“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
A moment comes, but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India, and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, August 14th 1947
In the grand Art Deco ballroom at the Taj, the combined bands of Micky Correa and Chic Chocolate take to the stage. The party now reaches its fullest swing. The men, handsome and slick in sherwanis and dinner jackets dance joyously with the gorgeous and fragrant women in their shimmering saris. The beautiful room is suffused with abandon and anticipation in equal measure.
And then as the 14th of August 1947 becomes the 15th August 1947, B.G Kher, head of the provincial ministry, stands up on the stage, his cheeks wet with tears of happiness. He takes the microphone. “Citizens of free India – you are now FREE!” The room erupts in jubilant roar! The musicians launch emotionally into the Indian national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana.’ The doors of the Taj are opened and crowds of revellers flood in, all waving the Tiranga, the flag of a newly born India.
Oh to have been there! It must have been just electric. These moments of birth are precious and rare. A nation finally wins its independence and freedom. And Bombay, that slightly wild port city, the city of commerce and dreams, a city with an extraordinary capacity to welcome and accumulate difference and weave it into its very fabric, was flush with optimism and excitement.
Bombay was never more Bombay than on that night. It is this cosmopolitan, open-hearted and slightly crazy city that we love to celebrate and bring to life. Indeed, when we create a Dishoom restaurant, we always imagine it as an Irani café deeply rooted in some aspect of Bombay’s colourful history. In this way, our restaurants pay detailed and loving homage to some specific moment or time period or movement or story from 20th century Bombay; perhaps the very birth of the nation being fought for before independence, or perhaps young people finding their voice in a new India in the 1960s.
We then sit down and write a story – a different founding myth – for each Dishoom. Every single aspect of the design, every single piece of artwork is informed by this story. It’s for this reason that we consider of each Dishoom as a vividly imagined and richly detailed love-letter to Bombay.
For example, within Dishoom King’s Cross we’ve brought to life the people and the events of the independence movement. The tattered fly-postering on the walls are copies of original anti-colonial posters that we found deep in archives. Around the large family table, there is a wall of Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs telling the story of events around 1947. (Homai Vyarawalla was India’s first female photojournalist, a Parsi and masterly documenter of the events of Indian Independence). There is a wall with portraits of major figures who dedicated and gave their lives for Independence from Laxmibai to Bhagat Singh, from Tilak to Gandhiji, from Sarojini Naidu to Pandit Nehru. We had never seen a wall like that anywhere and there needed to be one; so we created it. The Irani café ‘rules’ refer to the salt tax, to the lathi charging by the imperial police, to the infamous Rowlatt Act and to the non-violent non-cooperation movement which eventually won independence.
An enormous piece of graffiti sits in the family room proclaiming in three feet high letters ‘GO BACK SIMON’. We found this graffiti in archives too. When the Simon Commision was appointed in 1928 to look at options for devolution of rule to India it was boycotted by Indians since there wasn’t a single Indian on the commission. This graffiti expressed this stridently. The story of India’s fight for its Independence is deeply embedded within this restaurant. These are the stories that we grew up with, that were told to us by our grandparents. These are stories that need to be remembered, that need to be told and brought alive and celebrated, not just left in history books on library shelves.
And indeed, we continue this thread into richly imagined post-colonial settings, the bold young nation. Dishoom Carnaby is set in the lovely, briefly burning bright rock scene of the 1960s and 1970s when kids in Bombay heard the Beatles and the Stones, picked up their own guitars and kicked off a rocking music scene. Dishoom Kensington is set in the flush of excitement of the late 1940s Bombay jazz scene, against a delicious Art Deco backdrop.
Which brings us drifting right back to that night at the Taj with the thrill of India’s new independence accompanied by the “hot” sounds of Bombay’s most exuberant musicians playing long into the morning hours.
Since Jazz and Art Deco first swung into Bombay in the 1930s, they had been joyfully subverting the fusty old order with their cheeky colours and playful patterns, quick-tempo’d quicksteps and “hot” music. Pianos appeared on cinema facades and swing bands had music halls transfixed. As India marched to freedom, jazz became an essential part of the sub-continent’s sounds, of the optimism of the new era. Jazz and swing found now themselves deeply embedded in the soundtracks of the new Hindi films of the new nation ‘leaving India with an appetite for squealing brass, scorching strings and syncopated rhythms’. (This is all vividly described in our dear friend Naresh Fernandes’ book Taj Mahal Foxtrot which inspired many whisky-fuelled jazz sessions and our one-off immersive theatre production Night at the Bombay Roxy.)
And now, on a balmy Bombay evening in 1947, bold Art Deco buildings designed by Indian architects – Bombay’s first home-grown graduates of architecture – dot the cityscape, jazz plays in the dance halls, and India is free. What lovelier example could there be of Bombay’s ability to take outside influences, absorb and internalise them and make them entirely their own.
Thus, with each of our love-letters (or restaurants, if you insist) we painstakingly, obsessively tell the stories that capture the spirit of Bombay, of us Indians finding our voice and place in the world and figuring out who we are. It’s a spirit of joyful optimism, of creativity, of unquestioning inclusivity, and ultimately, of freedom.
Why go to such extreme lengths to express all of these stories in our physical spaces? Well, love makes you do strange things.
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.