Meher Marfatia: Camel to cafe to Capstan

He came on camel back, mule back and finally jumped a train from Karachi to Bombay. Nothing could stop the gritty 15-year-old Iranian peasant boy from Yazd who travelled 2,500 kilometres, the hardest way, to reach the city of his dreams in 1929.

Khodamurad Meherwan realised early that his humble village of Mazrekalantary held dim prospects. The saltwater around did allow the best quality pistachios and almonds to grow. But it was futile slaving in dry fruit farms and orchards like other men of his clan while the women tended to their kitchens and expertly wove long-sleeved clothing, down to their typical white jute slippers called maliki.

Khodamurad seen here with wife Vahbiz and their son Jehanbux, who is now a cardiologist in Germany
Khodamurad seen here with wife Vahbiz and their son Jehanbux, who is now a cardiologist in Germany

“He was running away from no future in Iran,” says Khodamurad’s daughter Banoo. With warm candour, the 75-year-old sits to tell the tale of her feisty father’s journey — “from camel to café” she calls it — with visible pride. Banoogoshasp and her 68-year-old sister Homayun Namdarian make a spirited pair narrating their ancestral history with vibrancy and volubility. “Call us Banoo and Homai, too long names we have,” they urge within minutes of us meeting.

A picture of one of the earliest menu cards printed at Majestic
A picture of one of the earliest menu cards printed at Majestic

Stopped at the Afghanistan border as he rode a donkey, Khodamurad was asked his surname. ‘I don’t have one’, was the simple answer. That’s when he came to be christened Khodamurad Meherwan Afkham.

Khodamurad with grandson Shapur
Khodamurad with grandson Shapur

Once in Bombay, Khodamurad found a mentor in Sarosh Kaka, an uncle who got him sweeping the floor of The New Majestic Restaurant & Stores below Capitol Cinema at VT for five rupees a day (Banoo’s son Shahzad clocks in a 14-hour workday at Majestic, which was established in 1860 and stayed open till midnight selling toiletries, stationery, cutlery, toys, tobacco and Kodak photographic supplies). Later, Banoo’s husband Behram worked at Majestic as well. Shahzad took over in 1984, returning from London to find customers wooed with draught beer and a classic bubble-shaped jukebox blaring Bollywood hits.

Shahzad, Khodamurad Meherwan’s grandson, at Majestic Restaurant & Bar, next to Capitol Cinema near CST. PIC/BIPIN KOKATE
Shahzad, Khodamurad Meherwan’s grandson, at Majestic Restaurant & Bar, next to Capitol Cinema near CST. Pic/Bipin Kokate

“He had no home, only hope,” quips Banoo about her father, who slept on the footpath outside the café, a thin gunny sack lining the cold ground under him.

After some years of slogging, the young hero of our story was assigned a small partner share in Majestic at the age of 20. He could now think of settling a little. Not only did Khodamurad and his wife Vahbiz, better known as Virbai, from Alliabadi village, raise their own five children in a flat in Mackawee Mansion — still standing in Fort on Gunbow Street (this is the building with Meher Cold Drink House on its ground floor). They lived with an aunt and her brood of five in the same home.

Jehanbux, their first brother, was born in a goat stable in Iran, the rest of them here. “Even with barely enough money, our father generously called over so many people of our community from Iran, supported them to start small businesses,” Homai shares. In a city of military march-pasts on streets which were washed squeaky clean, the Afkham front door was always open. “We would help mum cook on a sigri,” adds Banoo. On Fridays, fish curry was served to anyone dropping in. Between chores their mother caught shows of her adored Raj Kapoor-Nargis starrers at Capitol.

As we chat, Jehanbux phones from Germany, a daily call the retired cardiologist makes to the sisters. His children are all renowned musicians. Among them is the brilliant David Afkham, principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra, in high demand with the world’s finest opera houses. “He could be the next Zubin Mehta,” declares Banoo’s daughter, interior designer Shahnaz Mahimtura, of her accomplished cousin.

Shahnaz laughs recalling how, each time she wanted a soft drink at Majestic, her grandfather used to counter with a chant: “Dikra, go East or West, water is the best!” Homai and Banoo’s favourite piece of fatherly advice is “Gaya toh gaya, atasa pakro — what’s gone is gone, seize the moment.” One catchphrase of their native Dari dialect Banoo loves is Numokhodu, meaning touchwood. It’s what she so charmingly says asking after my kids, my husband, my father, my work. Misty-eyed she marvels, “Imagine, from real poverty that self-made man groomed himself to acquire pucca British tastes like Capstan cigarettes, Hennessey whisky... but never learnt to write a word of English except for his signature.”

Khodamurad’s family prepares to welcome Jamshedi Navroze, Irani New Year marked on the March 21st Spring Equinox. Because the calendar year actually changes at 10.30 today, though, they will widely wish Sobokher, or Good Morning. After laying the traditional table laden with Persian artefacts and food, they plan to dine out. I leave Banoo ticking off the last couple of days left to celebrate this feast. She’s getting ready to visit Shahzad’s home across town from her in Andheri. There, she will whip up cool pitchers full of frothy falooda to greet family and friends with, Numokhodu.

Write in to Meher at mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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