The culturescape of Mumbai is one that is vast and diverse and there are many elements – old and new, that make the city as you know it today. Some of these aspects are such that add character and depth to the personality and vibe of Mumbai, One such feature which the city possesses are the Irani cafés which symbolises the acquired culture that forms the crux of the city’s melting pot of cultures. For someone who’s grown up here, these restaurants are the kind that time has forgotten. Before they fade away into history, Hashim Badani and Simin Patel decided to compile stories, memories and pictures documenting the cafés as an quintessential part of Mumbai.
“If you’re trying to understand what has made Bombay what it is now, the Irani cafés were a large part of it. They were places available for recreation, discussions and some were even pharmacies back in the day. Without understanding the diaspora of these cafés, you cannot understand the history of Bombay”, implies Hashim, a consulting photographer with Lonely Planet magazine in India, who is the man behind the lens for the book.
Simin, the blogger behind the famous ‘Bombaywalla’, who is now in the process of writing the book quips, “I think the owners or proprietors that are the most intriguing. The format of these cafés are so similar that the owners of these cafés are quite alike but it’s their stories that are the most interesting. We’re basing the book largely on interviews. Whatever material has been written about Irani cafés are usually in magazines or articles but nothing like this book has been done before.”
Both, Simin and Hashim have been working to gather content for over a year and have documented 20 cafés so far. Hashim asserts that there were hundreds of Irani cafés earlier and most stories are of places that don’t exist anymore. “It is more like connecting the dots. Even now, we were at Koolar & Co. speaking to the owners. It is less about a particular café and more about its importance and significance to the neighbourhood during its prime. We started to work on the book when the Merwan fiasco happened when news of it shutting down caused a little furore. Most of the people we speak to don’t know our intent but some people like Mr. Kohinoor of Britannia (café) are very forthcoming and we rely on his expertise. The best way to document a café is to just land up and then take it forward from there”, Hashim advocates.
Another interesting aspect that Simin came across while picking up stories, she realised that there’s a lot more to these establishments than what meets the eye. “The café owners were like dons back in the day. Today we found out that there were 3 café owners that were shot in the 50s. They were involved with gangsters, politicians and it was a rough period which the book is going to give the reader a sense of”, quips Simin.
While documenting cafés with painstaking detail is not an easy job, Hashim suggests that the challenge is tougher when the owners refuse to divulge any information in comparison to the one’s that talk. “There were Parsis who came and the Iranis who arrived. We’re talking about different communities here so it’s not just an Irani café. What struck me the most was how relevant Iran was in their conversations and how it forms an integral part of their lives unlike people from other communities who are not as attached to their roots. Also, they are all animal lovers and have farms in Golwad and Gujrat and maintain a fine balance in their life”, Hashim advocates.
“The Iranis are a smaller sect in the Zoroastrian community which is distinct and the book primarily focusses on them as well as the Irani Muslims who run most of these cafés in Mumbai now. Catholics feature prominently as customers in the book although many of them have left the city for greener pastures. I think the book will be a great way of payback to the proprietors mainly to see the cafés documented as most stories about them are written with a tinge of nostalgia and these places shutting down. Many of the Irani Zoroastrians cafés are thriving; take Britannia, Leopold or Universal for example. These are all tourist hotspots which signify their importance to their area”, Simin asserts.
Hashim believes that preserving a part of the city which was so relevant is crucial to its history. “With the cost of living rising, the Irani cafés continue to offer refreshments at low costs. Most of the successful ones are those that serve alcohol which is why they have been able to survive. The future generation is not keen on running the family business because it is nothing like running a restaurant. Most of them serve an omelette and a cup of tea at best and economics cannot be escaped”, rues Hashim. The book is expected to hit the stands in early 2017, until then, enjoy the brun maska while it lasts.