A tribute to Irani cafes in India

Never mind all the political posturing or pipeline projects, Indo-Iran ties are best forged over a cup of Irani chai and the famous brun-maska, says filmmaker Dr (PhD) Mansoor Showghi Yezdi, director, Showmans’ Show (a moving pictures company). Yezdi has made a 29-minute documentary film on Irani chai cafes in India called, Cafe Irani Chai. His movie is to be formally launched in early October on Indo-Iran friendship day, though he has started putting up montages of the movie on social networking sites.

Dr Mansoor Showghi Yezdi
Dr Mansoor Showghi Yezdi makes a point. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

This Mahim resident, who has lived in the country for 57 years says his movie is a sign of gratitude to India — the land that so selflessly and lovingly embraced the Iranis, who had left Iran all those years ago due to famine. Yezdi (57) says, “My grandfather left Yazd (in Iran) in the 1890s. It was because of famine. He actually walked like lots of others all the way to India. At that time, of course, the borders were different than those of today.”

The filmmaker at Military Cafe in Fort, in a still from the movie

This movie centres around that migration and subsequent rise of the community. It relates to the arrival of the Iranis in the 18th and 19th centuries mostly from Yazd and Kerman, who walked all the way from Iran and settled down in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad, becoming famous for their cafes, bakeries and restaurants. They were known as the Irani chaiwalas, serving of course, the famous bun maska and Irani chai. Yezdi says, “The great Iranian chai tradition began when the Iranis came to India to Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and since they were basically uneducated, decided they had to make a life in India by selling something.

They would talk about their life and what they could do in the evenings, over cups of tea; that’s how the Irani chai tradition started. Soon those cups of tea became an entrepreneurship and slowly cafes were born.” Yet, it was not as easy as Yezdi says now. “They had to struggle for survival. My late father used to sell tea in a kettle with a sigri below to keep it warm. He sold cups of tea outside the Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba, on the roads,” says an emotional Yezdi. “Often, he slept on the road after his work. This movie is a tribute to that struggle as much as a mark of gratitude to India.”

Yezdi states that the 29-minute duration belies the research that went into the making of his movie, “I did 10 years of research, travelling to Pune and Hyderabad and talking to owners and generally all those who have a stake in the Irani cafe culture. I have nearly 8,000 pictures filed away of those visits.” Like sugar that dissolved so easily into chai, the Iranis, Yezdi says, “blended seamlessly into Indian society. One pillar of their success is that they embraced the Indian philosophy: Atithi Devo Bhava — ‘Guest is God’ fiercely, and applied it to the customers of their cafe.”

Yezdi says that he puts the love and affection of Indian people above the spirit of entrepreneurship of the Iranis. “If India had not accepted us so generously, this would not be possible,” says Yezdi who is also the vice-president of the Indo-Iranian Friendship Society. He illustrates the close bond with the country by recalling headlines in the Iranian papers when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India. They read: ‘The daughter-in-law of Iran is PM of India’ he says as an indicator of warm relations between the two.

Yezdi explains, “We came here with hope and India did not disappoint us. That is what I want to say with this film.” On the slow erosion of Irani cafes in Mumbai, thanks to brutal real estate prices and other factors, Yezdi says, “That is why efforts like this are important, to keep the culture alive in a small way. I also see the younger generation here, keen to keep alive Iranian culture. They themselves may not own cafes, bakeries or restaurants or be able to stop them from vanishing, but they do want to keep memories alive and hope that the public too have some knowledge of the genesis of this entrepreneurship.”

Yezdi signs off saying that DVDs of the movie, which is presented by Dr Ali Irani (the former Indian cricket team physiotherapist) and sponsored by the Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman of Mumbai, are going to be given free of cost to guests on the cultural day in the first week of October, organized by the Indo-Iranian Friendship Society of Mumbai. The venue, “is still undecided” says Yezdi. Given the movie and its aim, one would think an Irani cafe would be the perfect place in which to hold the event. Guests could raise a toast to the bonds of the two countries — with a cup of Irani chai, of course.

Tehran, IRAN: A handout picture released by the Iranian presidency, showing Iranian President Hassan Rowhani in an interview broadcast live on state television in Tehran on September 10, 2013. Pic/AFP/Iranian Presidency Website

Yazd and Kerman
Yazd is the capital of Yazd Province in Iran, and a centre of Zoroastrian culture. The city is located 270 km southeast of Isfahan, a popular tourist destination in Iran. Because of generations of adaptations to its desert surroundings, Yazd is an architecturally unique city. It is also known in Iran for the high quality of its handicrafts, especially silk weaving and its sweet shops. Yazd is the driest major city in Iran, with an average annual rainfall of only 60 millimetres, and also the hottest north of the Persian Gulf coast, with summer temperatures very frequently above 40°C.

Kerman: Former capital of Iran
Kerman is the capital city of Kerman Province, Iran. It is the 12th most populous city of Iran. It is the largest and most developed city in the Kerman Province and the most important city in South-East Iran. It is one of the largest cities of Iran in terms of area. Kerman is famous for its long history and strong cultural heritage. The city is home to many historic mosques and Zoroastrian fire temples. Kerman is also on the recent list of the world’s 1,000 cleanest cities. Kerman is also a former capital of Iran, a position that it held during several periods. It is located on a large, flat plain, 1,036 km south of Tehran, the capital of Iran. The economy of Kerman is mostly based on farming, notably nut farming and also mining. 

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