The Dishoom Birmingham Story

Dishoom Birmingham café interior

BOMBAY, MARCH 1953

Crisp and organised, Roda Irani leads her daughter through the narrow gullies of Swadeshi Market. “Come, let us get to the café.”

They begin to walk the length of the market, shoulder to hip. Each gully is lined with stalls separated by thin partitions or simple thick cloth. Roda and Farah navigate past shoppers haggling over the price of scissors, padlocks, bolts of cloth – an array of products with one thing in common: all made by Indian hands on Indian soil.

Weaving through the hubbub, Roda exchanges nods and namastes with traders. Many of them have known her since she was a young girl when she’d visit them with her father. “Keep up, beti, keep up!” her father would say over his shoulder, her chappals scraping the concrete as she tried to walk faster.

Roda had adored her father and still found it hard to accept that he was no longer with them. And at that moment, as she found herself staring at some new and unfamiliar signboard hung above a stall, the depth of a sudden sadness was too much for her and she stopped walking. Her daughter looked at her, puzzled.

She was taken vividly back to her childhood. As a shopkeeper’s daughter she had grown up here amongst these stalls. Her father opened the street-corner shop back in 1910, stocking so many various provisions: medicines, hair oil, talcum powder, cloth, nutcrackers. Over the years, the store became an institution, as cotton merchants and shopkeepers found in it a warm welcome and a place where they could gossip and talk politics for hours over endless cups of sweet Irani chai. And Roda was there throughout, her father’s little pupil. Now, seeing the stalls change hands and ownership, it was as if her father’s memory was being slowly erased.

Her father’s passing in 1945 had devastated her. For a long time, the joy seemed to have been emptied from their home. Those were difficult years – a time of worry and fear. He had been provider, protector, head of the household and the family business. Without him, the shop might be lost, and the family would have to find a new way to survive.

Roda feels the ache of the memory for a moment, but then summons up a brief but deliberate smile. Finding her father’s stubborn spirit within her it was she who saved the shop. She was conscious that a rare courage had grown within her. She’d worked in the shop since she was a young girl and had naturally followed her father’s interests in trading and in academics and politics. Indeed, she had joined him for a short part of the Dandi Salt March (her mother had been very upset). Then, at thirteen, Roda had watched her father falling under the lathis of policemen as he gave out pamphlets during a peaceful patriotic march through Swadeshi Market. She had of course looked on helplessly, unable to run to him as the policeman rained pitiless blows until he buckled, bruised and bloody. This vivid image and the acute feeling of complete helplessness was still in her.

It took a long time, and all her abundant energy, but in Roda’s steady and determined hands, the shop thrived. The lessons of her childhood are never far away. When her father had returned from the front in the Great War, he became a strong believer in the idea of freedom through trade and became involved in the freedom struggle. Now, next to the home-grown salt and sugar that her father began selling (illegally), sit iconic Indian-made household products. And, to the delight of her loyal patrons, she now serves hearty plates of Akuri, Keema Pau, Omelets and their speciality of crunchy Brun Maska.

As they near the edge of the market, Roda and Farah follow the delicious aroma of freshly-baked pau coming from their café. Hurrying daytime crowds conceal the entrance, and as the pair push past and into the store, past boards proclaiming the many baked goods available that day, they see that every table except one is occupied. The indistinct sound of warm and easy conversation comforts Roda.

Once again, for the second time today, the loss of her father presses on her heart, almost physically. She thinks of how he never witnessed the birth of free India; never saw the British leave; never felt the elation at the stroke of that midnight hour; never saw the sun rise on India’s freedom. And then Roda looks down at Farah. Born in 1947, she is the same age as the new nation and will have no memory of the British Raj.

It is important for Farah to know the past. It was, after all, their past, their struggle. With infinite tenderness, Roda says “Beti – I have a story to tell you. It’s a story of India, our independence and how we gained our freedom through a thousand trades.” Farah loves stories, and her mother’s most of all. Eagerly she settles herself on a bentwood chair, wide-eyed and excited and ready to listen.

Dishoom Birmingham will open in Spring 2020.

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