The change-maker on Peddar Road
On a traffic-infested stretch, a popular but nondescript restaurant, whose interiors keep changing, celebrates turning 90
You can't have only one valentine — if you love food over people. This we know, because on a Valentine's Day morning, when we dropped by Light of Persia (LoP), a glass of chai and bun maska is gently placed on our table. Its present owner, Safar Ali Karimi sits in front of us. What he says next isn't something we've heard before in this city where time is at a premium. "Before you say something, finish eating," he says. And we can't choose what to dig into first.
We hold Light of Persia close to our heart, not because the food is mouth-watering or its interiors are Instagrammable, but because it is a restaurant that truly serves it's purpose — satisfying hunger pangs. And to do that in a neighbourhood that we dare say is elitist, and do it for 90 years, is out of the ordinary.
Although the signboard says "established in 1928", the family doesn't have a date or month as to when Hasan Mohammed Karimi, Safar Ali's grandfather, started the restaurant. "So we celebrate it on my father Abbas Hasan Karimi's birthday, which is on January 21," he says. The 74-year-old Safar Ali Karimi is carrying forward a legacy of two generations, following which his sons, who actively participate in the business, will take over. He doesn't recollect specific memories of his grandfather but recalls the trying tale of how he came to Bombay in the 1920s. "There were no aeroplanes then. He came from Yazd, Iran, to Pakistan via bus and then by train from the Pakistan border. In those days, the [political] state of Iran wasn't good — he was even robbed three times. When he finally came to Bombay, he came alone with no connections, but knew how to cook," Karimi says.
The interiors of the restaurant in 2009
Hasan Mohammed had to shuttle between Iran and Bombay as he left his family behind. It was only when he was robbed at the Iran-Pakistan border again, that he told his wife that it would be wise to settle in India. LoP began with a staff strength of three and the menu was restricted to the standard omlette, bhurji, daal chawal and kheema pav. Walk in today, you can choose from biryanis, thalis and Chinese. As his son Mohammed Reza puts it, Karimi's philosophy has always been to "change, change, change" — in stark contrast to the surviving Irani restaurants today.
The interiors of the restaurant today
For Karimi, it all began in 1968. "I went to Jamshedpur to pursue an engineering course for two years. I was about 22 then, and I received a telegram that my dad was seriously ill. He passed away soon after and we shut shop for a while. On May 15 that year, I sat here at the counter for the first time. It looked like a classic Irani restaurant then. In 1971, I renovated it A to Z, with orange tables. It was just too old-fashioned for me with its marble-topped tables and photos everywhere," he shares.
But one thing that hasn't changed are the restaurant's hours of operation — from 6 am to 12 am. "Some customers who have settled abroad and come back to Mumbai occasionally still ask, 'Oh, is your dad walking?' and every time I say, 'He still makes the first cup of tea for customers at six'. That's what keeps us going," Mohammed Reza tells us. They have also kept their price points low, although they can easily hike prices given the locality. Karimi explains, "Chai has gone from 1 paisa to 1 anna to 14 rupees today. But people still don't have money. This morning, two watchmen came from a building nearby. For one cup of tea of 14 rupees, they had two rupees less. I said, 'No problem, kal dena mere ko'. I know I'm not getting those two rupees but I want people to be happy."
Celeb spotting at LoP
Located in the vicinity of Jaslok Hospital and Films Division, celebrity visitors included Om Puri, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kumar, and Pankaj Kapur. Bollywood composer duo Laxmikant Shantaram Kudalkar and Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma i.e. Laxmikant-Pyarelal were regular customers, and Sharma continues to be.
AT Light of Persia, 30, Kiran Villa, next to Sterling Apartments, Pedder Road
TIME 6 am to 12 am
A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli