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Journal entry

Laughter in the cafe

Theatre and café culture of 1950s Bombay.

The Permit Room – hidden beneath the kitchen of Dishoom Edinburgh – pays homage to best Bombay tradition of Parsi theatre. Our research and explorations into this theatrical world of slapstick comedy and dry wit was helped greatly by our new friend Meher Marfatia – author of the delightfully titled book ‘Laughter in the House’ which chronicles 20th century Parsi theatre. We give her huge thanks for all her help. Not only has she supported us with the curation of Permit Room artefacts and bar menu, but she has also been kind enough to write a blog for us.

 

Where it stands says so much about a café. Built to hug Bombay’s busiest street corners, iconic restaurants still left gracing a few such prime plots were once considered inauspicious by superstitious sections of the Hindu community. Not so for the enterprising Iranis. Taking it to mean twice the trade at a junction, they looked towards Mount Damavand in their ancestral land, chanted “Numo Khodu” (“Touch wood”, in their Dari dialect) and moved in to serve the cup that cheers.

But 97-year-old Café Universal’s plum location at Ballard Estate is barely its only boast. A theatrical thread ties it firmly to the talent and times of a genius of the Parsi Gujarati (and English) stage. Look out from its airy, south-side French windows and you yet see a bright blue-and-white road sign proudly announce the name of the lane: Adi Marzban Path. This, then, was a charmed spot where the doyen who regaled generations of fans with wickedly witty Wodehousian farces popped in to think, to write, to audition and even to rehearse.

Marzban was also the editor of Jam-e-Jamshed, Asia’s second oldest existing newspaper (since 1832 when the Jame, first a daily and now a weekly, belonged to his great-grandfather Fardoonjee Marzban), whose offices were right next door to the café – where he was a most welcome customer.

Besides comic play scripts, Marzban sat scribbling notes here for Avo Mari Sathe – the hugely popular TV serial that was first aired on October 2nd (Gandhi Jayanti day) in 1972. Were he with us, puckish humour and wacky wit intact, Parsi theatre’s finest writer-director would have been 103. Generations of ardent fans in stage-struck Bombay agree that even today no Navroz (Parsi New Year) festivities can be complete without watching spirited re-runs of his wonderful plays which once numbered over a hundred single-act farces and longer capers.

“Adi Saab’s usual order was mint tea on a tray with jam puffs or chicken patties and Rogers’ raspberry fizz,” recalls Basudev Rajak, a waiter from Jharkhand and Café Universal’s veritable mascot who has completed 40 years of service. He joined as a young boy of 10 in the home of Behram Irani, the original owner who partnered with Sarosh Mojgani. The Dehmiri family running the restaurant today inherited Basu as a kid and at the time they were unaware that he would prove to be a never-ending source of local history.

Basu remembers British officers residing on the floor above, their horses tethered downstairs. The stables were transformed into a toy shop before becoming the bun-maska adda that Irani restaurants typically began as. A beer bar in the 1970s, the café was renovated in 2002 to its current spruce avatar which retains wooden rafters, buttresses and high ceilings. The clientele has changed. “Earlier our regulars were rough men dropping in from the nearby docks but now we are a family place,” Basu points out with pride.

Pipe-smoking Marzban, who kept all the city’s Gujarati-speaking communities in fits of laughter with sparkling hits like Choopo Rustam, Kataryu Gap and Gustadji Ghore Charya, would often kid with young Basu. “In the middle of showing actors their moves between chairs that he rearranged as if they were on stage, Sir would give me a lollipop teasing, ‘Ghelo, aay le’ (Take this, you!)” Basu laughs.

Legendary writers like Govind Saraiya, well known as the National Award winning director of the film Saraswatichandra, was often thrilled to share a couple of drinks across the table with Marzban. “He was a fabulous funny man, very fond of me and I was always a staunch admirer, right after seeing his productions like Mota Dil Na Mota Bawa and Maathe Parela Mafatlal,” Saraiya says smiling.

Fittingly, that same address – 36 Adi Marzban Path – was the venue that writer Meher Marfatia chose to release Laughter in the House, her book chronicling Parsi theatre of the last century. Shooting zany exchanges between 50-odd thespians at Café Universal, celebrated photographer Sooni Taraporevala captured some special sepia moments on that drizzly Sunday afternoon in July 2011.

When the merry bunch of men and women walked in, Basu almost instantly recognized Marzban’s vintage actors and technicians, there together for the happiest kind of reunion. In her inimitable style, veteran journalist Bachi Karkaria described the gathering, in her Times of India column, as “soggy with nostalgia as a khari biscuit dunked in chai”. The warmth of that launch lunch had the restaurant resound with back-slapping bonhomie amidst much swigging of chilled beer followed by a lunch of traditional spicy dhansaak.

Yet, Bachi also found herself brooding on a tragic triple exit: of the quaint Irani cafe, of the Parsis’ hilarious brand of theatre and, dare we say, of the community’s ability to laugh at itself? The first two could be ready for a requiem. May the third never come to pass. Heaven help (“Ovaaryoo” – “God forbid” in robust Parsi parlance) if mad Parsi humour should lose its lustre in the disappointingly dour times we live in.

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The Permit Room is open every day from 5pm until 3am, serving the most delicious and sincere tipples until the wee hours. We take reservations for groups of up to 12 guests from 5pm until 1:30am every night. For all enquiries please email permitroom@dishoom.com. We check the reservations emails once a day and always endeavour to respond to all requests by 5pm the following day.

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PICTURED LEFT: Parsi theatre personalities Sam Kerawalla, Shireen Hirjee and Villoo Panthaky in the Irani restaurant where their writer-director Adi Marzban sat to script and audition. Cafe Universal at Ballard Estate. They’re seen here after half a century, in July 2011, for a celebratory launch of Laughter in the House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre. Photo credits: Celebrated photographer Sooni Taraporevala.

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