October 02, 2007

A Colaba Evening at Piccadilly

I have no idea what is running through Faisal’s mind as he stands leaning against the staircase in the shaft of evening Sun shooting across Piccadilly’s floor in Colaba. It is that kind of an evening I suppose, reflective.

We pick our way across the room dodging chairs as we head to a corner table that looks out on a quiet lane abutting the busy road crowded by roadside vendors selling trinkets and other paraphernalia among baskets of fruits. Old buildings rise from the relative quiet of the street that breaks off and passes by the window where we’re squeezed into two chairs after heaping the third with my rucksack. Two couples sit at their tables carrying on muted conversations. I take to the quiet and scan the menu for something to eat. Outside, a parakeet emerges out of nowhere and lands on the roof of a parked car. I lean out the window to get a better look, and maybe a picture. It is not everyday that I see a parakeet in Bombay. But then in the quiet streets of Old Bombay some descendants live on, offering glimpses of a city that time wore out as footpaths echoed to the urgent beat of arriving migrant feet.

I scan through Iranian and Lebanese menu items before settling for fresh lime soda and garlic bread. Jabrir smiles at us as he takes the order before disappearing out of sight. We’ve picked a corner to stretch out the evening Sun. The nook barely holds a table and two chairs while shielding us from the rest of the restaurant. A steady sheet of pieces of plaster tumble down outside while a worker holding a rope fences off a portion of the road for commuters while another worker balancing on a plank chips away at the plaster on the wall. Old buildings undergo regular maintenance to keep them standing. It hasn’t helped that monsoons stretch over four months, soaking the megapolis to its very bone.

In a building across the lane an elderly lady looks out from her first floor balcony watching a lady exiting the building by the main gate. The gray of the building sets off her wrinkled face, distinct from ethnic Indian faces. Colaba is among the more prominent homes to Parsis of Bombay. When I look up again I find her gone.

Piccadilly sits in Colaba Causeway opposite Electric House, not far from the Taj Hotel on the other side. On our way to the Piccadilly we’d passed a Victoria (Horse Carriage) in the Causeway, parked by the side of the road awaiting customers desirous of a ride on South Bombay streets lined by old buildings. It is only when you look above eye level, at the buildings sporting decidedly British architectural influence and names of its mostly Parsi past that it becomes possible to imagine and derive a sense of the gentle charm they must have lent the city, helping it find its feet as Bombay in the decades following their settlement. The Causeway came into being in 1838 after the British East India Company built it to connect the southernmost islands of Colaba and Old Woman’s island to the main Island of Bombay, now renamed Mumbai. The Causeway runs further on to Regal Circle where we saw workers on their feet, putting finishing touches to the statue of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the former Prime Minister of India, in time for its unveiling.

A building near Regal Circle

Firoze now runs Piccadilly. After migrating from Iran his father, Faredoon Kermanian, teamed up with a business partner to start Piccadilly opposite Electric House over fifty years ago. When Firoze married the business partner’s daughter, Piccadilly became a family affair.

“Piccadilly started off as a typical Irani restaurant serving standard Irani fare, Brun Maska pav, Kheema etc.,” Firoze told me. “Later we converted it to an English restaurant serving English breakfast.” Apparently in the 1970s and the 80s Goa drew moneyed foreign tourists in large numbers. A significant number of these tourists stayed behind the Piccadilly, at the Five Star Taj, looking out on the Gateway of India along Apollo Bunder, its frontage spread regally along the waters of the Arabian sea.

“They stopped over at the Taj hotel on their way to Goa,” Firoze said. “It was then we began serving up English breakfast to suit their tastes. They would walk down from the Taj to Piccadilly for breakfast.” So, the Piccadilly began opening early to serve English breakfast.

“By 8:30 in the morning we’d open for the day,” Firoze recalls. Piccadilly offered tourists a package deal on the breakfast. “Two Omlettes and tea among other items made up the English breakfast. They found spicy food too strong for their tastes, instead preferring salads and cream type of foods,” Firoze explains the change in the Piccadilly menu from the original Irani to English. However Piccadilly was to soon change character, once again.

Fired up by stories of rich tourists with dollars to spend, the late 1980s and all of the 90s saw traders from all over India descend on Goa, bringing with them business ethics and practices unique to their culture and communities but often in variance with local sensibilities and culture, opening up simmering fault lines. But it was only a matter of time before they drew in ready converts from within the local community often in pursuit of lure of the easy lucre and combined with unchecked violation of coastal regulations governing coastal constructions, tourism broke free of its aesthetic constraints formerly governed by ‘sense of place’, reducing Goa’s coasts to a sandy equivalent of a decaying mine, diminishing its charm as an idyllic coastline free of commercialisation. The introduction of direct Charter flights to Goa served further to erode Bombay as a stop over for tourists enroute to Goa though the flights were and still are too few to actually account for the large numbers who began to stay away. The no holds barred commercialization saw Goa fall out of favour with a section of foreign tourists, and the number of Goa-bound foreign tourists walking down to Piccadilly for breakfast fell quickly in the 1990s.

Luckily for Firoze it coincided with the steady influx of Iranians visiting India in the 1990s. In some ways I cannot help wondering if Firoze came a full circle with this development for, Firoze’s ancestors came from Iran, but I detect no hint of the sentiment I was looking for and I was left with little doubt about the lack of it after he said, “My father and mother visited Iran, I never did.” The persecution of the minority Parsi community with the advent of Islam in Iran was horrifying enough for Parsis to undertake perilous sea voyages to escape certain annihilation at the hands of Islamic followers, eventually finding their way to India, and safety. In time they found their way to Bombay never to return to Iran and like they say the rest is history.

“During the reign of the Shah of Iran it (Iran) was good. It was modern, outgoing, discos and all,” Firoze explained. “Once the mullahs took over in 1979, tightening their grip on everyday life, Iranians began to seek freedom elsewhere, and India was an option they exercised, visiting Bombay.” So, Iranian food made its way to the Piccadilly menu, and in time with tourists visiting India from the Middle East, Lebanese food was added as well.

Piccadilly saw an eclectic bunch of visitors. Firoze recalls instances of Iranian footballers stepping into his restaurant for food. “Some of them were looking for jobs and came to India for one. Bobby, a waiter who used to work with us, helped find an Iranian Coach an opening over the Internet. The Coach used to step into Piccadilly for Iranian food and had gotten to know us well.” Hearing Firoze talk of Iranian footballers two names sprint to the surface in my mind, that of Iranian footballers Jamshed Nassiri and Majid Bakshar who went on to play for East Bengal in the 1980s. Mohammedan Sporting responded by including in their ranks two other Iranians, Khabazi and Sanjari. I distinctly remember Jamshed Nassiri featuring regularly in Indian newspaper coverage of the domestic football scene.

“They usually came here with their families and made their way upstairs as they disliked sitting in crowds,” Firoze continues. I try and imagine the scene as he speaks. Looking back now and reflecting on it I believe that if one stays anywhere long enough it becomes home but somewhere in their hearts every migrant or exile seeks his origins if only to experience the culture and language that defined his ethnicity. In time that changes too but a sense of responsibility to their past encourages one to take pride in what made them what they are, for in preserving their culture and mores they’re in effect preserving the memory of their ancestors and their way of life. What can be a greater tribute?

The shaft of sunlight has mellowed somewhat. Faisal walks over to serve a visitor who’s just stepped in before returning to his place at the foot of the stairway to the upper floor. He has an absent look on his face as he stands quietly with his hand in his pocket.


Parul said...

I stayed on Colaba causeway for two months.
you have beautifully captured it!
There is something about south bombay that i have never been able to explain to anyone.
This post of yours will do it for me:)

Bombay Addict said...


bluemountainmama said...

lovely reflections, in many senses of the word....

i think you find a little magic in things that most people would find ordinary...things that most pass by. thanks for sharing a little of it with us...

Kaustubh said...

hi sir,
i have been regular reader of ur blog sibce i found an article in your blog about AS....keep writing sir

Anil P said...

Parul: Thanks. There's something about it sure, except that Firoze told me that it shuts earlier now on account of safety concerns, unlike the days when it would close at around 11-12 pm.

Bombay Addict: Thanks.

Bluemountainmama: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be sharing all the little things, there's so much of it anyways :)

Kaustubh: Thanks. Do visit again.

Shantanu said...

Very nice post. What do you think would be the population of Iranians who have resettled in India? I remember seeing a lot of students in Mysore (during the 70s) and Pune has quite a few Iranian restaurants too. Haven't seen them very much in North India.

AlterinG Abhishek said...

you write amazingly
I wish you could write for a project 2332 I have started ( please see my change fundas blog for more ..)or p2332.blogspot.com

dharmabum said...

it is a rich and beautiful culture, as is ours. and, so is this post - so mellow, i felt almost relaxed after reading it anil. i love this blog so much, and i love u for your work.

the parsis - i had a colleague who used to lament about the fact that they're kids are all marrying outside the community (they're almost ostracised - one is no longer allowed to enter the fire temple after that i believe) - and consequently, their numbers are fast dwindling....

how come u missed dhanshak? i like it sooooo much, and sometimes feel bad about being vegetarian - i get to eat very little iranian food. :)

samrina said...

Beautiful pics & very well written post.. loved to ready about your country.

Thanks for your visit at my blog, hope to see you around :)

Take care

Ridwan said...

Anil thank you for looking in at my blog because it gave me a chance to look at all the photo delights here.

I agree, you aptly captured Colaba Causeway. I stayed there in early 2006 for a few steamy days before flying back to Delhi.

I look forward to reading more here and also looking at the pictures.

You are making me home sick! And my ancestors left close to 300 years ago :0)

Be well brother,

Peace and struggle.

Carol said...

Hi it is my first visit to you..Thankyou for popping across to visit me.. I love to read about other bloggers countries ..I plan to read all that you have written when I am not so pushed for time as I am now..


ddrips said...

I really like your photo ... thanks for your help at my post, you are obviously an artist...

I am extremely busy right now so I have not read your writing yet .... sometime in the future I'll be back for your writing.

take care

Kapil said...


Amazing blog and a really keen observation :) Kudos to you! I was Googling some mandolin notes when I stumbled across your Jai Mohite post (Mar 2006). I have listened to some of his music and still do.

Then I checked out rest of your blog and you have an awesome eye for detail! I do blog occasionally :) but love reading blogs of interesting people like you!

I remember when I had first come to Bombay in 2000, I wanted to stay down South and so, I went to view a paying guest accommodation in Dhobi Talao :) - a Parsi Bawa showed me the place, wooden crackling staircase, high ceiling divided into two for more floors and 4 beds in one room :) with Metro outside.

Looked to me like a scene out of Amol Palekar movie. I lived in Bombay for next 3 years of my life and really enjoyed the distinct sounds, smells and perspectives of Bombay.

Miss it all now, hope to visit your blog more often to refresh some of my memories.


chiefbiscuit said...

As always your descriptions and impressions blow me away!
As always I never have the time to read it all and take it in properly.
I would love to read it all in book form - where I can get comfortable under a tree or somewhere ... (computers are so darn uncomfortable reading tools.) Are you going to publish at all? I will be the first in line to buy your book!!!!

backpakker said...

Lovely story..Im sure if we look at the entire stretch , there is a story at every nook and corner ..I remeber when i was studying , I befriended a chaatwala who had come from the north and he used to tell me about his dreams...

Anil P said...

Shantanu: Thanks. Difficult to say because Parsis came to India centuries ago. Invasion and conquest of Persia by Arabs bearing Islam was followed by destruction of Persia's Zoroastrian past and forced conversions to Islam. Fleeing anhilation by Islam meant Parsis were never to return to Persia, adopting the host country as their own.

However Iranian students traveled to India to pursue education, I'm not sure if they still do in the same numbers they once did.

Abhishek: Thanks. Wish you all the best with your project.

Dharmabum: Thank you. It's nice to know that my blog brings reading pleasure.

As it is Parsi numbers were small to begin with, and the desire to retain their cultural past after being subjected to Islamic conquests in Persia would naturally be strong. It is not to be confused with a desire to be different as much as it is to do with the desire to protect their cultural identity from being lost. Culture does induce loyalty, and just as an instinct for survival is inherent in every living being so is an instinct to protect one's identity and prolong it.

Maybe their misgiving about not admitting non-parsi spouses into Zoroastrianism has to do with the knowledge that the non-parsis would not imbibe the Parsi culture as much nor make an effort to follow it in the spirit of its tradition, in turn weakening its identity. I do see their point in this.

If a culture adds greatly to the nature of diversity of a country it does so on the strength of its individuality, adherence to its way of life as determined by its tenets, in turn largely influencing the nature and behaviour of its followers besides retaining over a period of time its uniqueness. As much as surroundings, genetics plays an equal if not more part in helping retain a uniqueness of cultural identity.

As an offshoot, the diversity in languages of the world, art, mannerisms, looks, way of life, architecture, writing, intelligence and emotional quotients usually find their source in tightly knit communities else the diversity we so celebrate would never have existed.

Samrina: Thanks.

Ridwan: Thank you.

Carol: You're most welcome, do visit again.

Ddrips: Thanks.

Kapil: Thank you. It's a pleasure to learn that the blog brings you reading pleasure. Sure, I can well imagine how those interiors must have been in your time in South Bombay.

I enjoy Amol Palekar movies.

Chiefbiscuit: Thank you. I'm not sure if it will come out in book form unless someone expresses interest in bringing it out. And I wouldn't know how many would want to read about the fleeting moment enveloped in an afternoon stillness. I enjoy writing it though :)

Backpakker: Thanks. Sure, every breathing nook has a story to 'exhale'.