Irani cafes- the symbols of a bygone era
They were the quintissential social interaction venues and gave Bombay its vibe
I grew up in Bombay, now renamed Mumbai, in the 50s and early 60s. The city still had streetcars called trams that plowed every major road and provided cheap accessible transportation. It also boasted around 350 Irani cafes. Today there are a couple dozen left reminding us of a bygone era. In those days they had names like Star of Iran or Empress of Iran.
At nearly every corner along major roads was a cafe cum bakery run by Iranis, a subset of Parsis. Fleeing persecution Parsis had migrated to India in the 8th century from Persia. Iranis had migrated in the early 20th century also fleeing persecution for their Zoraostrian religion from the Muslim rulers of Iran. The Irani cafes were spacious high ceiling rooms with a colonial feel, small round white marble topped tables with four black bistro chairs. At the front of the cafe was a large glass case with baked goods in the case topped by a marble counter behind which was usually seated the Irani owner. Above his head were two huge photos of the Shah of Iran and his wife mounted on the wall each with a single nail causing the large frame to be tilted so that it appeared like they were watching you. The cafe had wide doors open to the sidewalk and numerous ceiling fans with hanging down from the tall ceilings whirring noiselessly all day.
The cafes were noisy places where most of the tables were occupied all day with groups of people having meetings, dates, making deals and simply having tea. There was never any attempt to hurry along the customers who could order just one cup of tea and linger for a long time. The waiters were generally unclean looking with a small wash cloth flung over the shoulder with which they quickly swiped the table top between customers. The waiter would hand the customer a greasy menu and walk away. Words were not necessary and he made no attempt to make eye contact or greet the customer.
Once the customer decided to order he had to call any of the waiters and order. The waiter would simply memorize the order pass it along to the kitchen. When the order was ready he would plunk it down in front of the customer without a comment or look. He never asked if the customer wanted anything else. When the customer wanted to leave he simply started walking to the front and as the customer approached the front counter one of the waiters would shout out in Hindi the amount owed while describing the customer’s physical appearance as in “fat guy 20 ” or “40 rupees bald guy with glasses”. or without racial overtones he could also say “25 black guy” or if you were light skinned and skinny he might say “red shirt fair and thin 50”. No one considered such descriptions as rude or even paid any attention to them.
I realize now that the Irani cafes provided the essential links needed for commerce and for social interaction and gave Bombay its vibe. They were the glue that was essential for new contacts, business deals to be made, employment interviews and dating in the absence of any other social interaction platform. The city had a severe lack of telephones as one had to apply for a phone which often took 10 years to be fulfilled a la Soviet style socialism. The government controlled the supply of everything and all goods were rationed. Every Irani cafe had the advantage of owning a phone which sat prominently on the front counter and which customers could use for calls by paying the owner a certain amount for a 3 minute call. The phone was so much in demand that people often lined up to use it. There were few public phones on the streets and even fewer that actually worked, so the phones in these cafes were in use all day to make business or social calls.
Surveying our social interaction options today in the digital world I am reminded of the bygone era of a slower pace of life when socializing entailed making plans days ahead and then traveling to a Irani cafe downtown in a train or tram and spending a couple of hours snacking on mutton samosas or maska pau and drinking strong Irani chai. One got to imbibe the sights, smells and sounds of the city and feel connected to the world far more than scrolling down on Facebook or Instagram. We now live in a sterile environment where social interaction consists of living vicariously. In 50s and 60s Bombay meeting friends for chai and samosas and gupshup (chatting) constituted a very satisfying full day. There was a sense of fulfillment and of purpose that is lacking in the social media interactions nowadays.