BBC World chows down at Britannia!. .

BBC World paid a visit to Britannia, Ballard Estate this week.


"old is gold" : B. Merwan, Grant Road

The ferocious rapidity of change in Mumbai continues - Boman and Soroush Nazrabadi have shuttered the doors and windows of Grant Road's B. Merwan cafe for the last time, 100 years after their grandfather Boman Merwan opened them up.

In 2007 we interviewed Boman Nazrabadi - here is an excerpt.

My grandfather came over from Iran. From Nazarabad. His name was Boman Merwan Nazarabadi. B. Merwan. As far as I know they could get a better life over here so they came from Iran and started these places. There was nothing like that in Bombay then my grandfather told me – no places to buy quick snacks and everything.


This area, this place around here, has grown like anything because the trains come here, and people come from all over, from suburbs, from Virar, Andheri, Borivali so when they came down they want something fast so first they come over here and get a chai or a mava cake or both!

Here is the perfect location next to Grant Road Station, it was my grandfather’s intuition or whatever you want to call it and you know, in Bombay, people have come from Maharastra, from all over, they used to come from many, many different parts of the country, but there was not so much population at that time that my grandfather first started out.

I started here in 1951 after I left college in Pune. My brother Soroush has been working with me for many years also. We are the third generation. Many of the Irani places have changed now, they have become Chinese or pizza or beer bars. I wouldn't like that! No, I wouldn't like it, the old is gold.

From an interview with Boman Nazrabadi, Mumbai, April 2007.

IMAGES : Top picture of Soroush Nazrabadi,2005, 
copyright Sue Darlow, used with permission 

All other images of B. Merwan cafe taken 2005 by Sue Darlow originally published at http://anothersubcontinent.com/ copyright the estate of Sue Darlow and used with permission.


Remembering B. Merwan in 16 minutes, 25 seconds : Brun

Atul Sabharwal's fine short film Brun documents daily life at Grant Road's B. Merwan cafe as it was in 2005. The film's firepower is about to double with news that Boman and Soroush Nazrabadi will close the landmark Grant Road café next month.

Take a look at Atul's film, and remember. You can almost taste the chai when you watch Brun! An evocative piece Atul wrote for us in 2007 on making the film can be found here.

With thanks to Atul!


Sharada Dwivedi

We have been really saddened by the news this week of the unexpected passing of Sharada Dwivedi. Sharada devoted her working life to researching Bombay and those of us who have a passion for Indian urban history have all benefitted from her fine work.

When we first set-up Irani Chai, Mumbai Sharada was enthusiastic and very supportive; in fact she was so excited she offered to share a piece she had written several years earlier on Yazdani Bakery in Fort with us. 

We extend our condolences to all who were touched by Sharada.

You can read her piece on Yazdani Bakery here.


An upcoming exhibition : January 14 to 20

Mumbai artist Gautam Benegal - whose work on Irani Cafes was featured here back in 2008 - will be exhibiting his work at COOL CHEF CAFE, Worli Village, from January 14 to 20. Here Gautam shares with Irani Chai, Mumbai the mainspring behind his work on Irani cafes.

I am currently working on a series of painting on the Irani cafes of Bombay. The Irani restaurants some of them well over seventy years old represent the quintessential nature of cosmopolitan Bombay and were the first eating houses where people from all classes, castes and persuasions were welcome. The old world interior of an irani restaurant was unique and irreplaceable.

These were the places where a migrant worker could get the cheapest non vegetarian meal in the city. And he would often be rubbing shoulders with poets painters student leaders and journalists for whom the corner Irani was a common meeting point. With time these restaurants are shutting down and currently there are hardly 26 restaurants in all of Bombay.

Their spaces are taken up by multinational banks and garment franchises and very soon there will be none left. I understand that transience is a natural condition of human existence. And though resignedly accept it, I still feel a pang of remorse as familiar faces and architecture melts away around me and that which was considered commonplace and taken for granted by us only a few years ago, now becomes unattainable and priceless as bits and pieces of living history are lost forever.

I try to capture the transient face of Bombay , now forcibly and jingoistically stamped Mumbai, that within the space of a hundred blinks reinvents itself a thousand-fold, as builders, land sharks and estate agents savage it and parcel it out over and over. I need anchors and mnemonics that mark the moments of my life, the places I have been to and the faces I have seen at end of day, for those are the things that make up my living soul.

For when all is said and done, and vision obscured, tastebuds dulled, and flesh demeaned by age, we are but the sum total of our memories. There is no greater sadness than the collective Alzheimer's of a callous populace that does not recognize its own treasures, that cannot cry at the corruption of its ancient rivers or the demise of a simple cup of Irani chai.


Irani Chai, Mumbai is taking a break for a while to work on other projects. But we will be back!



Metamorphosis 2 : Leopold Cafe, Colaba

My name is Farzadh Sheriar Jahani. I was born in Bombay and grew up in Fountain. Flora Fountain area. That’s where, you know, most of the Parsis and Parsi communities were living back then. We lived in a five storey building, on one floor was an Iranian family that was living there, working for the Iranian consulate and there was a Punjabi living on the first floor. The rest of the flats were all occupied by Zoroastrians, Iranis.

My fathers name was Sheriar Framroze Jehani. My mothers name is Gulche Sheriar Jehani and they were both born in Iran. My father came down to India at the age of 15 or 16 with no money in his pocket. He had his brother and sister that he had to look after, and his parents. He was the oldest. So he had to come down to India to work, make a living and send some money back home for the family. They are from Yazd in Iran, actually just close by Yazd, a village called Taft.

My father got work in Irani restaurants, got the experience then like so many other Iranis, he took a share in several Irani joints. He ended up a partner in five restaurants in Bombay. One was called New York Restaurant which was on Hughes Road and he was a partner in Pyrkes Restaurant which was at Flora Fountain, he was a partner in Café Paris which was again at Flora Fountain. He was a partner in Moranaz and Company again very close to, ahhh, in the area of Fountain, and here at Leopold’s, that’s where my father was also. In fact, he was most of the time over here in Leopold’s and all the others were run by my father’s brother, his sister’s husband and other family.

Mr Rustom was a partner with my father here at Leopold’s and the building belonged to him That’s why the building is called Rustom Manzil. Also Aspandiar Ferhandaz Irani was a partner, Sheriar Framroze Jehani was a partner and Framroze Irani was also a partner – he was Aspandiar’s brother. These were the four partners that were in Leopold’s. During that time it was only my father who was running the show. All the other partners were you know doing something else. Rustom was coming and going. Aspi had a travel agent called Asiatic Travel Service which was near VT station, right opposite New Empire Cinema. The other gentleman was Framroze, he was living in Iran. So it was left to my father to run it daily. And it was in 1980, in the 80s, early 80s that I was in the 8th grade and I told my father I had an interest in learning the business.

It was more of an old type Irani café and store back then, they were selling confectionary items like…all kinds of things, they were selling biscuits and cakes and they were selling toothpaste, soaps, ah, you know medicines that didn’t require licences, such as Aspirin. They were selling cigarettes, cigars, and oh, um, khari biscuits and wafers and samosas and pattice and there were more sales of meals like English chicken roast and cutlet with soup, sandwiches, puddings and custards. There were a few Parsi dishes such as dhansak on the menu but not many. Today we have 140-odd items on our menu card. The changes came in the late 80s like in ’86, ’87 we introduced Chinese food into our restaurant, because we realised that people are now going for Chinese food and so we did too.

I remember my father telling me the 60s was the time of the hippies into the 70s, then the 80s was the time of the Arabs – the phases of Leopold I am talking about- then came the backpackers and now we have the expats. And a lot of Indians too as Indians have a lot more money these days than they used to.

When I was in my teens I used to meet people that were coming from Afghanistan, fleeing Afghanistan because the Russians had invaded. And we had a lot of, as I said, tourists, foreigners that were hanging around Colaba. So I have seen all kinds of crowd here. During the Iran-Iraq war we had people that had fled from Iran, young people that didn’t want to go to the war. I have seen people that were helping Iranians get out of the country illegally, but none of these transactions would take place in the premises for the respect of the owners, for the respect of the place and everybody had a good relationship.

And we had the Zoroastrian Parsis who would come here every Sunday morning, those were the cyclists. They used to have tournaments, races from Bombay to Pune and back, those kinds of things. There were a lot of young Parsis who would come basically on a Sunday – on a holiday. But not the rest of the week.

There used to be times when I would go with my Dad to Crawford market; because he would get up at 530 in the morning and by 6 o’clock he used to be in the market. At that time we had to go over there, we had to buy things like mutton, chicken, vegetables everything had to be hand picked and then we had a guy who used to be a cart-puller – he’d load onto the cart and deliver it to the restaurant over here.

My father used to have his Italian Fiat 1959 model which he used to get in and come back to Leopold’s in. Sometimes if his car was spoilt I might come with him and we would get a bus ride, early in the morning, on the BEST as we call them and I’d come with him, spend the day. Since my house was close – just 1, 2 kilometres from Leopold’s I could walk back home but no I would wait for my father , until he had finished, and then leave with him.

The world is different to what it was back then. People themselves have changed, those that wanted to move on in life have moved on in life. What we did was we moved with the times. Today my older brother Farhang and I manage Leopold’s. We have changed with the times and that’s why we have survived. I have seen so many an Irani joint either shut down, or sell out because they didn’t move with the times, they didn’t change.

I would say I am thankful to my Dad for having confidence in me and my brother, to let us make some changes while he was alive, while I was growing up still. He realised it was for the betterment of the business. You see people in those days – the elderly generation- were not having so much trust in their children, to let them bring in the changes. Have you heard about the crab in the basket? Sometimes I feel our community can be like that. If one is climbing up to get out of it, the other one is pulling that one down. Why? Success in a community should be accepted open heartedly. In fact, ask that person to guide you. Learn from that person. Educate yourself. Open your, your vision. Go and learn, don’t pull that person down.

I am really grateful to Gregory David Roberts for putting down what he had to in his book Shantaram. He himself is a great person. He has put us on the map of the world, it’s like ‘OK this is where Leopold’s is’. I have met so many foreign tourists, rich people who have read this book that would stay at Taj, came over here, and they say ‘we never thought of coming down to Bombay or to India or to Leopold, but after reading this book it pulled us to your place. And here we are eating, enjoying the food that’s been cooked here’.

The Iranis who started these places in Bombay, look, they have taken pain, they have sacrificed. Today I am sitting here, I have enjoyed, I have travelled, I have done all kinds of things my father didn’t do. My father and mother sacrificed so that I got this and I am enjoying this today because of their sacrifices. Today, I am not sacrificing in the same way to give life to my children, but I still protect them so that they get the best. Hard work and sacrifice is what they gave.

On 26/11/2008 two guys were standing by our door between 940 and 945pm talking on their cell phones. After that communication they were standing and talking to each other, maybe doing their prayers or what not and then one person, from his haversack, removes a hand grenade and hurls it into the restaurant. Soon after there was gun fire from an AK47. We lost several loyal staff and guests and others were injured. There was blood all over the place. It knocked all of us over.

It does not make any sense. Why kill innocent people? What have the people that you have killed done to anybody? They are sitting as human beings as you were once – they are no more human beings – eating their food with their family and friends. You have your differences with whoever, but why innocent people? I don’t understand. They basically came to kill foreigners. But we don’t let them win. We opened up after a few days and we stay open, we won’t let the fear and hate take over, we will work hard so that we then sleep. And time helps. I think my father would be proud of all of us.

From an interview with Farzadh Sheriar Jahani, Mumbai, March 2009

IMAGES, top to bottom:

-Farzadh S. Jahani, Mumbai 2009

-Rand McNally map of Asia, 1892

-Advertisement for Leopold & Co., in Hormusji Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala,

Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, Claridge, Bombay, 1939

-Man smoking at Leopold's 2004, photographer Apoorva Guptay, copyright

-Wall mural, Leopold's Cafe, artist unknown

-Frahang Jahani, Leopold's Cafe 2009, photographer Jason Motlagh, copyright

-Leopold's Colaba Causeway 1980s, photographer Marellaluca, copyright

-Leopold's Colaba Causeway 2009

-Wall mural remembering 26/11 Mumbai bombings, Mumbai 2009


Metamorphosis 1 : Cafe Universal, Fort

For those of us who have been able to change with the times, the future of our businesses is bright

My name is Gustad Dehmiri. I was born in Yazd, Iran in 1944. My fathers name was Framroze and my mothers name Keshwa, and we are four girls and two boys in our family. All of my sisters are living in Canada, one of my sisters was here, she has expired now.

I came to India 1985, my father was a partner in Leopold in Colaba for a long time. He was young when he start working in Leopold, maybe 20 years old. I still have a share in Leopold, and this place here, Café Universal I bought some time back. It was a simple beer bar and chai and bun maska place only. I renovated the place, totally changed it to beer bar and full restaurant.

The owner of Café Universal was Behram Radmanesh, today he is 75, 80 years old, all his family is in America, so he has gone, he go to the States and stay there, once a year he comes back here for a holiday, then goes back because nobody is here to look after him.

Leopold was started in 1871 – first it was a drug store, then it changed to a wine market, wine shop, then my father and my uncle started it for a restaurant about 100 years ago, in 1907 I think.

So Leopold’s was started by our family, my father, my wife’s father and two other partners – one by the name Rustam. And one by the name of Sheriar, they were co-partners, running that place, and now they expired, and today Sheriar’s sons Farhang and Farzadh and myself, my brother and my wife Thrity we are the partners of Leopold’s today. Farhang and Farzadh manage Leopold’s day to day though.

Leopold’s, like this place Café Universal, was just chai, bun maska – just a typical old Iranian restaurant. Yeah, that is the story of these old Iranian restaurants; chai, bun maska, khari biscuit, pattice and all that. After that when the beer was more freely available in Bombay people realised aelling beer is much better profit than selling just chai!

Leopold actually, the Leopold was the name of the King of Belgium, ok, the King of Belgium was named Leopold and from that, in the British time it is named by them, Leopold Restaurant, a lot of people liked royalty in those days! Times change.

So when I came to India in ’85, we changed the food, this, that and people started coming, as a tourist centre. Everybody coming from abroad directly from airport to Leopold and they know their friends are going to be there, and from that Leopold became well known. It is written the name of Leopold in guidebooks, the whole world, everywhere, in Canada, in US, India wherever you go you open the book and Leopold’s name is there, that’s why it became so famous.

Café Universal was old and run down by the time I bought it; they were a different kind of customer. They were working on the docks, most of them. But now these docks are closed here, they shut down. They went to New Bombay.

Iranis have been hardworking people, only the thing is that the young generation, they didn’t want to go after their fathers, like in restaurants, because they study so they say ‘why should I come and work in a chai restaurant with dad?’

They maybe wanted to change the model, change the design, because still you see there are a few of that old type of Irani restaurant, old chairs and tables, and I told some people “why are you not interested in remodelling the place?” They say ‘no, if we make better the tax man will come and say “oh, from where have you got this money?”’

But for those of us who have been able to change with the times, the future of our businesses is bright.

From an interview with Gustad and Thrity Dehmiri, Mumbai, April 2008

IMAGES, top to bottom:

-Gustad and Thrity Dehmiri, Mumbai, April 2008

-Cafe Universal, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Fort, Mumbai April 2008

-Gustad Dehmiri and Behram Radmanesh at Cafe Universal before renovations, ca 2004

-Advertisement for Leopold & Co., in Hormusji Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala, Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, Claridge, Bombay, 1939.

-Leopold's, Colaba Causeway ca 1990 courtesy Brian J McMorrow

-Cafe Universal, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Fort, Mumbai December 2009