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Sacrificing love and career for an Irani cafe

The suleimani at Light of Bharat will wake you up, but behind it are many stories of sacrifice — owner Reza Saqi, for instance, has had to pick the café over his wife

Light of Bharat, the Irani café at the corner of Ranade Road in Dadar West, is abuzz with customers and fragrant with the aroma of freshly-brewed chai when we enter around 5 pm. Its third generation owner, Reza Saqi, who helps his 65-year-old father Mohammed Jawad run the place, does not sit still for a second from the time we take a seat around the wooden table covered with a trademark red-and-white checkered cloth.

Instead of offering a discount to customers to mark the 75th year of Light of Bharat café, Reza Saqi celebrated the occasion with  children from select  schools and orphanages across the city.   pics/sayyed sameer abedi
Instead of offering a discount to customers to mark the 75th year of Light of Bharat café, Reza Saqi celebrated the occasion with  children from select schools and orphanages across the city.   Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

He starts with the confession: “I talk a lot”. Over the next two hours we realise it is, indeed, true. We are there to discuss the café’s 75th birthday, but Saqi has other plans — to feed us gems from his menu. When we realise that we’d lost that battle at ‘hello’, we go with the flow.

As he takes a seat next to us, Saqi turns to the server and orders a list of chais he insists we try: “Ek zafrani, suleimani mint and lemon, Irani and pani kam.”

Kheema is served with buttery bun maska
Kheema is served with buttery bun maska

“You know what the specialty of Irani chai is?” he asks. Without waiting for us to attempt an answer, he goes on, “The milk and tea is prepared separately. It is mixed just before being served. The ‘pani kam’ chai is, of course, milky,” says Saqi, whose last name in Urdu means wine server. The glass we are served is, however, zaffrani masala chai, which comes topped with cinnamon powder with other “secret ingredients”. It is delicious, and we know we will return for this. The suleimani mint and lemon comes next, and it is a much-needed jolt to our sleepy senses. “One day, a customer who had a bad throat asked us to put some lemon in the suleimani chai. When we realised it added a good flavour to the tea, we decided to make it better by adding mint leaves as well,” says Saqi.

Suleimani chai is served with lemon and mint
Suleimani chai is served with lemon and mint

Saqi takes regular breaks while talking. Either to gulp some soda or order more food. By now, we have tried Big B omelet, Hyderabadi omelet (which is laden with garam masala), Surti omelet with green chillies, and a chicken omelet, which melts in the mouth. “Next week, I am launching the schezwan omelet,” says Saqi, who has turns down the multiple offers of renting out the place to commercial coffee chains, for he wants to keep the heritage café running.

 The zaffrani chai is topped with cinammon masala. The mawa cake is flavoured with pistacchio
 The zaffrani chai is topped with cinammon masala. The mawa cake is flavoured with pistacchio

75 and running
There’s much that Saqi has sacrificed to keep this café going. A stable relationship with his wife, for instance. Saqi, who got married to a Lithuanian national in Dubai, says meets her only twice in a year. “I cannot leave the café, and she cannot be here with me due to her mother’s ill health.”

There are other sacrifices as well.

The 35-year-old left his career as a film producer in Dubai and returned to help brother Mansoor Ali, resurrect the café in 2010. “But, he got married to a woman in America and settled there,” says Saqi, whose wife Jurgita Valinciute (Amnah Yusuf), had also come down with him initially.

Saqi, with his father Mohammed Jawed
Saqi, with his father Mohammed Jawed

“The three years she was here with me, she cared about the café and made an effort to learn Hindi even. She stood by me like a rock, and I would make her taste all my dishes before introducing them on the menu,” says Saqi.

Two years ago, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Valinciute returned to Dubai. The couple managed the long-distance relationship with Saqi flying down to meet her every six months. “But, it is not enough, and before we knew it, there were cracks in our marriage. Her duty towards her mother, and my passion to keep the café alive has torn us apart,” says Saqi, who hasn’t even considered selling the café. “If I leave now, the quality will spiral down,” he adds.

LOB 3.0
Interestingly the café has had a history of its owners staying away from home to run it. “My grandfather’s mother sent him to Bombay when he was 12 years old. His uncle came to pick him up, and asked him what he wanted to do. When my grandfather said he wanted to study, his uncle slapped him and asked him to start working,” recalls Saqi.

Thus, Ghulam Hussain ended up working at Irani cafés in here and in Hyderabad, as a sweeper, waiter and eventually a partner. In 1939, Hussain first opened his café in the lane across LOB. The next year, he opened LOB — two shops away from its current location where now a quick service laundry stands. Later, he moved it to where Oven Fresh stands today. They moved to the current location on Ranade Road, Dadar. “The menu remained simple, with items such as omelets, bhurjee pav, kheema and tarkari of the day, along with dal fry. Back then, the Marwaris believed a corner shop brings panvati (bad luck), and refused to buy it. My grandfather has had this space, and since then, we are here,” says Saqi.

“Even when he started his own café, he had to leave his wife back home in Hyderabad, meeting her only two months a year, when she’d come down with the kids or he paid a visit there,” says Saqi, whose father, Mohammed Jawad came to Bombay in 1965, at the age of 16. “Today, he is 66 and I cannot function without him. He comes to the café every day from 8 am to 11 am,” says Saqi.

On duty, full-time
“I started coming to the café at the age of 13, only for a few hours to relieve my dad. During the 1992-1993 riots, our shop was broken down, nothing was left. We fled to Hyderabad. When we returned six months later, many cafés had shut down having taken a financial and emotional hit.” Saqi decided to join his father full-time when he turned 16. “My father sent me to City Bakery owner, Habib Dashti seth, who stationed me on the galla (front cash counter) but I wanted to be in the kitchen. ‘Chaddi banyan mein kaam karna padega’, he told me. The next day I reached his workshop at 5 am in a jeans and shirt. I went up to the workshop and changed into shorts. This amused him,” says Saqi, who worked there for four months. “Most of the credit of what I know today goes to him,” says Saqi, who took over LOB at the age of 17 when his father had to rush to Hyderabad for an emergency.

“I turned things around, introduced more food on the menu, and by the time my father returned, we were making a decent profit. But, we had disagreements on how to run the place and I left LOB to do an animation course,” says Saqi, who joined a graphic design company as a marketer. He also dabbled with theatre, and worked with Rajat Kapur as a production manager, and later ran his own ad film production company, Brick Films. “I even worked as an AD on Raghu Romeo,” says Saqi.

With the conversation returning to his other life, we ask him when he last spoke to his wife. The twinkle in his eyes fades. He takes a pause. “This morning. She called me and asked for a divorce. She wants to end it for my sake,” says Saqi, petting the cat, Reshma, that his brother left behind.

“Koshish karte raho toh rasta nikal jata hai. But in my case, I really don’t know. Lekin, Allah bada hai,” he signs off.

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