Irani cafés: Inheritance of loss
Sunday 20 May 2007
By Naomi Lobo
From 350, they’re down to 25. Will the Irani café live to see another generation?
- Irani Cafe in Mumbai
When the Zoroastrian Iranians came to India in the 19th century, they had no riches and were in search of a better livelihood. Mumbai (Bombay), at that time, was already home to another Zoroastrian community, the Parsis. A couple of Iranians worked in Parsi homes as caretakers and met in the evenings to discuss the life they had left behind, and their future prospects. One evening, a man served tea to everyone and charged them a small amount. The result: A business was born, of serving tea.
And this was the beginning of an Irani café.
These khari chai, brun maska places soon sprouted at every corner. But today you’d only find a handful scattered around the city. In the last few years, a few more have downed shutters, including a one-time favourite, Bastani & Co. It’s yet another tragic case of a Mumbai tradition crumbling away like a delicious Shrewsbury cookie.
The owner of the Britannia & Co restaurant and one-time partner of Bastani, Boman Kohinoor, says: «In the 50s, there were 350 Irani restaurants which I remember counting myself. Today, there are only 25 left.»
The big question is: Will these 25 survive another generation? «Children are educated and want to go abroad. Working here means more labour and less returns, while they want the opposite», says Kohinoor. «My children, those buggers, tell me that they’ll close the restaurant the day after I die.»
While Britannia is strictly a lunch restaurant, Kyani & Co serves snacks and cold drinks. Since 1907, Farooq Shokri is the third generation who quit his job as a sales supervisor for London Pilsner and jumped onto the wagon in 1999 to continue the legacy.
«We work on low margins for the common man to afford it. Till the time we can sustain our prices, we will. People tell us not to close down, as Kyani is an institution and I feel it should be a heritage landmark. It’s only possible if the government pays attention that’ll make a difference», says Shokri.
«There are few Irani cafés and bakeries left. They have been around for a lifetime and we should preserve them», agrees Ketan Purohit, a Kyani’s regular.
«The sound of the brun bread is music to my ears», says 72-year-old Zend M Zend, owner of Yazdani Bakery. He says it’s in the Iranian blood to help people that make them keep their prices low.
Sarosh Naushir Irani, who handles B Merwan & Co bakery, along with his brother Bomi and sister Perrin, says: «Today, after 7 PM, people want to go and drink. So we shut shop and go home to get ready for the next day.»
Irani and his siblings have no sons, but they all have daughters. «It’s tough to say if they’ll continue. When I even ask my daughter, she tells me to chill. I guess only time will tell.»