INEVITABLY, I’M HERE AGAIN in the Permit Room. This time in Dishoom in Kensington. Wondering whether it’s still 1940s Bombay in here. Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not. It’s just rain-sodden London in the last cold dregs of 2017. Cyrus Irani has left the building. Disappointingly, it’s only me left. I’m not as dashing nor as handsome, not as wayward and, to my regret, I haven’t bested any corrupt police inspectors recently.
Cyrus, a real (albeit fictional) man, would have a proper drink by his elbow. I’m getting by with what our Daru-walla calls a ‘Virtuous Sour’. He assures me it doesn’t have actual whisky in it, but some sort of clever (albeit fictional) alcohol made with botanicals and herbs. It’s very good, but it’s having the lamentable effect of keeping my head clear; or at least not making it more foggy than it generally is. A good friend who has recently given up drunkenness has taken to calling himself ‘sober-curious’. Like bi-curious. I like the phrase. It helps me believe that my sobriety is slightly racy, when plainly it is not.
Reader, I should acknowledge that you’re once again doing me the favour of sitting with me at the end of another year. It is, as you now know, a December habit of mine to think about the last twelve months. Not unusually (and, clearly, not uniquely) my own twelve months have seen joy and (intense) sadness. I’m still working on being at peace with it. I’m certainly spent and exhausted.
In the world, 2017 was an energetic successor to 2016. 2016 had been a weird one, hadn’t it? It unleashed all sorts of post-truth alt-right anger and mayhem that had been breeding for years. 2017 has enthusiastically followed through. I – like many – have been obsessively reading about recent events, trying sincerely to understand them, trying conscientiously to discern the patterns, trying earnestly to fathom what ‘should be done’. Doing so has left me somewhat exhausted and confused, unsure of what to think, how to respond.
This year, my father passed away. He was much too young to pass away, but he did. I lost my greatest friend, the best role-model and a mentor who was invariably right (of course, most so when I thought he was wrong). During the last months that he was with us, I had the enormous good fortune to spend days listening to him tell the stories of his life. I heard of his adventures as he and the rest of my family were forced out of home (I was not yet a year old). I heard of his strength and determination as a brave young entrepreneur rebuilding his life after the ground beneath his feet had completely shifted. I heard about the things he truly took pleasure in. One of the things he was most proud of was somehow finding himself as a much-loved swimming teacher to young children late in his life. He was utterly at peace, even in the knowledge that his time with us was suddenly curtailed.
Clearly, he didn’t choose events that happened to him. I’m not sure that he necessarily achieved an understanding of the political forces which had so massive an impact on his life and that of his family. But as he smilingly considered his end, he knew exactly which stories of his life were important to him. These stories weren’t all happy ones, but they were absolutely key to his understanding of who he was. And he was at peace with them.
I’m fairly sure that my father is the reason we think so much about stories at Dishoom. He was un-self-consciously interested in everyone’s story, whoever they were, wherever he met them. He was interested in narratives in people’s lives, in history, in mythology and fiction. Without us really noticing, I think this all somehow seeped into what we do at Dishoom. He was certainly our most joyful and ardent cheerleader, and finder-in-chief of obscure nuggets to turn into fully-formed ideas.
He was the one who used to tell me – frequently and for years – that there was a fantastic and barmy tradition of Parsi dramatics that we should explore. I eventually listened to him and we found the charming Meher Mafatia the earnest historian of Parsi theatre who helped us create the Permit Room in Edinburgh at the back end of last year as a homage to this wonderful old Bombay institution. (It was also delicious coincidence that Sir Patrick Geddes, the historical figure whom we fancied might have been creator of Dishoom Edinburgh was an actual fan of theatre in Bombay). We dug up crazy old plotlines, created drinks in tribute to crazy old characters and hung the fantastic photography and posters of Parsi Theatre of the early 20th century on the walls. (My personal favourite poster is of the Gujarati parody of Hamlet – “Hamlet no Omelette”).
It saddens me deeply that for boring logistical reasons he didn’t travel up to Edinburgh to see the Permit Room before he left us. I think I’ll always regret this. My father is one of the few people who would have appreciated all the nuances, who would have been able to understand the jokes in graffittied Gujarati script on the walls, and further would have understood why we bothered to work so hard to make so much of stuff that was so obscure to so many.
Each time we open a Dishoom we imagine it as an old Irani café embedded deeply in some sparky story of old Bombay that needs more putting about. In Dishoom Carnaby, the setting is Bombay’s rock scene which flared up briefly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Dishoom King’s Cross, the setting is in a notional godown near Victoria Terminus, the Independence movement a backdrop. We then sit down and write the narrative for each Dishoom – a different founding myth – deeply rooted in the history and characters of the time.
Every single aspect of the design (no detail too small) is informed by this story. We spend weeks and months researching the Bombay of the period. We meet people with memories of the period. We comb the city for the right antique furniture. Our fictional proprietor may even have views on the politics of the time, or perhaps specific tastes in art and literature. You walk across the threshold of our restaurants and into our stories. We began to wonder whether we could welcome you, our patrons, into our story in a much more literal sense. Could our characters meet you, perform music for you, the plot unfold around you?
That was how we gave birth this year to Cyrus Irani, charming, noble rogue and fictional proprietor of Dishoom Kensington in its two week guise as the Bombay Roxy. And thank you to all of you who came to meet him in his jazzy, noirish immersive Bombay in 1949 world. Much fun was had.
For us, the stories of the old Irani Cafés (which a few years ago, we collected from frequenters of the cafés and literally baked onto our plates in Shoreditch for all to read) have been central to what we try to honour and celebrate. These old cafés, sadly now almost all gone, were significant for being truly shared spaces. They were the first places in Bombay where people of any culture, class or religion could take cool refuge from the street with a cup of chai, a simple snack or a hearty meal. People from all walks of life shared tables, rubbed shoulders and broke bread together. Shared spaces beget shared experiences, and shared experiences mean less violence, less hatred, towards those they are shared with. And indeed, while Delhi and Calcutta try to forget the bloody riots and senseless slaughter of Partition, Bombay’s memories of Independence are more peaceful and joyous in no small part because of its culture of cosmopolitanism and its shared spaces.
In a way, it must be true that the stories that we remember and revere – whether historical or our own – define how we see ourselves. These stories must also surely be indicators of our values. If current events leave us confused, if we can’t make sense of the world, then we could do worse than use these stories to guide our actions. To then create stories of our own that in turn may even be remembered.
Accordingly for our part, and in our own (sometimes odd, sometimes barmy way) we have worked hard to bring people together in shared spaces and to break down barriers. In 2017, we’ve had the privilege of bringing Hindus and non-Hindus together to throw colour on each other at Holi and dance together at Diwali, of bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together over food and music for Eid, and of bringing Christians and non-Christians together for a hearty old Christmas Caroling at Christmas. We celebrated the actions of Rabindranath Tagore, who brought Muslims and Hindus together over the festival of Raksha Bandhan in 1905 (“we are brothers and sisters and will not be separated!”) by asking our team and our guests to tie rakhis on each other and for each Rakhi tied, we donated £1 to Seeds of Peace who are working hard to bring peace in Palestine. We’ve also now managed to feed over 3 million meals to children (via Magic Breakfast here in the UK and Akshaya Patra in India) by donating a meal for every meal we’ve served you over these last few years. Both of these charities do a valiant job breaking down the corrosive social barriers that result when kids are too hungry to learn, or when girls don’t get sent to school at all.
I’m growing tired now. Looking at the clock I see that it’s late. I’m slightly surprised that you’re still here with me, reading. It must be time for a drink. Barman, none of this fictional alcohol. Bring us your best Old-Fashioneds, if you would, a drink worthy of Cyrus Irani. There, that’s better. Sober-curiosity (racy or not) will wait until January along with daily sun salutations and vegetable juice. A little gentle mist is welcome this evening.
And what will ‘18 bring? I’m sure it will bring more surprises and inevitably some tragedies, maybe some triumphs. I’m sure the world will leave us confused. But I think I, for one, may try a little less hard in ’18 to figure it out. Here in Dishoom world, we’ll keep doing our best to bring people together. We’ll keep welcoming you with warmth, and we’ll keep trying to feed with you with the very best food and drink we can summon up. We’ll keep working sincerely and hard to make Dishoom a great place to work (thank you O Sunday Times for placing us in your lovely list). We’ll keep trying to break down barriers, and maybe by doing so we can create some stories of our own.
And one thing I know for sure, is that whether in ’17 or ‘18 we can do literally nothing without you, dear patrons of our livelihood. You inevitably leave us with your wallets slightly lighter and stomachs slightly heavier than when you arrived, and for that we are deeply, deeply grateful. We also owe a massive debt of heartfelt gratitude to our endlessly conscientious hard-working team who conjure up the welcome and the food and the drink each day and night in Dishoom. To our suppliers, patiently coming on this journey with us, we give you profound thanks. And finally to our families, who put up with us and who give us so much support and love, thank you.
As it happens, I was talking last night to my daughter, who is very soon to reach the ripe old age of 6. She was explaining patiently to me that ‘the Mummy in Mary Poppins is Emmeline Pankhurst’. I smiled at her, enjoying the fact that she had been reading but I must confess to being dismissive of her. Nevertheless she persisted. We went back to the film and looked at her book; she had made a good point. The Mummy in question was indeed a suffragette and had marched for women’s votes, most likely as part of Emmeline’s group. My daughter then proceeded to walk purposefully around the house declaring that girls should have votes. Of course, quite apart from having been schooled by my daughter, I wondered what stories would be important to her that might determine what she does and what she one day looks back on and makes peace with.
I’m struggling to keep my eyes open and you’ve indulged me long enough. Let me therefore invoke Ganeshji here at the threshold of the year. May he guide us to the right stories and may he help us create our own that may be one day worth celebrating. May he give us elephant-sized compassionate hearts and may he help us to be first-class in everything we do. And may he help us come together to celebrate our differences over food and drink. I know he’d be up for that.
From all of us here at Dishoom, wishing you the sincerest, deepest best with much love and light for 2018!
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.
These past months have brought strangeness and uncertainty for so many of us. Since we shut the doors of our restaurants in March, we haven’t felt like ourselves at all. The very point of Dishoom is to welcome you through our doors and to serve you the most delicious food and drink we can summon up in the warmest possible way.
Crisp and organised, Roda Irani leads her daughter through the narrow gullies of Swadeshi Market. “Come, let us get to the café.”