Cafe Irani Chaii and the Badgir of Bombay

The suburb of Mahim in Mumbai is slowly rousing itself. An unseasonal bout of cold has meant a lazy start to the day.  In this suburb, just off the busy Lady Jamshedji Road, lies Café Irani Chaii. Outside the cafe lie strewn a few plastic chairs. On one of these chairs, casting watchful eyes on us, lounge two cats. On the other, with an opened packet of Drools cat food, softly admonishing the cats is a fair and handsome man. Passersby break their stride for a nod and a Hi.  You feel you have stepped into the times gone by, witnessing this exchange of pleasantries. Inside,  the Bentwood chairs, the red checkered table cloth, the chessboard flooring – all add to the air of gentility and calm enveloping the place.  You would not be the first one to feel that this handsome man, running the café, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Indian movie star, Raj Kapoor.  Please meet Dr. Mansoor Showghi Yezdi.

Yazd is a province in central Iran. It is a desert city where temperatures in the summer cross 40 degrees and winters have nights below freezing.  It receives less rain in a year than Mumbai gets in a single day of the monsoons.  Droughts are common. It was from this land after a particularly bad year that Dr. Yezdi’s grandfather, Haji Mohammed Yezdi, set off on foot in 1890. After eight grueling months, having passed through Karachi on the way, he stopped at Bombay.  Yazd is known not only for its silks and baklavas but also for its chay-khanehs that serve tea.  Tea it was that sustained the young migrant. The stretch from Apollo Bunder to the Radio club was both his home and his shop as he made and sold tea.

The next generation built on his efforts. At one point, there were about 12 cafes and canteens being managed by the Yezdi clan. One of these canteens providentially happened to be at the Plaza Cinema, a theatre being managed by V Shantaram. The young Dr. Yezdi was deeply influenced by Anna Saheb and his movies. He recalls watching “Do Ankhen Barah Haath” and “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje” three to four times every day – noting each nuance and inhaling the craft. The humaneness of the characters, the style of movie making and the V Shantaram’s Kolhapur connections, all continue to find a reciprocal rhythm in Dr. Yezdi’s symphony even today.  He considers the Kolhapuri Dr. Naseema Hurzuk, the lady behind Helpers of the Handicapped to be his soul sister and supports her initiatives fulsomely. The humanity reflects in all of Dr. Yezdi’s dealings with his customers, staff and his vendors. Some vendor relationships started 40 years ago with Dr. Yezdi’s father’s first café and continue till the day. The multiple hours spent on Plaza’s seats watching V Shantaram’s classics led Dr. Yezdi into his first passion – making documentary movies. His last documentary, “Café Irani Chai”, went on win 14 international awards.

It was the making of this movie that sparked a homecoming for Dr. Yezdi. The documentary itself covers the story of Irani migrants who came walking all the way, set up cafes in different towns in India and flourished here.  He spoke to multiple cafe owners and shot at different premises. He began to notice a troubling phenomenon – he would shoot a scene at a café only to later find that the café had stopped operations. This deeply troubled him.  After wrapping up his documentary, he resolved to recreate this dwindling symbol of Indo Iranian friendship – the streetside Irani cafe.  He set up a cafe – named it after his documentary and added an extra “i”. Café Irani Chaii. And yes, the two “I”s in Chaii stand for Iran and India.  Dr. Yezdi feels that Indians and Iranis are long lost cousins, such was the welcome his family received here. His need to reciprocate finds an outlet in discounts – all students get 10% off. So do people in uniforms. As do those who come to his cafe by the environment friendly bicycle.

If you are ever visit Yazd, you might notice towers abutting houses. These slim adobe towers would have multiple vertical slits near the top. This is a badgir, a windcatcher. They route winds into a house, take them through a water reservoir and then out again. The evaporative effect causes the entire house to cool.  What if there was a badgir that could evaporate fatigue and weariness and spread warmth and smiles in lieu of cool air.  What if we told you that Dr. Mansoor Showghi Yezdi is just such a badgir. All you need to do is uber it to Cafe Irani Chaii. Go there for the invigorating cup of black tea. Have a brun maska with it. Or if it is lunch time, chicken dhansak could be your choice. Go and encourage Mohammed Hussain Yezdi, Dr. Yezdi’s son – the fourth generation to run an Irani cafe. Go because you too believe that “shekar shekar shavandh hammeh tootiyaan hend, zeeen kaude parsi ke be bangala meeravad” – “All the parrots of India will talk even more sweetly when they take a bite of Persia’s shakkar”.  And yes, remember to feed the cat on the way out 🙂

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