When the Irani café finally disappears from Mumbai’s landscape, it will be sorely missed, because it redefined the idea of the café most uniquely as a home away from home.
It was that space you occupied when you were either overwhelmed by the city or when you wanted to celebrate it most shamelessly. You could drink your chai and do push-ups or dhand baithaks and everyone would applaud.
There was a certain history and a definite tradition buried deep in the ancient menus that was, for the hundredth time, revived. When you looked at yourself in many of its myriad mirrors, you were always shown the truth. They never concealed your bun maska appearance behind your kadak chai one. And the crumbs left behind by the mawa cakes and salli, missed by your repeated handkerchief gestures, looked just perfect hanging as metaphors from your lips.
The owner at the gulla or money box could surprise you one day by quoting a haiku from Basho and his brother would chime in by finding a parallel in an old song by Talat Mahamud.
The most memorable were the café’s famous tribe of madmen who marched up and down outside the entrance, living on the daily kindness of strangers from whom they bummed and cajoled countless cigarettes and cups of chais while entertaining them with magical realistic narratives.
My favourite was an exiled leader of an imaginary country who dreamed of going home one day to his palace and bagicha (garden). If you needed a share bazaar tip, the waiter would solemnly take you to the appropriate gentleman, now retired, but who was once famous for his prowess at teaching maths in a famous Christian college.
If your luck was bad and you needed a precious stone in your ring, you would be taken to another table where a regular patron would produce several gems, often comparing their value to certain idols, not those found in temples or mosques or churches, but the ones immortalised in particular celluloid moments of glory, especially when the lion roared magnificently from the nearby metro theatre.
One hopes fervently for that day of the café’s demise never comes. But even if it does, it will remain steadfastly in memory, even when its debris is occasionally spotted, a marble table top here or the famous chai samovar there, in places like Chor Bazar, where junk competes with history.
This essay is dedicated to Rashid Irani and his wonderful Café Brabourne that finally had to close its shutters.
— The writer is a professor of literature, film and humanities.
Famous Irani cafes around
Britannia and Company, Ballard Estate where your eating of its famous Berry Pulao will be interrupted by its octogenarian owner who will show you the thank-you note addressed to him by a member of the Royal Family in England.
Café Military, Kala Ghoda, where something magical happens to your salli botti when you eat it to the accompaniment of the sonorous voice of Hemant Kumar.
Koolar, King’s Circle, where you can taste the original Irani chai, with strong taste of khaddi shakkar (unrefined sugar).
Kayani and Company, Dhobi Talao, because it reminds you of lost times as you spot the closed doors of Café Brabourne and Sassani across the road.
Leopold Café, Colaba, which still hums with a Colabian enthusiasm, both native and foreign, that has completely silenced the roar of terrorist bullets.