very much alive and kicking.