B. Merwan and the Irani Cafe: A Fading Icon

Recently the news about B. Merwan the iconic Irani cafe with the best Mava cakes in the world, shutting down; has brought a sense of gloom over all those who love the restaurant and in fact the entire genre of Irani cafes in Mumbai.

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Below is an article received via email and penned by Shapur.

I read this sad news with a very heavy heart and tears rolled down my eyes, when i read about the closing down of b merwan and co, at grant road, bombay, just like the many that have closed down in recent times.

My tribute to my barkhati irani brothers & sisters full of fun, laughter and good humor.
My family & i, especially my dad and grandfather were the not only regular customers of b. Merwan & co. And several of the famous irani restaurants in south bombay, but were school & family friends with them.

All these irani restaurants were built on very hard work by their founding fathers, who were very religious, honest and generous to the very core. They were the first generation of iranis who migrated to bombay, in the last 125 to 100 years ago.

Every day one could see the unsold breads of the day from irani bakeries given free to the poor, at night. Even when there was “bombay bandh”, due to national or state strikes, and all restaurants were ordered to be shut down, only the irani bakeries were allowed to operate unhindered. The unions would let irani bakeries stay open for business, so the common man could get his loaf of bread. That was a paramount sign of respect from the masses of bombay.

Then there was a irani lady at fort, bombay who was very popularly known as “irani bai” in south bombay. She was crippled due to her medical condition. She never let her medical disability get in the way of her work. She used to supply tiffin boxes with very tasty food, to the offices and homes of parsis & iranis at a very very nominal cost. It was her passion to feed the people especially the poor. She was located in the fort area on mint road, and every evening, she would get prepared a very very huge pot (at least 75 to a 100 gallons) of tasty “dar” or “masoor” or “chora” for take out. Every evening for just 4 annas she would sell a large generous portion of these dishes. One had to take their own pot from home for a take out. The quantity she gave was very generous. If someone had many children, she would tell her workers to give more for no extra cost. Then after 7.00 p.m. A line of the poor would form outside her house, which also was her place of business. There the poor were donated the same food for free that she sold to her clients, which was also eaten by her and her workers. When she passed away, the number of people even from other communities, physically wept & it was very saddening for the many that had her food distributed with motherly love. Her place has been reserved in heaven.

As the bakery business of the iranis grew, they hired their favorite crew of hard working christians, that worked for them, and they came from goa to work for the iranis. These christian workers used to knead the dough for the bread by their hands and also their feet, yes you read it right feet, before the electric mixers came in. Before the introduction of britania bread and modern sliced bread, there was not a living soul at bombay that did not cherish the taste of freshly baked irani bread. These christian workers were popularly known as “pavwallas” at bombay. As time went by, and the children of these christian workers started finding work on ships as crew members, their next group of loyal workers were the “bhaiyas” from the state of u.p., and the local boys as waiters. The irani bakery owners were very liked by their workers, as they took great care of them, and treated them very well.

These iranis of that time, had the true & pure iranian zarthosti blood in them.

Their faces radiated with the brilliance and aura of a real pure zarthostis. In those days they never had a drop of mixed blood from other outside communities in them. The irani gujarati spoken by them was very sweet to the ear. Hey, it was also fun to see an irani abuse someone in irani hindi (!@#$%^&) with his gaar. I will leave that for adults, under the age of 18 only. Those were fun filled days.

When this last batch of zarthostis who we commonly refer to as iranis came to bombay, mostly by the land route, about 125 to 100 years ago, their parsi brothers who were well settled at bombay welcomed them & gave them a helping hand, and assisted them to get settled, & start the popular irani cafes at bombay, and fruit farms & rice fields on the western belt of the then known as bombay state (present day maharashtra & gujarat). Right from malad all the way up to surat, villages were lined up with parsi & irani farms on the western railway line then knows as the b.b.c.i. Railways which stood for bombay baroda and central india railway.

Then the iranis also made a name for themselves as the best growers of roses in india, and fruit farms and grape orchards from lonavla to punchgani and mahmbleshwar all the way to nasik & igatpuri on the central raliway line then known as g.i.p. Railway, which stood for greater india peninsula railway.

The iranis also kept the country cool with their ice factories doted all over the old bombay state.

The bahadshah iran cold drink house at crawford market, had the best reputation for it’s mouth watering ice creams of different flavors, and the very popular falooda. If an one of you missed it you will have to be born again to taste the same.

Keeping a loaded pump action shot gun and a webley & scott british revolver in the house, was the credo of then parsi & irani farmers, and it used to be their weapons of choice in those days. The younger members of the family under the age of 7 to 10 started off with an air rifle & then got their .22 caliber rifle as teenagers. They were avid shooters & hunters of their time. They won shooting competitions. They were brave and they were courageous, to the very core, and were never afraid of facing danger, and used to sleep at night with unlocked doors. Only if someone had a death wish they would venture to break in their houses by day or by night. Uninvited. Above all they were very humble and enjoyed the respect of the local population.

The dadyseth agyari at flora fountain is the most liked kadmi agyari by the irani zarthostis of bombay, and one can see them in large numbers at this agyari on days like jamshedi navroze, khordad sal, and new year. The iranis are khanar, pinar barkhati people. Pure cream enriched irani falooda is a drink of choice on that day. (next to this agyari was the ideal restaurant & behind it still stands today, the yazdan bakery which is also close to a 100 years old, & is still in operation today. It is owned by the zend family who are like brothers to me.)

Dervish irani was the living legend of his time, and a gardian angel, on our doongerwadi lands, which he served for decades. He protected it till the very end of his life. He was an avid proponent of dokhme-nashini system, and was a champion breeder of vultures. He was always on rapid deployment duty, 24 hours of the day/night. If ever a zarthosti died due to an accident. He would dash to the govt. Morgue and short circuit the red tape process, and bring the dead body to the doongerwadi in a very timely manner so that it will not be sent for postmortem, & all religious ceremonies can be performed for the departed soul, without any delay. Dervish irani was always at the forefront for the preservation of our doongerwadi lands and dokhmas. Dervish irani was a born lover of nature. It was so very enlightening to talk with him for hours on end. He lived a very simple and humble life in a very small apartment at doongerwadi with many children, one of whom got his education and became a medical doctor, and the other children also got good education. His youngest son who is now in his very late 80’s still lives and works at our doongerwadi. If you happen to go to our doongerwadi, find him and commend him for his dedicated service. He deserves your words of respect and encouragement.

In the later years, iranis also diversified and ventured into trucking, liquor stores, ice factories, travel agencies and pharmacy business.
Dr. Adarbad irani was a very reputed eye surgeon who served on the panel of doctors for the presidents of india. Dr. Adarbad irani who was born in poor family had his humble roots, that began at the tata parsi orphanage in a village at nargol. It is said that dr. Adarbad irani and naval tata used to sit on the same bench of the tata parsi orphanage at nargol. Naval tata was adopted by lady tata, and his fortune changed. (even naval tata got his tata name after he was adopted, but he also was born in a very poor parsi family). Then there was another irani doctor opposite to cama baug, at charni road, who served the mases of khetwadi, charni road & grant road areas of bombay like a god sent angel. He served well into his late 95 + years of age. He charged very very nominal fees, (a few annas, in the 1950’s & 1960’s) and treated many people for free. There used to be large lines outside his dispensary till late night, and he was known to see his patients, rich or poor up to and until he saw the last patient, even if it was past 11.00 p.m. At night.

Jamshed irani was a fine educator. He was the principal of the sir j. J. High school at fort, bombay with great success. Students that were educated under his guidance were very successful in life.

As the iranis prospered they donated princely sums of their hard earned money for the betterment of the community & to help the less unfortunate.

Some of the iranis stood shoulder to shoulder with our parsi police officers, and were the best crime fighters of their time. Minoo irani had made a name for himself in the crime branch of the bombay police and had cracked the most mysterious cases which the local police stations could not, he was a recepient of many police medals, and rose to the rank of the assistant commissioner, of bombay police. His name caused fear in the hearts and asses of the most hardened repeat criminals.

Some iranis were officers in the armed forces of india and served the country with dedication. Some made a name for themselves as ace fighter pilots of the indian air force just like their parsi brothers.

The parsis assisted them in every step of the way possible to settle in western india, just like the jews assisted other jews to settle in israel. Iranis are our kyani blood brothers and sisters, and we should continue to respect them just as our forefathers did, and we must keep a very close relationship with the iranis and i strongly encourage marriage among parsi and irani youth.

Iranis were also known to have a short fuse, and if someone pissed them off they would not hesitate to come down on them like a ton of bricks. But it was always very short lived, they never bore any malice or grudge and were never revengeful but very forgiving, and good at heart and that was their greatest quality. They always earned the respect from the people and the general population, they came in contact with.

Just for information, chickoos never grew in india. This is a true story, that about 110 years ago, a parsi merchant went to spain for business and tasted the chickoos. He was so very delighted at the taste of the chickoos, that he brought large quantities of chickoo seeds with him back to bombay and distributed them free of charge to the iranis, who were getting settled with some of their new fruit farms in the state of bombay. Guess what? His kindness paid off, and many irani families prospered with their crops of chickoos, it was known as a cash crop for them. If you had a irani friend who had a fruit farm, you were sure to get mangoes and chickoos from them as a gift package every year. They paid back the parsis a million fold with their hard work, honesty and loyalty. Iranis made parsis very proud for their vote of confidence in them, with their loyalty, honesty, hard work & ability to prosper.

In those days, the iranis were very devout zarthostis to the very core and their irani ladies used to work very hard stitching our holy garment “sadras” & weaving “kastis”, and doing loban in the mornings & evenings in their humble houses, reciting our holy prayers. These women were very pious & religious and proud of their zarthosti religion, heritage and lineage, and always encouraged their children to marry within our zarthosti community, and not to marry outside the religion.

Their irani kids who were my best friends when i was growing up were very rowdy bunch, but they were very innocent kids, and sometimes they would get whacked, by their tough mothers with a whack we used to call “fatko” if fatko failed to calm them down, the “fatko” would get upgraded & the selective enforcement would be a “dhamelo” – kaboom. A “dhamelo” was like a cannon ball, the ultimate to bring things under control.
I have seen irani kids go flying with a solid “dhamelo” whack (like a lumber jack) from their mothers if all verbal warnings failed to calm them down. These irani kids always had super energy in them and were very active. It was fun to see the irani kid say in their mother, in irani gujarati, (which was slightly different from our parsi gujarati, but very pleasant to the ear) “marech sana” means why are you whacking me? Then the mother would respond “atla badha masti kai kidha” (means why were you so very rowdy) “rarech sana? Tu kai chokri che ke chokro che” (why are you crying are you a boy or a girl?) Then it was a sight to see the very loving irani mother hug her son and calm him down & warn him not to be so very rowdy next time. Then there was a short term peace in the house, till the next rowdy act, which was sure to follow. By far the irani girls were much well behaved then their brothers, but did not hesitate to put up a sibling fight with their brothers. Everything that took place, was light hearted & well meant.

By far irani kids in school, as mischievous as they were, they were very intelligent, and managed to get good grades in school with little or no help with their homework at home.

My irani friends grew up to be very tough kids. If they could withstand the whack “dhamelo” from their tough mothers and dodge some of the whacks like an in coming canon ball, then they could stand in the boxing ring, against any opponent. They were tough built like a mac truck. My irani friends along with our parsi boxers made a name for themselves as the best boxers of national repute of their time. They won almost every major boxing matches, won national and state boxing championships, western india boxing championships, golden gloves, kid galahad belt & most scientific boxer titles. In the late 1960’s & early 1970’s when s.s. Canberra the cruise used to come to bombay each year they arranged for boxing matches with their crew members who were boxers of international standards, at bombay and our irani & parsi boxers used to win a lot of trophies.

The iranis were also very fine body builders, and became national champions just like their parsi brothers. Irani & pasrsi boys and girls used to thong the brabourne stadium and cooperage, in large numbers, to cheer up and encourage our parsi & irani boxers.
In those days when i was growing up we never had steroids of any kind, or the high protein supplements, as they are available today, but we used to eat “gher nu bhonu” and as the saying goes, papata-nu-gos, ne masur chaval khai ne gotla banavela. Even today there is a gym right above the main gate of cushrow baug, which stands in silent testimony of our parsi/irani youths of the yester years, who made a name for themselves as body builders of national repute. Even today adi irani comes there to exercise at his young age of 70+ years. He is fit as a bull. Go adi go. You are the best. May god bless you with very good health for many years to come.

The irani & parsi boys and some girls, who were like a band of brothers and sisters of my time were very much in love with their motor-cycles, and took great pride in owning them and keeping them in the most pristine show room condition, just like we used to keep our guns. We spent more time maintaining, cleaning & polishing our motorcycles then riding them. It was the pride of ownership that made us proud of our machines, and the general public would walk up to us and ask us questions about our machines and compliment us & say =wow= at them. We parsi & irani boys made the best motor-cycling teams. Honda and suzuzuki were unheard of in those days. We had the best of the best twin engine “triumph tiger 100” the king of motor cycles, royal enfield, b.s.a. Harley, norton and later on bmw. When we used to go on the roads just the thunder of our motorcycles could race one’s heart. It was a sight to see a long chain of motorcycles, on the old bombay poona road, going from bombay to poona, which in those days was our beloved destination. En route to poona, we used to stop over for byriani at the local stalls. Upon reaching poona, we used to have the mouthwatering lunch at the famous dorabjee’s restaurant at poona. (not the bloody congested puny punae of today). That was followed in the evening by the display of our 2 wheel machines, for which we had barging rights, and a history of the previous owners. A sumptuous dinner of parsi dishes, at bund garden lake club filled with parsis and iranis, was the last act of the day, with a ride back home to bombay the next day. Those days are carved in history in gold. For the record we were the most safe motorcycle riders in india, and were very mature for our ages, and we respected the right of other vehicles on the road, and in turn, the truckers and other drives respected us and gave us the right of the way, and let us pass them so they could enjoy a view of our shining thundering motorcycles.

Oh those were the happy & fun filled days, when i grew up in the company of my irani friends, and have always considered that i was very fortunate to have them as my friends, which to me was an honor and a privilege.

God bless them all for many many more generations to come. May they not become prey of the modern day mixed marriages, hoopla and dilute their bloodline. May the parsis & iranis cherish the proud memories of their ancestors and marry within the community and keep our zorastrian blood line pure. Then and then only then the future generation will inherit the dna, the genes and the qualities of their forefathers that made them great.
We believe in quality and not quantity.

Shahpur.