It's just 5.30 am and the sun is yet to rise. But in front of a decrepit building outside South Mumbai's Grant Road railway station, early birds have made a beeline to get the taste of what could be their last mawa cake. These buttery, cardamom-infused cakes wrapped in wax paper have long been a staple in Irani Cafes.
The announcement that the Irani restaurant B. Merwan and Co will down its shutters in March has been drawing people from across the city. The building in which it is located, will be torn down for a brand new development.
Even as the fragrance of freshly baked bread topped with maska permeates the air, most people are lamenting the loss of not just a culinary delight, but of a crucial slice in Mumbai's heritage.
Even today, Merwan is just what it used to be hundred years ago. The same marble-top tables and Polish bent-wood chairs stand on the floral tiles that are typical of most Irani restaurants. “I feel a pang of remorse as this unique architechture, a piece of living history is lost forever," says artist Gautam Benegal who is working on a series of paintings on the Merwan. It has shades of Fairdeal Cafe and the Cadell Cafe, both of whom have shut down.
These restaurants sprang up in Mumbai around the late 19th Century when a wave of Iranis came to India to escape the famine in Iran. At the time of Independence, Mumbai had as many as 350 of these family-run eateries which served only chai, bun maska, brun maska and omelettes. Today, only about eight such remain.
They occupied corner spots of buildings, mostly in south Mumbai. The informal setting with friendly owners and fresh "fast food" soon became a favourite with writers, journalists, artists as well as labourers and rickshaw pullers who would stop by for a quick bite.
Merwan's closure is symptomatic of the deeper malaise in the city, say historians. According to them, today's skyrocketing real estate prices and international food chains have spelt the death knell for these relics of the British era.
"It was not always an easy ride for the Iranis who had to push themselves to keep up with the Joneses. In the 70s, most of them got beer licences after the government relaxed prohibition. Some of them even hired waitresses and permit rooms,” says historian Deepak Rao.
Merwan, however, resisted and remains the last, typical Iranian restaurant. Its low-profile owners are reluctant to talk. “We were there. Now we will not be there. Why do we need to dwell on things," mumbles one of the four partners who do not even want his name revealed.
The owner of the Sassanian restaurant which completes 101 years this year is determined to run it. “I will keep mine going for as long as I am alive. The future generation is not interested in taking over because it is not economically viable anymore. Youngsters hardly come here, they are more interested in a posh ambience. Who knows what will happen?" says 65 year old Meherban Kola.