Tuesday, July 20, 2004

More Tastless Comments!

I am down memory lane in Bombay again this evening. I remember Kooler’s Café in Matunga, and the Restaurant and Cafe outside Dadar (Central) Station… I forget the name. They were both Iranis….

I guess, I must not have been more than four years old (I hadn’t quite started school yet), when my dad took me to this Irani restaurant. I cannot recall where it was, but I remember the black chairs and the round tables and the manager’s counter right at the entrance, and I remember, most fondly, the Kasata ice-cream.

Desi cuisine was not on the menu when people in Bombay went out to eat a generation or two ago. I read somewhere that the most common restaurants in the city until the late 1960s were the Iranis. They served up the standards of British high-tea: cakes, flaky pastries, buttered brun (a crusty bun), sweet buns, rusks and tea with milk and sugar.

There is something distinct about Irani restaurants. Yes, the décor is still stuck in the 1950s, the menu in the 1930s and the proprietor (who usually doubled up as the manager) looked like they were from the late 1800s.

But that was not it. Maybe, it was the mirror on the walls and the ceiling – that was a touch of gay… wouldn’t you say? Perhaps… Perhaps not. It was not the picture of Zarathustra, who looked on serenely from behind the cash counter. Indians are used to their holy-bolies.

The Iranis were quaint – they served tea in British-rail-type service, and the cookies served out in china saucers came out of bulbous glass jars placed along the cash counter. The restaurants usually occupied the strategic corners of buildings, and you could spot the manager at the counter from across the street. The Irani café exuded an attitude, that no other restaurant I have ever been to since, does.

That’s it – an attitude! The attitude of the waiter, who couldn’t care less if you didn’t like his service. An attitude that came across in the Bawaji in his sweaty sadra swatting flies off his marble topped cash-counter. The attitude reflected in the indentation in the said marble top, from years of abrasion from coins transacted over its surface. Some restaurants took the attitude to a Seinfeldien level.

I recall a restaurant near Metro Cinema that actually had a set of written directives for its customers. I don’t remember its name… Maybe, it was Bastani… I am not sure. Any way, it is not far from Kayani’s so famous for its nan-katais (cookies). Most of the rules, as I recall, were prohibitory in nature. They ranged from the garden variety (Don’t put your feet on the chair) to invigilatory (No discussing politics) to the extreme (No hanky panky in the stalls).

Nissim Ezekiel, Bombay’s erstwhile unofficial poet laureate was inspired by the signs to pen the “Irani Restaurant”


Do not write letter
Without order refreshment
Do not comb
Hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischief in cabin
Our waiter is reporting

Come again
All are welcome whatever caste
If not satisfied tell us
Otherwise tell others
God is great.”

Beside the rules, I recall, they had an excellent bread pudding. Across the street, Kayanis was more well known for their excellent cookies and plum cakes.

The Iranis are on their way out. I fear, I might not even see them on my next visit. There was talk during my last trip of Kooler being converted into an Uduppi.

Bombay’s fast food has decidedly gone South Indian these days. The Shettys and the Nayaks from the South have seized on the Irani template, adapting the design to suit their ends. The straight-back black chairs have given way to sturdy benches. Marble-tops have been replaced by formica-topped cafeteria-style tables. The buns and biscuits have given way to vadas and doasa. The footprint is almost the same, but the Uduppi’s buzz of efficiency, stands in contrast to the quiet, easy pace of the Irani. There is still a garlanded picture and incense sticks behind the man at the cash counter – chances are it is Nityanand, not Zarathustra. Oh! I do miss the Bawaji in the sadra behind the counter.