In the hands of God
With the dying legacy of Iranian restaurants in the city, visit one that has managed to conquer the test of time for nearly 90 years
On a sunny morning, we navigate a busy street in Girgaum where the sound of traffic and barking strays descend into a grand chaos within our head. The buzzing noise fades away when we find a nook and the first thing we hear is, "How may I help you?" The space we settle into seems to have a life of its own, with marble-topped tables and wooden chairs from erstwhile Czechoslovakia. Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, it reads. Facing us is a weathered Ovaltine Rusks poster from the 1930s, an indicator of the time around when the restaurant came to be.
When Khodabux Merwan Nasrabadi Irani came to Bombay after completing his education in Poona in 1920, he arrived with entrepreneurial spirit albeit very little knowledge of the city. Cosmopolitan wasn't his first property. Irani had acquired Good Luck restaurant and The Famous Pharmacy in the vicinity. The restaurant back then served only chai with biscuits sourced from bakeries elsewhere. That changed when his son, Rustom Khodabux Irani, took over in the 50s, determined to start baking himself.
The first batch of biscuits turned out to be so hard that Irani had to dump them in the sea. And just as one begins to wonder how dreadful Rustom's fate could get, his son Humin, narrates the breakthrough. "He was so anxious to make a good biscuit that he woke up one night to make a khara biscuit, and it came out beautifully," he says. In 1956, Irani purchased a single deck electric oven for a sum of Rs. 3,000. The feedback from the Irani community wasn't too encouraging; some called him crazy. "The oven wasn't cheap but it was profitable," says Humin.
Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, Prarthana Samaj
The single deck wasn't sufficient to cope with the demand and a four-deck Collins oven, made in England, was purchased for Rs. 19,000. But Rustom's dream hit a dead end in the 90s when labour wasn't easy to come by due to the monotonous nature of the work.
Biscuit production was stopped in 2005, and are now sourced from local bakeries
The legacy of Irani restaurants in the city is witnessing a downward spiral, with the iconic Paradise Restaurant in Colaba shutting down last week. After Rustom passed away in 2014, his wife Freny, and Humin helm Cosmopolitan. They have no staff and serve the food themselves, and spend most of the day by the cash counter.
"Maybe this will end with me since I do not have children. It's the full stop. There was a time when people liked to sit on this chair, relax and have a cup of tea. Nowadays, they do not have the time to stand. How can I force them to come and have chai? There is a tea stall on every street. So, no matter how good our preparation is, they don't come here" he says.
The German electric oven was purchased in 1956 for 3,000 rupees
Despite his struggle in trying to sustain the business, Irani refuses to give in to corporate interests having received constant requests. A makeover doesn't mean much to him, unless it comes with maintaining a strong Iranian identity. But he isn't afraid to add humour in the face of adversity. "People ask me how do I manage. It's by the grace of God; I am used to it. I have been working here since the age of seven.
I passed my BCom from Elphinstone College and was lucky to get a permanent job here!" he quips. Irani exudes positive energy, although that comes with the pain of an uncertain future. "Sometimes I feel guilty, that when you have something so good, why don't you utilise it to grow more. I am in a fix. Should I opt to convert this restaurant into something else? Doing that is good for the business, but not doing it, is satisfaction," he says.
The German fan under which KL Saigal (right) would sit and enjoy some Irani chai after dropping by Famous Studio that used to be opposite the restaurant
Look who visited
* Nita Ambani dropped by the restaurant for a cup of tea and khara biscuits post the inaugration ceremony of Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Girgaum.
* Veteran actor Amjad Khan's father Zakaria Khan would frequently stop by.
At: Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, 133, Raja Rammohan Roy Road, near Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Prarthana Samaj.
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