the Irani restaurant sings to me. .

George Grosz had his Berlin cafes, Toulouse Lautrec his Moulin Rouge – and what the hell – I had my Bombay Irani.

There's this thing about the Irani café that draws me like a magnet. Especially the downmarket ones. Carelessly scattered and heaped ashtrays, half empty beer bottles , chipped tea cups, sullen tired waiters and a customer base that encompasses all denominations of this brave struggling species known as Mumbaikars. If asked to quickly pick three random images from my consciousness to define this city I'd pick the Irani, the Bombay Fiat taxi and the stock exchange building – in that order. And if anything symbolizes the cosmopolitan nature of this city, it is the corner Irani. My first tryst with bun-maskapao-keema-chai destiny took place in 1987, shortly after coming to Bombay to seek my (still elusive) fortune. It was an Irani called Fairdeal Restaurant on Linking Road in Bandra (W) and I was looking for a place to have breakfast.

I had just taken up a paying guest accommodation at Pali Hill with a Sindhi family the night before and had very little money on me. The first impression I got on entering the cool dark interior after my eyes had adjusted from the blazing heat outside, was of absolute disorder. There were cartons everywhere – on the tables, in the corners of the restaurant which was not a restaurant but a store which also sold food and therefore also was a restaurant…and there were egg racks nestling close to Bisleri bottles which snuck up comfortably with stacks of pao. Yellow Amul butter blocks cut up into little pieces lay in the open on the sideboard invitingly for flies…and a thin dyspeptic looking chap was slicing pao with a long thin knife that looked more like a tape measure.

But what is indelibly printed in my memory is the owner. He had skin like parchment and piercing eyes and a monumental nose. He had bright orange hair. And a cigarette jutted out of his mouth like it was an extension of him, cousin to the nose as it were. Great plumes of evil cheap smoke wreathed themselves around this striking personality as I waited for my order, and looking around me at this ramshackle scene lit up inadequately by the dim tube lights, I knew. I knew I had to paint these people, that owner sitting behind his ancient phone, the dyspeptic chappie with the knife, the lazy bulbous fans hanging down from the ceiling and the porcine broker trying to con the old couple in the table next to me. I saw the dust mites riding the rays of sunlight that were sheared three ways through the exhaust fan and watched them settling gently on the Amul butter with fascination. What could be more beautiful? George Grosz had his Berlin cafes, Toulouse Lautrec his Moulin Rouge – and what the hell – I had my Bombay Irani.

No matter how dauntingly expensive a city may be, no matter how hopelessly out of reach those grails of success that we have each of us pledged to pursue would seem, every civilized place has its respite. A place where you can say time out and rest your feet. Every bonecrushing system has its cracks where an ant in the world of giants may exist in grace for a while. In 1987, a fellow who had just left the safety of his family and hometown with no great job to speak of could still eat his fill in an Irani for 15 bucks. Today, even with inflation it's only 30 bucks.

When I see the patrons of the Irani tables, I am reminded of that fact. Very few of them go to admire the Belgian mirrors or the quaint furniture or the architecture. When I paint, it is not the mirror but the faces the mirror has seen over a hundred years that I paint. The migrants, the dispossessed, the students, small businessmen that bring colour and life to this city. That is the lifeblood of my cavas. Most of them have moved on and would not feel the slightest pang if they heard an Irani had been torn down and a branded retail outlet had come up in its place.

But there was an Irani hotel for them when they had needed it. There had been in their past the grace of an exquisitely crafted cupboard with inscriptions at the top and the respite of a 2 rupee cup of tea. There had been a marbletop table to sit at while worrying about whether there was enough money to take the Virar local back home.

When I paint the patrons of an Irani I also know that many of them have not taken that giant step forward. I can see it in the hunch of their backs and the hollows of their eyes. But there is place for them in Mumbai too - as there must be in every civilization worth its name. At least I hope so. If every chawl and wadi in Mumbai is torn down, and every green street corner squared away with chrome and steel and everything available inside a tinted glass fronted box at high prices, where do they go?

As we paper over the cracks and leave no rough edges or untidyness that may embarrass us, we also leach out the colors of diversity, and disavow our past. Art does not sit well with gentrification and uniformity. If you hang up Van Gogh's Potato Eaters on your pristine walls or Ramkinkar Beij's wild landscapes, should we not spare a thought for the source?

The Irani restaurant in its dying throes sings to me of much more than what is inside it. Beyond its check patterned floor is the dull concrete that inches closer every day.
I must paint quickly before it encroaches my canvas too.

WORDS and IMAGES COPYRIGHT GAUTAM BENEGAL, 2008. All rights reserved.


Irani cafes and I. . .

Right from my childhood at 233 Khetwadi Main Road in South Mumbai to this moment, Irani Cafes have been a part and parcel (takeaway?) of my life. At least three of them from those good ol’ days are extant just a five- minute walk away from my childhood home which unfortunately is extinct.

The closest to the now non-existent centre of my erstwhile existence, New Yazdani Restaurant, diagonally across Dreamland Cinema is now a liquor bar. This restaurant used to be a regular first port of call whenever I accompanied my father to the nearby Grant Road market, usually on a Sunday morning. I used to coax at least a rupee worth of boiled sweets out of him every time. A minute away from New Yazdani is Café Mazda Restaurant at the corner of Pauwala (literally unleavened bread maker) Lane and New Charni Road (now Raja Ram Mohan Roy Marg). I don’t remember ever stepping into this eatery as a child or as a grown-up, come to think of it.

In the opposite direction on the same road
at about the same distance is Cosmopolitan Restaurant & Stores at the junction of New Charni Road and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Road (earlier known as Sandhurst Road). We used to sometimes do emergency shopping there: eggs, butter, loaves of pau (unleavened bread) supposedly a Bombay specialty, khara (salted) biscuits and stuff like that.

Its next door neighbour is Famous Pharmacy under the same Irani management. The distinguishing mark Cosmopolitan and Famous shared was Mr Muchchad (Rustom Khodabux Irani), the unsmiling but jovial man with a gargantuan moustache who worked behind the counter at both the places. We used to rib him about his proud possession. He took it in his stride unsmilingly.

The Irani Café we Mankars occasionally went to on weekends was Café Darayush, quite close to the Central Cinema. Now it is a liquor bar, restaurant, bakery, pastry shop, all-in-one. In those days (I’m talking 1940s), they used to serve home-made ice cream made in a hand-cranked ice cream maker. Darayush then used to have “family rooms” with swinging half doors allowing a measure of privacy to courting couples. Marathi short stories of that era have quite a few references to this feature of the Irani Café. Later in the 70s, an eatery much favoured by courting couples as well as Blitz’s Rusi Karanjia was the open-air one storied Café Naaz on top of the Malabar Hill. Commanding an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the Queen’s Necklace, it used to serve piping hot mutton samosas to die for and even beer. Naaz closed just at the fag end of the last millennium

Going back a few decades, though, guess what scuttlebutt of yore offered as the inside secret of the refreshing Irani chai? Opium lacing, believe it or not. About as convincing as the use of pau to pollute well water and convert those who drank it to Christianity, what? That brings me to the all-time favourite Irani Café of mine. Café Excelsior opposite the New Excelsior Cinema near the Victoria Terminus (now Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus). Although they serve decent Mughlai and Chinese fare, my favourite dish there is the simple Mutton Sandwich which I take away often enough even now. My other favourite takeaway Irani café is Sassanian for mutton and chicken puffs and garlic bread. I started frequenting it after the closure of Bastani opposite Kyani at Dhobi Talao.

If you’ve been wondering why this Bombay bloke has not mentioned even once brun pau (hard brown bread) smothered in maska (butter), the Bambaiya fad food for slumming preferred by the denizens of Page 3, the answer is he simply doesn’t fancy it. But somebody close to him does. Yes, whenever our son Ashutosh, who lives and works in New Jersey, drops in to see us, one of his must-visit spots is Sunshine Café at the junction of Babasaheb Jayakar Marg (Old Thakurdwar Road) and Jagannath Shankarseth Marg (Girgaum Road). That’s very close to where we live now. This restaurant with an attached beer bar also sells bread, eggs, butter, cheese, milk, pastry and so on. We shop there occasionally.

And, if you haven’t still had had your fill of my geographically, chronologically and palatably mapped memories, here is the parting shot. About eight months after I joined an advertising company in 1976 that was situated in Kitab Mahal above Café Excelsior, I fell ill. During convalescence, I grew a beard which is extant even today albeit in an abridged avatar. This is what came out of a close encounter of the real kind in an Irani café immediately after the said beard’s debut:

a case of mistaken identity
summarily dismissed

i met a woman
with gaps in her grin
mad enough to mistake
me for saint francis

my bald pate and beard
were the clues
she said

i soon showed her
the error of her ways
by refusing to grant
her the boon of a measly
cup of tea

surely i argued
saint francis’s munificence
cannot stoop
so low

P.S.: Famous last words supposedly heard in a Mumbai Irani café: “Khaya piyaa kuchch nahin. Sirf galas todaa. Barah anna” [Ate-drank nothing. Only broke a glass. Collect 12 annas].

Copyright © 2008 by Deepak Mankar. All rights reserved.
IMAGES, top to bottom:- Deepak Mankar with sister Malini, Bombay ca 1938
- Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores & Famous Pharmacy, cnr.
New Charni Road & S V Patel Road, ca 1980

- Rustom Khodabux Irani, Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, ca 1950
- Detail from Map of Bombay, Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1909
- Advertisement for Cafe Naaz, ca 1965- Bastani, Dhobi Talao, ca 1980


Brabourne Restaurant, Dhobi Talao

They contributed in their own little way to the growth of Bombay, a city which has completely changed character.

My name is Rashid Irani, though our family name is actually Bahmani. But a lot of Iranis in Bombay have kept, and I am one of them, the surname Irani. Actually, I only found out I had a family surname when I tried to get an Iranian passport. Til then I didn’t even know that I had another surname. I always thought it was just Irani. Funny, really.

My very first years, maybe four or five years, my parents used to live in kind of sprawling chawl, which is a huge kind of, you know, a number of flats, a number of families occupying those flats, and this was at Fort Market, very close to Flora Fountain. It was predominantly Parsi and Catholic at that point of time. Later, we moved over here to Dhobi Talao.

Dhobi Talao was mainly Catholic and Zoroastrian then; Catholics for the reason that in those days Goa was not connected by air from Bombay, and the majority of the Goans were, and still are, employed on ships, in all categories, so whenever they would sign off from a ship they would land up in Dhobi Talao, and this was the place where there were various Goan clubs- living quarters with one huge room where a lot of people slept. What would happen is the moment they would sign off the ship they would temporarily stay here til they made arrangements to go to Goa. And of course at that time there were plenty of Zoroastrians - Parsis and Iranis - living around here too.

My father Rustom Aspandiar Bahmani emigrated from Iran in the late 1920s and like most Zoroastrian Iranians who came to Bombay at that time he came from the main centre, being Yazd, villages in and around Yazd. It was quite an arduous journey coming to India via Pakistan, and they got into a few difficulties along the way, but finally made it to Bombay and they started these restaurants, these tea shops and provision stores, and they succeeded in business beyond, I am sure, their wildest ambitions. Brabourne opened in about 1932, and my father started working here in 1934. The place was originally a stable for horses.

I'd say Iranis did well because they had the knack of melding into the surroundings quite comfortably, I guess because of the shop. I think that is one of the best things about running a business like this - you come into contact with a wide spectrum of people on a daily basis, so you have to, per se, interact with them, otherwise you'd have no hope of succeeding!

The Iranis of course they were very, very hard working, and despite not having education in the formal sense, they had tremendous business acumen;they were hard working and practical, despite the fact that we'd get called junglees - which basically means rough, stupid, idiots. I sometimes feel Iranis get tired of being seen that way, it's so inaccurate.

really vivid memory for me goes back to my days at St Xaviers - the local Jesuit school, and I had this teacher, I still remember his name, he was fearsome, but he was also, well, I actually grew fond of him, and one day, the very first day of class, when he was reading out the roll, he came to my name, stopped, looked up and asked me ‘what do your parents do?’ so I said “my father runs a tea shop”.

From that time on, he would invariably in class refer to me as ‘chaiwalla’ – a chaiwalla being someone who makes and sells tea. You know, at first I was really riled, especially since some of the other students, I mean my class mates also, started teasing me and continued to call me ‘chaiwalla’. I was angry at him, and since he was the teacher I couldn’t do anything. It was only much later that I realised this was his way of addressing all Iranis; a couple of my Irani friends who were 1 year senior said ‘why are you getting so upset?'

But I just didn't understand why it was so funny to be a chaiwalla's son, for Iranis like my parents slogged all their lives. The shop was their be all and end all – they would spend maybe 16 to 18 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year at work, but one of the things of course happening in those days was that each of these restaurants, they were rarely singularly owned, there were no single proprietors; there would normally be a partnership between 3 Iranians, or more.

Which meant that once a year maybe, or once every two years, one of the partners would take a long break – an extended vacation of a month, or two months. My father and mother invariably took my three brothers and myself for a holiday during our school vacation, mainly to this lovely place called Devlali which is an army cantonment about four hours away, and I have very, very fond memories of that place - for it was at a little cinema there called the Cathay I first fell in love with film.

I think what distinguished these Irani cafes was you could sit on a table with just one cup of tea and read the newspaper for hours on end, and you could be sure that you would never be asked to leave – that was one of the great things, so they became a kind of meeting point for a lot of people - there'd be innocuous debates to the more kind of intellectual discourses, everything took place within the confines of the Irani café.

Brabourne for me is, I think, a great institution. It has in its own way, and going back to the chaiwalla thing, you know one of the things I always feel, is that I am grateful for my father and his partners who started this place, for contributing, if only as chaiwallas, to the city. It is amazing that they contributed in their own little way to the growth of Bombay, a city which has completely changed character; it really no longer exists as it once did.

Today Dhobi Talao is increasingly a commercial hub. Earlier it was predominantly a residential area, today it is commercial. Within a decade I can see a whole slew of malls dotting the skyline around here. We are next in line, I suppose.

From an interview with RASHID IRANI, April 20, 2007


IMAGES: top to bottom:
RASHID IRANI, Brabourne Restaurant, Dhobi Talao, ca1990, photographer Raghubir Singh, copyright Raghubir Singh
ADVERTISEMENT for BRABOURNE RESTAURANT from Hormusji Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala, Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, published by Claridge, Bombay, 1939


wheat & pomegranate / chai & omelet : Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, Prarthana Samaj

My father Khodabux Merwan Irani came to Bombay in about 1920, he was 18. When he came to India, not a single word of Hindi did he know, but still he learnt Hindi, Gujarati, everything, on his own. He had a very tough, tough, tough time. They were from Iran - Kerman, near Kerman, a small place called Jupar. They were farmers -wheat, and we had an orchard also, and in that orchard was watermelon, pomegranate, apricots, and mulberry.

The very starting of the Cosmopolitan, it was I think in 1932, my father was running the Good Luck restaurant on what is V.P. Road now. He started at Café Cecil, another Irani café now gone. He asked them if he could work, for nothing, to get experience you see. He went to Café Cecil and said 'can I work over here?' First they said no, and he said 'I don't want anything from you, but let me work, let me learn something', so they allowed him to work.

I remember when we started making biscuits, about 1956, we had no experience whatsoever, for three months, believe me, we used to prepare biscuits, and they were like wood! We actually threw the first batches into the sea! But one day at closing time, 11o'clock at night, I said I must keep trying - I prepared khari biscuits, and by God's grace they started to turn out beautifully. So then we began doing cakes - plum cake, currant cake, I just taught myself! We still prepare Christmas cakes here in December, and people just love them.

The success of these places, on the street corners? Look, Iranis mostly, in the old times, they did not care what the Indian people said about them - they do what they had to do. For instance I will tell you, my great grandfather, he had a donkey, and that donkey wouldn't pass over the bridge. The river was full and there was too much water there and the donkey doesn't want to go because he is afraid, so my grandfather, he carried the donkey on his shoulders and passed across..that is what the mentality was..they always found a solution to any problem, and made things work. Resourceful people; very, very, very practical.

My wife Freny, by God's grace, she has helped so much with this business, especially since my father died in 1976. Her father was a baker, she knows hard work. We met in 1967, and married in 1969. Our son Humin was born in 1970. Today he works here also.

I am Iranian, no doubt. I have an Indian passport, but I am Iranian, although really I am just a man living on the surface of this earth, and soon it could be time for me to make a move. In this area there was Yazdani Restaurant, Original Persian Restaurant, Hardings Restaurant and Stores, Café Shirin; they are all gone now. Original Persian had a very, very, very good name. We have lasted longer, but who knows for how long; I think the future for the Irani restaurants still left in Bombay is bleak.

From an interview with Rustom F Irani, Mumbai, November 2007

IMAGES, top to bottom:
-Rustom K Irani, Mumbai, 2007
-Advertisement featuring Rustom Khodabux Irani and Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, ca 1950

- Sheryar Kavyani, ca 1960
-Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, Prathana Samaj, Mumbai, 2007
-Rustom K Irani with son Humin, right, and Irani tourist, ca 1990
-Freny and Humin Irani, 2007


"places time forgot". . .

"Mumbai's Irani cafes", says photojournalist JEWELLA C. MIRANDA, "... are the places time forgot. Little pockets of nostalgia dotting unlikely corners of the city, swathed in sepia, staring out as the world outside moves just a little faster every year".

Jimmy Boy, Horniman Circle, Fort

Cafe Military, Fort

Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao

Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao

Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao

New Country Liquor Bar, Fort

Britannia, Ballard Estate



BOMBAY TO SONAPUR HAI* 3: Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao

Kyani is now 103 years old; we are supposed to be the oldest Irani cafe still operating.

My name is Aflatoon Khodadad Shokriye. Khodadad is my fathers name, Shokriye is our family name. Aflatoon Khodadad Shokriye. I came to Bombay from the city of Yazd in Iran in 1948. My father was here, he sent me a visa, student visa to study here. At that time I was 18 years old.

Image: Passenger docks, Karachi Port, ca 1940

The trip was during monsoon, up to Quetta it was OK- we went from Yazd to Kerman, Kerman to Zahedan, Zahedan to Quetta. From Quetta again we came to Karachi, from Karachi we came by steamer to Mumbai. I was along with some three, four people from Yazd. One was aged like my father, and he was our neighbour in Yazd, his son was there and another fellow was there of my age. It was a journey I will never forget. Ever. More tham one week of travelling.

Image: Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao, 2007

So it was monsoon, and in Bombay it was raining, and raining, so many things which I was not used to! Day and night it was raining. That is why I was repenting! And the food! Indian food it is, what you call, hot food. But in our own restaurants we used to make the Iranian type of food.

When I arrived in Bombay I was repenting why I came - the Britishers had left and even at that time the hygienic conditions were not good. I thought Iran was better. I was new, I did not know language, no friends and all so I did not like it. Slowly, slowly I changed. The local people were friendly, good people. When they knew that I did not know the language, they used to talk more to me, and I picked up the language.

Image: Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao, ca 1980

My father was here at Kyani, my son is the third generation that are running this restaurant, so this is a kind of family restaurant, established 1904 by my father Khodadad and his brother Khodamorad. Here then it was all Iranis working here. It was an institution, like Iranis, what you call it, it was like a training college!;they used to come and learn business, how to prepare, how to do business, and other things, and they used to go and make partnership with others and start their own business, set up their own Irani café.

In 1948 in Dhobi Talao Parsis were everywhere, Parsis and Christians. But, uh, slowly, slowly Parsis have migrated out of India, many of them died, many of them they did not get married, the population came down.
Image: Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao, ca 1980

My father told me that the Iranis when they came here, they were working in the Parsi's houses, they were employed and worked in there, and uh, in the morning they used to meet, they would gather and discuss about life and things, so one fellow started preparing tea for the rest, but he used to charge them. So the idea of making tea came to the mind of the Iranis, so they started this tea business and all. By 1948, when I arrived, at every junction almost there was an Irani. They all selected those junctions, those street corners. Because the junctions are one, two, three sides of the road. Anything that was available they used to take.
Falooda - "..a gift from the Iranis to the people of India" says Aflatoon
Today our customers are a cosmopolitan mix - all types of people. Formerly it was mainly Christians and Parsis, the majority. But now, it is cosmopolitan. You cannot stop anybody entering your restaurant. It is a rule of the government, law. In those days you see, the customer was a different type of culture. Tie, coat and all. Hindus of high standard also used to come here. But majority were Parsis and Christians.

In years past Bombay was very safe and we used stop sometimes at 12 o’clock (midnight), but slowly, slowly we have reduced. Because at night people are in a different category in Bombay, they are different. People sometimes make trouble at night. So now we are closing it at 9 o’clock.

I think our regulars appreciate that we have stayed open, offering this type of service- we get people coming who were our customers some ten years back, fifteen years back, they have gone to America, or UK, Canada, then ten years later they come to Kyani, and they are so happy to see us, that we have maintained the same type of restaurant. I tell you, one year I went to America - there was a gathering - all Parsis, Iranis, and as soon as they saw me they said “ohh, Kyani, he has come from Kyani in Bombay”. I couldn’t believe it. Incredible how many people remembered Kyani.

Image: Badam, Butterscotch, Khari, Coconut Jam,Ginger, Cheese Wafers... - Kyani & Co., 2007

Changes? In about 1952 an Irani had a café, and this man used to put kus-kus (poppy) in the tea. And believe it or not, the taxiwallahs who were running the taxi, they used to go there and take their tea always, otherwise they were not happy with their tea. Then one by one, all the cafes started kus-kus tea, we had it here at Kyani, finally the Municipality came to know about it and they stopped it. It is prohibited. The Municipality will take your license and you have to go behind the bar if you tried that now. When Britishers were here, they were foreigners, we Iranis were also foreigners, we got friendly treatment when we went to the government departments; they knew that we were new here, we were also foreigners, so they said “you have to stop putting that in the tea”, and we did.

Image: Kyani & Co, 2007

In the past, people from offices, from Fountain, from Colaba, they used to come to Dhobi Talao, because there were two big shops selling confectionary – Bastani and Kyani - across the road from each other. Now there is only Kyani, so they go wherever they like to buy their requirements. Bastani closing has affected our business, you see. The nature of the business at Bastani was the same as Kyani. When it was there it was better. The movement of the people is now restricted. When Bastani was still there lots of people used to come from outside – they would maybe buy their sweets at one place, and just walk across the road and have their tea at the other.

Image: Bastani, Dhobi Talao, ca 1980

Kyani is now 103 years old, we are supposed to be the oldest Irani café still operating. We had to make my sons Farookh and Farad partners in the business; I am old now, any moment I may leave to go.
FROM an interview with Aflatoon Shokriye, Dhobi Talao, Mumbai, April 2007.
*Bombay to sonapur hai - Bombay is the city of gold.