I am currently working on a series of painting on the Irani cafes of Bombay. The Irani restaurants some of them well over seventy years old represent the quintessential nature of cosmopolitan Bombay and were the first eating houses where people from all classes, castes and persuasions were welcome. The old world interior of an irani restaurant was unique and irreplaceable.
These were the places where a migrant worker could get the cheapest non vegetarian meal in the city. And he would often be rubbing shoulders with poets painters student leaders and journalists for whom the corner Irani was a common meeting point. With time these restaurants are shutting down and currently there are hardly 26 restaurants in all of Bombay.
Their spaces are taken up by multinational banks and garment franchises and very soon there will be none left. I understand that transience is a natural condition of human existence. And though resignedly accept it, I still feel a pang of remorse as familiar faces and architecture melts away around me and that which was considered commonplace and taken for granted by us only a few years ago, now becomes unattainable and priceless as bits and pieces of living history are lost forever.
I try to capture the transient face of Bombay , now forcibly and jingoistically stamped Mumbai, that within the space of a hundred blinks reinvents itself a thousand-fold, as builders, land sharks and estate agents savage it and parcel it out over and over. I need anchors and mnemonics that mark the moments of my life, the places I have been to and the faces I have seen at end of day, for those are the things that make up my living soul.
For when all is said and done, and vision obscured, tastebuds dulled, and flesh demeaned by age, we are but the sum total of our memories. There is no greater sadness than the collective Alzheimer’s of a callous populace that does not recognize its own treasures, that cannot cry at the corruption of its ancient rivers or the demise of a simple cup of Irani chai.
GAUTAM BENEGAL, 2012
My father got work in Irani restaurants, got the experience then like so many other Iranis, he took a share in several Irani joints. He ended up a partner in five restaurants inBombay. One was called New York Restaurant which was onHughes Road and he was a partner in Pyrkes Restaurant which was at Flora Fountain, he was a partner in Café Paris which was again at Flora Fountain. He was a partner in Moranaz and Company again very close to, ahhh, in the area of Fountain, and here at Leopold’s, that’s where my father was also. In fact, he was most of the time over here in Leopold’s and all the others were run by my father’s brother, his sister’s husband and other family.
Mr Rustom was a partner with my father here at Leopold’s and the building belonged to him That’s why the building is called Rustom Manzil. Also Aspandiar Ferhandaz Irani was a partner, Sheriar Framroze Jehani was a partner and Framroze Irani was also a partner – he was Aspandiar’s brother. These were the four partners that were in Leopold’s. During that time it was only my father who was running the show. All the other partners were you know doing something else. Rustom was coming and going. Aspi had a travel agent called Asiatic Travel Service which was near VT station, right opposite New Empire Cinema. The other gentleman was Framroze, he was living in Iran. So it was left to my father to run it daily. And it was in 1980, in the 80s, early 80s that I was in the 8th grade and I told my father I had an interest in learning the business.
It was more of an old type Irani café and store back then, they were selling confectionary items like…all kinds of things, they were selling biscuits and cakes and they were selling toothpaste, soaps, ah, you know medicines that didn’t require licences, such as Aspirin. They were selling cigarettes, cigars, and oh, um, khari biscuits and wafers and samosas and pattice and there were more sales of meals like English chicken roast and cutlet with soup, sandwiches, puddings and custards. There were a few Parsi dishes such as dhansak on the menu but not many. Today we have 140-odd items on our menu card. The changes came in the late 80s like in ’86, ’87 we introduced Chinese food into our restaurant, because we realised that people are now going for Chinese food and so we did too.
I remember my father telling me the 60s was the time of the hippies into the 70s, then the 80s was the time of the Arabs – the phases of Leopold I am talking about- then came the backpackers and now we have the expats. And a lot of Indians too as Indians have a lot more money these days than they used to.
When I was in my teens I used to meet people that were coming from Afghanistan, fleeing Afghanistan because the Russians had invaded. And we had a lot of, as I said, tourists, foreigners that were hanging around Colaba. So I have seen all kinds of crowd here. During the Iran-Iraq war we had people that had fled from Iran, young people that didn’t want to go to the war. I have seen people that were helping Iranians get out of the country illegally, but none of these transactions would take place in the premises for the respect of the owners, for the respect of the place and everybody had a good relationship.
And we had the Zoroastrian Parsis who would come here every Sunday morning, those were the cyclists. They used to have tournaments, races from Bombay to Pune and back, those kinds of things. There were a lot of young Parsis who would come basically on a Sunday – on a holiday. But not the rest of the week.
There used to be times when I would go with my Dad to Crawford market; because he would get up at 530 in the morning and by 6 o’clock he used to be in the market. At that time we had to go over there, we had to buy things like mutton, chicken, vegetables everything had to be hand picked and then we had a guy who used to be a cart-puller – he’d load onto the cart and deliver it to the restaurant over here.
My father used to have his Italian Fiat 1959 model which he used to get in and come back to Leopold’s in. Sometimes if his car was spoilt I might come with him and we would get a bus ride, early in the morning, on the BEST as we call them and I’d come with him, spend the day. Since my house was close – just 1, 2 kilometres from Leopold’s I could walk back home but no I would wait for my father , until he had finished, and then leave with him.
The world is different to what it was back then. People themselves have changed, those that wanted to move on in life have moved on in life. What we did was we moved with the times. Today my older brother Farhang and I manage Leopold’s. We have changed with the times and that’s why we have survived. I have seen so many an Irani joint either shut down, or sell out because they didn’t move with the times, they didn’t change.
I would say I am thankful to my Dad for having confidence in me and my brother, to let us make some changes while he was alive, while I was growing up still. He realised it was for the betterment of the business. You see people in those days – the elderly generation- were not having so much trust in their children, to let them bring in the changes. Have you heard about the crab in the basket? Sometimes I feel our community can be like that. If one is climbing up to get out of it, the other one is pulling that one down. Why? Success in a community should be accepted open heartedly. In fact, ask that person to guide you. Learn from that person. Educate yourself. Open your, your vision. Go and learn, don’t pull that person down.
I am really grateful to Gregory David Roberts for putting down what he had to in his book Shantaram. He himself is a great person. He has put us on the map of the world, it’s like ‘OK this is where Leopold’s is’. I have met so many foreign tourists, rich people who have read this book that would stay at Taj, came over here, and they say ‘we never thought of coming down to Bombay or to India or to Leopold, but after reading this book it pulled us to your place. And here we are eating, enjoying the food that’s been cooked here’.
The Iranis who started these places in Bombay, look, they have taken pain, they have sacrificed. Today I am sitting here, I have enjoyed, I have travelled, I have done all kinds of things my father didn’t do. My father and mother sacrificed so that I got this and I am enjoying this today because of their sacrifices. Today, I am not sacrificing in the same way to give life to my children, but I still protect them so that they get the best. Hard work and sacrifice is what they gave.
On 26/11/2008 two guys were standing by our door between 940 and 945pm talking on their cell phones. After that communication they were standing and talking to each other, maybe doing their prayers or what not and then one person, from his haversack, removes a hand grenade and hurls it into the restaurant. Soon after there was gun fire from an AK47. We lost several loyal staff and guests and others were injured. There was blood all over the place. It knocked all of us over.
It does not make any sense. Why kill innocent people? What have the people that you have killed done to anybody? They are sitting as human beings as you were once – they are no more human beings – eating their food with their family and friends. You have your differences with whoever, but why innocent people? I don’t understand. They basically came to kill foreigners. But we don’t let them win. We opened up after a few days and we stay open, we won’t let the fear and hate take over, we will work hard so that we then sleep. And time helps. I think my father would be proud of all of us.
From an interview with Farzadh Sheriar Jahani, Mumbai, March 2009
IMAGES, top to bottom:
-Farzadh S. Jahani, Mumbai 2009
-Rand McNally map of Asia, 1892
-Advertisement for Leopold & Co., in Hormusji Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala,
Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, Claridge, Bombay, 1939
-Man smoking at Leopold’s 2004, photographer Apoorva Guptay, copyright
-Wall mural, Leopold’s Cafe, artist unknown
-Frahang Jahani, Leopold’s Cafe 2009, photographer Jason Motlagh, copyright
-Leopold’s Colaba Causeway 1980s, photographer Marellaluca, copyright
-Leopold’s Colaba Causeway 2009
-Wall mural remembering 26/11 Mumbai bombings, Mumbai 2009