ONE JANUARY MORNING in 1928, a young Irani – not long arrived in Bombay – was waiting to collect a parcel at Victoria Terminus. Unusually, the train was running late. The Irani waited, patiently; then, growing hot and bored, he decided to stretch his legs. He wandered amongst the station crowds and then down a side track, off the main terminus.
Quickly, he found himself in a vast, airy shed filled with the hubbub of a thousand industries crossing paths: freight trains pulling in with a squeal, wagons being loaded and unloaded, men and machines labouring with their cargo. Railway workers shouted to one another in a dozen languages: Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bihari. Goods of every conceivable sort ebbed and flowed through the station, a veritable artery linking the Indian subcontinent to the Western world via the trading port of Bombay.
The Irani was of an astute business mind. He had come to Bombay with almost nothing, and he was always seeking an opportunity to strengthen his toehold there. He also understood how this city could be hard on her people. That day, standing there in the vastness of that old godown and watching the men at work, he felt a keen sense of opportunity. These men, weary from their toil, should surely be able to quench their thirst and sate their hunger.
The very next morning, he began selling his Irani chai and a few baked goods from an impromptu stall in an inconspicuous corner of the godown. The railwaymen came in their dozens to sample his offerings. The news spread, passed on from worker to worker, supervisor to babu, and the little stall flourished. The Irani introduced a few additional items here and there: a rickety table, some chairs, a shelf displaying plump fresh pau, a wooden bench to sit on. It wasn’t luxury by any means, but all who spent a moment there were glad of it.
Although at first wary of being ousted from his borrowed corner, he soon became bolder: the station guards were grateful for a ready source of chai, and would happily take their baksheesh in spicy keema. The Irani ‘café’ inched outwards appropriating its own space in the large transit shed, buoyed by the burgeoning number of loyal patrons. In almost unnoticeable little steps, it gradually started dominating the godown.
Decades later, the Irani’s hair has turned from jet black to grey, his jacket is cut from better cloth, but his smile is just as it was. His beloved India has changed dramatically. She has fought for her independence and has been torn asunder by partition. The gora sahibs are long gone, and a young nation is forging its identity. And from a small corner of the shed, the humble stall has grown into an established café – in truth, even something of an institution. The renown of the Irani and his hospitality has spread far; everyone – labourers, smartly-uniformed train supervisors, well-heeled sahibs – comes for a cup of cutting chai, a quick breakfast, a hearty meal. Railwaymen, angadias and passengers meet there and dawdle together, reading their newspapers, loudly exchanging jokes and political opinions, mopping their plates clean with the Irani’s hot pau. And at the end of a long hot day, a refreshing beer (discreetly passed from a hidden box of ice) is a most welcome reward.
Even after so many years, the Irani never fails to greet each one of his guests with a nod and a smile. Whether it is an omelet at daybreak, a big bowl of Nalli Nihari at lunch, an afternoon snack or a sly peg of liquor from a bottle before home-time, his welcome is as warm as the chai is hot, and every guest goes on his way feeling that he has found a small source of solace and joy in the old godown behind the great Victoria Terminus.
IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
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.