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.