The romantic feel of the Irani restaurant is a celebratory cultural fix. Lost in its comforting confines – vanishing relics from a once unhurried city timeline – generations of commoners, writers and artists relaxed as they chatted over milky sweet chai and khaari biscuits. A home to numerous office dates, a witness to thousands of conversations and a diamond in the ring of ‘tea culture’.
Treasures of culinary heritage, these bakeries have dwindled from 400 in the 1950s to less than 40 in Mumbai and scattered sister shops in Pune. Who hasn’t smiled at quaint “By Order” instructions shakily written in coloured chalk at these teashop doors? Those repetitive commandments: ‘No talking to cashier/No fighting/No credit/ No combing of hair/ No talking loud/No bargaining/No water to outsiders/No beef/ No leg on chair…’
Arun Kolatkar looks beyond these scribbled rules
“The cockeyed Shah of Iran watches the cake
Decompose carefully in the cracked showcase
Distracted only by a fly on the make
As it finds in a loafer’s wrist an operational base”
The late poet’s preferred hangouts included Military café whose ancient fans whirred over Thursday teas replete with Bun Maska shared by fellow scribes.
Despite a shift of clientele, the convivial café feel lingers. Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram – featuring Colaba’s Café Leopold, serving swarms of foreign backpackers and local loyalists alike since 1871 - is but an example. Photographer Mahendra Sinh worked on a picture essay for Taj magazine in the 1980s, charmed by marble-topped tables ringed by bentwood chairs, “These trappings turn the café into a symbol, which has defined the city for over a century. It’s tragic that this is almost wiped out, because in their passing away, a bit of Bombay dies too.”
Theatre person Shiv Subrahmanyam’s interest extends to more than mere nostalgia. He wrote and directed the 2002 play ‘Irani Café’, keeping the backdrop deliberate. “The setting was intended as a metaphor to the whole city. Its characters from shabby to well-heeled, literally brought individual stories of love and longing on the table.”
Artist Sudhir Patwardhan revels in the idea of the Irani Café as a trans-cultural bond. He was drawn to its appealing Bohemian ambience during his college years in Pune. Patwardhan who painted ‘Irani Restaurant’ in 1977, says, “These places are idyllic, an escape from and a growing out of what one was used to. Their décor with those wonderful mirrored columns, reflected the road outside while welcoming the bustle within. Such all embracing public areas are not valued now, a great loss really.”
Where Irani cafes stand, say something about them. Built to hug the best street intersections, the prime corner plot that Hindus presumed to be inauspicious. The Iranis hoping it to mean twice the trade at a junction looked towards ancestral Iran and fervently invoked “Numo Khodu (Touch wood)!” Then they moved in to serve the cup that cheers.
Inputs: Mehr Marfatia, Jam-e-Jamshed weekly