Calling Mumbai city, a financial hub is not a bad thing at all. I love that the city that I live in offers opportunities to millions that come here to fulfill their dreams and their aspirations. However, in between all this chaos and commotion there are things that go unnoticed and undeserved. It is not now that Mumbai has gained this fast life concept, even when it was Bombay people were working hard day and night, slogging hard enough to make their ends meet and ensuring that they earn their bread and butter with dignity and pride. Irani cafes today might be vanishing out with the introduction of Starbucks and Café Coffee Day and other modern cafes that have sprung up all over the city, but it continues to cater the people of Mumbai with same spirit and enthusiasm until they completely dissolve from our memories.
I spent my childhood in a tiny Parsi neighborhood of Grant Road and being a Parsi I have always remained attached to Irani cafes like the B. Merwan & Company just outside the Grant Road station that celebrates 100 years in 2014. Apart from that there are many Irani cafes in south Mumbai that still serve lot of office goers and people that commute on a daily basis. These cafes are quite different from Café Coffee Day and Starbucks that usually cater to the youth and focus on sophistication unlike Irani cafes where you can continually hear the clattering of cups and saucers that might take you by surprise if you haven’t been to such places before.
So, what makes these Irani cafes so special in some sense is that they have been a part of Bombay that we are losing out rapidly in the name of development. Today, Mumbai has been expanding rapidly as more people flock to the city for work, fame, money and ambitions, but back then Bombay was more focused on what is today just South Mumbai. Fort still remains the business district of Mumbai and most offices would be located from Kala Ghoda area to Victoria Terminus area. On the other hand, mill workers played an instrumental role in the development of Bombay as they captured areas like Dadar, Wadala, Sion, Parel and Mahalakshmi that lie at the heart of the city.
When I look back in time, I believe and I strongly believe in this that the reason why Irani cafes have managed to sustain themselves in this harsh business oriented world is because of their intent. If you trace back the roots of Irani cafes you will find that it was couple of Iranis and Parsis that would actually offer tea and snacks to the middle and low class workers from which this business was born. The intention of Irani cafes thus remains to serve the people and it was never really a business proposition that would think in terms of capital growth. Even today, you will find Irani cafes offering bun maska, samosa, mawa cakes, custards, khari biscuits, puddings, milk biscuits and paani-kam chaai to its customers at prices that will surprise you. In fact, I am sure many Mumbaikars would agree that they still prefer Irani cafes for breakfast and lunch for the quality food that they get at such low rates.
Surprisingly they still have maintained their classic ambience and interiors so the moment you enter any Irani café in Mumbai you are transported 50 years back in time.
It has this colonial British era touch with high ceilings, wooden chairs, and wooden tables with marble tops. The walls are not painted; instead Irani cafes make use of glass on the walls that creates a feeling of space. The service is quick and hassle-free and most Irani cafes have a menu board rather than a menu card so you can see the items and the rates on the board.
Now, I can see this Irani café culture dying out gradually as international brands venture into Indian market. I would not blame them for the downfall of Irani cafes that became a lifeline of Bombay in the past. Some Irani cafes are still doing well as they have made certain changes to their menu and the way they offer service. Others that have stuck to their originality and classic ambience and food are loved for what they are, but they cannot match the competitive and unforgiving business market that is brought in by international brands.