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 cafĂ©.

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


Sanchia said...

I chanced upon this blog and was delighted to see that somebody had thought of doingt his, but now I am miserable to know that Brabourne has closed. I will miss it. I went to college at St Xavier's and though Kyani and Bastani got more of my business, Brabourne saw me pop in every now and then as well.

I write this blog post several years ago, when Bastani closed down. I feel much the same about Brabourne: http://mezzavoce.blogspot.com/2004/04/sorry-no-talking-to-cashier_07.html

A.Irani said...

Thank you for posting this, you don't know how much it means to me. My late grandfather was a partner-in and ran the Brabourne for many years. While he isnt in any of the pictures, I see him standing there just like i picture him in my childhood. I vividly remember sitting on his knee on those very chairs! I am going to show this website to my grandmother, it will make her happy beyond words to know his life and passion is celebrated and remembered right here.
Thank you,

Unknown said...

Very evocative and nostalgic post. Loved the rest of the blog too.
I was planning to use the 6th picture from the top on an article that I was writing for the online portal that I work for (http://www.101india.com/). The image is going to be placed next to a recent image of the (now closed)restaurant ( a sort of before and after). I would be providing image credits below the picture itself.

I wasn't able to find your contact on the blog so thought of leaving this comment.


Tracy said...

Thx a lot for the memories. We lived across and bought bread everyday from your shop.. I for some reason thought of the Kali Dal they used to make there. If you or anyone could share the recipe would be super happy and thankful :)