Café Society

June 2015 – Voyeur (Virgin Australia Magazine)

The Byculla Restaurant faces a particularly furious Mumbai streetscape in the once upscale, now decidedly down-at-the-heel, neighborhood of the same name. One of the city’s many elevated roadways (known euphemistically as ‘flyovers’) touches down at street level here, disgorging its blaring traffic at the feet of once elegant apartment buildings. Across the overpass, behind the faded stepped-pyramid façade of the Palace Cinema and the hawkers selling pomegranates and oranges and watermelons, the corrugated tin roof of Byculla railway station seems to rattle every time a local train screeches through, which is often. Pedestrians cluster together to maneuver their way into traffic, eyes straight ahead, palms stretched defiantly toward the windshields of the cars that have overrun the city like rats.

Save for the sound of car horns (deafening), the frenetic scene outside doesn’t cross the threshold of the restaurant. The wooden counter up front still sells convenient odds and ends to a few neighborhood people. The wood-fired oven in the back still turns out tray after tray of dainty cashew- and raisin-studded mawa cakes. The chai still flows steaming and sweet and milky, served slopping over the edges of dingy white cups onto dingy white saucers. A sign at the back, pointing toward a small mezzanine, indicates a family room on the upper level, though I’ve never seen anyone up there.

 

The owner of the Byculla Restaurant is a 90-odd-year-old man whom I’ll call Merwan. When I asked his name after an hour of friendly conversation, he smiled affably and shook his head saying, “No, that would not look nice.” (Owners of Irani cafés are notoriously cagey about stuff like this, often declining interviews altogether and always refusing to share recipes.) Merwan is soft-spoken and surprisingly light-footed, with eyes that are either naturally blue or cataracted into icy near-oblivion behind his thick-rimmed glasses.

 

Until about 15 years ago, he told me, business here was fine, though it had started its decline a decade before that. The wholesale market that used to operate across the street, the biggest in the city, ensured a steady stream of customers, particularly in the early morning. Then in 1981 the market moved to Vashi on the far side of Mumbai Harbour. “Every morning formerly I would open at 5:30. Twenty, thirty omelets would go. Now I open at 6 o’clock, but the business is not there. Fifty percent of the business has come down since the market left,” he told me. “Now the time has come we have to change it,” he shrugged and shook his head, “but I don’t want to go into all this big thing because it’s not easy to manage.”

 

The Byculla Restaurant is one of just a handful of the once ubiquitous Irani Cafés left in Mumbai. Bruce Carter, an Australian PhD candidate writing his dissertation on the Iranis, estimates that at the time of Independence there may have been as many as 350 Irani cafes in Bombay. Today, he says, there are maybe 40, about 10 of which remain authentic. It’s a well-known (and oft-repeated) fact that the Iranis are disappearing.

 

Founded by Irani immigrants (mostly Zoroastrian, but also Muslim and Bahai) in the first half of the 20th century, Iranis served simple food at low prices. They became the first democratic dining spaces in the city: cheap enough for the working poor, but respectable enough to be popular among the middle classes. They sold chai, baked goods and basic provisions. Deepak Rao, a city historian with a particular interest in Irani Cafés, told me, “except for condoms, the Iranis have sold everything.” They served breakfast items like omelets and brun maska, a sweet bun lathered with butter, to everyone from taxi drivers to businessmen. For more substantial meals they would serve kheema pav, simply spiced mutton mince with bread, or khemma pulav, the same mince under a bed of rice. College students swilled bottles of magenta Duke’s Raspberry Soda and spicy Pallonji’s ginger soda in radioactive yellow.

 

When mill workers had family in town, they took them to the Irani. When middle-class families wanted to go out for an afternoon snack, they went to the Irani. Men ate there. So did women. Iranis brought dining into the public eye, revolutionizing the way Bombay ate. With their marble-topped tables and bentwood chairs and efficiently desultory service, they were, as Rao put it, “the fulcrum of the social life of the common man.”

 

Arriving at their particular historical moment, Iranis were also essential to Bombay’s emergence as a Modern City. Though the city’s first blush of wealth had come in the 1860s with the rise of the cotton industry, an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1896 left thousands dead in the cramped native quarters and drove nearly half the population out in a 400,000-person exodus. In response, the colonial administration founded the Bombay Improvement Trust, which plotted new avenues through the native town, opening up an essentially medieval urban structure with wide boulevards and grand new intersections. Due to the restrictions of Vastu—think of it as the vedic answer to Feng Shui—Hindus refused to rent prime corner plots at these new intersections. Newly arrived Irani migrants, having by no such beliefs, snatched them up and before long Irani Cafés with names like Lord Wellington Restaurant, Picadilly Restaurant and Kohinoor Restaurant occupied nearly every major corner in the city.

 

Irani Cafes quickly became a central part of the city life that for a century defined India’s urban imagination. Bombay was a city of writers and artists, of labor unions and radical politics, of crowded trains and lives made or broken in the crucible of its streets. Since Baudelaire and Benjamin, public life had been at the very heart of modernity, and Iranis, probably for the first time, made a robust public life possible for a whole cross-section of Bombayites. Farokh Shokriye, the owner of Kyani & Co., the oldest operating Irani in town, told me, “We basically have a crowd of category A to Z. We have no discrimination of caste, creed, color or religion. That has been the motto of all Iranis over this time. Everyone has the right of access to our shop.” The Irani was Bombay’s cosmopolitan dream manifest.

More than that, Iranis encapsulated the timelessly seductive idea that has driven Bombay’s growth from the first: That here in the City of Dreams, everything is possible. Take Merwan’s father (we’ll call him Rustom): He was eight years old when he left his home near the central Irani town of Yazd and traveled 40-odd days, most of them on foot, to his new home in Bombay. It was 1899. There was a drought. The few Zoroastrians left in Iran—many had migrated to India immediately following the arrival of Islam in Persia some 1200 years earlier and since become extremely wealthy; these were the Parsis—were poor farmers facing persistent religious persecution.

 

In his first years in Bombay, speaking neither English nor any of India’s indigenous tongues, Rustom worked menial jobs for just rs.2 per month. (The even more typical story has the new Zoroastrian migrants making chai in the homes of rich Parsis, breaking out on their own to serve on street corners, and eventually pooling their money to open cafes.) By the 1930s, he’d earned enough to open two restaurants, including the 6000-square-foot New Alice Bakery built on the compound of Grant Road railway station. (New Alice closed in 1962 when the Railway took the land back.) By the early 1940s, New Alice had generated enough profits to allow Rustom to take over the Byculla Restaurant and, directly across the street, Regal Stores, which now belongs to a nephew. Down the road, in a former pool hall, he opened the Byculla pharmacy, run today by Merwan’s brother. A third son has moved permanently to the US.

 

Practically every owner of an Irani Café has a similar story. Sheriar Khosrabi, who runs Café Military, a popular Irani near the stock exchange in South Mumbai, told me, “They were looking for a much better life, better opportunities, so they moved down to India.” Khosrabi’s father, Behram, born in Bombay, had only completed his 10th standard in school, but he made sure that his children were educated. “I had lots of choices, but I [run the restaurant] because it’s family tradition,” Sheriar said, “but my son is not up for it, I can see that. He’s looking for other opportunities.”

 

Shokriye, who has run Kyani & Co. since 1999 when he took over for his father Aflatoon, told me much the same thing. “This is a 365-job and you have to put in a minimum of 9-10 hours per day. The old generation used to slog. Whatever is left is thanks to them,” he said. “The young generation is an educated lot compared to their forefathers. In my friend circle, I’d say 80% has migrated abroad. When the exodus starts, things start closing.”

 

Set on the ground floor of a gorgeously dilapidated building in the busy South Bombay neighborhood of Dhobi Talao, Shokriye’s restaurant looks today much as it has since opening in 1904. Ropes hanging in the two broad doorways help elderly customers haul themselves up the handful of steps leading into the dining room. A bakery window on the left sells the small cakes and meat pastries that have, over the years, made Kyani famous. Fans still churn lazily overhead and pictures of former owners still hang from the mezzanine alongside a framed image of Zoroaster and another of Jesus. When I met Farokh on an early weekday morning, the restaurant was in the middle of the breakfast rush, its round tables crowded with tidily dressed older gentlemen reading newspapers and mid-level office workers choking down chai.

 

Across the street, another of Bombay’s classic Iranis, Bastani, lies abandoned, its entrance shuttered for over a decade now. Inside, the bentwood chairs gather dust stacked on the tabletops; it’s glass cabinets sit empty; it haunts the corner like a ghost. When Bastani closed down in 2003, it generated a nostalgic maelstrom of Letters-to-Editors lamenting the death of the Irani Café. And this hand-wringing is nothing new. In a 1977 issue of the Times of India, a headline blared, “THE LAST OF THE IRANI RESTAURANTS?” The story waxed lyrical: “It is only rarely that you can wallow in romanticism while you sip your humdrum cup of chai.” The supposedly ‘disappearing Irani’ has been a subject of nostalgia for at least 40 years.

 

Bombay tends to make a hobby of nostalgia. It’s true that the vast majority of Iranis have closed down, but many others have simply adapted over the years. Military survives in part thanks to the beer license it picked up in the early 70s when the city relaxed its prohibition rules. Leopold’s and Mondegar, a pair of popular tourist cafes in the peninsular district of Colaba, began their lives as traditional Iranis and are still owned by Irani families. Lesser known establishments like Café Gulshan, farther north in an area called Matunga, have thrived by changing their menus according to changing tastes. Kazim Rahimpur, who inherited Gulshan from his father, has added Chinese food and Maggi noodles to his menu to appeal to the nearby college crowd and replaced the marble tops on his tables with Coke advertisements. Gulshan may not be the most picturesque of the Iranis, but it’s always busy, and these places were never meant to be beautiful: They were meant to earn money.

 

As Merwan told me, “My father came to Bombay crying. He did not enjoy his life, but he brought us up happily. He only wanted his children to study and be educated.” He succeeded, unreservedly. The closing of the Iranis, then, is no failure; if anything, it proves that the city’s promise remains alive.

 

What people ought to be lamenting as they rush crying for that last cup of chai is not the Irani Café itself—kheema and omelets are easy enough to find, and a mawa cake is really just a teacake, after all—but rather the loss, perhaps irreversible, of that dazzling democratic moment when equality, community and mobility seemed not just possible but inevitable. That moment, that Bombay, is worth preserving.

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